Winter comfort tips

November 9, 2008

Reading Time: 14 minutes.

What is comfort? This is a good question as one person’s comfort can easily be another’s misery. “A feeling of freedom from worry or disappointment” is one of my favourite dictionary definitions, especially as it relates directly to most forms of climbing, as the onset of discomfort is bound to have the reverse effect .i.e. when you’re shivering on a multi-pitch stance in a rainstorm you’ve got a lot to worry about and expect disappointment to be the only outcome. We take comfort for granted, believing we can just buy it off the peg: wicking underwear, warm fleeces, and waterproof and breathable shells, but most people never achieve their potential comfort, putting up with hot sweats and icy shivers, believing that it’s just part of the game. Every year people die in the mountains from exposure even though they have more than enough to survive because they failed to grasp what it takes to just be comfortable. This article aims to give you a few tips in the hope of helping you achieve the same comfort outdoors as you do indoors.

1. Discovering your comfort level

Staying comfortable and being psychically efficient is a little like sailing a yacht. You won’t get far, or go very fast in a yacht unless you’re prepared to constantly adjust the sales as the conditions change, and the same goes for your clothing. The aim is to maintain a stable comfort level throughout the day, with no wild and unstable swings either way (see graph). If you can do this then you’ll be able to maintain your ideal comfort anywhere – from a blustery day at Tremadog to the Artic. If you were into carp fishing this would be easy as the amount of fine-tuning and adjustment is very small, just buy a big umbrella, a camp bed and a large synthetic sleeping bag, and you’re away. At the other end of the activity spectrum, the same applies to cyclists and runners who generally maintaining a steady and constant energy output, meaning they can just wear something thin and wicking, perhaps adding a fleece or very light shell on the coldest days. The problem for climbers is that climbing and mountaineering is a stop and go sport, where energy output can vary greatly – often with energy reserves becoming depleted in the process – plus it’s often carried out in the worst conditions imaginable. In an average day on the hill, you may be called on to do a long bought of high-intensity walking, a spot of gymnastics, the odd sprint or dash, and quite a bit of nothing at all: all done in weather that can range from roasting sun to arctic tempest (both in the same 12 hours!). Add to this that your clothing has to be portable – meaning you must make judgments over what to carry (you can’t nip back to your car for a warmer coat), and the fact that clothing itself has its own varying comfort levels (depending on how the environment and your body impacts on their resistance to conduction and convection). In such conditions staying comfortable is a real art, and requires a good knowledge of how clothing works (its insulation values in different temperatures, conditions and states), how you’re body reacts to its environment (and how clothing fits into this), and perhaps most importantly the ability to react to changes both physical and environmental before they affect this comfort, and lastly the ability to tough it out if it goes wrong!

2.Membranes fleece don’t cut it

Now I’m going to be highly controversial here, but as far as I’m concerned if you want the maximum level of comfort possible then you can’t have a membrane in your insulation – and that goes for waterproof shells as well. Now the good thing about a shell is that you can choose when to wear it – meaning any downsides are worth it as long as it will keep you dryer than standing in the rain. But having a membrane in your insulation layer isn’t a great idea if you want maximum comfort for stop and go sports unless it can match the breathability of non coated fabrics like Pertex and other microfibres (which it can’t). Sure membrane fleeces give you more protection than a non-windproof fleece, but this protection (like the shell) is offset by its overall performance. So why do manufacturers make so many membraned fleeces – especially top-end mountain designs? Well, the answer is to look at what’s probably by far the best option, the fibre pile or micropile (fleece with a low contact area for its loft) jacket covered by a microfibre shell (densely woven fabric), as this offers the greatest possible level of comfort, being wind resistant, fast-drying and wicking, light, cheap and highly breathable: the problem? Well, you look like a bag of crap! The vast majority of users of outdoor clothing don’t actually need high-performance comfort (the words themselves are easy to add to the marketing blurb, but have no actual measurability). ‘Hard fleece’ gives the user one garment that will keep out the wind and provide adequate insulation, creating a simple concept that is perfect for many activities, including cragging, bouldering, stamp collecting etc. These fabrics are sold as ‘soft shell’ fabrics – but nothing with a membrane within it is a true softshell – it’s a ‘hard fleece’ as it sits between a fleece and a hard shell. Gore and Malden’s hard fleece fabrics allow very nice clothing to be designed and cut, giving then a rear ooh factor best demonstrated by Arcteryx and Mountain Hardwear, who have really developed this market. Remember that outdoor brands with turnovers of hundreds of millions of dollars are selling the majority of their mountain product to non-mountain people (there aren’t enough climbers and walkers in the world to create global outdoor brands like that), who it has to be said have probably never even been wet! So why do I think we should ignore membrane fleece? Well it slows down sweat transfer leading to chilling, is slow drying – which reduces the fabrics ‘bounce back’, – limiting its warmth when wet abilities (crucial when you have the first two drawbacks). Some manufactures have bonded pile to these membranes – which has helped in some respects, but still, you’re left with a product that isn’t as warm, light, fast-drying, and plain up to the job of climbing mountains as a 15-year-old Buffalo shirt! If you ask active people if they wear their fancy membraned fleeces for actual climbing, then most will admit they don’t, or if they do then only because they look better but perform worse than ordinary fleece. So are all these hard fleeces bad? Well, tens of thousands of climbers can’t be wrong, and for lots of stuff, they are more than adequate – especially lower energy activities, especially if you want to look smart. But if you’re looking at squeezing out the maximum level of performance from your insulation then just accept the fact you’ll look like a sack of crap! Personally, I’d invest in a good quality pile based fleece (Polartec Thermal pro) and an ultra-light highly breathable over a shirt (Pertex equilibrium), as this would be far more adaptable to conditions, warmer, dryer and if you get the styling right still good enough to turn a few heads in the YHA!


