Every year I struggle to keep up with all the fancy fabrics outdoor apparel manufacturers are coming out with. Many state that they are in possession of the most warm, waterproof, or water resistant jackets and pants ever to be made. After several years of being caught in hardcore storms all year round, no amount of eVent fabric, taped seamed, gore-tex, welded seam garment is going to keep me dry. Cause when you cover your body with all that “breathable canvas”, you pretty much create your own eco-system/steam room inside that expensive jacket that you blew a whole paycheck on.

Maybe if you were standing still and not moving your arms or legs, you would stay pretty dry in the backcountry. Not gonna happen… Cause we’re skiers, boarders, hikers, and climbers. We’ve gotta move.

I’ve realized that staying dry in the backcountry is mostly about moisture management, regulation, and exertion control. It’s a simple principle that exertion stimulates our bodies natural need to cool itself, and creates sweat (or perspiration for you scientists). The evaporation of the sweat off of our skin is what cools our bodies. The problem here is that we cover ourselves to stay warm, therefore the chemical exchange has a tougher time occurring due to the lack of air being able to reach the moisture for evaporation. This in turn soaks our clothes and has the potential to cause a chill and if not hypothermia in certain situations.

Years ago, I read about a system of layering in Advanced Backpacking (by Karen Berger) that I’ve continually referred to. Most of this info now is common knowledge, due to simple education by winter apparel manufacturers. But it is always good to refresh those brain cells. Anyway, this knowledge seems pretty timeless to me.

Karen Berger's System


At the beginning of the day you need to figure out how many layers you need by asking yourself three questions…

  1. How cold is it?
  2. How hard am I going to hike, ski, or climb today?
  3. How does my body usually react to the activity and climate I’m going to be in?


Here are the three main layers you need for a comfortable day in the chilly backcountry…


TIPS: It is common knowledge that most of your body heat escapes through your head. Therefore, donning a beanie when you feel cold is a great idea for making rest of your body feel warmer.


TIPS: If you’re going to be out in the backcountry for multiple days, and your insulating layers are damp, wear them to bed. You’re body heat will dry them overnight in your sleeping bag (Careful doing this in down bags, as you will create some condensation).

With wet clothes, wring them out as much as possible and put them inside a plastic or sil-nylon bag before putting them in your sleeping bag for the night. You will need to wear them the next day, so DO NOT leave them out, or you may be trying to put on a Frozen shirt in the morning. Not fun…Made that mistake before when temps dropped unexpectedly. If you hike or ski in a place where wet snow or rain is possible or the norm, you might want to consider all synthetic insulation. It will keep you warm even when wet.


  • Protective Layer
    • The purpose of this layer is to keep the weather out and hold the heat in.
    • This is where Gore-Tex lined garments, and eVent fabric make their debut. Everything from jackets and pants, to gloves and hats are made from these fabrics. They’re durable and ready to protect in even the harshest conditions.
    • Examples: Arc’teryx Shells, Patagonia Shells, Marmot Shells, etc. (I currently am wearing the Patagonia Primo shell)

TIPS: Always look for shells with pit-zips, hoods, and front zippers. They are the most useful piece of gear for staying warm and “dry”. Their features allow me to regulate my temperature very easily. I tend to shy away from insulated shells because I can’t regulate them as well due to the fact that they have a permanent layer sewn in.

Many shells and jackets have a DWR (Durable Water Repellency) finish. This wears out after awhile, and will need to be revived by washing and running your shell through the dryer, which should revive it. After a couple years (depending on usage) the finish will ultimately wear out and will need to be replaced by an aftermarket product like McNett ReviveX Synthetic Fabric Cleaner which is a DWR refinisher.


Berger says that, “If you’re comfortable standing still, you’re dressed to warmly.” I definitely agree.  When you get out of the car, before you hit the skin track or trail, you should be a little chilly before you start hiking. I always use this tactic as reason to get my butt in gear, cause I have to warm up. I have tendency to doddle if I’m warm while putting boots on, or stuffing gear in my pack.

Getting out to ski some fresh lines on a bluebird day, or snowshoeing to your favorite spot on Winter Solstice with friends, will warm the heart of any lover of the backcountry. It will also create a yearning for good beer, of which, Oregon has plenty. Come visit! Layer well, and stay warm out there!