Backcountry skiing in Idaho's Boise Mountains.

The Best Clothing Layers for Winter in the Backcountry

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By Michael Lanza

There’s one certainty about the clothing layers we use in winter: We get our money’s worth out of them. While a rain shell or puffy jacket may never come out of our pack on a summer hike or climb, we almost invariably wear every article of clothing we carry when backcountry, Nordic, or downhill skiing, snowshoeing, climbing, or trail running in winter.

Every winter, I test out new clothing layers doing all of those activities frequently. Here are the best shell and insulated jackets, base layers, and pants I’ve found for being active in winter, grouped into two categories: high-exertion and moderate-exertion activities.

In my story “How to Dress in Layers for Winter in the Backcountry,” I offer advice—based on three decades of Nordic and backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, climbing, camping, and trail running in winter—on how to choose a specific, personalized layering system for different exertion levels and body types in backcountry in temperatures near or below freezing. Use the tips in that story, along with this review, to help you make the best choices in winter outdoor apparel for your activities and your body.

Please share your experiences with any of these products in the comments section at the bottom of this review. And if you make a purchase through any of the links to online retailers in this story, you support my work on this blog, so thanks for doing that.

 

See my “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter.”

 

Chip Roser getting some air in Idaho's Boise Mountains.

Chip Roser getting some air in Idaho’s Boise Mountains.

The Best Base Layers for Winter

Whatever your exertion level, you want next-to-skin tops and bottoms that do two things that become especially important in winter:

1. Wick moisture off your skin quickly.
2. Provide at least the minimum amount of warmth you need for the conditions and your body.

Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck LS.

Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck LS.

The best base-layer tops I’ve found for any activity in winter conditions are:

Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck LS—men’s version at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com, women’s at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com.
Ibex Woolies 1 Crew long-sleeve—men’s and women’s at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com.
Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck—men’s and women’s at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, and rei.com.
REI Screeline Half-Zip Long-Sleeve—men’s and women’s at rei.com.
The North Face Warm Long-Sleeve Zip Neck—men’s and women’s at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com.

 

See more in my “Review: The Best Base Layers and Shorts for the Outdoors and Training.”

 

Westcomb Recon Cargo Pant.

Westcomb Recon Cargo Pant.

Pants for the Backcountry in Winter

We generally wear one or two bottom layers and do not change them while outside in winter, so they must be chosen specifically for the activity and conditions. Here are my favorites for three different types of activity and levels of exertion.

For trail running, when I prefer highly breathable, fast-wicking tights with some warmth, I like compression tights, and wear the CW-X Stabilyx ¾ Tights quite a lot (find the men’s and women’s versions at backcountry.com). I’ll also wear them under ski pants in the backcountry or at resorts, to add a little warmth and the benefits of compression.

When Nordic skiing, I favor lightweight soft-shell pants that breathe well, block some wind (for skiing downhill), and offer a bit more warmth than tights.

 

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to sign up for my FREE email newsletter by entering your email address in the box in the left sidebar, at the bottom of this story, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Touring Pants

Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Touring Pants

My favorites:

Westcomb Recon Cargo Pant (read my review)—men’s sizes only at moosejaw.com or westcomb.com.
Outdoor Research Ferrosi Convertible Pants (read my review)—men’s and women’s at at backcountry.com, ems.com, or moosejaw.com.
Patagonia Simul Alpine Softshell Pant
—men’s and women’s at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or patagonia.com.
Black Diamond Alpine Light SoftShell Pants—men’s and women’s at backcountry.com, ems.com, or moosejaw.com.

For backcountry or downhill/resort skiing, climbing, or snowshoeing, I need more substantial pants that breathe well but deliver more warmth and weather protection.

My favorites:

Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Touring Pants (read my review)—men’s and women’s at backcountry.com and moosejaw.com.
Arc’teryx Gamma MX Softshell Pant—men’s and women’s at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, and rei.com.

 

My “Review: The Best Gloves for Winter” covers gloves for high- and moderate-exertion activities.

 

Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket.

Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket.

The Best Moderate-Exertion Layering System

As I write in my story “How to Dress in Layers for Winter in the Backcountry,” for backcountry skiing or ski touring, snowshoeing, or hiking, you need a layering system with great versatility, which usually means three types of layers: base, middle or insulating layer, and shell.

The critical middle layer provides most of your layering system’s warmth, and it must breathe well, because your outer/shell layer provides the full weather protection.

The best middle/insulation layers for winter I’ve used, listed roughly in order of lightest to warmest, are:

Outdoor Research Uberlayer Hooded Jacket

Outdoor Research Uberlayer Hooded Jacket.

