Scottish Winter Clothing by Andy.
Scotland has to be one of the hardest mountaineering disciplines to dress for as the conditions can be so variable. I have had days when it has been pouring with rain and relatively humid at the North Face Car park and by the time you get up to the CIC hut below Ben Nevis the temperature has dropped and all that water you have collected on the way up has frozen solid. Other days it has been relatively clear with very little wind and when moving quickly up easy ground you can build up quite a sweat.
As well as the conditions Scotland also requires a lot of walking up hill which means you can get very hot but also means you want to keep your load light.
Over the years I have experimented with multiple clothing options and think I have now landed on a system that allows me to walk in, in relative comfort, [e.g, don't get too hot and sweaty ] but also keeps me protected in really howling conditions. The whole system is also relatively light so I can move faster and have more freedom of movement when climbing.
Lightweight clothing is not something that people usually think of when Scottish climbing is mentioned but with modern technology jackets that weight 600 grams are going to be 3 to 4 times more durable than a 600 gram jacket from 10 years ago and a 250 gram jacket will be the same durability as a 600 gram jacket from 10 years ago.
So lets start at the bottom and work our way out, remember that the whole point of a good outdoor clothing system is to allow water vapour [sweat] out quickly and keep just the right amount of heat in so you don't sweat too much in the first place.
Underwear & Sock
When I used to work in an outdoor shop peoples attitude to underwear always made me laugh, they spend hundreds of pounds on top end super wicking thermals and super breathable gore tex salopettes but would spend £10 on one of the sweatiest parts of the bottom, remember that layering is only as good as the best layer in the system. My personal favourites are Patagonia Capeliene Boxers and SueMe boxers,
I always go with a really nice mid thick wool, synthetic blend sock which comes up to the knee, ski socks actually work well here. People are often tempted to go for really thick socks and then put liner socks underneath, all this means is that the boots you have don't fit you that well and aren't warm enough for the conditions you are climbing in. There are loads of brands that make really good socks for this purpose, Bridgedale and extremities are both great examples. If you really feel the cold or you are trying Scottish climbing for the first time and are using summer alpine boots then Lorpen make a Primloft sock which is super warm and really comfy.
So this is where the moisture movement really happens and good base layers are the key to a happy day. There is no point in spending loads of money on breathable jackets unless you can get the moisture away from your skin in the first place. There are two options in the base layer world at the moment, merino wool and synthetic. The pros and cons of these is another topic in itself but in short synthetic wicks a lot better but merino wool has better warmth for weight and can go along time before it starts to smell. For Scotland I use synthetic as I am only out for the day so smell isn’t so much of an issue but moisture movement is.
On my bottom half I use a Rab Polartec Powerstrech Bib and on the top half a basic but good quality wicking t-shirt. I use the Powerstrech Bib for several reasons. Powerstrech is super warm and unlike your top half where you may have multiple layers you only ever tend to have two on the bottom half. It is really good at wicking for such a dense fleece and has a lot of stretch for easy movement, I use a bib for two main reasons, the first is it means that you don't expose your mid drift when making long moves [coming untucked mid crux is horrid] and second is that it spaces out the layers. When you think about it you can have two layers on your bottom half and 3 or 4 on your top half and all of them come together in a 2 inch area around your waist which is also where your harness and back waist band want to sit. By having a bib you can space some of that out.
Over the top of this I have two mid layers with me, a hooded technical fleece [currently I am using a Patagonia R1] and a second generation synthetic layer such as the Patagonia Nano Air [currently using] or an Arcteryx Proton.
I carry two mid layers as I am not wearing a full arm length or full weight thermal and I feel it gives me a lot more options whilst on the mountain. I always use a hooded fleece as this means I do not have to carry a hat or balaclava with me, I can just use the balaclava style hood attached to the fleece. I also make sure that my fleece has a long front zip on it so I can dump heat when I need to.
The second generation synthetic is a name given to synthetic garments that are fully breathable. Traditional synthetic jackets made of things like primloft were great, they had a good level of weather resistance and gave brilliant warmth to weight and packed down small however their big disadvantage was that they had zero breathability, meaning that they where great when at rest but you got very sweaty when moving. Second generation solves that problem and while the fabric does have to be of a little loser weave to allow air flow through they still retain a very high level of weather resistance which means they can be used on their own on good clear days.
An essay in its self could be written here on the merits of various waterproof fabric technology or soft shell use. But for the purpose of this section I will keep it very high level.
