The Best Backcountry Layering Pieces for High Alpine Travel

Light, low-profile layers for long days in the mountains


We’ve all been caught in the wrong clothes for the occasion. Hiking boots on a creek-bound canyon hike, fleece-lined climbing pants on a 95-degree approach, a windbreaker in the pouring rain. It’s a unique sort of bummer: the consequences are usually limited to discomfort, but they also could’ve been easily avoided.

Multi-day trips into the high alpine in the warmer months present a particularly tricky problem. The weather and surrounding terrain change quickly. I might be on dry, sunny trails in 80 degree weather one afternoon and crossing a wind-swept snowfield in freezing temperatures the next morning. I likely have plenty of other stuff in my pack—ropes, slings, harnesses, climbing pro, avalanche gear, crampons, ice axes—and am hoping to keep everything else as bare-bones as possible. So when I find a good piece of clothing, one that layers seamlessly, packs easily, and gets the job done in a variety of conditions, I’m stoked. Here are a few of my favorite layering pieces for high-variable trips.

Arc’Teryx Alpha FL Jacket 

Getting caught in a storm without proper protection from the elements is the quickest way to turn casual discomfort into actual physical danger, so I never travel without Gore-tex (or a similarly water-resistant fabric). That said, I’ve also gone on many trips where the weather window holds and said Gore-tex never comes out of my pack. My water-resistant outerwear is simultaneously my least-worn and most important layer, which means I want something bomb-proof but lightweight enough to carry around for three days without resenting the space it might take up. The Alpha FL Jacket does the trick, coming in at just over 10 ounces and packing down into its own tiny stuff sack. It’s held up against wet, cold, and windy weather like a charm, is made of a durable N40p-X face fabric, and is carefully designed to maximize breathability when you’re working hard in bad conditions. The helmet-compatible hood and chest pockets were designed for climbers, giving you access to little necessities without having to wrestle with a harness or a hipbelt.

Arc’Teryx Psiphon FL Pant

The Psiphon FL pant is durable, lightweight, and super-breathable. It doesn’t have me sweating on hot approaches but still keeps me protected from cold wind and light rain. The waistband features a super low-profile adjustable belt that fits comfortably under a harness or hipbelt, and the large thigh pockets are great for maps, chapstick, and other necessities. The only downside to these pants, for me, is the low-rise waistband. The cut—trim, with tapered legs—is flattering to the point that they look almost dressy when worn around-town. It’s not all for show, though; the trim cut is great for mobility and the tapered legs help minimize crampon snags, keep out updrafts, and keep things streamlined underneath gaiters. But the low-rise waistband seems to be a purely aesthetic choice, and it hits at or below my harness and my pack’s hip-belt, which can lead to chafing and sagging. If you’re blessed with powerful thighs, consider sizing up, and if you’re doing more rock than alpine climbing, try the Psiphon SL.

Duckworth Vapor Tunnel Hood

This Montana-based wool company does a lot of things right, especially their streetwear. But this flattering wool-blend shirt is my go-to performance piece, year round. It’s both my base layer and my sun shirt, soft and cozy enough for next-to-skin wear, but super breathable in warmer temperatures. The high neck and built in hood provide excellent sun protection for your neck and ears. The wool is anti-microbial, meaning it shouldn’t pick up stink until it’s really been through the ringer. Since it’s a blend, it doesn’t change size or shape when you put it through the wash (which, as someone who sweats a lot and likes to wear my clothes into the ground, is a real necessity).

Flylow Dolly Shirt

If it’s truly baking out there, I skip the wool and bring a sunshirt along with me. Lately, the Flylow Dolly Shirt has become my go-to—it’s incredibly lightweight, and cut generously for layering and ease of movement without being bulky. I’ll throw it over my tank top or t-shirt when I hit snowfields and need to protect my skin but don’t want to sweat all the way through my backpack straps in layers meant for warmth. Back at lower altitudes, the Dolly is perfect for long days on the water, in the desert, or just lazing around the backyard. Just like you, it works hard, plays hard, and looks good doing it.

Stio Alpha Alpine Hooded Jacket

The Alpha Alpine Hooded Jacket is my mid-layer of choice, taking the place of a quarter-zip fleece in my layering system. Thanks to Polartec Alpha insulation, a new fabric that solves the breathability/warmth problem with a low-profile, lightweight synthetic insulation, this jacket is impossibly light, packable, and breathable. The outer fabric is so soft I worried it would be fragile, but it’s held up against chafing backpacks, sharp rock, and plenty of weather (it’s 80/20 windproof and water resistant). It’s my most versatile piece of outdoor gear, something I’ll happily wear skiing, running, biking, hiking, and around town. Bonus: It’s reversible, so it’s harder for my friends to catch on that I’ve been wearing the same thing for weeks.

Other backcountry layering pieces we love:

Arc’Teryx’s Cerium LT Down Jacket is lightweight, super warm, and well-cut for layering.

Icebreaker Wool Leggings offer a comfortable fit, durability, and snug stretch even after several days of use.

Protect your neck—and your head—with Skida’s low-profile, sustainably-sourced hats and buffs.

Photo by McKay Savage.

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