Gearing up for the Snow!
By Zak Moseley, ex ski and bike racer and Outdoormania technical manager.
With a bewildering array of materials, brands and windproof, waterproof terminology around, choosing the right ski or boarding gear can be something of a minefield. Make sense of it all and you will be set to wrap up warm for whatever the Alpine climate has to throw at you. Heres how:
Regardless of your ability or experience, you will do things better and enjoy it all a lot more if you are dry, warm and comfortable. Look at the holiday brochures and postcards and you will wonder what clothing has to do with anything. With the clear blue skies and glorious sunshine featured in the average promotional ski scene, you could be excused for packing the bikini and beach towel.
Promotional pictures aside, there are in fact a few things to consider - altitude, consequent temperature, the rapidly changeable mountain weather and the wetness and coldness of the snow being just a few. And, even if you get lucky with the weather and never taste the snow after a tumble, there is something else that you need to consider with clothing and that is perspiration.
Everybody perspires. Even at rest the average person loses over a litre a day. Under high levels of activity, that volume can rocket to as much as three litres per hour. Suffice it to say that if you are on the slopes, you are going to be losing a lot more than the minimum level. And that moisture has to go somewhere. If youre wearing the wrong gear it will stay inside your jacket and you will become anything from damp to just plain wet
The fact is, even if youre just a little damp, it can have a huge impact on your skin temperature. You may be well insulated, but damp, clammy skin easily gets cold, particularly in mountain temperatures and if you stop exercising - the worst example of which is stepping onto a sub-zero chair lift after a long downhill run.
The answer is in a three-layer system that is not only warm and waterproof to protect you from the elements but one that protects you from your own perspiration. It consists of a next-to-the-skin base layer, a warm insulation mid layer and a waterproof, protective and sometimes insulated outer layer. Together, a properly specified three layer system will work to vent perspiration away from your body and will insulate and protect you: keeping you dry and therefore warm regardless of your level of activity.
On the face of it, the solution may seem simple enough: Buy a waterproof, breathable jacket that will vent perspiration keeping you dry and warm. Half right. Because for a jacket to work correctly, other layers need to work together to get that moisture away from your skin and out through the jacket.
The most common mistake with anyone who is clothing-up for the outdoors is to wear the wrong next-to-the-skin layer or base layer. People can go out and spend hundreds of pounds on the most state-of-the-art jacket, but if their base layer is not right they are still likely to end up wet and cold.
The reason is simply down to the fibre used in their base layer. The biggest culprit is cotton. Whilst comfortable when dry, cotton T-shirts have a fantastic affinity for water or moisture. That means that they readily absorb it, retain it and don t give it up easily - i.e. they dry slowly. Wear one of those under the best jacket on the planet, and you will still be damp and cold if you re doing any sort of activity.
The answer is polyester or, better still, polypropylene if you perspire a lot or work at higher levels of activity. Both fabrics don t like water so they will pull it away from the skin or wick it capillary-style to the outside for venting through the insulation layer and out through the jacket.
Also, because the fibres do not absorb water readily, they dry very quickly. For skiing both polyester and polypropylene base layers are suitable. They won t stop you sweating, but they will move moisture out and dry quickly when you stop.
Polypropylene is twice as quick to wick moisture away and dries twice as quickly. In essence it is twice as effective - particularly for those who are working harder. The only downfall is that it s far more difficult to manufacture a garment from polypropylene (the reason why only two or three manufacturers do it) and therefore it is more expensive.
In terms of base layers, for skiing and cold weather, the only one that is better suited is a polypropylene base layer that combines an insulating material for extra warmth. There are some that combine polypropylene with merino wool, itself a low-moisture retention, fast drying, wicking material. The result is ultimate winter performance and increased warmth.
Another benefit of polyester or polypropylene base layers is,because they dry so quickly, you can easily wash them at the end of the day and they will be dry and ready to use the next morning (throw them in the shower with you). No need to pack a suitcase full and no sweaty underwear for the customs man to sift through on your return trip through the airport!
