Being comfortable in the hills and mountains of the UK can be a bit of a dark art. As your work rate and the weather vary during the day, your body and clothing will often struggle to keep you comfortable. A basic understanding of what to wear and how it’s designed to work can help a lot, but only if you put principles into practice. This means thinking about what you’re wearing throughout the day and sticking to some wise outdoor mantras like “can’t be bothered, better had” and “be bold, start cold”.
Spring and climbing - two challenges for the clothing department. Spring weather is notoriously fickle, and when we add this on top of the UK’s already famously changeable climate, a spring day in the hills can pose real difficulties. Temperatures can fluctuate wildly, the sun beats down, the wind whips about, and it’s not uncommon to experience all the delightful genres of precipitation in a single day! Couple this with the varying levels of physical work you’ll be undertaking as a climber and the end result is that we can easily be asking too much of any single outfit to work perfectly all day long. This is where layering comes into play. Multiple layers allow you to add and remove from your system as appropriate, but its important to get the balance right, aiming to pack only what you need to stay safe and comfortable.
Today we are lucky to have such a technical array of outdoor clothing at our disposal. Everything from baselayers to fleeces, to waterproofs have been carefully designed and tailored to keep us comfortable in the hills. At the end of the day though, the kit available is only as good as the person using it, you. Before you pack for the hill, internalise a reliable weather forecast - this should help with deciding which essential items to take and, importantly, which to risk leaving behind.
A layering system’s strength lies in its versatility, and its ability to keep you warm and dry across a wide variety of conditions, so consider taking layers that can perform multiple functions rather than those that only work in one very specific set of circumstances. For example, an insulating layer with a good DWR will shed light rain, eliminating the need for a more serious, bulky waterproof.
Any good clothing system starts with a solid baselayer. Even the snazziest mid-layer in the world will only be effective if your baselayer breathes and wicks well. For cooler weather, an insulating baselayer can help reduce your need for additional insulation and materials like Merino wool breathe and wick extremely well while also keeping you warm. In warmer weather, synthetic baselayers are generally better for helping to manage temperature and always a better alternative to cotton which, as the old saying goes, “kills in the hills”.
When you hear the term mid-layer, it’s probably a classic pile fleece that immediately springs to mind, but I rarely wear a traditional fleece these days. It’s a personal choice, but I find that a light synthetic jacket with a healthy amount of wind resistance and a snuggly hood (that works well with your helmet on) is perfect for my needs. It’s also a faster drying option for those occasions when you are caught out by the rain.
On cold days, my mid-layer will sit under my harness, so I try to use mid-layers that have a reasonably long cut, as this makes them less likely to ride or bunch up annoyingly around the harness. This helps to avoid those exposed little patches of skin that not only look uncool, but open you up to the worst of the wind.
If there is any chance of proper rain or if I’m going to a more remote crag, I’ll pack a decent waterproof shell. Forming the outermost layer of my clothing system, I prioritise shells made with a material that’s been engineered to allow at least some of the moisture I create to move through it to the outside, ensuring I stay as dry as possible underneath.
However, if the weather is supposed to be just windy and cold with only the possibility of an odd shower, then a softshell jacket is a my go-to choice because their breathability is almost always superior to that of a waterproof.
It’s always tricky deciding when to put on a shell and often it’ll be left in your pack at the bottom of the crag when you need it most. The best solution to avoiding this is to use as breathable a shell layer as possible, whether this is a softshell or a highly breathable waterproof like Rab’s Kinetic Plus.
One decent oversized synthetic or water resistant down belay jacket between a climbing pair is usually enough for cold spring climbing days on long routes. You can swap it over on stances to keep you warm while the leader inches up the next pitch. Just be sure you know who’s supposed to be bringing the jacket so you don’t both end up carrying one!
An ultra-light Jacket available for quick draw
It’s not a bad idea to climb with an ultralight windproof clipped to your harness or in the crag bag, especially in spring. At about the same weight or less than a quickdraw it’s no extra hassle and can make a real difference. While it won’t keep you dry in much more than a half respectable drizzle, the psychological value of having one on while watching your partner suffer in their cotton tee is profound and, on a more serious note, they do make a big difference when belaying in the wind at the top of the crag.
The bottom half
Climbing-specific trousers are fantastic these days. A light to mid-weight softshell (depending on the weather forecast) as stretchy as you can find will often do the job perfectly for most spring days. Ideally, I like them to have a low bulk waistband for comfort and zippered pockets that are easily accessible when you’re wearing a harness. Condition-dependent I’ll also often risk not taking waterproof bottoms. If a light shower is all you’re forecast, most modern softshells will dry out fast enough that you’ll hardly notice you were wet in the first place, so all the faff of waterproof trousers seems rather unnecessary.
Be bold, start cold
Even when you’ve perfected your layers, the only way they’ll work is if you apply the right mix in the right context. One of the most common mistakes people make is to leave layers on for too long. If you’re about to take on the crux pitch of a route or start an uphill slog to the crag your work rate is going to increase. Pre-empt the oncoming perspiration by being bold and starting cold! Shed a layer before it’s too late and you’re committed to sweating your way up a pitch with a warm jacket on your back! Take it from someone who’s been there, it’s a horrible state to get yourself into and it won’t do your climbing any favours. And remember, if you find yourself thinking that you can’t be bothered to strip down a layer, it means you really better had.
In a nutshell
Layering systems for spring rock climbing can be summarised briefly with: “be bold start cold”, “can’t be bothered better had” and “cotton kills in the hills”. Much of the rest is personal preference and judgement on the day. These last factors can only be perfected through experience and the only solution to that is to get outside and climb as much as possible!
Sam Farnsworth has been instructing for fifteen years. His climbing career began in native Devon, and once he'd escaped the cream teas, has taken him all over; from Yosemite, to Venezuela and throughout the UK. Sam runs North Wales-based Gaia Adventures, delivering climbing and summer mountaineering courses, as well as overnight portaledge adventures and sport climbing trips to Spain