Staying warm and comfortable while backcountry skiing is critical to enjoying the sport. This is easier said than done as backcountry skiing often involves gut-busting sweaty effort followed by a plunge into the deep freeze which makes it difficult to moderate your temperature. Throw in a snow storm or driving wind and it’s a recipe for a miserable One & Done day. Being able to stay out all day in adverse conditions is not so much a matter of just toughing it out, but more blend of mental trickery, backcountry strategies and good gear selection. If you are a glutton for punishment, many of the same techniques also apply to winter snow camping.
Although they are similar sports, the warmth strategies for touring are vastly different from resort skiing. With touring, warmth comes from constant movement, so a much lighter clothing system is used verses resorts where you have a quick burst of energy, then an extended cool-down session waiting in line or sitting on the lift. Resort skiing requires lots of insulation, but aside from a puffy jacket, most touring clothing should be minimalist and uninsulated.
When you first get into touring, an essential mental trick is to convince yourself that skinning uphill in deep snow is fun and easy, until eventually it is. Fake it ‘til you make it, and the same technique can be done with cold if you think of it as something good and vital to skiing. You will get warmer and stressing out about it just burns up essential energy and happiness. Acceptance is the first step towards recovery. Don’t fight it, at least not too much.
Another thing to think about is the idea of cold acclimatization. Just as people learn to live and tolerate incredibly hot climates like Houston or the Middle East, it is also possible for your body to adapt to the cold. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it can definitely be felt after two weeks of cold weather camping when a warm restaurant feels like an inferno. Once while fully bundled up on Baffin Island, I met two Inuit kids dressed in jeans and cotton hoodies. When I asked them if they were cold, they just laughed and said “You should be here in February.” Cold is relative and while shivering away at -30 on Denali is not fun at the time, it does make a mere -5 in Colorado seem relatively balmy.
A strategy for staying warm while touring is similar to operating a wood stove, except instead of wood, your body is burning food. Sugary high energy snacks are like kindling – they produce a quick, intense energy, but don’t last long. Nuts and bagels might be the equivalent of burning Aspen – good for a moderate boost, but it dies off fast. With a woodstove, the cleanest, longest burning fuel is a big chunk of hardwood, which in skiing terms equates to a good dinner the night before and a solid breakfast. Good, slow burning food takes a while to work its way into your system, but once lit, it lasts a long time. Many of the fastest people I tour with hardly eat or drink during the day as they’re burning from a stash of stored energy from hours before.
Contrary to what clothing companies advertise, a major component of staying warm in the backcountry has more to do with touring strategies than breathable fabric. Those snazzy hangtag graphics showing blue arrows of snow bouncing off and red arrows of sweat gently percolating through the fabric really only work in the laboratory, and to a small degree. In real life there’s no way the fabrics can keep up with the steamy output of a hard working body and the end result is wet base layers. One of the key pitfalls of touring is the dreaded sweat/freeze cycle which goes something like this; after gearing up in a warm car/hut, you step out into the cold and over bundle to compensate, then set a brisk pace to heat up. Ten minutes later you are sweating bullets and stop to strip down, but by now your base layers are all wetted out, which means you immediately get cold again, so you go for a bit and then bundle up, get cold, bundle up, cold, etc.. It’s difficult to recover from a sweat/freeze cycle and the key to avoiding it is to start out a bit underdressed and cold, then consciously set a slow pace to begin with until after about 15 minutes you have reached your optimal cruising temperature. The trade-off is a few minutes of initial discomfort for all day warmth and the key is to not overdress right from the start.
A close cousin to the sweat/freeze cycle is finding a pace that matches your clothing system. On days with fluctuating temperatures or when dropping in and out of sun and shade, I’ll control my warmth by slowing down or speeding up. For touring, thigh vents are critical to keep your heat producing quadriceps from meltdown. Another pacing related trick is to set a pace you feel you can hold for a solid hour or more and to avoid stopping. Stops aren’t the end of the world, but they do break your rhythm, so I try minimizing them, and combining as much gear dinking, water drinking and clothes adjusting into a single break as possible.
When it comes to taking a big break, like eating lunch or waiting for people, try to find a sheltered or better yet, a sunny spot to stop. Valley bottoms tend to pool cold air and summits can often be windy. When approaching a cold, windy summit, consider stopping in a lower sheltered spot to gear up for skiing (puffy jacket, goggles, helmet, zip up vents, etc.), then busting out the final section with a quick summit change-over. Rip skins and you’re off.