Mid Insulation Layer
The mid or insulation layer serves two purposes: firstly to keep you warm and secondly to pass the moisture through from the base layer to the shell or outer layer - thereby keeping you dry. Wear cotton or a cotton mix as part of a mid layer and you will find that it retains moisture just as it does when it is worn next to the skin, making you clammy and damp.
Whilst there are many choices of mid layer fabrics including natural down and wool, the most popular and cost-effective choice is a polyester fleece. Just as when it is used in a base layer, polyester wicks well and has low moisture absorption. Whilst it utilises the same material as used in the base layer, fleece fabric is made by first twisting fibres into yarn. The yarn is then knitted and brushed to raise the fibres and create a downy surface. This results in excellent insulation properties.
Polyester fleeces are everywhere. They are made by just about everybody and most people own at least one. If you are going skiing and you own a fleece that is 100% polyester, then the chances are it will be fine as a mid layer.
What is worth knowing though is that fleeces are generally available in different weights and that certain manufacturer construction methods work technically better on the mountain than others.
One of the largest quality manufacturers and suppliers of fleece fabric to clothing makers is Polartec. Polartec s high loft manufacture is generally superior in terms of insulation properties and breathability (moisture transport when worn under a jacket). However, as with any leading performance brand, you generally need to pay a little more than you would with others.
Weight-wise, fleeces are available in 100 gram lightweight (microfleece), 200 gram midweight and 300 gram heavyweight - though generally, 300 grams is too much, even on the mountain when worn as part as a layering system. In fact, if the base layer is right and you are wearing an insulated jacket, it is surprising how little you can get away with on the mountain. With a merino/polypropylene base layer and an insulated wind and waterproof ski jacket, a mid layer may not be needed at all in all but the worst conditions. (Though it is always worth carrying an extra insulation layer in a rucksack in case conditions get tough).
Similarly, in good weather, if you are working hard on the mountain and you are wearing just a good base layer and a simple non-insulated shell, in most conditions a 100g micro or lightweight fleece will suffice as a mid layer.
Outer Layer or Shell
The shell or outer layer is where people tend spend the most money. From a fashion point of view and as a means of looking good on the slopes, it is understandable. There are however other reasons to put money into a good jacket.
The first basic difference when comparing a ski jacket with a typical walking jacket is insulation - normally dedicated ski jackets are insulated where technical walking shell jackets are not.
There is no doubting that insulation in a winter jacket helps to keep you warm. When insulation is combined with a good breathable membrane, the result is an all-in-one solution that is perfect for cold weather and outdoor activities.
But, when worn with an effective layering system an insulated jacket is not essential. In fact many outdoor professionals including mountain rescue and mountain guides steer away from insulated outer wear, preferring instead to use a simple shell jacket and to layer up for warmth with insulation mid layers. This leaves the option of removing or adding layers to suit conditions - in fact under high activity conditions in the snow, some will find that an insulated jacket in itself is just too warm.
The second difference to a walking jacket is a powder skirt - either a fixed or removable inner shell than can be fastened around the waist to prevent snow entering underneath the jacket in the event of a fall or in deep powder. In general, whilst a powder skirt is useful, it is not essential. It only becomes more important to advanced skiers who venture into deep powder.
For piste skiing, the hem draw cord is enough to prevent snow entering. Also most powder skirt jackets are also insulated. Fine for skiing but not really wearable as an outdoor jacket come a warm summer. Here the option of a single shell jacket with a good hem draw cord is a good universal solution that you can wear all year round.
Differences aside, accepting that some brands cost more than others (even though in some cases, they are made from the same materials and hail from the same factories in Pacific rim countries), the amount spent on a jacket is generally proportional to how breathable it is. However, when choosing a jacket, look out for features such as adjustable underarm vents or pit-zips, detachable hoods and snow specific pockets.
In general, top high-quality ski and walking jackets are available in three levels of breathability. At entry-level, high quality coated fabrics and polyurethane or PTFE membranes such as Gore-Tex, IsoTex 5000, OmniTech and HellyTech are fully waterproof and around 70% breathable. That is enough to vent moisture out under normal activity conditions such as basic downhill skiing. Ski jackets in this category cost around £90-£140.
