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Insulation — Climbing Clothes

The Ten Essentials for Climbing Safety


Climbers wait out a heavy rain storm beneath an overhang at Elevenmile Canyon, Colorado.

Proper climbing clothes keep you warm, dry, and safe, even in the worst rain you can imagine.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

The third survival system on the Mountaineers Ten Essentials list is Insulation, which translates to extra clothing.

No Bad Weather, Only Bad Clothes

In most of the United States, the weather can change in an instant. My home state of Colorado has a huge range in elevation and consequently in climate. The weather in the Rocky Mountains is fickle and unpredictable, especially in summer when most climbers are in the high country. You need to carry not only enough clothes, but also the right clothes, to be able to survive bad weather. When I was climbing in Norway a few years ago, one of the local climbers wisely told me, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Prepare for the Worst

It’s essential that you bring plenty of extra clothing to provide insulation from wind, rain, and snow. Prepare for the worst with proper clothing and you’ll be able to survive whatever weather Mother Nature throws at you.

What Do You Need?

How do you know how much extra insulating clothing to bring? The editors of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills suggest you ask yourself: “What is needed to survive the worst conditions that could be realistically encountered on this trip?”

Speed Versus Insulation

It’s a fine line between carrying too many clothes and not enough. It’s up to you to balance that line using your own experience and judgment. On the one hand, you want to travel light and fast. Speed is essential to get up a lot of long alpine climbs. But on the other hand, if you don’t carry enough insulation you risk getting wet, cold, and getting hypothermia.

You’re Gonna Get Cold

I see inexperienced climbers and hikers all the time that are not carrying enough extra clothing. It’s a warm sunny August morning and they’re climbing one of Colorado’s Fourteeners wearing shorts and a t-shirt and going light. They’re fine until the midday thunderstorm rumbles and begins dousing rain and blowing wind on them. Unless they have insulating clothes in their pack, they’re going to get cold and wet.

Be Responsible & Carry Extra Clothes

Besides getting cold in the backcountry, not carrying proper clothing is irresponsible. What are you going to do if something unexpected happens? If you or your partner fall and break a leg? Twist an ankle? Get lost? Or one of your partners has to go slow? In that case, you’re going to be part of the problem, not the solution.

Wear Synthetic Fabrics

The best outdoor clothing, especially if you’re traveling in the backcountry, is lightweight, warm, and made of synthetic materials like nylon and polyproplylene (polypro) or blends of synthetics and wool or silk. It’s also great in hot humid climates since it dries quickly and cools your body by evaporation. Avoid cotton clothing, like jeans, because it takes forever to dry, gets wet easily from sweat and rain, and loses as much as 75% of its insulating value in bad weather.

Essential Clothes to Carry

Here are the essential clothes to bring in your pack for a climbing day in summer:

  • Rain coat and rain pants If you’re hiking and climbing in mountains, you need good rain gear. Don’t skimp on these and you’ll stay dry and warm. A Gortex coat, while pricey, more than pays for itself in comfort and dryness.
  • Long pants Bring long pants or ones with zip-off legs. No blue jeans!
  • Synthetic shirt I wear a nylon t-shirt for climbing and carry a lightweight long-sleeve synthetic shirt with a zip-up turtleneck collar in my pack. It dries fast and forms a good underlayer.
  • Fleece pullover sweater Instead of a regular wool sweater, which works great but is bulky, carry a lightweight fleece pullover with a zippered neck. Make sure it’s big enough to fit over other clothes. You can substitute a synthetic vest for the pullover.
  • Hat and gloves I always carry a stocking hat and gloves in my climbing pack no matter what the season. A hat provides more warmth and insulation that anything else you’ll carry. In hot sunny weather, always carry a hat for sun protection and to keep your head cool.

Some Essential Extras

Here are some other clothing items that could be essential, depending on the time of year and weather conditions:

  • Underwear A set of polypro underwear, both shirt and bottoms, is lightweight, easy to pack, and forms a spectacular underlayer in wet and cold weather. If you have to bivouac out in the elements, it makes a real difference in warmth and survival.
  • Extra socks If your feet get wet, you’re going to get cold. An extra pair of dry socks is not only comfortable but keeps your feet warm.
  • Fleece jacket If you’re in the mountains, a fleece jacket is a great overlayer. Worn beneath your rain jacket, it will keep you warm. Pick carefully because they can be bulky.

Pack in a Stuff Sack

Lastly, make sure you select lightweight and compact clothing and that your pack is roomy enough to easily stow your essential clothing. Pack the clothes so you can quickly pull them out without dumping everything out of your climbing pack. I pack all of my essential clothes, except hat and gloves which go in the top lid, in a large waterproof stuff sack. That way everything is together and is easily found.

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