What to wear in a Yampa Valley winter
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the Explore Steamboat magazine that was published Jan. 13, 2023.
Every November, the cold and snow return to Steamboat Springs, but those who have grown up with it or spent years working in it have discovered what it takes to be comfortable as they face the elements outside.
“I don’t do anything that is any different than what most people do,” said Russ Sanford, a veteran member of Routt County Search and Rescue. “This isn’t rocket science, but there are things you can do that are proven to work.”
Sanford, along with David Lamb, a former Alpine ski racer and top-level ski cross athlete, and Kajsa Wiik-Lindgren, the granddaughter of Nordic skiing legend Sven Wiik and manager at the Steamboat Ski Touring Center shared their tips for staying warm outside on those frigid days in the Yampa Valley.
A good shell
David Lamb excelled on the steep-pitched slopes of Howelsen Hill and Mount Werner as a member of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, and went on to compete with the U.S. Ski Team and University of Denver before he pursued the opportunity to represent his country in ski cross at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Sadly, injuries ended his career before the Olympics, but that hasn’t kept Lamb off the slopes. He continues to fuel his love of skiing — most of the time with his two young daughters — or during his annual heli-skiing trip.
“Because of the backcountry stuff, and the heli-skiing that we do every year, the one thing that has become a must-have is a really good, serious outer shell that doesn’t get completely saturated with water,” Lamb said. “It has to be something you can be in the snow for like a 10 hour day, and not end up being soaking wet and freezing cold. A good shell is paramount to have and it doesn’t matter if it’s Gore-Tex or a fabric some of these other companies are coming up with; it has to be a fabric that will not let water in if it gets saturated.”
He said he also recommends a good pair of gloves that are also water and windproof.
However, Lamb, who has spent plenty of winters taking on the challenging conditions in the mountains, said staying dry and warm is about a lot more than just a few pieces of clothing. He said it’s a layered approach that starts with the base, includes one or more layers between, and an outer layer that includes a shell, pants, gloves, a hat and eye protection.
“You have to have that jacket and pants, they can be really thin, because you can put plenty of layers under,” Lamb said. “My go-tos are an excellent glove, and an excellent outer shell that can protect me. If I’ve got that I’m in business, and I can go out there all day without issue.”
When he hits the slopes these days, Lamb likes a Smartwool base layer, a mid-layer that includes Patagonia Nano, and R1 and a shell and pants from Spyder. He also adds a neck gaiter from Smartwool, a hat from Bogner and Hestra gloves.
Don’t go snow blind
After growing up in Steamboat Springs, and watching her family run the Steamboat Ski Touring Wiik-Lindgren is comfortable getting outside in the cold and understands the challenges a Yampa Valley winter can bring.
“I can tell you that my daily outfit doesn’t change very much in the winter,” Wiik-Lindgren said. “I have a base layer and typically a Merino wool sock, I prefer Point6, and I typically wear a pant from either Swix or Dæhlie with a windproof front and a breathable back. It is warm enough, especially when skiing, because it keeps the wind off your core, but still breathable. I usually do either a synthetic base layer, then a mid-layer and then a wind and water resistant lightweight jacket.”
Wiik-Lindgren said she prefers a glove with a leather palm because she likes the feel and says it gives her a little bit more dexterity and a little more grip.
“I’ve been wearing Swix Paragon gloves this winter,” Wiik-Lindgren said. “It’s a good lightweight glove, which keeps you warm. It’s good for skiing, and also for driving, and it dries super quickly.”
She tops her winter wardrobe off with a Sauce hat and a good pair of sunglasses with a mirrored lens.
“People don’t realize, especially when they’re not from here. that snow blindness is a real thing, and it can be brutal,” Wiik-Lindgren said. “Dark sunglasses, preferably with a mirrored lens, is my go-to. I will wear glasses without mirrored lenses as long as they are dark lenses because it keeps the sun in the sky dim, and then it keeps the reflection from the snow off my eyes.”
Sanford is not an aggressive backcountry skier, but as a member of Search and Rescue understands what it takes to stay warm in Routt County. He said the key to staying warm is carefully layering your clothing that stays dry, wicks moisture away from the body and creates pockets that trap warm air.
“It’s a combination of things,” Sanford said. “I like a good thin wicking base-layer on the top for sure, and if it’s super cold on the bottom as well.”
He said the base-layer should be made of a synthetic or a Merino wool, and he encourages people to avoid cotton, which tends to hold moisture altogether.
“I think some people make the mistake of putting their base layer over a pair of cotton Fruit of the Loom underwear — even your underwear needs to be synthetic,” Sanford said. “We’ve been using a phrase for decades, and it’s kind of cliche by now, but we used to say, ‘cotton kills.’”
He recommends a synthetic base layer, covered by one or two fleece insulating layers and a waterproof and windproof shell and pants. He also recommends a light, and heavy pair of gloves, and maybe a thin down puffy that can fit into a pack.
“I think a pack is one of the most important things you can have,” Sanford said. “I have a 48 liter pack that I’m really happy with. It can carry a lot if it needs to.”
In his case, he packs an extra pair of gloves, a pair of goggles and balaclava to keep his face warm if needed. It can also hold a pair of goggles, and is a place to store those extra layers if they are not needed.
“I don’t want to give the impression that I would be prepared to spend the night outside comfortably, but I will live through the night,” Sanford said. “And I might even be fairly comfortable.”
John F. Russell is the business reporter at the Steamboat Pilot & Today. To reach him, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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