Next up are the performance versions of these fabrics - Gore-Tex XCR, IsoTex 8000, Helly XP and Omni-Tech Dry. In general these are 25% more breathable than standard membranes and are rated as 85%breathable.Also they tend to be a little more waterproof as well (though waterproofing on all jackets is normally more than sufficient for skiing). For skiers that experience moisture build up (despite correct layering) in mid levels of activity using standard membranes, performance membranes are worth a look. Such jackets cost between £140 and £200 depending on brand and specification.
Finally there is the new super performance eVENT fabric. In short, since its launch into commercial outdoor wear in 2002, it has swept the reviews boards, beating everything else for out and out performance. In a way it is understandable. Membranes all use similar PTFE or PU construction and have done since the 80s. eVENT moves the game on again with revolutionary construction and new millennium technology. In a way comparing eVENT to an 80s membrane is similar to comparing the original Mini car to the new Mini.
In terms of performance, it has been widely tested in the field and in laboratories in Europe and the USA where it has consistently proved itself as twice as breathable as the best performance membranes and 2.5 times more breathable than standard membranes. What is more it is three times as waterproof. For detailed laboratory and field test analysis, see Backpacking Light (Subscription required).
For anyone who has tried all the rest and under high activity conditions has still witnessed a moisture build up and consequent clamminess, eVENT is definitely worth a look. At around £200-£350, it may be more expensive but as an effective alternative to highly breathable soft-shell technology it is right up there. And, it is waterproof.
More or less the same arguments apply to the legs as they do to the torso. The main difference is that, other than in the crotch area, they are less prone to perspiration. For this reason many top ski pants feature adjustable (zipped) thigh vents for additional breathability
Generally though, the legs are less prone to chill than the torso area. A good base layer and an insulated ski trouser (made from the same waterproof breathable fabricasthe jacket) are therefore sufficient for adverse winter conditions - no mid layer required. Also because breathability is less of an issue with the legs, normal waterproof, breathable ski pants are suitable for most users.
Alternatively, in sunny conditions on the slopes, either a base layer is not required or single shell waterproof trousers or over trousers are sufficient - perhaps worn with a base layer. The best idea isto start warm with everything on and progressively layer down. Better that, than to leave the slopes cold on the first day or two.
If you skied in the 80s, you will be more than au fait with the all-in-one ski suits that dominated the mountain. Whilst warm and cosy, breathability was limited, they left little option to layer or de-layer, were not at all versatile (try sitting in a warm restaurant in one) and usually were only available in garish lime greens, yucky pinks and bright oranges. For now the all-in-one is definitely out - the height of uncool. However times change and they say fashion is cyclical. Beware they may be back!
Whilst the standard three-layer system is the choice of the vast majority of skiers and boarders, there are a few alternatives available.
Growing in popularity is the single (three-layers-in-one) system made by the likes of Montane and Buffalo. Popular with mountain rescue teams and active winter sports enthusiasts,the single layer sacrifices a degree of waterproofing for increased breathability (though with the introduction of eVENT, the case for single layer systems is perhaps not so strong as it was).
The system also incorporating cross venting that allows the user to adjust the level of venting and its thermal characteristics on the move - no longer does the wearer need to stop to add or remove layers by ferreting in a ruck sack.
Single layer systems offer similar advantages to soft-shell technology. However whilst soft-shell jackets are extremely breathable, they are designed to be worn with separate base and mid layers. The advantage here is additional breathability against the sacrifice of a purely waterproof garment.
Skiing or boarding has the knack of making you ache in places that you did not know you had. And, particularly if you are new to it, the feet are one of the top problem areas. Stopping that aching is more a case of mastering the right technique. But in the meantime it is worth specifying a well-padded sock to give you the best possible chance.
There are many manufacturers peddling ski socks at around £20 a pair. That seems a lot to pay when you compare them with walking socks that cost half as much and do exactly the same job.
