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What to wear in the backcountry

Written by Gerwin Andreas

Photo by: Andreas Sagmeister
Söll, Austria

Getting dressed in the morning is usually second nature, with very little effort involved.

However, if you’re planning an active day in the mountains, it can get more complicated. That’s when your clothing choice can make or break the day ahead.

Nowadays we talk about ‘layering’, ‘shells’, ‘synthetic fibres vs merino wool’, etc. When I started touring with my grandfather, he was wearing a wool sweater, an old jacket, and the only thing I can remember about his trousers, was the funky colour.

So the question is… Do we need all this modern clothing technology? Is it just marketing and making money? Could the old and simple way work just as well?

For me, the answer is somewhere in the middle. In the old days’ people where more patient, they would only ski tour when the snow and weather conditions were prime.

Nowadays we want to be able to go in any weather conditions, at any time of day. The demands on the materials have changed a lot.

Photo by: A.L.P.S.

Layering principle

Also known as the Onion System. This simply means wearing different layers, where each layer has a different purpose. Mainly you can divide them into three different layers; base layer, mid layer and the shell. This doesn’t mean that you only wear three things. One layer can contain more than one piece of clothing.

The base layer
The base layer’s purpose is to transport the moisture away from the skin and provide a first layer of insulation. This is the layer you will feel on your skin, and there are two main fabrics used for this layer.

Synthetic fibres – These fibres made out of plastic (polyester, polyamide, etc.) are fast drying and are super lightweight. They’re also easy to wash, crease free and have a good stretch. But do tend to get stinky after multiple uses without washing.

Merino wool – Originates from a Spanish sheep who’s use dates back to the 18th century. When it was one of the biggest motors for the Spanish economy. Nowadays most merino wool comes from New Zealand, Australia and South America. It has a very nice feel against your skin, unlike the wool in your old knitted Christmas jumper.

This wool is itch-free and doesn’t get smelly as fast as other materials. This is because of the fibre’s texture and natural antibacterial effect. It also offers a natural climate control, that can keep you warm in cold conditions but can also cool your body when you overheat.

“ Moisture is one of you're biggest enemies, if you're wet you lose a lot of your body temperature ”

The mid layer
The purpose of the mid layer is to trap air and insulate. Keeping the core warm. Whilst hiking up, you naturally raise the body temperature, thus needing less insulation then you would on the peak or while riding down. I like to use a PrimaLoft jacket while hiking up, and as soon as I get to the top I’ll add an extra layer for warmth and protection if needed.

PrimaLoft – Is an insulation made out of polyester, sometimes mixed with merino wool. It has excellent insulation quality an withstands moisture better than ‘down’. It’s a modern, animal-friendly, great substitute for ‘down’.

Down – Down has been used for centuries but has some big disadvantages. Animals come to suffer when collecting the feathers which keep us warm. As soon as a down jacket gets wet, it will lose its insulating function completely. All other advantages can also be achieved with PrimaLoft.

Photo by: Andreas Sagmeister

The shell

The shell is the outer most layer, protecting you from the elements. To understand the ideal shell, we need to understand the difference between membrane and laminate. The membrane is designed to let moisture exit, while still keeping you dry from any water outside. It also provides a strong barrier to guard against any wind encountered.

How does this membrane work? There are basically two options. The first option is a so-called microporous membrane, or simply said, a membrane that contains tiny holes, too small to let water from the outside in, but big enough to release your moisture. This type of membrane is used by for example Gore-Tex or eVent.

The second option is a so-called poreless membrane. How does this function? On the outside, the membrane is hydrophobic, which means no water or wind can pass through. On the inside, the membrane is hydrophilic, which means that the membrane will absorb vapour and can pass this through the membrane. Imagine it as a one-way street, where only vapour and body heat can escape. This type of membrane is used by for example Sympatex. The advantage of this kind of membrane is that no dirt can get into and therefore block the membrane. As well as that the hydrophilic inside allowing a dynamic breathability, adjusting to the needs of your body.

3L – Also known as 3 layer shell is very effective, in that the membrane is glued together with an outer fabric and an inner liner. The outer fabric is designed to keep the surface water away from the membrane, while the inner liner provides a closer breathable, versatile layer. Perfect for both up- and downhill activities.

2L – Also known as 2 layer shell, is a slightly different setup. Here the membrane is also glued together with an outer fabric, but the jacket or pants have an additional, separate inner liner. Sometimes even contain an additional insulation. The outer fabric is designed to keep the surface water away from the membrane, while the separate inner liner provides a more warmth than a 3L, but is also less breathable and therefore not suitable for longer uphill activities.

Photo by: A.L.P.S.

Body temperature regulation

Moisture is one of your biggest enemies, if you’re wet you lose a lot of your body temperature. That’s why we sweat in the first place.

But imagine you get in a situation where you have to save energy and can’t afford to lose that body warmth. Wearing dry clothes is key in such a scenario. Make sure your body is not too cold, and as soon as you start to sweat, remove a layer.

Depending on how long you spend out on the peak and how long the decent will be, you will need to regulate and maintain proper body temperature. For a shorter decent; keep everything on that you wore on the summit. Better to stay on the warm side.

However, if it’s a physically demanding decent, then strip off a layer, similar to temperature regulation when hiking or skinning up. Unless it is a very warm spring or summer day,  always wear a shell when descending, as it will most likely get a bit breezy.

I can’t imagine hiking and riding in the clothes the pioneers wore. Back in the day, if you would have picked the wrong time to hike up a mountain, it could have serious consequences.

With all the modern technology nowadays, it allows us to do everything with practicality and comfort. Sure it’s all possible with the clothes from the past, but there is no easier way than with the layer and shell technology. It’s so versatile and adapts easily to any situation.

So, choose wisely when buying winter clothes. Invest in something proper, as it will last longer and performs exactly as it’s supposed to. It will allow your attention to remain purely on the tour and ride at hand. No more worries about how cold, hot or wet you are!


This article and content was originally published by Gerwin Andreas on


Really helpful and interesting article!


Thanks for that! Really helpful


Great article explaining, is missing ofthen. Would be great if you the offer would include the full range of atricles needed to layer up.
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