How to dress for a comfortable day on the slopes
Winter in the Canadian Rockies can seem like a dreary, cold and inhospitable environment – especially when you are not prepared for the drastic changes in climate and weather conditions that we experience here over the course of a long winter!
Fortunately for all of us, the Outdoor Industry has taken HUGE strides in the past 50 years by developing clothing systems that enable us to enjoy playing outdoors in even the most inhospitable of environments.
- Warm, dry AIR is one of the best insulators on the planet.
- Wind Chill intensifies heat loss.
- Wet clothing is up to 17 times less efficient at REGULATING your heat than is dry clothing.
- Water always transports from high humidity to low humidity, until a balance is achieved.
- The human body will always warm it’s head and internal organs before it’s extremities.
- Nothing works perfectly.
OK, so how do these basic principles work for or against us?
Let’s start from the inside and work outwards. Since our brain and our internal organs are essential for our survival, our bodies have adapted to extremes of cold by sacrificing toes, fingers noses and ears before livers, kidneys and our hearts. Great survival adaptation mechanism, right? So how do we save our fingers and toes? We keep our head and our core warm and dry. The best way to do this is to wear a hat, hood or helmet that breathes (lets the sweat out) and to wear efficient BASE LAYER (long underwear bottoms and tops). Keeping that initial fine layer of air immediately next to our bodies dry will keep us SIGNIFICANTLY warmer.
Being active and sweating in cold and changeable temperatures makes it difficult to stay warm and dry. Add to that the effects of a strong wind blowing away that nice warm air next to your body and wet snow or rain trying to soak you to the bone and you have a seriously difficult challenge in staying comfortable and dry. Dressing in multiple LAYERS of clothing is the most versatile and efficient way to regulate your temperature. Every individual has a different tolerance level for the cold and a different metabolism that encourages heat retention. That’s why temperature ratings on clothing don’t really mean much. You will need to experiment to know your own body in order to find the best combination of layers for you.
Base layer can be either synthetic or wool or a blend of the two. Synthetic base layers dry faster, transport moisture through them more quickly do not shrink and are relatively less expensive. Woolen base layers use renewable, natural fibres that are inherently slightly warmer and have natural antimicrobial agents in their composition, which help to reduce odour.
Newer treatments such as ‘Silvadur’ and ‘Agion’, however, have virtually rendered the problem of odour retention in synthetic fabrics a thing of the past. The most technically efficient fabrics on the market are usually a blend of Merino wool and Polyester, creating a warm, soft and dry layer that is essential for consistent warmth and comfort. Fit them snugly, as they have lots of stretch and work best when they aren’t too loose.
Mid-layers are the tops and pants that you put on next to your base layer. They should fit close to the body in order to facilitate the movement of sweat away from your skin. Loose fitting mid-layers will allow the sweat to condense into water droplets inside of your clothing, thus promoting heat loss. Slightly heavier weight garments with stretch woven into the fabrics will give you the best results here. Have some fun with colours
Again, synthetics or wool blends work best. If it’s going to be really cold out, save your favorite cotton hoody and sweat pants for Apres, cause if they get wet, they stay wet, and you freeze your butt off!
The number of mid-layers you decide to wear depends on how cold it’s going to be that day. A good rule of thumb is to expect to add another layer approximately every -7% C of temperature change. Seems to work well for me. Some really cold days, you can expect to wear 5 or 6 layers to stay toasty warm!
Outer layers are the layers of clothing that protect you from wind, rain and snow. Stopping the wind and water from penetrating from the outside in is the first order. The challenging part is allowing all of that excess heat and moisture to escape from the inside to the outside when you are working hard. A bit more science might prove helpful here. It’s been over 30 years since Dr. Bill Gore invented the first wind proof, waterproof AND breathable parka for outdoor use. Thank-you Dr. Bill!!!
