One of my family’s longtime debates came to a head a couple holiday seasons ago as we prepped for a group jaunt up Mt. Rose on a trail affectionately known as the Out-and-Back.
The skirmish was centered around what to wear on the outing.
First, what we agreed on: Like a great dessert, it comes down to the use of layers. Layers, layers, layers. It’s always about layers, right? Layers then more layers. Google layers and you’re sure to see a half-dozen articles similar to this one. How to layer. What layer goes well with what layer. A one-stop multi-layer layer guide.
So, we did all layer up.
But that’s also where the differences in sartorial philosophy start to show.
Since I’m both the youngest and the one in the family who spent the most time living at altitude, my layers were, how do I say—a little more, um, this century.
The different layering techniques in my family were more a reflection of the age and golden era of the wearer than what actually made sense to put on. In fact, beyond me, the gear of my closest relatives was better suited for costume party than cold.
My father was the old-school ski swap layer king. The turtleneck which was probably the same one Stein Eriksen rocks in all those grainy shots when his skis were a pair of wood planks double his height. On top of his turtleneck, a vintage blend Head ski sweater that was released the same year as Saturday Night Fever. Its unfaded navy blue paired well with his signature red, white and blue I Ski shades. The top layer, an original The North Face puffy that looked (and smelled) like an all-weather sleeping bag that had been abandoned on Everest in the ‘80s and used as a Sherpa’s goat bed in the following decades. Over the years, the jacket’s brilliant CalTrans chain gang orange had faded into something of a dirty sienna fading sunset color. It was his signature look.
The middle of the layers-that-time-forgot spectrum were my sister and her husband. In the mid-’90s, they relocated to Colorado for a spell during his residency. Their so-called cold-weather gear consisted of a bunch of rayon mock turtlenecks from the forgotten likes of Sideout, Mossimo and Body Glove. Their day glo parade was topped with some sort of dickey tucked into the sea foam green Eddie Bauer parka. And, of course, mom jeans shoved into the Sorels and hair gel to complete the 90210 Christmas episode ensemble
At least we never lost them in the woods.
Mine was simpler fare. Black Patagonia leggings and long-sleeve crewneck was the base. My Craft tights, a soft shell and a pair of Feetures! Graduated Compression was all I required to complete the adventure. With the mercury barely pushing up into double digits, they took one look at my streamlined outfit as they puffed up in their non-wicking Michelin Man repose and said, “You’re going to freeze.”
I didn’t really have the heart to tell them that cotton and 25-year-old plastic fabrics trap in the cold sweat and act as a natural swamp coolers. They’d find out soon enough on the trail.
And they did.
And there was me, back at the car. Cheeks flushed to healthy red. Skin pink with capillaries firing and hands still the color of hands (not the hue of E.T. when they find him dying in the riverbed). Back at the cabin as I dropped off my base layers and socks in the laundry, my sister was waiting, rooting through it like found thrift store treasure.
“These keep you warm?” she asked.
“I swear I’d never spend 50 bucks on long underwear.”
“Just think about it as an exercise in conservation. You know, you not having to take an hour shower to thaw out.”
Since then, my sister and brother-in-law have started to layer up with gear made this decade when running in the Sierras. I reminded them the key is to try different combinations and see what fits and moves with your body and its temperature type foremost.
Some runners (my sister) prefer to run hot. That’s why she likes to wear a tight, middle-weight top that adheres to her skin but also provides wicking. The slightly heavier fabric ensures it’ll insulate the heat coming off her skin but still leave her with the warmth she’s looking for right away. She also layers double on her legs whereas my brother-in-law and I can roll out in just our loose-fitting touring pants.
Other runners (myself, my brother-in-law) feel like starting out a little cool and then warming up as the legs, arms and core do. We also, how should I say this delicately, sweat buckets. That’s why he and I both prefer a base layer that has some vents around the back, armpits and elbows to keep the air circulating. We sacrifice a little warmth at first with the thinner fabric but we gain it back as our bodies start to generate their own heat and sweat beads and disappears as if by windshield wipers.
I also turned them on to giving their gear a test spin when trying it on. Most reputable outdoor apparel shops will let you give those layers a go around the building. It sounds silly, but it works. Stuff that looks comfy on the rack can be too tight or too unforgiving in the wrong places or too stiff and bulky once it’s off the hanger and covering your torso.
As with all clothes, some of your cold-weather running gear is going to take a moment to break in. However, you’ll get the “feeling” right away if this is something that’s going to work with your body’s geometry. More than any other item of clothing this side of a Speedo, you want it to flow with you and act as a second skin, not as an ironic-and-itchy Christmas sweater you have to continually have to tug at.
Also, so much emphasis is put on the legs, core and upper body, but remember it’s the head that loses the most heat. I point folks toward Nordic ski brands for a hat or headband. You can’t go wrong with what the skate skiers wear in the cold. They run their bodies faster and hotter than any other endurance athlete and know how to keep it streamlined tassle to toes as their engines roar underneath.
If you still insist on keeping that cotton-blend turtleneck handy for warmth, remember it makes for great kindling.