I learned the hard way that the type of clothing worn on mountain adventures can have a huge impact on my enjoyment of the Great Outdoors. Dressing appropriately and being prepared for any weather is key to enjoying, and dare I say surviving, all kinds of mountain adventures, especially at altitudes around 9,000 to 11,000 feet (sub-alpine environment). No, this isn’t a post about what handbag will go best with your technical convertible hiking pants. Instead, here’s why I think dressing appropriately is mandatory, the basics of layering, and suggested pack lists for what to wear and what to bring along on mountain adventures in various types of weather. (Plus, a few clothing options specifically for tall ladies!).
I grew up as a “flat-lander” in Iowa and during those cold, cloudy, endless winters on the farm we wore lots of cotton layers with some wool thrown in for good measure. Too cold for blue jeans alone? Wear some cotton waffle-weave long johns underneath!
Much later I met and married a native Coloradoan (though neither of us lived in Colorado at the time). My first hiking adventure with my new husband was a route in the high mountains near Durango during the month of July on our honeymoon tour of his home state. We headed out on a beautiful sunny 80 degree F day, me in my blue jeans and cotton tee - and I brought along a cotton hoodie for good measure! Three hours later I was nearing hypothermia as we’d hiked to tree line and it was sleeting like crazy. My 100% cotton clothing soaked up the cold rain and clung to me in dripping layers. I was soaked and shivering violently, and I’ve never worked so hard just to put one foot in the front of the other. Obviously I survived, but I’ve never worn cotton in the mountains again.
“Cotton kills” and “layer up” are words of advice to remember when deciding what to wear for mountain adventures, but the concept of layering appropriate clothing wasn’t always considered gospel. In fact, in the early 1970s and prior, mountaineers relied on cotton, wool, and down to keep them warm. The concept of layering and the development of synthetic clothing lines designed for better warmth and with moisture-wicking capability was pioneered by outdoor gear and clothing company Patagonia in the early 80s. Soon after, synthetic layered clothing systems became commonplace mountain gear (Chouinard, 2016).
How it Works
The basic approach to a good layering system is:
Base layer – synthetic or wool next-to-skin clothing that lifts, or wicks, sweat (moisture) away from your body. The whole purpose of sweating is that when it evaporates on your skin, it cools you off. So, when you’re in the mountains with temps that can vary from warm to cold within minutes, you don’t want sweat on your body cooling you off! That’s where a wicking base layer helps – it moves any sweat off your body and allows it to dry quickly away from your skin.
Insulating layer – another synthetic layer that’s still wicking (remember, you don’t want any sweat drying on your skin) but with additional insulation. This is the layer that keeps you warm. Depending on weather conditions, I sometimes wear two insulating layers (a jacket with synthetic insulation, and an additional down jacket over that).
Protecting layer – this is the top layer that protects from wind and rain (or snow). A water-repellent rain coat and pants that block the wind and keep water out are key.
Other items – add in hats, gloves, socks, and boots for additional warmth and protection.
More info – of all the outdoor provision websites I’ve browsed, Patagonia does the best job teaching about layering systems with graphics. You don’t have to buy their stuff, but check out their information for ideas on how to layer your own gear.
Here’s what I wear or pack for various weather conditions. I hate being cold, and get cold easily, so I always ALWAYS bring along more clothing than I think I’ll need. On one occasion I wore everything I brought along (and stayed warm enough despite cold, rainy conditions!). I also don’t mention underwear in these lists but you know what you need (and make sure to always bring extra!).
Warm/Hot to Cool/Cold Weather (mountain summer months)
1 - Synthetic, wicking tank or tee
2 - Convertible pants (legs zipped off to shorts)
3 - Lightweight wool socks
4 - Tennis shoes or hiking boots
5 - Cap or bandana
At-the-ready (have these options along and readily accessible to throw on as soon as temps start to drop):
1 - Long-sleeved wicking shirt (wool or other warm synthetic fabric)
2 - Insulating jacket
3 - Convertible pant legs
4 - Hat
In a duffel (everything else you need as temps drop, or might need if the weather turns nasty):
1 - Heavyweight synthetic or wool base layer bottom
2 - Heavyweight synthetic or wool base layer top
3 - Additional long-sleeved synthetic or wool wicking shirt
4 - Fleece pants
5 - Down jacket
6 - Hooded rain coat
7 - Rain pants
8 - Warm hat
9 - Thick wool socks
10 - Snow boots
11 - Warm gloves (at least two pair, in case one gets wet)
Bonus - Throw in some hand warmers for good measure!
