Layering is the key to comfort in any outdoor recreation. Whether it’s a balmy 35 degree liquid snow day at Hood or a bone-chilling negative 35 and blowing in the Alaskan Chugach Mountains, you’ll want to layer. Because our bodies operate best at a constant 98 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s important to keep your body as close to that as possible. Once your body goes a short distance down the thermometer beyond that point, it becomes hypothermic, and from there it’s a quick trip past unconsciousness to death.
Proper layering consists of three elements which are often referred to as the three W’s: wicking, warmth, and water/wind.
Something Wicking This Way Comes
Always start with a wicking layer. No matter what the conditions, you will probably work hard enough to break a sweat. In the next minute you may be quickly cooling down sitting on the lift. Our bodies are biomechanically engineered to employ evaporating water vapor (in the form of sweat) to cool us down, but this may over-cool us if the outside temperature are low. This is why we need a clothing layer that will quickly transport that water vapor away from the skin.
The wicking layer should be a light-weight material. It is usually a thin layer but can be found in several weights. Traditionally this layer was wool, but although wool keeps you warm when it’s wet, it doesn’t encourage water to transpire through other layers. Today this layer is usually some blend of polyester fibers.
The warmth layer varies the greatest depending on the temperature outside and how much heat you produce during a given activity. Like the wicking layer below it, the warmth layer of today is made from recycled pop bottles in the form of polyester polar fleece. This stuff has become so common-place these days you can buy it anywhere from Patagonia to J. Crew in several weights and in a seemingly unlimited supply of styles and colors.
The warmth layer is worn between the wicking layer and the water/wind layer. Despite its light weight, fleece can get rather bulky, so try not to wear too much. You also don’t want to have the layer so thick that the heat from your body can’t push water vapor beyond the outside layer. The key is to allow water a pathway to get out away from your body.
The Perfect Storm Layer
This is the outside water/wind layer and is arguably the most important layer (although none of these layers alone will offer ultimate protection from the elements). This layer provides the most immediate barrier to the outside elements. It also has a couple important jobs. It used to be all the outer layer could do to keep rain and snow from soaking a body to the bone. Unfortunately even the most waterproof-only layer will not keep a warm body dry for too long. The problem is the water vapor transported from the wicking layer through the warmth layer has no place to go once it reaches a waterproof barrier.
Enter waterproof/breathable materials. It all started with Gore Tex and now there are more waterproof/breathable fabrics on the market than you can shake a snowboard at. Most are either a two or three layer lay-up consisting of the following: an outer material of either nylon or polyester with a waterproof/breathable membrane either laminated or sprayed on the inside of that and an optional third wicking layer (usually a tricot nylon) laminated to the inside of that. On the outside of the outer nylon or polyester material is usually a factory applied coating of DWR (durable water repellent) that keeps water and dirt from affecting the breathability of the waterproof membrane. A DWR can be found on most fabrics in the outdoor industry and will eventtually wear off.
All of these waterproof/breathable fabrics do their job but some are more breathable than waterproof or vice-versa. They are usually produced as a shell but you will find some with added insulation. The key is to find a material in a style and price-range that works for your riding climate and personal body climate.
Remember, none of these layers will be 100 percent effective by themselves, but used properly together they will provide as much protection from the elements as one can hope for while still providing optimum freedom of motion. And remember, COTTON KILLS.