Buying Right: Bombproof Duds for the Backcountry
By Andrew Tilin
Devoted backcountry skiers and snowboarders searching for new togs work from a different priority list than the rest of the downhilling populace. Features that add convenience for resort skiers only add bulk for those who hike to ski. Rather, the off-piste set studies clothing to ensure it will survive endless days of sleet and brushes with rock and shrubbery. And seemingly none of them flinches at the high prices-or the loud colors.
That's not to say backcountry attire is ugly. What people pay for, however, is durability, waterproofness, and light weight-above and beyond thoughtful vents and high-tech hoods. Such clothing should fit loose enough to allow you to wear over layers (the shells are uninsulated), yet it should be tailored so you don't tangle with branches. And regardless of whether you actually plan to ski the backcountry (in which case you'll need an avalanche transceiver) or stick to the resorts (where a trail map will do), these shells should have plenty of extra cargo space.
The minimalist Patagonia Torre Jacket ($415, 800-638-6464) is all business, with a stiff nylon shell that features even tougher nylon at the heavily stressed areas to avoid fraying and giant underarm zips for cooling. The convenient bellows chest pockets are an improvement over last year's model. The Sierra Designs Vortex Parka (top, $429, 800-736-8551) has zippered vents running diagonally from the chest to the small of the back; I found them to be a good alternative to underarm zippers. The two-part hood is also a winner-the warm, fleece liner can be worn and adjusted separately from the shell. Marmot's Newark ($399, 707-544-4590) has giant abrasion patches at the hips to keep the snowboard you're toting from shredding the parka. The shell also has an extended tail, so that when you sit there's at least one swatch of Gore-Tex between you and the snow.
The MontBell Tempest Full Zip Pant (shown, $269, 800-683-2002) also uses Gore-Tex to seal out moisture. The beauty of the featherweight Full Zip is compactability (a stuffsack is included) and comfort (the waist is elasticized and adjustable). Unfortunately, there are no built-in gaiters to keep out the powder, a feature found on many good backcountry pants. The Marmot Tough Pant ($250) is heavier but provides padding at knee and butt for insulation, plus it has the built-in gaiters. The Tough Pant employs Marmot's own waterproof-breathable membrane.
It's easy to pooh-pooh one-piece suits: They're so stylish, so expensive-so Vail. But try one on, and if you can carry it off, you won't go back. Starting at-or over-the top is The North Face's Peak 7 Shell Suit (left, $975, 800-447-2333). The coarse Gore-Tex suit has nine pockets and an internal suspender setup. A zip-on vest with a built-in hydration system and snow-shovel pocket is part of the deal. I never overheated in the Peak 7 or Mountain Hardwear's Back Country Suit ($495, 510-559-6700), which isn't as feature-laden or as tough but is very comfortable. Its shoulders are slightly padded for carrying boards, and the seat zips open for quick behind-the-tree stops. Under intense sun, I unzipped the suit halfway and skied with the top tied around my waist. When the snow came down, I sealed everything up and the waterproof-breathable Entrant coating kept me dry. No doubt it would have done so for many runs to come.
Copyright 1996, Outside magazine