The art of staying warm and dry on the mountain.
The popular theory of staying warm in cold weather – at least, if you listen to your Mum – is to wrap up warm in thick clothing. The problem is that it doesn't work very well.
In cold weather, your body is kept warm by warm air from your body being trapped close to your skin. Animals do this effectively by using their fur to trap warm air – and those in colder climates tend to have longer fur, which retains the heat better. The problem for humans is that somewhere during our evolution we lost our fur, which means that we need clothing to retain the warm air close to our bodies. Warm air – anywhere to trap it effectively = cold humans. Thankfully, our large brains came in handy and we worked out that by wearing clothing we were able to trap the warm air to retain heat more effectively. Warm air + clothing = warm humans.
The problem with the 'thick clothes' theory comes when we start to exercise in cold conditions. Our bodies are programmed to prevent us overheating by releasing fluids – in the form of sweat – to cool the surface of the skin which in turn reduces our body temperature. When we have thick clothing on while exercising, our bodies are fooled into thinking that we are warmer than we really are and so need to be cooled down further, so more sweat is produced. This is fine while we're actually exercising as the additional heat of our bodies maintains overall warmth, but when we stop – for example, when sitting on a chairlift – the extra moisture rapidly cools our bodies and we get colder as there is no additional warmth being produced by exercise. In a mountain environment, this leads to uncomfortable – or potentially dangerous – levels of coldness.
The Three Layer system
The answer to keeping warm on the mountain is to trap warm air close to the body and simultaneously transfer moisture as far away from the skin, and as quickly as possible. This is most successfully accomplished by wearing your insulation in layers that are able to transport moisture away from the skin, while still trapping the warm air – something which many modern layering systems are able to do. Three Layer systems are made up of the Base Layer, Mid Layer and Outer Layer.
Base Layers
Wearing a number of thinner layers makes it possible to simply add or remove them to fine-tune the level of insulation that you're wearing. The first layer, often called the base layer, is normally the thinnest of all and is mostly designed to transport moisture away from the skin as quickly as possible, while keeping the wearer warm. The choice of fabrics that are used is important, too. The most effective fabrics for base layers are natural Merino wool or synthetic polypropylene. Many people make the mistake of wearing standard cotton t-shirts, but it is utterly useless for the task. While it breathes very well, it absorbs moisture instead of transporting it away from your skin, which leaves it wet and the cooling process begins again.
Merino wool
The wool of the Merino sheep is among the finest, strongest and warmest in the world, which means that it is ideal for the manufacture of insulating layers. It's also a natural, renewable resource that is naturally antibacterial, which means that you can wear it for prolonged periods, days at a time, without it getting smelly – a definite advantage for the snowboarder. Merino is more expensive than synthetic fabrics, but the benefits of it as a material can outweigh this.
This oil-derived material is extremely common in snowboard layering thanks to it's low cost and high performance characteristics. Moisture is readily transported through the fabric and heat is retained very well. Recycling of Polypropylene materials is possible although it is somewhat difficult and not commonly done.
In the past, base layers have been somewhat boring and geeky to look at, but these days companies are increasingly paying attention to their appearance – in fact many are so well designed that they don't look out of place off the hill and in the pub.
Mid layer
On colder days, a mid layer can be used to effectively insulate the wearer even more. Often called the insulating layer, fleece materials are most commonly used, but Merino wools are increasingly being sought as a more environmentally friendly fabric. Mid layers tend to be thicker than the base layer and are primarily concerned with trapping warm air. Moisture transportation is also a factor and Mid layers tend to look more like 'normal' clothing, with pullovers and hooded sweatshirt style being common.
Outer layer
Outerwear is the most technical of the three layer system as it has to both prevent moisture in the form of water, rain and snow getting in as well as allowing sweat moisture to escape. We cover the technical aspects of outerwear over in our Outerwear Guide.
Staying warm and dry on the hill is within your reach – so do it, your body will thank you for it.
This guide is brought to you in association with SS20 and Whitelines.
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