Aside from how rewarding those first human-powered turns felt, the thing I remember most from my first time alpine touring is that I was hot -- ripping off layers and unzipping vents at a pace much higher than I had expected -- and then I was cold -- really, really, finger-freezingly, bone-chillingly cold.
After that first time out, I thought that maybe skinning just wasn't for me. I couldn't handle the swing from high-output climbing, to standing dead still, to zipping downhill in temps capable of frostbiting cheeks or a nose in just a few minutes. Fortunately, I found it in myself to take the plunge into the backcountry a couple more times. Over the course of a couple more tours, I found out that it was not that I was simply not cut out for alpine touring, but rather that I didn't really know how to properly layer my clothes for such a wide range of needs and experiences.
Through a process of informed trial-and-error, I have been able to build enough knowledge of my technical clothing and my personal needs to be able, for pretty much any weather or conditions, to grab exactly what I need for the day. I still make mistakes all of the time, but far fewer and far less-consequential mistakes than before.
If you've been having a hard time dialing in your kit or feel like you don't know what to do for your first time out, hopefully some of the tips I have given myself over the years will also help you. These are not exclusive to my activities of choice (ski touring and cycling), mind you; the same principles can be applied to any activity in nasty weather.
In terms of what to wear and how, in general in the winter I always wear a kit comprising, in this order, starting with closest-to-skin:
Baselayer: Non-Cotton, Moisture Wicking such as Capilene
Midlayer: Breathable Fleece
Insulating Midlayer: such as Down or Synthetic Down
Each of those layers can be chosen and modulated to better suit the weather conditions and your activity for the day.
The following tips should help you pick out each piece, understand how they'll work together, and set yourself up for a successful day:
1. Know your clothes
What does the maker of this garment say that it is best used for? What kind of technical properties does it have? (For example, is it windproof? Is it insulated? If so, how much? Is it waterproof or water-resistant?) Knowing this information about each of your layers will help you differentiate each item from another in your wardrobe, and decide which will be better for a given day and your specific needs. If you don't know the particular differences between your garments, you will have a very difficult time making informed decisions about what to wear and why.
2. Know yourself
"Warm" and "cold" are entirely subjective designations, as is how you feel in those conditions. Unfortunately, this means that it is not in good faith for me to tell you, "Here's exactly what you need to wear when you are skiing in 18-degree weather, with 45% relative humidity, on a clear day with a 17 mph wind." That kit might work well for me, but I have no idea how it will feel for you. With a little experience though, you will quickly become familiar with how certain temperatures feel to you. Do you run hot? You might be more comfortable earning your turns stripped down to just your baselayer, even when the mercury dips below 20. Or maybe you run cold? You might have to bundle up like Randy from A Christmas Story for your Bolton night ski.
3. Know the weather
This one might seem obvious, but per my description of the weather in the previous point, there's a lot of detail to take in to truly understand the forecast. I've been unhappy with my layering many times because I did not know the weather as well as I thought I did. Beyond the basic temperature and expected precipitation, considering humidity and wind is incredibly important. On a gravel ride just last week, I was soaked, then freezing cold because I didn't check to see that on that 27-degree day, the relative humidity was 93%. This meant that while riding, the moisture produced by my body was evaporating slower, and I was staying wetter. The damp air pulled heat from my body more quickly, and the cold was harder to escape. I've made the same error with the opposite effect on summer mountain bike rides: 80 degrees seems doable in a 3/4-sleeve jersey, but with 95% humidity, it's a bit less comfortable. After sweating through my jersey at the farthest point from the start and finish of a big ride, it was a long, hot, soggy slog back. Knowing the details will help you make more-informed, better decisions.
4. Consider the activity you'll be doing
Your body is like an engine; when it's putting out a lot of power, it will heat up quickly. But when you shut it off, it will cool down just as fast. Layering is all about making sure that you can release enough excess heat when you're chugging along that you won't overheat, but making sure that when you slow down you can trap enough warmth to remain comfortable and not freeze. Ask yourself: How hard do I plan to work? Will that be consistent, or will my effort rise and fall? If the latter, then how much will my effort vary? You will need to be able to strip down enough to stay cool at those high-output moments, but to bundle up enough that if you dial it back or take a break, you'll stay nice and warm.
