Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Backcountry is No Place  for Calvin Klein

Since hypothermia is the most common cause of accidental death in the backcountry, proper clothing is essential to every backcountry user from novice to professional.  Hypothermia results when the body loses more heat than it can generate.  Effective dressing is the simplest way to avoid hypothermia in the diverse weather of the backcountry.

Effective dressing means more than simply owning the most expensive parka and the fanciest rain gear.  World-class mountaineers have long known the value of specialized techniques in mountaineering dress.

At any time of the year, the most effective way to dress is by "layering".  This method has been proven, not only on Mount Everest but in the cold northern regions of Minnesota as well. Layering simply means wearing one thin layer of clothing over another over another.  Many experienced winter mountaineers do not carry a heavy down parka into the backcountry and for good reason.  If they become warm underneath a down parka, removing the parka leaves them extremely exposed.  Rather, they will carry numerous lightweight layers.

The advantage of layering is that one can add and remove protection from the elements in small increments, thus balancing heat generation with heat loss.  In addition, layering traps dead air for additional weight-free insulation.

Composition of Layers
The body is a source of heat, which you want to retain within your clothing.  It is also a source of moisture, in the form of perspiration that, in many situations, must be kept away from the skin due to the cooling effect of evaporation.  For this reason, the layers of clothing near your body should be thin and porous to hold in heat and wick away perspiration.  Middle layers should be thicker in insulating quality to hold in more heat, yet be able to dissipate the moisture further away from the body. Finally, the outer layers should be thick enough to prevent heat loss and still protect the inner layers from the external elements. The most effective outer layer is completely waterproof, yet allows water vapor (perspiration) to escape.  Most conventional rain-gear does not allow water vapor to breathe, thus the body's perspiration is held within the layers of clothing, increasing evaporative heat loss and saturating clothes.

The key to mastering the layering system is to add or remove layers of clothing at just the right times.  Remove a layer before you begin sweating; add a layer before you get cold.  By doing so, you can balance the amount of your body's heat generation with heat loss.  Conserve your sweat, not your water!

Extra Clothing 
In discussing the "ten essentials," in previous posts we have suggested carrying additional clothes.  This simple suggestion should not be overlooked, since a warm, balmy morning at the trailhead often ends in a cool, windy chill on the summit.

Be prepared, think before and stay safe!

For more information on backcountry safety, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education programs @

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 

1 comment:

  1. The Mountaineers was organized as a Club in Seattle in 1906 to meet the needs of men and women in the Pacific Northwest who hiked and climbed in the North Cascades. Their standard text for these activities is "Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills", now in its 8th edition. The Mountaineers club became active in introducing people to the Wilderness and they began offering their annual Climbing Courses in the 1930s. It was soon determined that each participant in their activities must carry certain essential equipment. This equipment became known as The Ten Essentials. It is now known as THE TEN ESSENTIAL SYSTEMS.

    As a teaching aid in Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, the original traditional Ten Essentials were listed as follows:
    1. Maps of the area; 2. Declination adjusted compass; 3. Flashlight, extra batteries/bulb; 4. Extra food; 5. Extra clothing; 6. Sunglasses and sun screen; 7. First aid kit; 8. Pocket knife; 9. Waterproof matches; 10. Fire starter. Across the nation, over the years, hikers, backpackers, climbing club and outdoor program participants, by the hundreds of thousands have memorized this list. The traditional Ten Essentials have been listed and discussed in countless books and magazine articles.

    "The Ten Essentials", however, is a list of individual items from the 1930s neither ten nor essential. A powerful indictment of the list is that it does not even include water. Dating from the days before the invention of 3 ounce stoves and 8 ounce cans of Propane, it presumes that you can start a warming fire - which is likely impossible in blowing snow or in a snow cave, unless you "burned the fire starter, the map, your sunglasses, and your plastic whistle". The Oregon Episcopal School Tragedy

    What it all comes down to is that all members of an outing’s group must be individually prepared for the inevitable unexpected situations requiring stranding in one place. The pooling of this personal equipment carried by each individual such as a foot square insulating summer "shorty pad" or extra clothing layers may help save the life of a member of the group. Simply advising people to carry "Supplies" is irresponsible. The new "Ten Essential Systems" is an up to date standard framework!

    Read More here:

    --Robert Speik