are you dialed in for hard winter activity?

3:25 p.m. on November 28, 2013 (EST)
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this thought cross my mind early this morning, as i set out on a hike.  the thermometer read 29 degrees, and it was windy.  typical winter weather in New England, and occasionally where I live in the mid-atlantic.  How do you deal with hiking, nordic skiing, snowshoeing, and other high output pursuits? i have tried various approaches and thought it would be in the spirit of the season to share my views and solicit feedback.

1. the wind shell.  typically, this means wearing a base layer of some kind, then donning a light wind shell (top and/or bottom).  not a waterproof layer, something that does a decent job venting moisture but also deflects the wind.  i'm thinking along the lines of patagonia's houdini or any of a long list of substitutes, including track suits intended for runners.  to me, this is a pretty nice solution and has the advantage of not costing an arm and a leg.  You can got to any decent sporting goods store and get good wind pants and jackets.  so long as the baselayer is up to the task, this works in many situations.

2.  the soft shell.  soft shells have some advantages.  they are tightly woven and do a good job deflecting the wind; some are now backed with waterproof/breathable membranes that also have some stretch, which makes them even more wind-resistant.  in terms of moving fast, i love the way these fabrics feel and perform; i think they offer better freedom of movement than many wind shells.  while soft shells generally have some kind of fuzzy backing that makes them on the warm side, that is a plus in the winter - you can dial down the baselayer with a soft shell.    downsides? soft shells are heavier.  and if they happen to get really wet, they take a fair bit longer to dry than 'hard shell' wind shells. 

3.  bomb shelter shells.  here, we're talking about waterproof/breathable shells that keep the wind and precipitation out nearly all of the time.  think arcteryx alpha SV or any of the various 'alpinist jackets' out there - the gore tex, eVent, and so on.  for me, the bomb shelters aren't ideal unless the weather is really awful.  i don't think they vent moisture as well as their more 'breathable' cousins, so i tend to feel warmer and more likely to overheat in them.  as the mercury lowers into the teens, when the snow or freezing rain start hitting you like bullets, or when the wind really starts to blow (30-40 mph and higher), the bomb shelters start to have some real appeal.  for the normal winter days, they feel like overkill to me.

this morning, i skipped the wind shell bottoms, wore a pair of Nike winter tights.  on top, wool base layer and a soft shell (though a soft shell with a waterproof/breathable membrane).  after the initial shock from leaving the warm house, a nice outing.

thoughts? other ideas?

 

 

 

 

5:16 p.m. on November 28, 2013 (EST)
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If it gets cold after dark on my road trip I will wear the OR down jacket I bought. Its bee keeping me warm in the mornings riding to work when its 26-32 degrees. I also wear a wind breaker made for bicycling, a wind proof fleece balaclava, winter cycling gloves with silk liners and wool combo glove/mitts. Will need all the above winter stuff mainly after dark, tho often I will have crawled into my zero degree sleeping bag by sundown and be in my tent or under a tarp. As during the day it won't be all that cold in southern California all the way to Douglas AZ. 

Once I start climbing up the rods into the Chiricahua's, the Gila Wilderness and the  upper west section of New Mexico and south western to central Utah in late February to early March it will be cold in the daytime also.

I also am bring long john bottom and top, a long sleeve tshirt and knee high wool/cotton blend socks.

4:32 p.m. on November 29, 2013 (EST)
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Replying to this thread is more tricky than the question implies.  Staying strictly in context, addressing weather around 29°F posses the most challenging of circumstances.  It is still warm enough that you will have to contend with some liquid.  Sure it’s below freezing, but you may travel through warm spots above freezing, plus accumulated snow on your person may melt.  Under these conditions I would opt for a soft shell (wind proof, water resistant) for day hikes, but would go with a hard shell (wind and water proof) if overnighting and longer.  If the temps are 25 and below I switch to a soft shell, trading off the unnecessary water proof properties for improved breathability.  My favorite winter shell is the old fashioned 60/40 parkas; they are good at stopping wind, but readily breathe.

