Basic principles of clothing for climbing
'There's not much to it!' gasped my mother in horror and astonishment when I told her the price of my latest climbing jacket. This article looks at the features of technical clothing, the concept of layering, what you get for your money and key factors for performance.

Basic principles of clothing for climbing

To the untrained eye outdoor clothing can seem ridiculously expensive. Why do some jackets cost so much more than others? Besides, why not just wear your High-Street anorak bought in the sale?

Why not just wear your High-Street anorak bought in the sale?

If you're going into an extreme mountain environment, you need high performance fabrics that don't let you down. Add to this, the range of movement you want to achieve when climbing, and the fact that you're likely to be generating heat when you climb, you soon realise that garments for climbing have to be somewhat more carefully thought out than their High Street counterparts.

Hidden investments

High levels of activity demand high performance fabrics and garments with practical features that really work, often in extreme conditions. Invariably this makes these 'technical' garments more expensive than their look-alike High Street cousins. The features that make a good quality garment more expensive may not be obvious when you first look it as many features are hidden and only become apparent when pointed out to you or when used in difficult environments.


If your clothing does not allow your body to 'breathe' (sweat to evaporate) you will become progressively hotter and hotter and you will end up being very hot and very sweaty. Sometimes known as Resistance to Evaporative Transfer (RET), the higher the level of activity the more you sweat and the more breathable your kit needs to be.


This is essential if you're carrying a lot of gear (whether you are wearing it or carrying it in a rucksack), a wise alpine mountaineer - to whom moving fast is of paramount importance - will keep weight of his her clothing to a shocking minimum. Carrying excess weight uses extra effort and energy. The harder you climb, the more your own strength to weight ratio affects you. 

Low bulk

Bulky clothing takes up valuable space that could be used more efficiently. Carrying everything with you rather than using the boot of your car as a storage base changes your clothing priorities, especially when you can't fit everything into your rucksack. Some modern fabrics remarkably thin for their protection against wind, sun or cold and others are highly compressible to help pack them into small spaces such as a rucksack with limited capacity.


Poor fitting garments can a hindrance to movement and will not be efficient at keeping you warm and dry. Climbing and other high activity sports are based on movement so garment must either stretch as you move or be tailored to allow freedom of movement - particularly the sleeves of tops and waist and legs of trousers.
Abseil © corepics

There are a few fabrics that stretch with your body, don't absorb water and dry off quickly but they are usually hard to come by and come at a price. Add to this a ventilation system, pockets where you need them (and not covered up by your harness), durability, reinforcement fabrics on areas prone to wear, asymmetrical stitching, articulated elbows and knees, waterproof zips, dry pockets, seamless stitching, powder shirts, pit zips, streamlining, single handed cord pulls, collar draw cords. The features are endless but they are all used for a reason and unfortunately every feature added increases the cost of the garment.

Wicking ability

If you're doing any form of activity that raises a sweat, you need a base layer to actively remove (wick) perspiration from your skin. Although more expensive than cotton T-shirts, polypropylene and engineered polyester fabrics are the most efficient wicking materials and they are absolutely essential for long days in hills or mountains and a lot more comfortable than in hot weather.


Until very recently, layering your garments has been the fundamental concept to regulate your preferred temperature through all types of activity. Unless you have the very latest outdoor clothing, layering is still a very valid principle.

Imagine a winter mountaineer. He sets off with a big rucksack for a 5-mile hike up to the North Buttress of Ben Nevis (about 3000ft). He gets there and gears up at the bottom of a snowy gully and belays his mate for 21/2 hours before he can get moving again. By the time he's due to climb he's probably in the first throes of hypothermia.
Top Tip

For a long hard walk into a mountain crag in winter take a spare base layer for when you get there. If you can bear to strip off, do so and put on your dry vest (very refreshing!)
This is a classic situation when whatever you wear to walk in will be totally soaked by the time you get to the route. Then you freeze to death waiting for your mate to complete a tricky first pitch.

By using a base layer that wicks moisture from your body, with a breathable mid layer that provides warmth, and then a shell to keep the rain and snow off you, you can alter the combination and thickness of each layer to suit you needs. You can be completely versatile.

The layering system is still very valid and adaptable, especially for most current garments. As they say, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' The choice is yours but technology is moving at an alarming rate so don't get left behind!


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