What to Wear in the BackcountryPublished on 09/20/2023 · 9 min readGetting ready for a season of backcountry skiing? Here's how to choose the right gear based for every type of condition you might encounter!
Crested Butte, CO. Photo by Adam St. Ours
Tl;dr: Dressing for backcountry skiing will be different for everybody, depending on individual preference and the typical conditions they encounter. However, some common themes include breathability, versatility, and layers.
“Backcountry” is a loosely defined term meaning anything not part of a ski resort. It can be accessed by taking lifts up and exiting resort boundaries via gates (often called “sidecountry”), or it can be an entirely wild and undeveloped terrain that you hike up and ski down. Either way, the important aspects to keep in mind are that it’s not patrolled or maintained in any way, and there are no amenities. Preparation is key because you’re usually going to be on your own in the backcountry with only what you’re carrying.
Personally, I’ve been pushing further into the backcountry, with more days and ambitious trips planned each year. I’ve encountered every condition, from white-outs in sub-zero temps to 80° and sunny. As a Curated Skiing Expert, I’ve helped hundreds of customers get outside the resort and enjoy themselves, including some of my closest friends and family.
What to Consider When Dressing for the Backcountry
When considering what to wear in the backcountry, there are some important questions to ask yourself:
1. What conditions do I expect to encounter?
This may seem obvious, but what will the weather be like? Is it supposed to warm up during the day? Is it sunny and clear, or is a storm expected to roll in? Going back to what I said previously, it’s important to be prepared for any condition, but when you’re hiking with everything on your back, you also have to be selective in what you bring. This is why versatility is king in the backcountry. If the weather is supposed to be mild, for instance, maybe you don’t need an outer shell and can wear just a midlayer.
2. What’s going to be my expected level of activity?
To put it another way, how much do you expect to sweat? This is mostly concerning the uphill or hiking time spent in the backcountry. Sweat is the enemy in the backcountry; it makes your clothes wet and then freezes, causing you to be cold and uncomfortable. Clothing intended to be used in the backcountry is designed to be highly breathable. “Breathability” is a feature where moisture (sweat) can easily escape (or “wick”) through the membrane of the garment.
Choosing appropriate materials and clothing for the exertion you expect to do is important. If the weather allows, you can always strip layers down, and a simple T-shirt may be all you need until you get to the top. However, it’s common to find oneself needing some layer of protection from the elements, such as a light midlayer or windbreaker.
3. How important is weight?
Expanding on the point above, while you want to be as prepared as possible for any condition, packing additional clothing adds weight to your pack that you’ll need to carry uphill. It’s important to consider the length and intensity of your hiking and then do a quick cost-benefit analysis. Is the extra weight worth the benefit of having those items? If you’re just going for a short hike, or the terrain is relatively mellow, then maybe a few pounds wouldn’t be noticeable. That decision will be different for each person but needs to be considered.
Features to Look for in Backcountry Apparel
Manufacturers are making more backcountry-friendly apparel than ever, and it’s possible to find something to fit any niche or profile you’re looking for. Below are some of the most common types:
Outerwear is designed to be worn over other clothing. Usually, it has some level of wind and waterproofing.
- Offers protection from the wind, snow, and rain
- Breathable fabric to allow water vapor to escape, keeping you cool and dry.
- Backcountry-friendly storage options. Many brands offer large interior pockets for storing skins and even designated pockets for an avalanche beacon and/or a walkie-talkie.
- Backcountry pants can feature extra large zippers, some down the entire length of the leg, to allow increased airflow during the hike up.
- Don’t overspend. If you only plan on touring the backcountry occasionally or will pick your spots when the conditions are favorable, you may not need a backcountry-specific jacket and can pack your existing ski jacket to wear on the ride down.
- Pay attention to the level of insulation and materials used. Consider how warm you typically are while skiing and especially how warm you get while exercising. Backcountry skiing is a strenuous activity, and overheating can lead to sweating, affecting the insulating performance of many garments and making you cold. Backcountry outerwear comes in an increasingly wide range of options, from light, barely there shells to insulated parkas and everything in between, so it’s important to select the level of warmth appropriate for your personal taste and expected endeavors.
