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As winter hints at a return it’s time to review our winter playground attire. For some of us it’s time to finally get round to reflect on last seasons cold induced suffering and adapt our clothing whilst others are starting to explore what the British winter hills have to offer and need to experience a few  iterations of ‘Play. Freeze, Thaw, Repeat.’

Over the next few winter instalments, Oli (our very own winter Gok Wan) will explore some of the Do’s and Dont's of winter clothing and discuss essential winter kit that should be in every mountaineers bag.

Instead of diving straight in to drool over sexy sleek ice axes and an array of boots and crampon compatibility choices we will instead undress the issue of winter clothing, laying bare a few common misconceptions and giving our take on the best way to stay comfy and safe in the mountains.

Before we begin it is important to point out that we won’t be giving a regimental list of clothes that must be worn. Every sub-sect of winter ‘athletes’ needs more or less from their clothing than the next. Instead we will give an overview of key concepts to guide you as you hit the shops, snow clad hills and icy mountains

Heat will Freeze or When Ultra warm becomes Super Cold.

Himalayan down jackets, back country ski salopettes and the gloves that Amundsen and Scott wore all look amazing, and they are all insanely warm well engineered bits of kit. But when worn in the wrong circumstance they will make you cold, confusingly and disappointingly so.

The trick to staying warm is staying dry. For the non-physicists amongst you, all water based liquids are amazingly effective at absorbing and moving heat. Great news for your water cooled car engines but total disaster for anyone in the mountains. In short, once you are wet, your natural body heat is going elsewhere and not keeping you warm. 

But what about sweat, it’s an an inevitability I hear you cry

Well in severe cold weather you must learn to control excessive body heat. Once your body is covered in a layer of perspiration your body temperature will become harder to control. 

Control sweat not heat.

This is it, read no further all that follows focuses on this!

There are a couple of key and simple ways of doing this. 

Firstly don’t put all your insulation eggs into one basket. Walking out of the car park in your new voluptuous down jacket because it’s your best/only/newest/most fashionable/ warm kit is a folly. You will sweat profusely within minutes especially under eager fresh legs. 

Be bold start cold

Understanding the activity level and upcoming terrain is key to this. Let movement make you warm in a steady controlled manner, that way you build to a warm sustainable level and don't sweat.  Fell runners are a brilliant example. They leave in skimpy unflattering Lycra, they run up a hill in a warm state, with any sweat wicking away to the atmosphere and not absorbed by insulation. If they stop they throw on an insulating top to retain that hard earned heat. Then they whip it off and prance onwards to the next summit.

Be an Onion

Your day needs to be planned and built around adaptable layers. We can not all be like the featherweight fell runners. As hill walkers, mountaineers and ice climbers our output can be a little lower. A single Lycra layer will therefore not be adequate. On both legs and upper body the ability to either permit or resist cooling is essential. For this reason the single layer garments like ski jackets and salopettes are a big no no. Take the lower half for example, with ski salopettes your options are: ‘Salopettes on’ and heavy sweating or ‘salopettes off’ and a chat with Lochaber constabulary.

Instead, a three or more layer system works better, a wicking base layer, insulating layer/s and the weatherproof outer. This gives you options. When you find sweat is starting to materialise then take a off a layer or unzip a layer and vent that heat out. If starting to cool down add layers on. 

Typically, when moving fast or under a load I wear a long sleeve base layer that has an integral hood used to cover my ears when a hat would be too much. My next layer is typically a breathable fleece or soft shell.  A waterproof (hard shell) might go on but only if raining or when wind chill over powers my softshell I need to add a full hard shell wind proof for protection. Insulation layers only come out of my bag when I start to slow down or know I’m stopping for a while and here I have the choice of a lightweight synthetic insulation jacket or a bigger down jacket. 

On my legs in British winter conditions I typically wear leggings (aka long johns) and waterproof trousers, OR winter walking trousers and waterproof trousers OR all three of the above on the really cold days.

I have not yet succumbed to purchasing insulated trousers but as my dotage increased this will undoubtedly be added to a Christmas wish list 

Note -  everything I wear is breathable and wicking, that is is to say, that each layer is designed and built to move the sweat away into the next layer an ultimately to the surrounding atmosphere. ABSOLUTELY NO COTTON OR SWEATPANT MATERIAL!

Walk like an asthmatic drunk.

There are going to be days when it is so cold that everything is going to be needed. When you are making a bee line for the sanctuary of the car and there is little risk of a prolonged stop then this is fine, scurry way. However, if the journey to a heat source is hours or even days away then the zero sweat policy is going to need some careful thought. So, move at the pace of an asthmatic drunk in the Himalayas.  By slowing down you gain control over build up of heat and stave of the dreaded sweat. 


Spares and substitutions .

I’ve often wondered why I carry more kit than a colleague. Well I have come to understand that he carries 23 additional, spare or substitute layers. He is in effect carrying a pillow with straps. He does however, “have options”. 


No climber in the history of winter mountain has ever fully got this right. 

However the same principles apply.  Moving fast and hard? Then wear lightweight gloves and have spares. The big thick gloves are for breaks and emergencies

I carry 4-5 pairs including 2-3 thin pairs as they will inevitably get wet through sweat or touching snow. I then have a medium pair of gloves for general use and a massive pair of waterproof and insulated mittens for warming up.

Finally what ever you wear it has to work for you, be comfortable and affordable. But above all it has to be appropriate for what you are doing that day in those conditions. This will only work if learn to tune into your body’s thermostat and become disciplined to react and modify your movement or clothing to suit, before it’s too late. Experience will help with this and that is what is fun about mountain sports. 

If you want more inside into winter walking and mountaineering clothing and equipment then join Oli and the rest of the Pure Outdoor winter team on one of our winter skills courses.

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