Take a leaf out of the artic sledge pullers in that the best way to stay comfortable is to stay cool, meaning avoiding wearing too many clothes. This goes against your natural instinct, but this is one of the biggest causes of comfort misery in the hills, with climbers sweating within ten minutes of setting off for the day. Knowing how hot you’ll be once you set off – taking into account speed, gradient, low, weather etc – comes from experience, but personally, I find that it’s surprising how little you need to wear as long as you have some windproofing in your clothing system (in fact you can just wear wind proofs!).


Everyone knows that your head is the main area of heat loss, so it makes sense that you can use this to your advantage when regulating your temperature. The same goes for your neck, hands and forearms (and your groin but maybe that would scare the walkers!), meaning taking on and off gloves, neck gaiters, balaclavas, hats or just rolling your sleeves up and down should allow you to fine-tune your clothing. On the subject of hats don’t scrimp on the amount of headgear you carry, as your head needs a layering system just as much as your body, meaning maybe a thin wool or fleece hat, a thicker hat with ears (those Peruvians know their stuff when it comes to hats), a balaclava, and neck gaiter (a hat with ear protectors matched with a neck gaiter is often better than a balaclava anyway). My own headgear is usually a thin R1 balaclava (Patagonia) that I can use as both a hat and a neck gaiter (you can stick it around your neck until you want to pull it up over your head), a very thick fleece/wool Peruvian style hat, and a windstopper face mask balaclava (Mountain Hardwear) that can be worn over the top of my R1, covering all my face except my mouth and eyes (for the really bad storms or fierce cold). Having spares means you should have a dry hat at the end of the day, plus they can be used as makeshift mitts if the need arrives. On the subject of spares, Andy Parkin once told me that he always carried lots of hats in Patagonia, and I asked him if it was due to the ferocity of the weather, to which he replied “no they just get blown off your head all the time”.


You’re never going to be able to fully dress correctly for all conditions, meaning you will always be slightly too hot or too cold (hovering around your ideal comfort zone). One way to really zap this problem is using clothing that allows you to dump the heat. Bonafide soft shell does this as you have all you’re layer in one, meaning when you vent it you’re venting all your layers. A traditional clothing system of fleeces, base layer and shell is unable to do this as effectively, as usual, it’s such a faff that you just stew. This is one of the big advantages of using shelled micropile tops as they are generally fine by themselves when walking in or high energy activities no matter how cold it is, yet allow you to dump their heat and insulation in a moment by just unzipping them (if you use them as a base layer this is even more effective).


The trick then is to dress for being active (your active layer), but what happens when you’re static? This is when your belay jacket comes in and no you don’t have to only be belaying to use it. Think of this layer as 50% of the insulation you’d probably be wearing if you dressed normally (meaning overdressed), plus another 50% that you wish you could put on when you started to chill. The belay jacket is usually a high loft synthetic duvet weighing around 1kg that can be thrown over all your clothing – wet or dry. This system is far more practical than carrying an extra fleece, as you need to remove your shell in order to put on the fleece (losing more heat), whereas this can be put on top. Personally, I find this layer a great psychological boost, especially when I’m feeling at a low ebb. If you’re only really cold belays and you’re both using this system then the belayer can wear both peoples jackets, and the system works really well for unplanned stops and enforced nights out (used with a bothy bag).


