Ski Tour Clothing

Posted by on Mar 2, 2010 in Ski | 7 Comments

Inspired by Dug’s scorching ridicule of Rick, I thought I might try and add a little substantive content to the pertinent question that plagues everyone from Stepford Wives planning for one of those fancy parties with hors d’oeuvres and limo’s to the dirty, filthy, dirtbags who arrive at work 30 minutes late and smelling like wet wool and sweat. That is, backcountry ski tourers. The question? What ever will I wear?

It’s an ongoing question for me. Answers to which seem to come in fits of trial and error and soggy wet mornings. I’ve tried leather vests, wool button down shirts, fleece, cotton, shells, down, and so on. I still don’t have my perfect touring wardrobe. But I’m getting closer. Listed below are a few things that have worked for me. And don’t worry Dug, I let my wife and daughters worry about “tops”. Personally I prefer blouses.

Base Layer: Certain religious persuasions make the base layer a difficult puzzle for me. I’d prefer to wear merino wool against my skin, and I suppose that is possible. After all, in other athletic endeavors I forgo religious garments in favor of athletic function – cotton boxers don’t exactly fit underneath lycra. However, and this is a personal choice, while ski touring I choose otherwise. Until the church embraces merino wool, I have found a nice compromise to be the wicking fabric that is now available. It’s light, keeps me dry, and you can’t beat the price. But otherwise, I’d choose a nice soft merino long sleeve t-shirt for a ski touring base layer.

Top Layer: This is an area where you can get creative, depending on the weather, the length of the tour, and your own personal preferences. One of my favorite shirts to tour in is a button down Pendleton wool plaid shirt (pictured above, standing on the top of Day’s Headwall). It’s that old skool scratchy sort of wool, but it’s very warm for its weight, and adds a bit of old man curmudgeonly style to the backcountry. But on longer, or warmer days I prefer a thin long-sleeve shirt with wicking properties. If you wear that sort of shirt as a base layer, you may not need any additional top layer. Some days I will wear a micro fleece as my “shirt”. It’s a little heavier, which makes those cold mornings not quite so shocking. But it’s still a low enough profile that I don’t feel over dressed  while hiking up the hill. I’ve even skied down the hill wearing it on those warm, blue bird days. Like we’ve had recently.

Shell: Insulated, non-insulated? Zipper vents? Hard? Soft? There are a lot of different kind of shells available. Recently I found one that I am very happy with. It easily packs away into my backpack, has large zipper vents on each side which not only help for ventilation, but make digging into inside pockets or accessing my beacon very easy. It’s made by Sherpa, and is a non-insulated, hard shell. I can hike up the hill, ski deep powder, fend off the wind, or stay dry in storms. It is, without a doubt, my favorite and most versatile piece of backcountry clothing.

Pants: It has been tough to find a good pair of touring pants that I don’t feel robbed blind by purchasing. This year I have been using a pair of lightly insulated, zipper-vented pants with good results. They are a little heavier than I would prefer, but I am cheap, and so were the pants. Ideally a non-insulated lightweight, vented pant would be my choice, and perhaps after my current pair wears out, that is what I will invest in. I use an off the shelf, cheap pair of suspenders to hold my pants up. A better pant would have had them built in, but like I said, they were cheap. Why suspenders? Well, for starters, nobody wants to look like a fool with their pants on the ground (Current slope steeze might suggest otherwise). But also because it helps keep your under layers nicely tucked in, meaning no cold shots going up your shirt when you take a header on that hidden patch of wind crust. Not that I have ever done that.

Bottoms: Under my pants I will either wear a wicking boxer-style brief, made from the same material as my base layer, or a pair of long-johns. It really just depends on the weather. If it’s going to be cold I may even wear a pair of fleece pants, but I have found that even on chilly dawn patrols, long-johns and my outer shell are plenty warm.