Basically a loop construction polyester/merino walking sock that is padded in the right places (heel, ankle, toe area) and is long enough to cover your lower leg entirely inside a ski or boarding boot, is identical to a ski sock. (If you have one of each compare them and you will see they are the same).
When choosing, just make sure that you are looking at a padded knee-length sock - otherwise if it is shorter it will end up finishing inside the boot, causing rubbing problems and potentially riding down, causing discomfort and irritation.
Goggles or Sunglasses
If you are in snow on the mountain, eyewear is essential regardless of the conditions. Intense sunshine and high levels of reflected light off the snow, create excessive UVA and UVB. Over-exposure can lead to snow blindness; painful sunburn on your eyes, (photokeratitis) or long-term, UV rays can damage eyes permanently leading to cataracts and other eye diseases.
The key is always to invest in eyewear that promises total UV protection. Sight should never be an area that is for compromise - if you are looking to save money, stay in a cheaper chalet! Plus if you buy the best, you will also benefit from the zero-distortion lenses, giving you optically correct vision.
In the goggles or sunglasses argument, the frank answer is both. If you have a week of unadulterated sunshine and you are not venturing into powder (try head-planting with sunglasses on), then you can get away with just a good pair of sunglasses. If that is the case, then make sure they cover your eyes completely. If they do not, you won t get full UV protection and when you start to blast down a fast run, you will be squinting (tears streaming) to keep the wind out. If it is snowing while you are doing it, you will be squinting so much that you will no t be able to see. Also, polarised lenses are particularly effective in snow conditions as they cut out glare from snow reflected light.
Ski goggles really come into their own either off-piste or when conditions worsen. The lens technology on goggles has been developed specifically with snow conditions in mind. Vermillion Gun lenses greatly improve vision in flat light or whiteout conditions and, as anyone who has ever tried skiing or boarding in a complete white out will testify, that can be a great asset.
Also ski goggles cover more of your face, giving greater protection from the sun whilst anti-fogging technology continues to provide clear vision long after sunglasses have steamed up. The key generally is, if you are wearing sunglasses, always have a pair of goggles in your rucksack just in case.
A backpack is always useful (once you have got used to manipulating it on and off the chair lifts). Arguably, it looks cool and it provides space to store an extra mid layer, goggles, tools, cameras, snacks and other bits and pieces.
Hydration is also extremely important. On the mountain, you will not only be losing water through perspiration but also through respiration. In fact cold temperatures and altitude can dramatically increase the rate of water loss through the lungs by up to one litre every four hours. The combined effect of the two can cause rapid dehydration on the mountain (notwithstanding the effect of last nights drinking!).
One way around it is to carry a bottle of water in your ruck sack. The problem is in stopping to take off your pack, unzipping it, groping around for your bottle, etc. - Better, is a tubed hydration pouch. This is always available so you can drink little and often - best as far as steady hydration goes. These are no longer that expensive and can be bought as a bladder and tube combination to fit in a standard rucksack or as a combined backpack and hydration system. Also, if you fill it in the morning at the breakfast table, it will save you a fortune in £4 a time mountain restaurant drinks.
Just one word of warning, if you take a hydration system, make sure your mates do too. Otherwise you will end up as the group s travelling drinks dispenser!
There are a few other things that you should always have to hand in your pack. If you are boarding a walking pole is handy for poling along the flat bits - especially if you re grouping with skiers or, worse still, impatient skiers.
Sun cream is an obvious one. In the mountain, you are more exposed to the elements than you would be at sea level and the sun is particularly harsh with so much reflected light around. Do not use it and you will not only get burned, you will also be subject to that other great just-off-a-ski-trip giveaway - panda eyes!
Lip salve is also important. Windburn plays havoc with exposed sensitive areas and without a decent lip salve, you will soon have lipslike sandpaper. Not great for the boy/girl friend.
There is also a lot more as well. Items like snow shovels, avalanche transceivers, harnesses and skins all have their place on the mountain. Perhaps though, we should leave those for later. For now just enjoy that time on the mountain!