Winter Layering Systems

Embracing winter on an early season traverse of Anoach Eagach. 
(©Succinctgearreviews)

So, winter is back and with it comes the never-ending debate of what to wear. As a discussion starter, we've put together our suggestions of what many of our team would typically wear or bring with them out for a day of winter climbing. This is by no means an extensive list as there are almost endless permutations of kit out there as well as a lot of different types of layering systems that can be used.

In our article, we intend on only covering clothing layering systems with future articles covering hardware as well as footwear.


Overview of Systems

As previously mentioned, this review will focus on a layered clothing system (see Buffalo for an alternative system) which is subjective to our own views and experiences.

On a basic winter climbing day we could categorise our layering systems into the following:

1.     Approach Layers – Worn from getting out of the car to the base of the cliff. (High activity).

2.     Climbing Layers – Worn whilst climbing (active).

3.     Belay Layers – Worn whilst stopped or belaying (resting).

4.     Walk-out Layers – Worn from the end of the climb until back to the car (active).

Baselayers

Baselayers include layers which are in direct contact with the skin and includes: socks, leggings and a top. The main choice for all three baselayer types is whether to go synthetic (cheaper, more prone to odours) or merino (more expensive, odour free). Merino is a natural fibre (wool) which is highly effective at wicking and naturally anti-bacterial so will help to fight bad odour over time. The downside of merino however is that once its damp from sweat, it takes longer to dry than a synthetic equivalent.
Socks
When it comes to socks, we would recommend spending a bit more on merino socks which are less odour prone and due to their wicking qualities will result in less blisters than a synthetic equivalent. We find that a single pair of thick socks is best rather than doubling socks. Beware that trying to keep your feet warm by doubling up socks can have the opposite effect if it results in cutting circulation off to the feet. We would have a single pair of socks that are worn all day.

Typical example: SmartWool
Pants and top

When it comes to leggings and a top, multiple options can be considered. Bearing in mind that winter climbing often starts with a slightly energetic walk in with a heavyish bag and uphill, a lot of sweat can be generated.
On the bottom half, purely out of convenience, it is best to have a single layer that is kept on all day. A pair of merino leggings will do a great job here.

On the top half, we would consider one of two options depending on your personal agreeable levels of comfort and how fit you are. Although we find merino once again preferable here, there is the dark horse of the Brynje (AKA the Rab C. Nesbit) tops which are really great at keeping one warm all whilst remaining very breathable:


Option 1: Use a single long sleeve baselayer (Merino or Brynje) that is kept on all day, being careful not to get it too damp walking in.


Option 2: Suffer for a minute of cold when changing out of your walking in layers by changing baselayers. Walk in with a synthetic (or Brynje top) and change into a dry merino layer for the rest of the day.

A Brynje top in use.
Typical example: Brynje, Rab Merino, Helly Hansen

Midlayers

Mid layers are where new innovations in insulation types and clothing types have really changed the game. Active insulations mean that traditional fleece can be completely replaced with lighter and more functional layers and lighter/more performant synthetic insulation pieces can replace down layers leading to a much more ‘Scottish proof’ system.

Trousers

Dependent on the outer shell trouser that is used (Hardshell, fleece lined softshell, hybrid shell) you may want to consider an additional piece of mid-layer insulation in the legs. Something such as a Power Grid bib can be ideal at removing cold gaps at the waist and keeping the user ‘cosy’ all day.

Typical example: Mountain Equipment Eclipse

Fleece

The Mountain Equipment Eclipse Fleece in use on Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis (© Succinctgearreviews)
Although we previously mentioned that fleece can now be replaced by active insulation layers, there is still a place for it. It remains a very versatile layering piece and remains performant even when damp. Some fleece tops come with hoods which are useful for removing any cold gaps in the neck area, it is worth bearing in mind that if all your other layering pieces have hoods, it can get very bunched up and uncomfortable in the neck area if they’re not all in use. Many manufacturers now make fleeces with a grid layout rather than a homogenous material which is much better for wicking.


Active insulation

The Adidas Terrex Agravic Alpha in use in the Swiss Alps. An ideal approach layer. (© Gregory Trottet)
Active insulation pieces are basically lightweight insulated jackets with insulation which is highly effective at breathing, making them warm when stationary and preventing them from getting too damp whilst on the move. The Polartec Alpha insulation is a great example of this which is used in a number of garments which have an outer lightweight shell fabric, making them usable as a walking-in jacket and gives both the possibility of doing away with a shell (more on approach shells further down) as well as providing a slightly warmer and hence more comfortable mid-layer without sacrificing on breathability.


