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The Art of Layering for Belaying

Kelly Cordes  /  January 28, 2011  /  3 Min Read  /  Climbing

Like flocks of swirling swallows or shimmering schools of tropical fish, our customers swoop in with mysteriously synchronized concerns and questions on a regular basis, prompting the need for ready answers. Times like these, nothing would be more handy than magically beaming knowledge out into the ether. Building on his "Kc - Jonny storm.jpg Another winter climbing tip, this one a key component to the clothing system: Overlayering, a.k.a. the belay parka. Everyone’s heard of layering, but the standard method can be wildly impractical for the stop-and-go activity of climbing, and so too often people err on the side of warmth (understandably enough), and wear too much insulation from the start – too much? Yes, definitely. They dress for standing around, which makes sense except that then you overheat when you’re moving. That makes you sweat. Then your clothes get damp and lose some insulating value – even the fancy synthetics drop-off some when wet. Then you’re cold. And wearing too much is bulky and uncomfortable, restricting your movement so you can’t climb as well, which means less fun. It’s rough, this micromanaging of your environment. Solution? Fairly simple: dress lighter and throw on an overlayer, or belay jacket, or puffy coat, whatever you want to call it.

How warm the overlayer depends on how cold the climbing. For winter climbing, everyone loves the DAS Parka and the higher-fill down parkas (as opposed to lighter three-season pieces like our Down Sweater). Soon I’ll get into the utility of superlight variations on the overlayering theme, what I sometimes call the “Micro Belay Parka,” like the Nano Puff.

Anyway, a lot goes into regulating body temperature while climbing in the cold, and we know most of it: don’t wear cotton, start with a wicking baselayer, add the right amount of insulation, put on a shell. Stay hydrated and well fed. Wear a hat. But what’s the “right amount of insulation”?

[Jonny Copp makes good use of his belay parka in Alaska, while descending from the first ascent of “Going Monk.” Photo: Kelly Cordes]

Here’s the time-honored, well-proven system centered around the belay parka:

1. Dress for action. Since you’re wearing a harness, realistically you can’t swap-out underlayers. Dress to keep warm when actually moving. Movement warms you up big-time. Overdress, especially in the upper body, and you soak your layers in sweat. It’s a bit of an art, and everyone’s different, so experiment. A good general rule is that if dressed just right for the climbing, you’ll be chilly standing around in those clothes. BUT…you simply add a layer over the top to warm you when you aren’t climbing. Thus:

2. Use the belay parka. The standard layering approach that even your grandma has heard about isn’t practical in the middle of a climb – what, like when you need to adjust your heat you’re gonna unbuckle your harness, remove your shell (at which moment you know you’ll get blasted with spindrift), change mid-layers, tuck them back in, they put your harness back on? No, you dress for action, and then throw on an overlayer.


Anytime you stop. Even on the approach. If you stop for any longer than, say, taking a leak, throw-on your belay parka to trap your heat before it leaves you. Climb with the belay parka in the top of your pack, or clipped to your harness. On multi-pitch climbs, put it on immediately atop each pitch, even though you reach the belay and feel warm. Don’t do it and you’ll get cold fast. Trap your hard-earned heat. Since you’re no longer moving, you won’t overheat and sweat-out. Perfect. Before the next pitch, the very last thing you do – after eating, drinking, changing gloves, breaking down the belay to a single good piece – is take it off. It’s a time-honored system for a reason: it works.

Kc - SD Hunter 02 ledge nap(LR)

[Scott DeCapio naps, ensconced in his puffy coat 3,000 feet up the north buttress of Mt. Hunter, Alaska. Photo: Kelly Cordes]

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