Generally I don’t like shell garments with built-in insulation.  I find when traveling in the cold I can keep warm wearing only very light under layers and an un-insulated shell garment.  I really don’t need much more while under way unless the temperature drops below the mid 20s.  My base layers – often the only thing I wear while skiing – is cycling tights, jogging shorts, any polypro top or a Hawaiian shirt.  Below 20 degrees I add to this more clothing on top, then more to the bottom, as necessary.  When I come to a rest, I wait a few minutes to stop sweating and to permit some sweat to evaporate before I add more layers to keep from getting chilled.

The only time I like shells with insulation are the artic style parkas in artic cold weather.  The artic parka is essentially a soft shell with lots of insulation.  But these parkas are intended only for circumstances so cold only intense physical activity may produce a sweat.

I found the most difficult time to keep warm is dealing with activities that alternate between high exertion levels and rest, like taking turns on a crew digging snow caves or pits for snow pack analysis.   You go from zero activity to full speed digging, then back to rest, all in the span of a few moments  If you wear enough to stay warm when idle you risk sweat soaking your layers when it is your turn to shovel.  If you par down your layers to permit hard shoveling activity, then you will get chilled waiting your turn on the shovel to come up.  Lastly there are situations where there seems no perfect combo of layers to remain comfortable.  I have been both chilled and sweaty while exerting in really cold weather.  The only thing you can do in this circumstance is cut back your exertion level, as sweating in your garments must be avoided..

Thus to summarize I will resort to different kinds of shell garments, depending on the potential contact with liquid water; meanwhile adjusting the layer components to prevent both getting chill or overheated.  This is not so different than managing your layers in warmer weather.  The difference in colder weather is greater effort is made to moderate your activity level to minimize sweating up you layering system.

Ed

6:21 p.m. on November 29, 2013 (EST)
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For hard work in really cold weather, I layer up and layer down as needed. So I might start out with a shell and a couple of layers under, but in an hour shed to a base layer plus shell in many conditions. When I stop moving, like Ed, I'm apt to not layer up or put on an over layer (belay jacket, for example) until I have cooled off some. Otherwise, I risk collapsing a down jacket.

5:11 p.m. on November 30, 2013 (EST)
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Its definitely always a layering situation. If its not really windy and i am actively moving i am usually fine with just a l/s baselayer like a capliene 3. But I always have my ecwcs goretex shell with me in winter to use if needed if its really windy or snowing/raining etc. I rarely have my shell sealed all the way up unless the weather is really foul. With the pit zips open and the shell largely unzipped I can usually hike without too much moisture buildup.

7:33 p.m. on November 30, 2013 (EST)
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You know...I find soft-shells to be a poor piece of gear for anything but running around town. Even on short day-hikes a hard rain can quickly soak through a soft-shell leaving you in the middle of a hike wet and cold (you might live but you're miserable)...and they're not nearly as breathable as a thin wind-shell and base-layer. Moreover...I find soft-shells a poor layering choice (antithesis actually)...because I prefer to have my layers as light and as specific as possible so that I can dial-in (to use your phrase) exactly what I need. In the end I find multiple lightweight and very specific layers simply provide equal (if not more) warmth and greater versatility for the same weight as a soft-shell...where as using a soft-shell seems a lot like using a sledge-hammer to drive a small nail.

As far as cold weather goes...I think specific region matters more than anything...but the temp you mentioned (just below freezing) is one of the most difficult to prepare for (particularly the above freezing in the day and below freezing at night scenario). Where I live and play moisture (from the sky + ground + brush) is a much bigger threat than cold temps...so carrying a lightweight shell is always necessary. As Who mentioned...even when the temps are below freezing there are warm spots...if for no other reason than I AM A WARM SPOT and everything I touch and move into close proximity to becomes wet. Moreover...where I live and play...once something does get wet...it can be incredibly difficult to dry if there is anything more than the lightest precipitation (another reason to carry a lightweight shell is that it makes at-rest-drying under the shell possible). The military Gortex gear is amazing...AS LONG AS IT IS NEVER IN MY PACK...for this reason I find I rarely use mine...instead opting for a lighter parka and pants.