A base layer is there primarily to keep your skin dry, and so give you a feeling of warmth and nothing else. A base layer is not a ‘thermal’, it is there to move the moisture off the skin so as to limit evaporative heat, and your warmth comes from you’re the insulation layers that you wear above it. When this isn’t possible you need your base layer to have got wet warmth properties, meaning low density and close-fitting fabrics that dry quickly and offer less sanctuary for moisture. Thick base layers may sound like a good idea but they will get too hot and take longer to dry. There are tons of good base layers on the market at the moment, but I’d look closely at the lighter weight Merino wool clothing and better still the merino polyester mix’s which don’t get as heavy when wet and dry fast (plus they still don’t stink!).


I’ve always believed that because your legs are mainly made from muscle and bone they needed very little insulation compared to your trunk and core. Then someone told me of a test done by the military on hypothermia and how putting on an extra pair of trousers could make a huge difference to warmth, even if it was just one pair of waterproof trousers placed over another. I suppose this makes sense as your legs have a large surface area, with major arteries being close to the surface. If you find that you have trouble keeping warm when belaying, climbing, or just in general, then it may be worth focusing on your thighs rather than your body. This can be done in several ways, from wearing a little more on your legs than usual, or maybe cutting down a pair of base layers bottoms so they go down to the knee (some manufacturers make knee-length base layers). One problem with sticking more clothing on your legs is that the very nature of reducing heat loss can mean that you’ll now get far too hot when working hard. A good option is to build a ‘belay parka’ system for your legs, and companies like Mountain Hardwear, Patagonia and PHD all produce full zip synthetic pants (these could be built into a system of a light shell pant and thin base layer, allowing you to put on the pants once you reach the climb).


What’s the point of wearing cotton Y-fronts under all those fancy clothes? Well in the past unless you were going to wear your swimming trunks or running shorts or just go commando you didn’t really have a choice. Having damp and cold nether regions isn’t conducive to a positive state of mind, because like your head the groin is a major area of heat loss, but thankfully wicking garment manufacturers have saved the day for both men and women with base layer shreddies. While we’re on the subject probably the most bizarre and ridiculous piece of underwear goes to Buffalo Supporter brief (unfortunately now discontinued!) which featured a kind of Pertex/pile jockstrap, whose pattern was definitely of the ‘cut in hast wear uncomfortably at your leisure’ variety. MY favourite pants are of the short variety, which both provide a good level of comfort and support (important when you’re wearing a harness if you’re a bloke as you don’t want any part of your body making a run for it down your leg loop!), and allow you to wear then as shorts when making hot approaches. For those with overly developed thigh muscles who suffer from chaffing on very long approaches (this seems to be a common question that I get asked?!) then the longer-legged pants are especially appreciated. As for bras – well some woman still complain about the lack of good sports bras on the market. This may just be that most shops don’t sock good sports bras (most shop buyers are men and are probably too scared of asking customers what they want). If you look on the web you should find several very good sports bras, some made from Coolmax and others made from standard base layer fabrics, and it looks as if Patagonia seem to have put the most energy into this area over the last few years with 3 models. Another brand that I’ve heard good things about is a Swedish company called Houdini – but with no UK importer, you’ll have to search for a Scandinavian mail-order company.


Do you want the ultimate in active base layers? Well, I’m afraid that unfortunately one of the best systems on the market happens to also be one of the weirdest, coming in the form of Brynje mesh base layers from Norway. Yes, you heard me right mesh underwear like your granddad used to wear. This polypropylene underwear traps warmth really well, yet holds virtually no moisture - meaning you stay dry- and weighs almost nothing, plus it’s very inexpensive coming in at under £20 (well you are buying mainly free air!). Of course, the reason this stuff isn’t worn by everyone is that you look like Alf Garnet, with modern traditional base layers having more a more leisure look (you can’t wear this stuff in cafes or pubs at the end of the day – well not unless you want people to ask if you’re ‘the only gay in the village’). You can wear it under other base layers, as the moisture is passed through the material to be wicked across the outer base layer (thin merino is a good over base layer), and the stuff works well under modern featherweight windproofs (Rab, Montane, Patagonia etc). Brynje demonstrates perfectly the dilemma faced by modern climbers in that we’re often not solely interested in the performance of our equipment, wanting a fashion element built into it as well, often expecting that this may result in a loss of real performance.

So there you have it, a few tips that should make a difference or at least make you think about your gear and how you use it, which is what it’s all about anyway.