In a classic three-piece layering system, the outer layer protects from the elements, and the baselayer wicks heat and moisture away from the skin to keep you comfortable, leaving the midlayer to provide most of the insulation.
- Warmth is key. Weather in the high alpine is unpredictable, and a good midlayer will go a long way to keep you warm when the wind is gusting, and the temperature drops unexpectedly.
- Breathability is even more important than the outer layer, as the midlayer is much less likely to be taken on and off as conditions warrant.
- Watch for features and options that can give you increased versatility. Zippers that open in the front to create vents and prevent sweating are a pretty common feature, but I’ve also seen detachable sleeves as a way to make the uphill more comfortable while still providing protection going down.
- Select materials that provide insulation and warmth, even when wet. Many synthetic insulators (synthetic wool and down, for instance) retain their insulating properties when wet much better than their natural cousins. However, keep in mind moisture can come not only from the weather but also from yourself. It doesn’t take much for your exertion levels to outpace the breathability of your clothing, and sweat vapor can start to condense inside your midlayer. If that occurs, you’ll be glad for a material that keeps you warm.
While the crux of this article is focused on jackets and pants to wear in the backcountry, other items are important to consider. Gloves, hats, and even neck gaiters can all make a backcountry tour more enjoyable, depending on their qualities.
- Resourcefulness. Generally there are no ski shops or patrol to help you in the backcountry if something breaks. A ski strap is a great example of a simple tool you can use in a pinch to hold a broken boot together to let you get off the mountain.
- Versatility. Accessories that can give you layering and heat management options can be the key to an enjoyable day in the backcountry. A neck gaiter can be worn to protect your neck and face from the wind and snow, but it can also be pulled up over your ears and provide some warmth to your head while still being more breathable than a hat. Having a glove with a removable liner is a great way to get the benefits of multiple pairs. The liner can be worn by itself for ultimate breathability and dexterity on the hike up. The shell can be worn by itself on the way down or when the weather kicks up, and the two can be worn together for ultimate protection
- Avoid overpacking. While having the right tool for every situation would be great, space is limited in a pack, and everything must be carried uphill, so be judicious in what you bring. Items that can perform multiple functions, even at the bare minimum, are ideal.
How to Choose the Right Backcountry Apparel
Choosing what to wear in the backcountry can be a tricky task. Now that you better understand the different pieces and what to consider for each, it’s time to consider your own style and preference. Below, I describe three backcountry enthusiasts I’ve helped on Curated, representing primary personas in shopping for backcountry apparel. I’ve highlighted what they should look for based on their style and goals.
Liz has recently started venturing into the backcountry after riding lifts in ski resorts her whole life. She will do the occasional fitness lap in the resort and some short tours at smaller hills. She runs cold and usually only goes out in favorable weather conditions.
Features Liz should look for:
- Light to medium insulation, mainly because she avoids the worst weather. Pairing a warm midlayer with a medium warm outer layer or a light midlayer with an extra warm outer layer will provide her with a good level of warmth with some options.
- Waterproofing. Because she’ll be unlikely to go out in wet weather, there is no need for Liz to splurge on top-end outerwear, such as anything with GORE-TEX.
Scott is a mountaineer who spends much time in the high alpine in the winter. He rarely rides in a resort, preferring to earn his turns via ski touring, hiking, and ice climbing.
Features Scott should look for:
- Versatility. As Scott travels far and high, any item that can provide multiple solutions becomes more valuable. A robust midlayer with a durable outer finish to repel wind and water, for instance, may allow him to keep his hardshell at home or at least in his pack.
- Top-end protection. Scott has no problem heading into inclement weather and does not want to be slowed down because the summit is obscured in clouds or the winds pick up when he ascends a ridge. High level of wind and waterproofing and insulation that retains its warming properties even when wet are important.
Find the Best Backcountry Gear for You
As you can tell, deciding what to wear in the backcountry is no simple matter. Thanks to the huge push of people into the backcountry over the past five years or so, clothing manufacturers have responded with more varied and high-quality options than ever before. If you’d like to discuss the best options for your unique situation and goals, reach out to me through my profile or a fellow Curated Skiing Expert to chat and receive personalized recommendations on backcountry gear or any other ski gear you need.