Patagonia Nano-Air Vest (read my review)—men’s and women’s at backcountry.commoosejaw.com, and rei.com.
Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody (read my review)—men’s and women’s at backcountry.com, ems.com, moosejaw.com, and rei.com.
Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket (read my review)—men’s and women’s at backcountry.com, moosejaw.comrei.com, and patagonia.com.
The North Face Denali Novelty Jacket (read my review)—men’s and women’s at backcountry.com, ems.com, and moosejaw.com.
The North Face ThermoBall Active Jacket (watch for my upcoming review)—men’s at backcountry.com, and women’s at backcountry.com, and men’s and women’s at ems.com, moosejaw.com, and rei.com.
Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody
—men’s and women’s at backcountry.com, ems.com, moosejaw.com, and rei.com.
Outdoor Research Uberlayer Hooded Jacket (read my review)—men’s and women’s at backcountry.com, ems.com, moosejaw.com, and rei.com.

In winter temps from above freezing down into single digits, I want a shell jacket with superior breathability and built to repel hours of falling snow and block most wind. I also want an adjustable, brimmed hood that keeps wind and precipitation off my face.

With those criteria in mind, the best winter shell jackets I’ve used are:

Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Hybrid Shell (read my review)—men’s and women’s at backcountry.com and moosejaw.com.
Outdoor Research Skyward Jacket (read my review)—men’s and women’s at backcountry.com, ems.com, moosejaw.com, and rei.com.

 

See my reviews of insulated jackets and “Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?

 

Outdoor Research Skyward Jacket

Outdoor Research Skyward Jacket.

The Best High-Exertion Layering System

If your winter sport of choice involves sweating and breathing hard, like running and Nordic skiing or even power hiking, you need a lightweight jacket with some warmth, superior breathability to dump the moisture your body is producing, and enough water resistance to not soak through in light rain or snow.

The best such jackets I’ve used, listed roughly in order of lightest to warmest, are:

Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody

Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody.

Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody (read my review)—men’s and women’s at backcountry.comems.com, and moosejaw.com.
Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody (read my review)—men’s and women’s at backcountry.com, ems.com, moosejaw.com, and rei.com.
Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket (read my review)—men’s and women’s at backcountry.com, moosejaw.comrei.com, and patagonia.com.

 

Tell me what you think.

I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons below, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.

 

Be sure to read my stories “How to Dress in Layers for Winter in the Backcountry” and “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter.” And see all of my reviews of outdoor apparel at The Big Outside.

NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.

 

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2 Responses to The Best Clothing Layers for Winter in the Backcountry

  1. John Kelly   |  December 7, 2017 at 9:21 am

    Michael,

    Thank you for your informative article. Choosing clothing in the Pacific Northwest winter I find more challenging than many locales including trekking at 4, 5 or even 6000 metre mountains. The weather is exceptionally variable within a day and as we gain altitude from sea level. When I hike or snowshoe (I no longer ski) I like to go and not be fiddling around with layers, except when necessary.

    Consequently, I look for layers that have a broad spectrum of use. I generate heat and perspiration rapidly and excessively so i need to manage this, especially in cooler weather. One way is to have infrequent and short stops, and rarely taking off my backpack to avoid the ugly chill. I also follow the old adage “Be bold, start cold (okay cool)”. One of the tops I really like is the Arc’teryx Sataro AR. It works over a wide range of temperatures and maintains warmth better than my synthetic tops.

    On a side note I am currently using a Kora top that is made from yak wool. The company claims it is better than merino because the yaks come from higher elevations than sheep.

    Pants. Trying to manage sweaty feet and warm legs in winter. A couple choices for winter when shorts are not a true option. I wear Outdoor Research Ferrosi 3/4 length climbing pants with above calf length socks. If is cool I slip on my full length gaiters OR Crocs or a similar Rab product but leave the top loose to help vent. When I need long pants I look for those with vents. These include OR Ferrosi Zip pants, Fjallraven Keb pants that have vertical thigh zippers and lower zips from the ankle to calf, or for cold weather OR Iceline pants (no longer on the OR website).

    One of my frustrations with many North American pant makers is they do not use side vents. European manufacturers are much better. They are very effective and useful.

    The other key temperature regulators are head gear and gloves. I have several of both.

    Keep up the great work!

    • MichaelALanza   |  December 7, 2017 at 10:24 am

      Thanks for your detailed recommendations, John. I know you’ve spent a lot of time in the backcountry. You actually reminded me about the OR Ferrosi Pants, which I’d reviewed before (and added them to the above review). And I’ve been a fan of the Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck for a while–I wore it for four straight days in cold winds and freezing temps when you and I climbed Whitney together, in fact.

      Keep in touch and keep on sending your recommendations.

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