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Mountain Climbing Clothing For Winter Summits

Mountaineering in the winter is a fun and unique way to experience the mountains, but it comes with a whole new set of challenges even for the experienced climber. One of the biggest challenges is figuring out what to wear. You want to be only slightly warm while you’re working hard on the ascent, but toasty when you take breaks and on the descent.

There’s no perfect clothing system for every trip and all weather conditions. Instead, the goal is to wear a versatile set of clothes that can help you regulate temperature throughout your climb.

I’ll explain what clothing I take climbing in the winter and how I maintain the right temperature at all times.

The Importance of Layering

My approach to what to wear for winter mountaineering, snow camping, and ski touring is based on layering. Instead of having one ultra-warm jacket, I bring a variety of different base layers and jackets that offer a mix of warmth, windproofing, and waterproofing.

Layering is essential in the winter because you need to be able to adapt quickly to changes in weather conditions or your own activity.

When I’m skinning uphill, for example, I’m working hard and putting out a ton of body heat. I often strip down to just my base layer even if it’s 20 degrees outside. If I have to traverse for a while, I’ll get cold quickly. It’s important to have an extra jacket close to hand to throw on. If I stop for a snack break, I’ll also add a down jacket to trap in warmth.

One critical thing to remember in the winter is that as soon as you get wet, you’ll get cold. That means that it’s important not to sweat into your clothes. If you’re getting too warm, stop right away and lose a layer.

What to Wear in 20-degree Weather

Winter temperatures can vary widely depending on where you’re climbing. Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, winter temperatures in the mountains are typically in the low 20s. There often isn’t much sun to warm me up, and strong winds might make it feel more like the temperature is in the low teens.

Here’s what I’m usually wearing when going uphill in these conditions:

My uphill layers are relatively light on insulation, but I find that I’m plenty warm when moving. I recommend using pants that have vent zippers so you can dump heat if the sun comes out. I also typically opt for mid layers with hoods since they offer a quick way to adjust temperature.

I also carry a medium-puff down jacket like the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer 2, and I put it on immediately when I stop moving. Since I live in the Northwest, where weather can move in at any time, I also like to keep a waterproof rain jacket in my pack.

Finally, I bring along a pair of heavy insulated mittens that I put on when stopped and for going downhill. I use the Hestra Army Leather Heli Ski mitt. 

What to Wear in 0-degree Weather

My clothing system doesn’t actually change as much as you might think when the thermometer drops to 0. I add thermal underwear under my ski pants, such as the Under Armour's Base 3.0 pants. Any fleece-lined and breathable insulation works well.

I also wear my midweight down jacket while climbing and carry a belay jacket like the Black Diamond Belay Parka in my pack. When I stop, the belay jacket goes on immediately.

I also take an insulated beanie and a second buff, since the first one tends to get pretty wet from breathing into it. For my hands, I bring some sort of active heat source—more on those below.

If you don’t have experience with this kind of cold, I recommend taking one or two extra insulating layers with you for comfort. You don’t want to be in a situation where you’re wearing all of your clothes and are still cold, especially if it’s miles of snow travel back to the car.

What to Wear while Winter Camping

I pack for a winter camping trip the same way I pack for 0-degree weather, pretty much regardless what the temperature may be.

If I know I’m spending the night out, I’ll pack a pair of down pants and a set of down booties to wear around camp. I also bring multiple pairs of dry socks, since it’s hard to dry your socks out from one day to the next.

The only significant change I make based on temperature is what winter sleeping bag I pack. I’ll use a 20-degree sleeping bag down to about 15 degrees, then switch to a 0-degree or -20 degree bag if it’s colder. I wear all of my clothes except for my hardshell outer layers inside my sleeping bag.

Check out my tips for how to stay warm in a tent to learn how to keep comfortable even when you’re camping in sub-zero conditions.

Adding Active Heat

While I’m usually pretty warm when going uphill, blood circulation in my hands is never great. They can be freezing even when I’m sweating under my jacket. So when it drops below 20 degrees outside, I usually add some form of active heat.

For me, this is typically charcoal or battery-powered handwarmers. Electric heated ski gloves are also a good option if you frequently have cold hands. You can also wear heated socks if your feet get cold inside your boots.

Another good way to add heat to your hands is to do jumping jacks. The movement gets your blood pumping and forces circulation in your extremities. It’s surprisingly effective.

How to Pack for Winter Climbing

All the layers required to stay comfortable while climbing in the winter take up a lot of space. Down jackets pack down, but there’s still a lot of bulk to pack when you have multiple of them.

On top of that, I typically have a lot of extra snow travel gear with me in the winter, including skis, ski crampons, avalanche safety gear, crampons, an ice axe, and possibly technical climbing gear depending on the objective.

All of this means that I need to take a bigger mountaineering backpack in the winter than I would in the shoulder season. I can usually pack for a technical spring mountaineering trip in a 25-30L backpack, but I size up to a 40L pack or larger for most winter climbing trips.

If you’ll be traveling in avalanche terrain, it’s also worth considering whether you need an avalanche airbag backpack. I typically would only take an airbag pack if I’m on skis, but they still provide an extra margin of safety if you’re travelling on snowshoes or on foot.

Summary

Your winter clothing system needs to be light enough to keep you from sweating while going uphill and heavy enough to keep you warm while stopped or going downhill.

I recommend using multiple layers to keep your clothing system as versatile as possible. The exact combination of clothing you need depends on the weather conditions.

It’s always a good idea to take a little more clothing than you think you’ll need in the winter.

I live in Bellingham, Washington, at the base of the wild North Cascades. Over the last ten years, I've explored much of the region's steep terrain and endless layers of ridges and peaks, both on foot and on skis, often linking far-flung ridges together to push deeper into the range.

*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.

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