Trousers

Trousers are the essential bottom shell protecting you from the elements. Three options really existing when considering what trousers to use and it tends to be a personal preference for which one you go for.

Option 1: Use a hardshell all day. This option has been a classic for a long time in the damp Scottish conditions with many a walk-in done in the rain before it becomes snow higher up. There has also been a recent surge of the rainbow coloured continental look with many companies offering alternatives to the bleak traditionally British black trouser look. These are a great option for pure Ice days where you’re going to be spending a lot of time in contact with a rather wet medium. There are some limitations to this option however; Hardshells can be pretty expensive which will cause some pain when you put a crampon hole through them 5mins into your first day out of the season, they don’t breath so well so you’ll be opening up the vents and effectively turning them into a colander, they can be noisy to walk in and lastly and most importantly, if you’re doing any serious mixed in them, don’t expect them to last long at all.

Option 2: Wear softshells all day and carry a lightweight pair of hardshells to throw on when the going get a bit dam. This is our favourite option, although it does mean carrying an extra layer. Softshells will easily be half the price of a good hardshell layer and are more breathable and durable. A great option for the mixed rather than ice climber. A good new softshell will resist some light rain before the hardshell has to be pulled out.

Option 3: Use a hybrid softshell, a softshell with a membrane layer which will take some more wetting than a standard softshell. We’ve used this option for a season and found it to be a great compromise as the layers tend to be tougher fabric than a pure hardshell and can take a good bit of water before wetting through.


Typical example (Softshell): Rab Vapour-rise Guide, Simond Alpinism Trousers

Typical example (Hybrid): Mountain Equipment Mission
The Simond Alpinist Pants in use on Vent Du Dragon, Aiguille du Midi. (©Brian Pollock)

Shells

Although it would be a lovely world in which shells wouldn’t be required, they are an essential part of the winter climber’s clothing quiver. Unfortunately, they are also one of the most expensive. 
Hardshells, a good option for keeping the wind and the rain at bay. (© Brian Pollock)
Windshirt

We like this option for walking in under windy conditions with maybe at worse a light rain. A lightweight (i.e. Pertex Microlite) shell fabric which can be thrown directly over a baselayer is a good option when you’re going to be moving enough to keep warm but need something to keep the wind off.


It may be thin but the Patagonia Houdini does a great job of protecting from the wind (© Succinctgearreviews)

Hardshell

For really keeping the elements at bay, however, a heavy duty hardshell may be required. This is amongst one of the most expensive layering pieces you will own but will also be one of the ones you’re most thankful for (along with a belay jacket). A good winter hardshell will be: durable, some degree of breathability, have a helmet-friendly hood and some convenient pockets for daytime snacks.

A lightweight hardshell could also be considered if a softshell system is used for the top half. This really just needs to be as lightweight as possible as it will spend most of the time in the rucksack.

Typical example (Heavyweight): Rab Latok, Mountain Equipment Tupilak, Dannah Alpine Jacket


Typical example (Lightweight): Rab Flashpoint, Mountain Hardwear Supercharger

For a full comparison of the available Mountain Equipment jackets, see our comparison review here.
A good day for a hardshell, Antichrist, Creag an Sochach (©Brian Pollock)

Softshell

Some people are however happy sacrificing some of the weatherproofness of the Hardshell for the breathability of a softshell outer layer. This can really come into its own if the user knows they will generate a lot of heat on their given route and may come face to face with a lot of thrutching which may be otherwise fatal to a hardshell layer. As with the trousers, some nifty hybrid shells exist for this option which will offer higher durability as well as material flexibility when compared to their hardshell competition.
In comparison, a great day for softshells. Aonach Mor with Ben Nevis in the background. (©Succinctgearreviews)
Belay Layer

One of the most important layers in our opinion. Most of the day winter climbing is actually spent stationary and belaying so it is important to have an adequate layer to wear during that time. Basically, it needs to be something warm that can easily be thrown over all the existing layers and still provide access to the harness for belaying (double zip is useful here). Primaloft gold is the golden standard of insulation here, down is really not appropriate as it gets wet (even Hydrophobic down) and once its wet it offers no insulation whatsoever. A jacket with 60D of Primaloft Gold in the chest will keep you quite warm but 100D becomes quite appreciated if you run cold.