Here’s how he did it:
Dr. Gore was a pre-eminent heart surgeon, on the leading edge of grafting arteries to help save lives. He was also an avid outdoorsman. Dr. Gore discovered that the molecules that make up Teflon could be reconfigured to produce a kind of ‘synthetic skin tissue’ with thousands of tiny ‘pores’ per square inch. These tiny ‘pores’ are hundreds of times smaller than water droplets, yet are far larger than each water molecule. Just like human tissue, he had created a ‘selective membrane’ that allowed steam to pass through it, but prevented water from pouring through it in it’s liquid state! Pure genius. After several unsuccessful attempts to graft the new Gore-Tex compound to human tissue (rejection was the biggest problem) Dr. Gore shifted his efforts to creating Gore-Tex fabrics. His invention is the basis for all of the wonderful outerwear that we see on the market today. Literally hundreds of different treatments to fabrics exist today that mimic the miracle of Gore-Tex!
Comparing Fabrics Cuts & Insulations
So why does a super light weight shell jacket often cost more money than a fully padded winter jacket that we can buy at the Big Box Store? Of course, volume of sales makes a difference. Bigger stores can often negotiate lower prices. But the best fabrics and insulations, and the most complicated patterns to make clothing fit and function well, are more expensive. When items become too simply made, they simply don’t perform as well, and they don’t last as long or fit as well either. Here are some clues to look for in better functioning garments:
Have a close look at the fabric the garment is made from. The smaller the individual fibers woven into the fabric, the lighter, stronger, more wind resistant and longer wearing the garment will be.
Cut and Sew
Look for the number of pieces used to sew the garment together with. More pieces used means better shape and fit. If you are active, it’s nice to have a great fit that moves properly with you.
Super Comfy! And much harder to tear seams apart as well.
If you are going to use the garment in wet snow and rain, the stitch holes where the garment has been sewn together will be more waterproof if the back side of the seam has been taped.
The closer together the stitches that sew the garment together, the stronger the seam.
Better fabrics will announce their waterproof ratings on the price tag or hang tag on the garment. Waterproof ratings of 8,000mm and higher are superb. 25,000mm is overkill for winter conditions, but in a real typhoon, it’s nice to have!
Waterproof fabrics that are backed with rubber or plastic don’t breathe. Within minutes, you will feel like you are in a sauna bath. Several seconds later, the water inside of the garment will turn into ice. Bad idea. Luckily, Dr. Gore came to the rescue. The price tag for better clothing will announce the breathability ratings as well. Super breathable is really expensive (20,000gm and higher), but it is a real life saver in high output or warmer conditions.
Are the pockets in the right places for your needs? Are there enough of them. Carrying a backpack with a belt done up over the zippers on your pockets isn’t very convenient. Do you like a hood? It’s warmer in the wind and keeps your head dry. Removable or roll away hood? Velcro fasteners at the wrists? Powder cuffs on the pants to keep the snow out of your boots? Reinforcements in the fabrics where needed?
Lighter and more breathable insulations are vital for backcountry skiing, but not so important at the resort. Down is super light and comfy, but it’s expensive too. Newer treatments allow you to have waterproof down now – very cool! But synthetics are far more cost effective and are almost as warm. They don’t pack as small, but they dry faster and last longer. A ‘fixed insulation’ means the insulation or ‘padding’ is sewn into the garment. You can wear shell fabrics without insulation year round, but you will need more mid-layers for them in the winter time than you will require with a fixed insulation in your garment.
This is outerwear with a stretch component woven into it. Super comfortable and warm. Great for layering, allowing for a closer fitting, sleeker looking garment. May be laminated with a ‘synthetic skin’ membrane or not. Therefore, water resistant or not so much.
Care and Washing Instructions
Never dry clean your outdoor sports clothing – especially if it is waterproof treated. All better outdoor garments are now treated at the factory where they are produced with a Durable Water Repellency (DWR) spray compound that allows water to bead off of the fabric. In order to maintain this finish, you MUST NEVER wash the garment in detergent of fabric softener. Nik Wax and Grangers are two brands of excellent ‘non-detergent’ cleaning agents that will extend the life of your garments and keep them waterproof for you. They are both biodegradable and phosphate free as well. Safe for the environment. Very Nice.