10:02 p.m. on November 30, 2013 (EST)
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If the above posts are causing some confusion, I am not surprised.  It should be apparent that folks are using different definitions of what constitutes a soft shell or hard shell.  The term bomb shelter shell (a recent addition to shell garment nomenclature) confounds matters further still.  The various descriptions above lead one to ponder: are shell garments just that - a layer to shed wind and water - or do they have insulating layers built in as part of their essential design, or are both assertions correct that some shells (hard or soft) have insulation layers while some do not.  (I'll leave bomb shelters out of this for now, as I have no idea what distinguishes this classification from the others.)  I have my own opinions, and believe whatever definitions you arrive at, they should work independent of the materials utilized, since hard and soft shells existed before the advent of modern synthetic materials.  If one wanted to read more on the debate over shell classifications check out this link.

Ed

3:07 p.m. on December 1, 2013 (EST)
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I agree Ed...the terminology is a little confusing...and shells aren't the only aspect of the layering system where this comes up...as most of my base-layers and mid-layers are interchangeable too (likely a result of my preference for very light layering pieces). In general I define a piece by where it is being used...so like Air-force One...if I am wearing it as as shell...it is a shell (how is that for confusing).

As far as the confusion regarding soft-shells...I generally use the term to indicate any piece of gear that has a vapor-transfer barrier but is more breathable than a typical hard-shell (also less waterproof)...and this is where I take issue with soft-shells...as they still do not breath well enough for aerobic activities like hiking...and in an effort to breath better (but still not good enough!) they compromise the level of protection they provide against rain. Going back to my statement above...it is a poor compromise except where the likelihood of being exposed to heavy rain for a long duration is not a possibility (commuting basically).

I've never heard the term bomber-shelter-shell used...do you have a link to an example?

6:38 a.m. on December 2, 2013 (EST)
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There are shells, and then there are the bomber shells. Use whatever term you want to describe or identify them, but they are just a beefed up shell. Typically much more durable and just generally tougher than their lightweight conterparts. I can tell you with certainity that I don't even have to worry about ripping my ecwcs shell or somehow damaging it. This thing is about as tough as you can get. Where as in comparison to a shell I have from OR and one from Backcountry....well, they feel like a newborn baby in comparison.

An example would be my ecwcs gortex parka. Breathes well, has all of the features like pit zips etc, but is probably as tough as you can possibily get in a modern hard shell jacket. Mine has been through several deployments and many years of backpacking trips and is still going strong. I have found better alternatives to the jacket portion over the years for most of the year, but still use it in winter, but the shell pants I usually have with me year round.

http://www.militarysupplyhouse.com/jacketsus2.htm

If your patient and shop around you can usually get a set(jacket and pants) for around $60-80. I have routinely seen them for as cheap as about $25-35 a piece. ***The woodland camo color is usually cheaper currently because it is being phased out of the military. Once most of that stock is gone expect the prices to rise again.

8:52 a.m. on December 2, 2013 (EST)
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Andrew, interesting topic that I also was just thinking about. I am continually surprised at the varied range of temperatures I can use a simple synthetic base layer and wind shirt with.

My goto setup for the temps mentioned is a MH Wicked Lite long sleeve base with a Houdini wind shirt. (bottom dress is nylon shorts with or without wool bottoms as needed). I just got back from a week in the Smokies where most days were below freezing and this setup was more than sufficient while exerting. I’ve also use almost the same outfit up to high forties (F) with good results.