Gotta Get Gear
Staying warm isn’t necessarily gear intensive, but more a matter of using a few select pieces of gear and sizing it appropriately. A first defense against the cold is the least sexy item on earth – a pair of mittens. By their nature, mittens allow lots of finger movement and hold a nice pocket of warm air. They take some getting used to and aren’t nearly as dexterous as a pair of gloves, but your basic $50 mitten will be many times warmer than the latest high tech $250 gloves. In an effort to make gloves warm, most manufacturers overpack them with insulation, which not only makes wearing them like an iron claw, but it also cuts down on the blood circulation around your fingers, which makes them colder. Mittens on the other hand allow plenty of skin-to-skin contact and great circulation. They seem to be getting harder to find, but a nice leather palmed mitten with a powder cuff is the ideal hand wear for skiing as they are not only warm, but they provide a huge comfort range and are easy to take on and off. The only downside is being considered a dork by your cold fingered friends.
In a similar concept to mittens, molding your boot liners with lots of room around the toes makes a huge warmth difference. Most fitting shops have neoprene toe caps, which after they are removed, allow your toes to wiggle around with plenty of warm air while still having a nice tight fit around your ankle and forefoot for edge control. This extra wiggle room is usually enough warmth by itself, but it also allows room for toe WarmerGrabber heat pads if you are going sub-Arctic. Some Antarctic explorers purposefully wear sloppy oversized boots for the extra breathing room around their toes and the extra warm from the friction of their foot sliding around inside of the boot. A similar idea for ski touring is to make sure all your buckles are loose on the way up so your foot has room to move around and plenty of circulation.
Different types of boots will also be much warmer or colder than others. In general, the superlight touring boots shed their ounces by having smaller, tighter shells and thinner liners, which in turn makes them much colder. This isn’t bad for spring skiing or a quick blast around a SkiMo race, but for long days in cold climes, they don’t hold a candle to their beefier brothers for warmth.
There are always weight and performance trade-offs with backcountry skiing, but one of the non-negotiable warmth items is a puffy jacket. This is basically your warmth insurance policy and the key element to an effective layering system. Down jackets are lighter and pack down more, but synthetics are cheaper and better in the rain. Either one is fine and the choice depends on your pocketbook and where you are skiing. An important consideration with a puffy is to oversize it so that it can be put on over hardshells or whatever outer layer you have without having to strip down. In my case, I’m a medium, but I carry a large puffy. Being able to quickly and easily throw a puffy on conserves precious body heat, and as the old mountaineering adage goes, “It’s better to be warm than to get warm.” Cooling down at the top of a climb is nice, but comes at the expense of burning precious BTU’s. Out of habit, I’ll put a puffy on as soon as I stop climbing, wear it for the ski descent and then strip it off again just before climbing.
Sleeping with Gene
Beyond staying warm during a day tour, sleeping in the snow has its own challenges, mainly because you aren’t generating heat through movement. If you are a cold sleeper, a thick, warm down bag in the -20 degree Fahrenheit range is a good place to start. If possible, get a size “large” which will give you extra room for warm, insulating air, plus room to sleep with the gear you want to dry out. Everything goes in the bag – glove/mitten liners, boot liners, socks or anything you want to keep warm or semi dry out. It takes a while to heat up the bag, but eventually the heat will dry stuff out, with the only caveat being that much of the moisture gets caught in the bag, so it needs to be opened up and aired out during the day.
A good way to jumpstart the bag heating process is to sleep with Gene, as in a Nalgene bottle filled with hot water tossed at your toes. Not only does this produce a nice dry heat, but then you also have a full liter of water ready to go in the morning. Contrary to common logic, I’ve found sleeping with minimal socks or footwear actually makes for warmer toes through better blood circulation.
The foundation to any good sleeping bag is a snow worthy mattress. Inflatables are nice, but they often leak. Rigid are foolproof, but generally not warm enough for sleeping directly on snow. But, a combination of an inflatable on the bottom and a rigid on top makes for a warm night’s sleep, especially if you are doing an extended outing and can carry the extra weight. The rigid pad on top tends to float on the inflatable and reduce cold spots, plus you still have some insulation should the inflatable shrink in the cold temperatures. If you are looking for the next level of comfort and can stand the weight, two pads on a portable cot is like spending the night in a Siberian Ritz hotel.
As long as you are prepared for it, skiing in screaming cold weather can be a fun all day affair. The cold usually keeps the snow fresh and the crowds away, plus if you keep moving to stay warm, you’ll get in a ton of turns. Just keep your mittens on and don’t let the cold cool kids get too far behind.