Bonus tip: expect the unexpected. If you get a flat tire on a cold day, will you be able to stay warm while you fix it? You might not be planning to take breaks that day, but plans don't always yield to luck.
5. Mind your fingers & toes!
When doing higher-speed activities, you should give your digits a fair bit more insulation than your limbs or even core. At a slower pace, you might want to let your hands and feet cool off. Think windproof and insulated for those faster missions, or just light glove liners for those slower ones. A spare pair of socks and/or gloves is almost never a bad idea. I always carry two pairs of gloves on winter outings -- in differing levels of warmth in case I missed the mark the first time around or will be going at both high- and low-output and want to be comfortable for both; or just two comparable pairs in case I get one pair wet.
6. Bring an extra layer, more than you think you'll need
Back to that bonus tip from before: the unexpected stop can be just one of many situations in which having an extra layer can save the day. Other times, you might have just gotten it wrong; we all do sometimes. Unless you're really counting grams or racing the clock, it's always better to carry more than you end up needing than to be in a warmth deficit with no options but to stick it out. I try to always have a spare layer -- a down jacket stashed in my ski pack, or a vest in my bike's handlebar bag. Most days I don't end up using these, but the days that I end up putting them on make up for all of the other days that I carry them around. Plus, having the option to stay a bit warmer a bit longer might help you savor your day that much more: nurse that thermos of a warm beverage a bit longer; take a little more time with a nice view. Why not be warmer and happier?
7. Try a bunch of different things and see what works
There is rarely only one way to properly layer for any given conditions, and knowing what other garments you can use to achieve similar (or different) results will help you when your favorite layer is in the wash, out for repair, or frozen in your backseat because you forgot to take it out of the car yesterday.
7b. Make mistakes in the trial-and-error process. It's good to know what doesn't work -- it will give you the info you need to nail it next time around, and might help you figure out what that layering system does work for. So long as you've got that aforementioned extra layer or a little room left over to carry one you have to take off, you will be able to remain comfortable.
8. Cotton kills!
It might go unsaid for many of us, but no one is born with innate knowledge of what fibers are acceptable in the outdoors. That cotton feels mighty cozy when it's dry, in your heated home, but when it gets wet from sweat, a spill in the snow, or road spray, it will not be your friend. Cotton gets cold when damp, holds a lot of moisture, gets awfully heavy, and is anything but comfortable when soaked. Avoid it entirely.
9. Be bold; start cold
Head out the door in the layers you'll want to be wearing once you get warmed up. The first couple of minutes might be chilly, but it is far better to warm up into the right kit than to have to stop only a short while into an activity to pull off an insulator or midlayer. This way, you will keep those items dry for later, rather than sweating into them right away.
10. Insulate your core to keep your extremities happy
When your body senses your core getting cold, it restricts your blood flow to your limbs to redirect that energy and warmth toward your vital organs. Therefore one of the best things that you can do to keep your digits warm is to keep your core warm. Even the best gloves, mittens, socks or shoes won't save you if your torso is not warm enough. Keep this in mind in relation to other principles, though. On a speedy bike ride, over-insulating your core will not compensate for your underperforming gloves or shoes; you'll just overheat at your torso and still have fingers and toes bitten by the cold.
With all of that in mind for your next bad-weather outing, I hope you can put together an ideal outfit, and stay warm, dry and comfortable. It seems super dense in writing, but the knowledge quickly becomes internalized, innate, and intuitive. It was much harder for me to think up and write out these principles than it is for me to pick out my kit on any given day. The best informant for your next set of layering decisions is experience, so just keep on testing your gear and acquiring the knowledge to get it right!
We'll see you on the trails, roads and peaks.