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How to Layer for Rock Climbing

Updated on April 1, 2013

Arc'teryx, Icebreaker, SmartWool, Patagonia, Mountain Hardware, Black Diamond, Mammut, the North Face, prAna...

There are many brands scrambling for your attention-- and with so many types of "technical" clothes and so many variations, who knows where to start?

Most rock climbers also enjoy hiking, and have some experience with basic layering techniques, but there are many considerations that people often overlook when dressing for an all day rock climbing trip.

Layering for Climbing

Climbing involves periods of medium to strenuous activity punctuated by periods of rest. Your body temperature can cool down quickly, so it's a good idea to keep extra layers close by while you are belaying.

Mid and shell layer considerations:

Movement

  • Are you able to reach above your head easily, without the jacket pulling up into your face?
  • Is it bulky, or does it inhibit movement in any way?

Some shell models have gusseted arm pits, so that you can raise you arms above your head without the whole jacket lifting up in front of your face. You also don't want the bulk of the jacket to get in the way of any movement you make on the wall.

Fit

  • Does the jacket fit underneath the harness?
  • Does it bunch up around your stomach so that you cannot see your feet?

For peak insulation, clothes should fit your body comfortably, without being too loose or too tight. Sometimes jackets bunch up and bulge above the harness, blocking the view to your feet.

More Cold Weather Tips

  • A fleece vest is perfect for climbing in chilly weather-- it keeps the core warm but leaves your arms free of any bulk that could restrict movement.
  • Long underwear, or thermal underwear, is great for keeping you warm, but sometimes they work too well! The problem with layering these underneath pants is that it's often the bottom layer you would like to remove, not the top. It's a huge inconvenience to completely change out at the crag.
  • Wear a thin hat that can fit beneath a climbing helmet.
  • Bring a pair of gloves for the approach, belaying, and breaks.
  • Thin wool socks to wear with your climbing shoes are a great idea, especially for a multi-pitch climb.

This photo was taken in November in New England. The vest kept me warm while I was climbing, but did not inhibit my movement.
This photo was taken in November in New England. The vest kept me warm while I was climbing, but did not inhibit my movement. | Source

Basic Layering Techniques

First, let's go over a few layering basics, universal to all outdoor enthusiasts. To put it simply: damp clothing is bad, and even dangerous in cold weather. Perspiration leads to damp clothes which are generally uncomfortable, and can lead to hypothermia. By layering clothes made from proper materials, moisture is allowed to escape while still trapping heat. Outer layers can also be removed as the core temperature rises.

Base Layer

The base layer is the innermost layer of clothing. The material of the base layer should wick sweat away from the body, and stay dry against the climber's skin. The base layer includes

  • underwear,
  • bra,
  • long underwear,
  • and shirt.

A proper base layer is just as important in hot weather as it is in cold: it will keep your body cool in the summer and dry in the winter.

There are two main options for base layer materials: merino wool and synthetic materials. Personally, my boyfriend and I prefer merino wool over synthetics and after comparing the pros, you'll see why.

Advantages of Merino Wool
Advantages of Synthetic Materials
NOT itchy. The merino wool fiber is five times finer than the human hair. Most people find it extremely comfortable.
Synthetic materials can better fit the shape of the body, and retain its shape better than wool.
Won't smell like BO, even after days of strenuous activity. The wool actually sucks in any moisture from your sweat, and the bacteria that like to live off of your sweat (and smell bad), don't like wool. So you don't have to worry about changes of clothes for a multi-day climbing trip!
Some people claim that synthetic materials are more durable than wool.
Warmer than almost any other material; merino wool has one of the highest insulation to weight ratios.
Higher end synthetic materials are better at wicking away sweat and allowing moisture to escape.
Insulates even when wet.
Less expensive than wool.
Machine washable.
Machine washable.
Mildew resistant (in case you were worried about your underwear developing mildew?)
 

Do you prefer wool or synthetic material?

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Mid Layer

The purpose of the mid layer is to trap heat, without trapping moisture. In very cold weather, you may need several mid layers. When in doubt, I usually go with more layers than less, because the point is to remove them as needed, and you have more control over your temperature with more layers. However, too many layers will create bulk, so layer efficiently for climbing trips, and invest in one quality mid layer.

Recommended materials: Fleece, wool, and goose down are recommended materials for mid layers. Goose down is the warmest, but quickly loses it's insulating abilities when it becomes wet.

Shell

The outermost layer is referred to as the "shell" because it's main function is to block wind and moisture from coming through, but also allow moisture to escape from the inside. A quality, breathable shell is irreplacable in every season, because it shouldn't trap much heat and is still useful on rainy summer days.

Recommended materials: There are a number of different materials that vary in water resistance and breathability, as well as price! One of the best, but priciest options is Gore-Tex. A good shell should will also have ventilation in the armpits.

This Arc'teryx shell, made with Gore-Tex, is waterproof, lightweight, breathable, and features pit zips, plus incredible attention to detail and function.
This Arc'teryx shell, made with Gore-Tex, is waterproof, lightweight, breathable, and features pit zips, plus incredible attention to detail and function. | Source

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