Hat: Anything breathable, stylish, and easily packed away works well on your head. I like wool. But baseball caps, or no hat at all work as well. I’m waiting for just the right moment to break out my wool, plaid cycling cap on a ski tour.

Gloves: I used to hike in a pair of fleece gloves, but they proved more hassle than anything, so I ditched them in favor of simply hiking in the gloves I ski down the hill in. I loosen up the wrist strap on them and will occasionally take them off (transitions, taking photos, or other breaks) to cool my hands. Eventually I will find that perfect pair of touring gloves. But what I use now, which is a pretty standard, inexpensive ski glove, gets the job done.

Of course, this is all based on my rather limited experience. You may have better and brighter ideas. I’d love to hear them, because I am not completely satisfied with my set up, and am wide open to suggestions. But the best gear is the gear you are comfortable in. So find what works and wear it. For touring, I think that means lightweight, breathable layers that you can either vent or shed quickly and easily. You will be spending 80% of your tour going uphill. So plan accordingly – which might mean an extra layer packed away for a sudden storm or for those long days that involve sitting atop a ridge line sipping your hot beverage of choice and eating peanut butter and jelly.

Exit Question: Your favorite touring clothing?


  1. Jared
    March 2, 2010

    Tights. It’s all about the tights.

  2. dug
    March 2, 2010

    about 10 years ago, me, kim, rick s, shelle, and kim’s dad were touring in italy.

    i love saying that.

    anyway. kim’s dad was complaining bitterly about how sweaty he was getting. i asked him what he was wearing. he listed a bunch of very high end items, from companies like arcterrx and marmot and mountain hardware.

    but for his basest (sort of) layer? underwear of a religious persuasion.

    i laughed and laughed. “seriously? you have about $1,000 worth of high tech wicking clothing on, and you’re totally negating its purpose with a $4 piece of religious underwear? i’m pretty sure what we’re doing counts as exercise.”

    he was mad. “why didn’t anybody tell me?”

    on the other hand, he’s since left the church. i wonder if it’s my fault.

  3. Gavin Macfie
    March 2, 2010

    I’m intrigued by all this religious undergarment banter – anyone care to explain for the benefit of myself and any other confused foreigners?

    To answer your question, I use the same gear for ski touring that I use all other winter mountaineering:

    Synthetic baselayer, mid or light weight
    Pertex windshirt
    Mixmaster jacket and trousers
    Powerstretch fleece balaclava
    Thin polypropylene gloves for skinning
    Dachstein mitts for cold conditions
    DAS Parka for stoppages and very cold weather

    • Grizzly Adam
      March 2, 2010


      Mormons wear an undergarment as part of our religious beliefs. It serves various purposes, other than the obvious underwear purpose. It’s generally cotton, which, as has been pointed out, makes for a terrible base layer while hiking. More recently there have been alternative, more exercise friendly materials available.

  4. Rick S.
    March 2, 2010

    Hands down the most used item for me is the Mountain Hardware Windshirt. It can be worn solo as a base layer but also has enough wind guard that you don’t need to wear a shell over it. It has a rear pocket like a cycling jersey which EVERY backcountry “top” should. It wins best in show in my book.

  5. Drewlander
    March 2, 2010

    Got myself some softshell pants with nylon seat and knees and they are amazing for touring- patagucci backcountry guide pant- gaiter, vents and suspenders!!

  6. Jeff Higham
    March 2, 2010

    Great article for anyone trying to figure this non-resort skiing stuff out.

    Backcountry skiing is all over the place on body temperature so I usually have a pack and swap in and out most of the following throughout the day.

    Base layer: Mormon standard issue cotton/poly
    Mid layer: light/mid weight capilene tops / bottoms (REI or Patagonia brand, but only buy on sale).
    Top layer: light fleece or expedition weight top, mid weight on bottoms.
    Outer Layer: light to heavy shell on top (breathable + water resistant), non-insulated bottom light to heavy shell with full zips for ventilation while hiking.
    Other: Gummy worms.

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