Anybody can go to the mountains and suffer! The real key to having a fun day out is being able to stay as comfortable for as long as possible. Getting a system of layering and clothing to maximise your comfort is a fundamental part of going climbing in Winter. Even with modern materials, switching from breaking trail through deep snow one minute, to standing still for long periods the next- will test any layering system to it’s limits. Whilst winter clothing isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution, below is a system that has worked well for me and should work for most people.
Let’s look at what kit to take when going for a day’s Winter Climbing. We’ll focus on clothing systems before looking at other kit.
These are a vital part of your winter layering. Something warm that wicks away moisture is key. Merino wool or Merino Wool blends are popular. The Patagonia Capilene Air baselayers are excellent as are the Rab Forge layers . I often wear a warmer, Polartec Powerstretch set of thermal trousers on colder days.
Anything cotton based really needs to be avoided.
On really wet days when we start off in the rain, I may wear a light base layer and carry a warmer one to change into when we gear up for climbing.
I often wear a light mid-layer for walking in to the mountain when the weather is dry (otherwise I’ll just wear a baselayer and my Waterproof shell on top). This is usually something light and breathable ( also wind resistant can be nice). The Patagonia Houdini windshirt is good as is the Rab Nexus Jacket. Alternatively, any light fleece type layer will also be fine. You’ll get surprisingly warm on the walk in, even on cold days so this layer shouldn’t be super cosy!
Once we get geared up and ready to climb, our pace will slow as we focus on the technical part of the day. This is a good time to add another midlayer. For me, this midlayer should be synthetic (i.e. not down) a bit warmer but also nice and breathable as I may still be working hard when climbing. I really like the Rab Cirrus Hoody and the Rab Xenair Alpine (for colder days). Again, a warmer fleece will also be fine. This layer may get damp but as long as it stays warm when wet, it’ll do the job well.
This is one of the most important pieces of kit for Winter Climbing- your amour keeping you protected from the elements.
Having tried multiple jackets and materials over the years, I always come back to GoreTex which I think does the best job overall.
Features that make a massive difference are: A good hood with a wired peak that easily goes over your helmet and other layers and zips up nice and snug, wide cuffs that you can easily put gloves on underneath and close with gloves on, a large pocket or two that sits above the waist that you can put snacks, map, gloves in.
The Rab Latok is great for burly days and the Rab Latok Alpine or Kangri, whilst lighter, also good. The Mountain Equipment Tupilak is also great.
Again, another part of your armor to protect you from the elements. On any day other than sunny, blue bird days, I tend to wear these all day, even at the start of the day. Again, GoreTex is my go to. Some features that are really helpful for winter are:
- Braces or a high waist/bib design- these stop the back of the trouser getting pushed down and a cold spot developing at the lower back which is most unpleasant!
- Kick patches- these are often Kevlar based patches on the inner part of the lower leg and reduce the chance of the trousers ripping if caught by a crampon.
- Side zips/vents- helpful to cool down on a warm walk in!
The Rab Latok Bib are heavy duty and great for full on weather. The Mountain Equipment Tupilak are also very good.
Another essential piece of kit, this is your go to layer when things get wild or cold or we become more stationary.
This layer goes on top of everything- including your waterproof shell. Therefore, it’s best to made of synthetic material (Primaloft is good) rather than down, which will lose it’s insulating properties if wet (even Hydrophobic down has it’s limits). If standing on a cold belay stance, this is when this layer comes out my bag and can make a massive difference to enjoyment of the day! The Mountain Equipment Fitzroy and Rab Alpine Generator are great belay jackets.
There is no such thing as the perfect glove so choosing multiple pairs to do specific jobs is the way to go. I’ll carry at least 3 pairs of gloves, sometimes more depending on how wet the weather is.
1 light pair for the walk in- these are almost ‘disposable’ in that once I’m ready to gear for climbing, these get put in the bag and left.
1 pair for climbing in. A balance between dexterity and warmth is key. Too warm and they’ll be too bulky resulting in you dropping kit or taking them off to do tasks (resulting in colder hands!).
1 pair for swapping into at the end of the climb. Can be warmer as usually, the most fiddly thing I’ll be doing is using a compass
(I may add an extra pair or 2 of climbing gloves on very wet days. For days where I ‘ll be standing around for a while I may use a pair of warm ‘belay mitts’ which use when belaying and then swap to a climbing glove.)
A simple woollen beanie is great but make sure it can fit underneath a helmet. Avoid pompoms and the like. It may be worth carrying a spare hat in very wet conditions.
Rab Equipment are the official brand partners of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors (AMI), hence you’ll see lots of Rab kit quoted as examples. I don’t receive this kit for free or have any marketing affiliations with Rab so any recommendations are made from using the kit on the hill. There are many other brands- for example Mountain Equipment, Montane, Patagonia, Arc’teryx which make equally good kit. Examples of each piece of clothing are given to show you the type of layer that works- there are plenty options available so don’t feel these are the only ones to buy.