Belay jackets can also be useful for seconding if the belayer is cold. A sodden Point 5 gully, Ben Nevis. (©Brian Pollock)


Gloves & Extremities


An essential piece of winter kit, and no doubt the curse of anyone who’s suffered from Hot Aches is gloves. They get wet, they get torn, they freeze up, and they’re the bane of winter climbing.
After many years of experimenting with different approaches with gloves, this is the solution our reviewers have come with which involves carrying 4 pairs of gloves.
  1. Approach Gloves – Surprisingly these are worn on the approach in. Generally, you’ll be generating enough heat to keep your hands warm on the walk in, so a thin layer is required. Approaching specific routes may involve some easy scrambling and plunging hands into snow so a lightweight but waterproof/resistant glove is useful here. Typical examples: Seal Skinz, Cheap polyester gloves.
  2. Leading Gloves – These gloves will be worn whilst climbing and need to weigh off dexterity to warmth. Depending on your chosen route you will need to choose which of these to sacrifice on. There is no point in getting waterproof gloves here as they will get trashed, a maximum of leather will help ensure they last most of one season. The gloves will invariably get wet so make sure to stuff them down your top whilst belaying to keep them warm. Typical examples: OR Lodestar, ME Super Alpine, BD Soloist.
  3. Belay Gloves – Dexterity is less important whilst belaying and you’ll be stationary so something thick and warm is key. You may also opt to second in your belay gloves as you’ll be starting from cold. Typical examples: Dachsteins, Rab Icefall Gauntlet
  4. Spare Gloves – It is useful to carry at least one pair of spare gloves for when the shit hits the fan and all your gloves are wet. Or even just to walk out with. Something reasonably warm and leather is ideal here: Typical examples: Rab Baltoros, BD Kingpin
For headwear, it’s down to personal preference. Some may opt for the simple hat solution or use hoods from jackets used in the layering system. Our personal preference in recent times has been to use a lightweight softshell balaclava which gives a neat solution for preventing snow from getting down the neck in gusts and for keeping the user ‘cosy’.
A very 'cosy' climber with his softshell balaclava. Kamikazi, Bein Eighe. (©Brian Pollock)

Layering System

A typical layering system could therefore be:

1. Approach Layers – Worn from getting out of the car to the base of the cliff. (High activity).

  • Baselayers: Merino leggings + Brynje long sleeve
  • Bottom half: Simond Alpinist Pants
  • Top half: Patagonia Houdini Windshirt
  • Gloves: Sealskinz Gloves
  • Head: Buff/Fleece headband
2. Climbing Layers – Worn whilst climbing (active)


  • Baselayers: Merino leggings + Fresh merino long sleeve
  • Bottom half: Simond Alpinst Pants
  • Top half: Rab Alpha Flux Jacket + Mountain Equipment Tupilak Shell
  • Gloves: Mountain Equipment Super Alpine
  • Head: Softshell Balaclava + Helmet
3. Belay Layers – Worn whilst stopped or belaying (resting).
  • Baselayers: Merino leggings + Merino long sleeve
  • Bottom half: Simond Alpinst Pants
  • Top half: Rab Alpha Flux Jacket + Mountain Equipment Tupilak Shell + PHD Alpha Belay Jacket.
  • Gloves: Rab Ice Gauntlets
  • Head: Softshell Balaclava + Helmet
4. Walk-out Layers – Worn from the end of the climb until back to the car (active).
  • Baselayers: Merino leggings + Merino long sleeve
  • Bottom half: Simond Alpinst Pants
  • Top half: Rab Alpha Flux Jacket + Mountain Equipment Tupilak Shell
  • Gloves: Rab Baltoros
  • Head: Buff

This is a typical setup for an average winter’s day on a mixed route. For the following conditions we would recommend the following changes:


  • Pure ice route: Change out softshell trousers for hardshells
  • Wet walk-in: Wear hardshell overtrousers and a hardshell jacket (directly over baselayer) on the walk in.
  • Cold day: Swap out Alpha Flux jacket (lightweight insulation) for a warmer insulated jacket (i.e. Rab Nimbus)

A full on winter day where some extra layers can come in handy. (©Succinctgearreviews)


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