It’s fair to assume that anybody who likes to travel in the backcountry by ski or splitboard has been on a hike before. Let your hiking experiences be your guiding light. Only you know how your body reacts on a hike. Do you run hot or cold? How does your body respond to exercise? Are you ultra-fit and need high intensity to increase your heart rate? Or does your body temperature skyrocket the moment you start skinning? Knowing how your body reacts while hiking can help to inform your decision-making while in the backcountry. It’s important to remember that, although hiking should help you understand yourself and prepare your layering systems in the backcountry, there are clear differences between hiking and backcountry riding. For example, standing around in the snow can make you very cold very fast, whereas stopping along a hike is much friendlier. Take your past experiences with working hard outside into account when choosing which layers to bring, whether you need fabrics that are warmer, thicker, thinner, or more breathable.
The goal of your layering system should always be to stay both warm and dry. The adage of the mountains that “cotton kills” should be taken seriously. On the uphill, your heart rate and body temperature increases, and your skin sweats as a natural way to cool off. Cotton is absorbent, so rather than wicking the sweat away, your cotton layers will become saturated with sweat and no longer provide insulation. Quite the opposite, actually. The temperature of your sweat-soaked layer will start reflect the wintery ambient temperature. Avoid overheating at all costs. In most instances, we have the most control over how hot we get because we can always just shed a layer. This goes back to staying dry. If you overheat, you sweat. If you sweat, you dampen your baselayer, and if it’s not designed to wick sweat off your body, this will result in a chilly outing in the backcountry.
Lastly, if you’re expecting a sunny day, take the power of that big glowing ball in the sky into consideration. At higher altitudes, the sun and its harmful rays are more powerful. Combined with the fact that snow is reflective, if you don’t limit your skin’s exposure to the sun, you may end up with a gnarly sunburn. Bring sunglasses, sunscreen, a buff, a hood, and anything that can provide your face with much-needed protection.
Throughout a normal backcountry tour, it is common to stop along the way to address your layers. If you’re starting to sweat, it might be time to shed and strip down to the layer underneath. Are you approaching a ridge that you can see is blowing gale force winds? Stop below the impending ridge, add your Gore-Tex jacket and charge forward. At the beginning of a tour, for example, Bruchez and his French friends practice a term called legger frison, which means “slight shiver.” In other words, Bruchez will start a tour with a slight chill. By doing this, he’s preparing for 15 minute later when he’s skinning up and his heart rate will be increased. He will be burning energy and raising his body temperature. When he begins to gain altitude on the bootpack up a steep Chamonix couloir, the temperature might drop in the shadow of a nearby peak. In this case, he will throw on a puffy down jacket to generate and maintain his body heat. Then the wind picks up when he gets close to the summit. He throws on his Gore-Tex jacket to not only protect against the wind, but also to prepare for the ski down. Once you make it to the ridge or summit, it will probably be the coldest part of your day, so digging through your backpack to access your layers can be rough. At this point, Bruchez is utilizing every layer in his quiver for maximum warmth and protection.
It is this sort of vigilance we need to practice in the backcountry in order to keep dry and warm. We will all be uncomfortable in the backcountry at some point in our skiing and splitboarding lives, but with more experience comes more success and dialing in the details.