How to Layer Ski Touring and Avoid a Mid-Layer Crisis

Ski touring gear


The reason that layers are essential for ski touring, why puffas are best for stashing and what's the best way to avoid a mid-layer crisis

You should always wear one layer less so you feel a slight chill at the start of a ski tour. This is what our mountain guide in Niseko told me when it was -10C on a January morning as we parked up to climb Mount Yotei. So even though it seemed against all survival sense, I stuffed my puffa gilet into my avy bag.

I, then, had to jog around the van for 20 minutes to keep a 'slight chill' from becoming a full-on freeze as a young guy in our group struggled to get into his hired touring boots, which as well as being super cold and unyielding, seemed to be a tad too small.

When we did get going, after our guide went beyond the call of duty by swapping his own boots with his client's rented ones, otherwise we would have been in the car park all morning, I did indeed warm up on the climb to a comfortable temperature without having to take that annoying break after the first  half an hour to shred a layer. 


The extra heat generated on the uphill was compensated by the cooling temperatures the higher we climbed Yotei, so it kept my body control thermostat at an optimum level without discarding my lightweight down jacket. The same young guy, though, who hadn't listened to the guide's advice about layers, was still in his bulky ski jacket, sweating from the uphill exertion. 

We didn't make it to the top as the weather was getting Baltic above the tree line and so decided to transition after a 900m ascent. It was -17C with an icy wind chill and, while I gratefully pulled on my puffa gilet over my jacket (rather than having to take my jacket off to put it on underneath) he was rapidly getting chilled, the sweat from the ascent quickly freezing when we stopped.


He was close to hypothermia but, thanks again to our hero guide giving him his own down jacket to wear on top and some hot tea, he lived to ski tour another day. Although, like many a 'snowflake', as in under 25 year old, I don't think he really appreciated the point of earning your turns.

The point to this story, though, is that layering - and the right layers - are crucial for ski touring. It's better, of course, to have too many layers than too few, to suffer a bit of heat rather than risk freezing. Sweat, though, is not good news as it can cool rapidly during transitioning, which is not ideal and can potentially lead to a more serious situation as the young guy in our group discovered.

The key, though, is being able to stash extra layers and to have quick access. But as an avy bag is less spacious than a backpack without the safety mechanism installed, there will always be a limit to what your can stuff in.


So is there anything you can sacrifice carrying in the bag? Well, not a shovel and probes, obviously, for safety reasons. A drinks bottle, though, can take up valuable space and even a water bladder can add volume. Having a bottle holder attached to a backpack shoulder strap is one of the best solutions, freeing up space and making an essentially hydratng drink easily accessible.

Puffas are my personal outer layers of choice. A down jacket and/or gilet compress easily into small spaces, are super lightweight to carry but give great warmth, like putting on a duvet when you're cold.


A waterproof shell is, also, essential for winter touring especially Japan where it's likely to be snowing. For most, this is the outer layer,keeping you dry, but you don't necessarily have the luxury of time or temperature while transitioning to put on your layers in the right order. While ski touring in Sapporo, I was wearing a Rab Gore-Tex outer shell on the way up in a white out. It was so bitter when we transitioned that I didn't want to lose heat taking it off and so I pulled my puffa jacket out of the bag and wore it on top.

And, BTW, there's always a spare corner for an extra pair of gloves, which you'll welcome if the pair you are wearing become wet while you take the skins off and, therefore, freeze your fingers. Heated ones? Even better.


Base layers are pretty easy to get right. It's what goes in the middle that can lead to a mid-layer crisis. It needs to be breathable to let the sweat out and light enough to stash away in really warm spring temperatures, when ski touring in just a t-shirt is feasible.

This layer is essentially performance based, needing to be far more technical to keep warmth in but let the sweat out. So not a bulky polyester hoody. Some fibres, such as Merino, work much better than others and, also, some designs technically get it right with breathable panels where you need them, such as under the arms.

Also, highly recommended, zips, to let the air in whether it's the neckline of your mid-layer or the side vents of your ski touring pants.