How to dress for a play-everywhere day

The swiftest path to an epically unfun day of outdoor exploration is to fail to dress appropriately for the adventure, but solving the riddle of what to wear can feel like advanced algebra. It’s weather multiplied by altitude, divided by fabric choice, and squared by exertion factors and activity variables. While it seems complicated, there are some basic rules to follow to make dressing for a successful day on Colorado’s Western Slope a lot less like math.

Rule 1: Let's talk about the weather

You study the forecast for Montrose and think you have it all planned, but weather here at just shy of 6,000 feet in the Uncompahgre Valley is a totally different scenario than at most of the trailheads, fishing spots, and ski runs. That is what makes Montrose an amazing basecamp: it is temperate. But you need to dress for where your boots hit the ground and the adventure starts, so make sure you check the forecast for that location in addition to Montrose. Then, you need to keep in mind that the temperature changes with altitude. For every thousand feet of elevation you gain, you can expect to lose a little over three degrees Fahrenheit. Sure, you’ll be creating body heat if you are ascending, but if your activity involves stopping and spending an hour or a night at elevation, be sure to bring the right clothes for those conditions.

Rule 2: A word or two … or three … about cotton

With apologies to the states that still find this crop a lucrative endeavor, there is no denying that cotton kills. Purge your adventure closet of this menace. There should never, ever, be blue jeans on the ski slope or a baggy, well-worn college sweatshirt at an alpine lake. You sweat, you don’t think to bring a rain coat and get caught in a mountain shower, or you take a tumble off the edge of the groomer and come up a snowman — your cotton is soaked. You will stay wet. And you will get cold. And if I’m the wilderness first responder who finds you, my first job is to strip that cotton off and get you into fabric that doesn’t intend to see you freeze. Playing outside means choosing play clothes that are going to wick away moisture and keep your skin dry and warm. Choose wool or synthetics every time. That goes for your skivvies too, but more on that later.

Rule 3: It’s all about that base, ‘bout that base

Yes, it is all about the base, and the layers. Let’s face it: you can expect to encounter pretty much anything out on our trails in any season. Having the right layers of clothing allows you to adapt to the changing environment and keep going. And the advantage of layering is that the system works for all seasons.

Those cotton skivvies mentioned earlier? Ditch them, and get yourself some nice wicking undies. While they used to be harder to find and required a trip to a Patagonia dealer, now you can go to most stores and find synthetic fabric underwear marketed for athletics from brands like Champion and Under Armor. They’ll do the trick just fine. If you prefer natural fibers, there are wool-based options that are quite delightful as well. Now, dudes, avert your eyes so I can speak to the adventure sisters out there. If you feel the need to wear a bra, but prefer avoiding their annoying straps chaffing under your backpack, be sure to find a good wicking bra that provides the support you seek. There are lots of synthetic and wool options out there. My “go to,” if I’m going to, remains the Patagonia Active Mesh Bra (retail $39).

Choosing socks is a whole science and article to itself. The wrong socks will leave your feet moist and blister-prone, and that just isn’t good for an adventure. Go for good wool socks here, no matter the outing. The only decision is what weight you need for the day — thin for a trail run, midweight for most hikes, and maybe compression for skiing.

You’ve started your layering right. Now add the “next-to-skin” layer, also known as the base layer. This can be a complicated layer for Montrose-based adventures, because we have lots of different scenarios. The key concept is to move moisture away from you skin. So, if it’s summer and you are heading northwest to Big Dominguez, it’s a pair of shorts and a wicking t-shirt or a light, long-sleeved sun shirt. If it’s winter and you are going snowshoeing at Ironton south of Ouray, you will want long underwear layers made from synthetic or wool fabrics. The more athletic the activity (Nordic skiing versus ice fishing), the lighter you need the layer to be. And I like to make sure that this layer has a good zipper for letting off a little extra steam.

Next is your mid-layer, or the layer that provides the insulation. It may be the one you keep in your pack and only drag out if necessary, or it may be the hiking or ski pants you put over your base. This layer can be a wicking fleece sweatshirt or a light polyfill insulation jacket. It depends on the season, amount of exertion, and expected circumstances. And you may need both the fleece and insulation for the winter fun. Just remember: no cotton.

Finally, the top layer. This is the one to protect you from the elements. For summer adventures around the Western Slope this can be a light wind shirt or rain coat that will block the breeze and move the moisture away from your other layers and keep it from penetrating when you get that 2 pm rain shower. And, do not underestimate the value of a good set of rain pants. By trapping in some heat they’ve gotten me through a few unexpectedly cold hikes. In colder seasons, you may need a soft shell that provides a heavier layer of protection from the elements. A soft shell over base and midlayers is perfect for snowshoeing at Black Canyon and provides protection against the wind and snow while still being flexible and athletic. When winter is roaring and the snow is flying at the resort, consider an insulated shell jacket and pants, even though they lack some of the flexibility of lighter, breathable shells.

The extras. Your mother, or was it grandmother, was totally right: you do lose a lot of heat from your bare noggin, so putting on a hat makes a big difference. Always pack a head cover. We never leave home, at least not for the mountains, without light gloves in our packs, because cold hands make for unhappy wives. Incidentally, we also keep a set of chemical handwarmers in our packs. Last, and largely for the ladies, although I have encountered kilt-wearing men out there, insulated skirts are growing in popularity. I love mine. A little extra insulation around the bootie can turn a pair of Nordic tights into a dream or be just the ticket beside a late-season backcountry campfire.

That’s it. Build the layering system in the color scheme that matches your passion — woodland for hunting and fishing, or obnoxiously bright for skiing and climbing. Then put on the right layers (did I mention no cotton?), and stash the others in your pack. Remember that going up means getting colder, so don’t forget to pack the hat and gloves. And, this is important: layers are meant to be adjusted. Make sure you aren’t sweating on the way up, only to get super chilled at the turnaround point. One of my gurus once told me, “Always start your day a little on the cool side because you will warm up.” Good advice.·