6:49 p.m. on December 2, 2013 (EST)
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ok, it was unfair for me to introduce my own undefined nomenclature.  i apologize.  i thought i had helped the defined the term by referring to a couple of different kinds of waterproof/breathable shells.  so, allow me to define my terms, hopefully without terribly muddying the water.

when i think of a wind shell or wind shirt, i am roping in a host of nylon or equivalent 'hard shells' (hard shell meaning it doesn't give or stretch a whole lot) that are primarily intended to deflect the wind and often have some kind of DWR outer treatment that helps them shed water - so they are usually OK in light rain or drizzle, but they won't keep you dry in a steady, all-day, or hard rain. 

when i think of a rain shell, i'm roping in lightweight nylon (or equivalent) hard shells that are waterproof, even in a cloudburst or an all-day rain.  back in the day, this meant coated nylon, rubberized, etc.  Today, it also includes a pretty wide variety of nylon shells that are backed by a waterproof/breathable membrane.  which means hey keep the water out, they do a better job blocking wind than a 'wind shell' or 'wind shirt,' but they don't vent moisture quite as well. 

my poorly-termed invention, 'bomb shelter,' or talking about a shell that is 'bomber,' refers to hard shells that are not only waterproof and breathable, but intended for harder conditions - really high winds, really hard rain, going off-trail or around rocks or ice where rips and snags are a real issue.  the hard shell that keeps you shielded from the elements, period.  or, alternatively, as therambler pointed out, the really robust military-grade gore tex shells, which are indeed heavy duty (and just plain heavy).  example - i use a RAB Latok hard shell in bad weather, particularly windy/cold/icy weather.  it weighs 24 ounces, which makes it a fair bit heavier than a lot of waterproof/breathable shells.  but it is super-durable, an excellent wind barrier, and still vents moisture nicely.  exactly what i wanted for my annual winter attempts to hike in New Hampshire's mountains. 

soft shells, which blur some lines and aren't so easy to pin down.  and which people clearly have different experiences with.  the outer shells usually have a softer and thicker 'hand' than a typical 'hard' shell, and are made from a fabric that tends to have more stretchiness or 'give' than a typical hard shell.  most of them are reasonably water resistant but not waterproof.  some are much more on the windproof/water resistant end of things, like polartec's powershield pro, gore windstopper, but not so breathable as a result.  many but not all of them have some kind of very light fuzzy backing material inside, so they tend to be a fair bit warmer than hard shells and tend to absorb a lot more moisture when they get wet - which many of them will do in a steady or hard rain.  few things are worse than a wet soft shell, which is why they aren't the best choice for most multi-day trips or in climates where you are bound to get wet (but see below re: waterproof and breathable soft shells). 

so Joseph, I agree with you that soft shells have some characteristics that don't suit being out a lot in a damp environment like the middle midwest.  on the other hand, i don't necessarily agree that soft shells aren't breathable enough for hiking.  in my experience, that depends on the weather and situation.  for a day hike or snowshoe or nordic ski, temperatures a little above zero to about 30, dry conditions, a soft shell can be fabulous, better at venting heat and moisture than many wind shirts, let alone waterproof/breathable hard shells, because most soft shells allow more air to bleed in and out.  yet plenty resistant to wind, able to shed snow and icy precip pretty easily, and very durable compared to most hard shells short of military grade.  

this doesn't even get into some jackets that combine sections of 'hard' nylon shell and 'soft' shell or more breathable soft shell material with windstopper or powershield, truly hybrids.   check out the westcomb revenant jacket.  i'm not plugging the jacket - the hybrid idea seems gimmicky to me, and the Revenant is pretty darn heavy - but it's an interesting choice. 

none of this was intended to refer to insulated jackets of any kind.  i wouldn't wear a puffy insulated jacket or one of those inseparable or zip-out fleece/shell combos for hard hiking, climbing, or other activities, except in bitter cold - as many of you have pointed out, it's too easy to overheat in these, and too hard to regulate your temperature in increments. 

but the lines are increasingly blurred, and there are many ways to approach the weather you see outside on many days.  i use a 'soft shell' that is fully waterproof and basically windproof - backed by a stretchy waterproof/breathable membrane.  but the fabric still has a softer feel and heavier hand than most hard shells.   due to the membrane, the stretchiness is more limited than many soft shells.  examples: Marmot Zion, Montane Fast Alpine Stretch Neo, conversely, i there are a few 'hard shells' that are truly waterproof and windproof, but also use nylon or equivalent fabrics that have a bit more stretch and give than what i think of as a traditional hard shell.  examples - Montane's further faster neo, rab's stretch neo. 