Softshell, I have experimented over the years with using soft shell in Scotland and while it does have some brilliant advantages of being stretchy and super breathable I have usually found myself just getting wet. I do still use soft shell pants and jacket on really good days but these are an exception rather than a rule, most of the time I find myself reaching for the full waterproof combo.
Waterproofs have come on a long way in the last few years and as mentioned at the start of this article that has mainly been durability and in some cases breathability which has almost reached that of soft shell. A great example of this is Neoshell, however in order to achieve this breathability the Hydrostatic head [the measure by which how waterproof something is] has had to drop. Therefore I always tend to stick to tried and tested Gore tex or Patagonia own brand H2No membranes.
On my mission to lighten my load I now carry a very lightweight waterproof combo but as mentioned above this does not mean I have sacrificed on durability, remember these jackets may be half the weight but they will be just as tough if not toughter than jackets of 10 years ago.
Currently I am using a Patagonia M10 anorak on the upper half and Patagonia Galvanised Bibs on the bottom. I love anoraks as it means the zip doesn't get in the way of your harness and they make the front a lot cleaner which helps when looking down at you legs and means that if the zip does break [weakest part of any item of clothing] on the mountain the jacket will still offer a good level of protection. The Galvanised Pants are a new generation of trouser which are light but also super stretchy meaning they are easier to move in. I also always go for bibs when winter climbing as they come up higher on the body meaning they are less likely to expose you mid drift when stretching and again reduce the layering cross over in that area.
I also carry with me for my a very light weight packable vertex wind shirt, currently using a Patagonia Houdini but Montane and Rab also make good ones. These are only water resistant but are very wind resistant and much more breathable than a waterproof. I will wear this on the approach with just the fleece and then put my 2nd Gen Sythentic jacket and waterproof on at the bottom of the route meaning I don't arrive at the bottom all sweaty.
This is your ace in the hole jacket or your emergency piece. This is the jacket that you will pull on on top of everything else to keep you warm at belays or if you are just sitting at the bottom having your lunch.
One thing I noticed when working in an outdoor shop is everyone wants to put layers on under their waterproof so they will hike up hill building up loads of warmth in there jacket, get to the top unzip their jacket let all that heat out, then put an extra layer on then put their waterproof back on top and spend the next ten minutes warming it all back up by which point they are walking again and have to stop ten minutes later to strip it all off again. Just put a big fat jacket on over the waterproof then take it off again when you start moving. Much simpler.
The one thing to be weary of here is Goose down, people are often drawn in to down jackets as they are super warm for their weight, pack down small and are widely available. However down has one major disadvantage, it loses all of its warmth retention when it gets wet and takes forever to dry out. Several companies have introduced hydrophobic down which they claim will not wet out which for the first year of the jackets life does seem to be true but having tried most of the ones on the market and looked at lab results the coatings on the down don't last much longer than that.
In my opinion nothing beats a really thick synthetic jacket. Unlike the 2nd Gen synthetic piece mentioned above this does not need to be breathable as you will only be using when stood still. Patagonia, Rab and Montane all make good ones at the moment. Always go for one with a minimum of 100gram of primloft or equivalent. I am currently using the Patagonia DAS which is the lightest 120gram belay parka I could find on the market, always looking to shed those grams.
Gloves and Hats
I have written a separate article on Gloves as this is a large topic and like clothing requires multiple layers and options.
As for hats, I only carry with me a thin sweat band that covers my ears, mine is a Dynfit one which was originally designed for Skimo racing. I rely on the fact that my fleece, mid layer synthetic, waterproof and belay jacket all have a hood so why do I need to carry one. I use the sweat band for walking in when I am working hard and will keep it on under my Balaclava style fleece hood when really cold.
I don't bother with gaiters as nearly all mountaineering trousers have them built in, just make sure they have little loops in the bottom of the legs to attach some elastic shock cord so they don't rise up when making high steps. I would still recommended gaiters when first starting out as it takes a while to learn to walk in crampons properly and you will inevitably catch your trousers when starting out.
Last but not least Buffs are a critical component. I always have two. One that stays down and wrapped up around my neck to seal the top of my clothes and another which I can pull up to cover my mouth and nose.
As mentioned at the start this is a system of clothing that has taken me years to get right and lots of getting wet and cold, however everyone is different. I know that I run very warm when moving so need a very versatile system that reflects that, some may feel the cold more so need to modify the system but hopefully this will give you a jumping off point.
Here is a video I made for Up and Under a few years ago on Scottish winter clothing, a little out of date know but still worth a look. I was super in to soft shell when I made this and didn't seem to feel the cold as much :)