Hi Michael,

Hope all is well with you. I’ve contacted you in the past, and you have given me great information. I ended up buying things that you recommended (Zamberlan 230 SH Crosser Plus GTX RR boots and the Gregory Targhee 45L winter backpack).

I have a couple of different questions for you. First, I was hoping you could recommend a good pair of goggles for winter hiking and climbing (mostly for above treeline in New Hampshire’s White Mountains). I know you are very familiar how hairy it can get up there, so they would have to have great ventilation so they would not fog.

My next question is could you recommend a good, lightweight but warm, breathable fleece to go over a base layer, also for winter hiking? I also saw your review of the Marmot Alpha Jacket—would this take the place of a soft shell/fleece?

BTW, your website is the most useful and informative site out there for hiking!

Thank you,

Michael R.
Everett, Mass.

Hi Michael,

Nice to hear from you again.

With goggles, I’ve used a handful of different models and I have some from Smith and from Native Eyewear that I like a lot. But I think it’s worth looking at Backpacker’s online reviews of goggles for other suggestions. I think many manufacturers are designing well-ventilated goggles these days; you’ll see more differences in terms of the ease of use in switching lenses (especially when wearing warm gloves) and other aesthetic differences, like the shades of lenses available—which will matter when you’re in the Whites in winter, where it can get pretty blank.

As for your second question, about a warm, breathable insulation layer for winter hiking, that depends a little on how easily you get cold and where you’re usually hiking. In your case, in the White Mountains in winter, you may want to consider an insulation layer that’s extra warm and offers some wind protection, especially if you’re out frequently in the first half of winter. But if you run hot, you might instead want a fleece layer that’s highly breathable, to avoid getting sweaty. That’s your call to make, but I’ll outline both options.

The Marmot Alpha Pro Jacket could be exactly what you need. The Alpha insulation in the torso does breathe well enough to slowly move moisture out (though it doesn’t breathe nearly as well as fleece, of course), which allows you to dry a damp base layer by regulating your pace and exertion level. But the sleeves are made with much more breathable fabrics that are akin to a lightweight fleece layer or heavy base layer. As I wrote in that review, it’s more like a winter-weight base layer and a breathable, windproof vest rolled into one. You would wear a lightweight or maybe midweight base layer under it. I run pretty hot when I’m on the go, so I found this jacket a little too warm for me in temps above the mid-20s, especially in calm conditions. However, for hiking in wind and colder temps, it would be excellent, and you can layer a shell over it.

The Marmot Isotherm Hoody does also use breathable Alpha insulation, but unlike the Alpha Pro Jacket, it doesn’t have more breathable fabric in the sleeves. So while it’s versatile for year-round use, for me, it would have to be pretty cold outside (low teens or colder) to wear it comfortably when hiking. If you’re looking for an insulation layer that you’ll wear primarily when moving, I think the Alpha Pro is a better choice, partly because you’re also carrying a shell jacket for wind protection, so it makes sense for your insulation layer to have the more-breathable fabric in the sleeves (as in the Alpha Pro).

If you want a fleece layer that’s more breathable and will be versatile in temps in the high 20s and above freezing, I have a few suggestions. Keep in mind that wind will cut right through all of these. But these are good choices if you tend to run hot, or prefer just wearing your breathable shell jacket for wind, or often go out in moderate temps (20s and higher). I also find fleece jackets mostly useful in fall, winter, and spring, but they aren’t as warm, compact, and light as a down or synthetic insulation jacket for hanging out in camp on summer backpacking trips (though they can certainly be used for that).

I love the Norrona Lofoten Warm2 High Loft Jacket (see the company’s online description) for the way it uses different fabrics to vary the warmth from the torso through the arms. Great jacket, though pricey.

I’ve had a Mountain Hardwear Microstretch Zip-T for several years and still like it. It’s kind of a less-elaborately fabric-zoned (and less expensive) version of the Norrona Lofoten. It’s a pullover instead of a full-zip jacket, and a little bit warmer than the Lofoten.

The Black Diamond Coefficient Jacket is the lightest, coolest suggestion I’ll make. For winter hiking, I’d suggest this is best for someone who sweats a lot, especially if you’re often hiking in moderate temps.

I hope that’s helpful. Let me know if you have other questions. Thanks for writing.

Best,
Michael

Hi Michael,

Thank you for getting back to me so quickly, I always appreciate your informative advice on everything. I can definitely tell you put all your knowledge and research into your answers and I appreciate that.

I have one more question for you on winter hiking pants. I have a pair of REI Shuksan Pants, which are heavy and only for extremely cold temps, and I also have a really light pair of stretchy, tight-fitting pants from REI. What I’m looking for is something in the middle to provide warmth but also breath very well, with a more relaxed fit—something I could wear long underwear under and keep me warm and dry. I do tend to sweat a lot when hiking.

Thank you again.

Michael R.

Hey Michael,

I’m glad you asked that question, it makes me realize I need to test and review some winter soft-shell pants at TBO. But I have some pants I’ve used quite a lot, not new, but outstanding and still available. The Arc’teryx Gamma MX pants are a classic, lined with soft fleece for extra warmth, very stretchy, great fit, you can layer a light long underwear beneath them—though I rarely have, they’re plenty warm, and breath well enough to dry fast. I primarily wear them backcountry skiing and touring, but they’d be great for winter climbing in the Whites. There are newer models out there that I’d like to try, which fit the description of what you want, like the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Approach Pants.

Basically, I suggest you look for pants made with soft-shell fabric, which will shed snow, cut wind somewhat, but breathe much better than a hard-shell (e.g., Gore-Tex or eVent, like your REI Shuksan pants), so you don’t overheat when climbing. Lightweight soft-shell pants made for spring, summer in the mountains, or fall are generally under a pound per pair, while warmer models for winter (like the Gamma MX) will run a few ounces over a pound.

Ideally, try them on with your climbing boots; cuffs are designed for different types of boots, and not all will fit over a big boot. That also will ensure you get the fit you want.

Hope that’s helpful.

Michael

Hi Michael,

I can’t say enough how much I appreciate your advice.

Michael R.

[In Ask Me, I share and respond to a reader question. Got a question about hiking, backpacking, gear, or any topic or trip I write about at The Big Outside? Send it to me at mlanza@thebigoutside.com or tweet it to @MichaelALanza. I will answer the ones I can in a post, using only your first name and city, with your permission.—Michael Lanza]