 

8:22 p.m. on December 2, 2013 (EST)
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The military shells actually arnt that heavy for what they are. 33oz for the parka and 19oz for the pants(xl parka and m pants). There are lighter options, but none as rugged or dependable or cheaper. Going on close to 15 years of use, 10 of which was military setvice and deployments and its still going strong.

12:30 a.m. on December 3, 2013 (EST)
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I should clarify that when I am speaking of soft-shells that do not breath enough for aerobic activity I am speaking exclusively about the jackets and pants with a PTFE or similar micro-porous membrane...and when I am speaking of wind-shells I am speaking exclusively about lightweight un-coated polyester and nylon fabrics (30 denier or less). In the case of these two examples the superior breathability of the un-coated fabrics is doubtless...and easily demonstrated with the "Jardine-test" (placing the fabric against your lips and blowing to feel for resistance). The uncoated fabrics breath much better and weigh significantly less than jackets and pants with micro-porous membranes...but the uncoated fabrics offer almost no protection against precipitation (which can be mitigated a little with a DWR...but which I find a poor compromise because it makes it less breathable).

To be sure my firm belief that micro-porous membrane soft-shells are a poor compromise is my position (not a universal fact)...and my belief is based completely on my preference for multiple lightweight and very specific articles of clothing...as I find these provide a more precise measure of thermal-regulation and environmental control than less articles of clothing that attempt to accomplish more than one specific task. Moreover...my belief is also grounded in my specific location (which is basically wet + trees + humid)...but the philosophy of many small specific articles of clothing is very generalizable ...and has seen adoption in a diverse set of regions like rainforest, deserts, mid-west, eastern woodland, western mountain...it would not be a stretch to say that it is the reigning paradigm. This does not mean that it is the only way to do it...or that it is even the best....just to say that my position is relevant to regions that differ to my own.

Rambler...I cannot sing the praises of the ECWSC gear enough...it is really durable and amazingly affordable for what you get...and it is as fine a PTFE shell as one can find. However...my UL rain-shell pants and jacket weigh as much as the pants alone (19oz.). The ECWSC shells do add extra warmth and durability...but given that combined they weigh more than my shelter and hard-shell pieces...I can only bring myself to using them if I intend to wear them the entire time I am on the move...something I find the pants more suitable for than the jacket.

8:55 p.m. on December 3, 2013 (EST)
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I find the winter season in general to be much harsher on my gear, and i tend to leave my UL shells at home and bring a more durable version. With ice, hard snow, crampons, microspikes, snowshoes, higher potential for slips and falls, extreme cold temps, strong winds. The potential is just greater to have gear failures. I definitely dont go UL in the winter.

2:38 p.m. on December 4, 2013 (EST)
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Ha!...I think we do very different things in the winter in very different places TheRambler:-) I rarely (if ever) go off trail. Moreover...the most snow I've hiked in was 6-8 inches...so I have never used snowshoes or crampons and spikes.

If it was cold enough to wear the US military PTFE gear the entire time I was on the move <20 degrees...then as I have said...I would seriously consider bringing it (though I have been fine without it in those temps)...as it is however...I have never had a problem with lightweight shells for the hiking I do in the climate I do it in. With all that said...the US military PTFE is a great piece of kit at a SUPER price (I own a set)...but I simply find it overkill for what I use it for 99% of the time.

7:18 p.m. on December 5, 2013 (EST)
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shell pants (hard or 'soft') and gaiters for winter should be reinforced on the inside of each lower leg.  they get spiked all the time with crampons.  less often with snowshoes, but it still happens from time to time.  the teeth on my snowshoes are almost as long as my crampons & steel.

 
snowshoes-1.jpg
 

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