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What to wear for winter climbing

Updated: Mar 10

What to wear for winter climbing

Winter climbing is lots of fun, but being cold isn’t. A good clothing layering system goes a long way to helping keep us warm and dry, allowing us to make the most of icy conditions. A layering system is usually multiple layers of clothes that do different jobs depending where they are in the system. Usually we start with the base layer which is next to our skin, then a midlayer or insulation layer, then a waterproof shell and then finally a belay jacket to be worn at intervals throughout the day.

2 people undertaking one of our guided walks up snowdon

Base layer

A base layer is the foundation of a layering system and is used to help move or “wick” moisture in the form of sweat away from the body. Moving the moisture away helps us to feel drier and as a result warmer. Fabrics that work well as base layers for winter climbing are wool and synthetics like polyester. Personally I don’t get on very well with wool as I find it a bit itchy, but for those who it works for it’s a great option as it’s very warm how much it weighs. Synthetic layers also work very well to wick moisture and like wool also retains warmth when damp or wet. Cotton or polycotton blends should be avoided, as they don’t retain heat well when wet. You don’t need to spend a fortune on base layers, good deals can often be found in the random bits aisle at Lidl and Aldi or at shops like TkMaxx, Decathlon, Trespass or Mountain Warehouse (just make sure the fabric is pure synthetic or wool). Obviously there are also more expensive high end brands out there, but essentially the product is very similar, with the differences being things like fit. Sometimes people carry an additional set of baselayers so they are able to change into a dry set at the start of a climb, this does mean being good at changing quickly though!


A midlayer is usually a mid to heavy weight synthetic fleece. Like with the base layer this layer helps to move moisture out away from our body and also helps to insulate us from the cold. Usually this layer stays on the entire time whilst climbing, so features like zips and pockets aren’t really necessary or useful. Again, there is very little difference between budget brands and high end brands, other possibly a few luxury features. Personally I would save some cash here and invest it on the layers below.

For the legs, some people wear an insulating fleece layer if they intend to wear waterproof shell trousers the whole day, otherwise it is common to wear a pair of softshell trousers as a midlayer.


Not everyone uses this layer, but I really like having an extra insulation layer which I wear under my shell jacket. I find that I get quite cold easily, but I don’t always need the full belay jacket insulation, this helps me to find a happy medium. This layer is usually a reasonably lightweight synthetic insulation jacket made from something like primaloft. The intention of this layer isn’t to be the sole insulation, but like the other layers part of the system. If the weather is dry this layer can also be worn as the outer layer.


The shell is a jacket and trouser combination with waterproof membranes that protects all the layers below from the elements, usually it is sized to give extra room for the layering. Waterproof shell layers are an expensive investment, but good deals can be found with a bit of searching around. This is an area where it is worth buying from a reputable brand and even then it’s important to know what you are looking for. The key features I would suggest looking for are;

High quality waterproofing membrane or system such as; Goretex, Event, H2no, Drilite, Paramo, Pertex Sheild…

Heavy weight fabric; 100+ Dernier (weight per square meter)

Two way waterproof zip

Helmet compatible hood

Harness compatible pockets

Full length zip on trousers unless you plan on wearing them all day.

Vito adding some midlayer insulation.


There are lots of jackets on sale currently which are being marketed as belay jackets but that don’t really have enough insulation to make them suitable for long belays in the Scottish wind. A good belay jacket should fit over all your other layers and be made out of windproof, quick drying fabrics such as Pertex or Gore Infinium and is normally insulated with Primaloft or an own brand equivalent. In my opinion to be warm enough for real world use a belay jacket should have a minimum weight insulation of 160gsm in the body, with the current jacket I’m using sitting at 200gsm in the body. Other features that are useful; a two way zip, large internal pockets for storing gloves, a big hood to go over all the layers.


Hats, gloves and socks are all really important parts of the system, because we generally don’t layer them as much as the body. Hats and socks follow similar rules to the other layers, we want them to be either synthetic or wool. Socks should be heavyweight hiking socks or ski socks, just make sure you have enough space left in your boots to promote good blood flow, boots that are too tight make your feet cold. Hats need to be able to fit under a helmet, so a simple beanie style works the best. Its a good idea to take a spare in case one is lost.

Gloves are a bit more complicated and what I carry varies depending on the route I intend to climb, however I always have a minimum of two pairs with me. My minimum I will take is a pair of insulated mid weight waterproof gloves which are my go to for most tasks and a pair of heavyweight insulated mitts, these work as a bit of a get out a jail option. Other pairs I might take include lightweight gloves for walking in or milder conditions (builders gloves work quite well as a budget option and can be worn under mitts), lightweight mixed climbing gloves for hard pitches (these get kept in my jacket to keep them warm between pitches) and non waterproof pile insulated gloves (work very well when wet).

Ben going the whole hog with a baselayer change!

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