Cool to Cold Weather (mountain fall, winter, and spring months)
1 - Synthetic, wicking tank or tee
2 - Long-sleeved shirt (wool or other warm synthetic fabric), if needed
3 - Base layer bottoms (because you’ll need them in the cold so wear from the start)
4 - Convertible pants (or other technical pants since shorts aren’t needed in cold weather)
5 - Wool socks
6 - Shoes or boots
1 - Insulating jacket
2 - Hat
3 - Gloves
In a duffel:
1 - Additional long-sleeved synthetic or wool wicking shirt
2 - Fleece pants
3 - Down jacket
4 - Hooded rain coat
5 - Rain pants
6 - Insulated snow pants
7 - Warm hat
8 - Thick wool socks
9 - Snow boots
10 - Extra gloves
Bonus - Throw in some hand warmers for good measure!
Following are some clothing options depending on your budget and needs. Keep in mind that it’s not necessarily better to buy cheap – if you’ll be wearing this clothing a lot it’s better to invest in a few quality pieces that have been tested and perform well, and that will last a long time. (The key is a few pieces – resist the urge to run out to your nearest REI store and buy a whole new outdoor wardrobe. You only need a few items [which you can repair when they rip or tear – but that’s for another post!] The list of clothing above is all I own for technical/outdoor adventures, and it’s stuff I’ve worn for years and repair when needed). On the other hand, if you venture into the mountains once every couple years, shop used or borrow from friends or family.
Base layers -
Smartwool tops: these are a bit pricey up front but you can get clearance colors at better cost. Smartwool is not itchy and lasts forever. I’ve had a couple Smartwool tops for six years now that I wear on camping trips every summer, and all winter long, and they’re still in great shape.
Patagonia tops and bottoms: Patagonia has both Merino (wool) and Capilene (synthetic) tops and bottoms. I like their Capilene line because it’s more affordable but still performs well. No matter the brand, I go straight for the thermal weight options because I don’t generally wear base layers unless it’s cold and then I want something that will wick plus help keep me warm. Check out Patagonia's web specials for better deals.
REI, Campmor, Backcountry, Amazon: these stores or websites offer a variety of base layer tops and bottoms in many fabrics at lots of price points! I have not tried most of the brands offered, and what works well for one person may not work for you. Check the store’s return policy to see if you can exchange an item of clothing that doesn’t work after you’ve tried it.
Convertible pants -
I love convertible pants!!! Whoever thought up the concept of pants that zip off to shorts is a genius! However, there aren’t many convertible pant options out there for us taller gals – and I’ve tried on a lot of convertible pants over the years trying to find something that works. I finally found one convertible pant made by Prana that is actually long enough, has lots of pockets, and look good on! I have this Prana pant from a few years ago (it’s been updated slightly with a capri option now too) and here’s another they make also! Bonus for you petite gals, both these pants come in short length!
I’ve tried a lot of jackets and hands-down the one I like best is Patagonia’s Nano-puff. Warm - even when wet, water-repellent, wind-blocking, and packable. It’s a bit of an investment but, again, you get what you pay for. I’ve had a basic black Nano-puff for several years and I wear it year-round - in the woods, when wheeling, around town, and to Corporate meetings – so for me it was worth the investment. It’s got campfire holes that I’ve sewed up (black is an easier color to repair) and even after years of use it still keeps me warm and dry. Watch for sales or clearance colors for better deals. If you won’t be wearing your insulating jacket very often you might try the REI brand, or various other brands. Just make sure the jacket is synthetic or wool (not cotton) - your cute denim jacket is not a good insulating layer!
I also always bring along a down jacket for extra warmth. If ethics matters to you, go for a brand that doesn’t live-pluck down (most manufacturers do). If meeting your budget is a priority, look for down on sale or at a used clothing store.
Rain gear -
When it rains in the mountains I just want to stay dry. Patagonia and REI brands perform well. Each year I spray a new coat of waterproofing spray onto my rain coat, pants, and any boots to ensure they stay water-repellent for the upcoming season.
Rain pants for tall ladies – as with convertible pants, I had a hard time finding rain pants that weren’t rain capris on me (those don’t do much good!). Most rain pants don’t come in tall length (WHY IS THIS?!?!?!), but I found one style through Eddie Bauer that are long enough (often pants will say “long length” but aren’t actually long enough for a 34” ladies inseam). Full disclosure - that link to Eddie Bauer will probably NOT have long length rain pants - it seems they are currently out of stock on tall length, but check back because they usually have them.
I love Smartwool socks because they’re warm, they don’t itch, and they last a long time. ‘nough said!
What clothing works best for you during mountain adventures? Do you have a great source for long length/tall (or short length) clothing? Share in the comments below!
Chouinard, Y. (2016). Let my people go surfing: The education of a reluctant businessman. New York, NY: Penguin Books.