I am officially a down skirt convert. Years were spent scoffing at down skirts on clearance racks. I wondering who cared about being feminine when crushing it in the backcountry. Surely down skirts were for people at ski resorts that spent most of their time in the bar. What a fool I was. Let me share with you the journey I found myself on this winter, and perhaps, you will become a convert as well.
During one of our snowshoe trips this year, I found myself standing next to a snowy lake. The wind whipped around my legs, instantly chilling my sweat soaked, spandex-clad tuchus. Knowing my snow pants would take too long to assemble, I grabbed my down jacket and wrapped it around my butt. I let the hood flop on the back and tied the arms into a lumpy belt. As I felt sweet warmth flood my lower body, and hypothermia panic ease into the distance, I realized I had fashioned myself a down skirt. The following weekend, I picked up the Marmot Pip insulated skirt at a REI garage sale and tested it at Source Lake a week later. Spoiler-alert: it was awesome.
Cold is a constant battle for me when snowshoeing. My core body temperature hovers around 96.5 F, which is a scant 1.5 degrees from the first stages of hypothermia. Snowshoeing is an active sport requiring minimal layers while climbing, lest you sweat and chill as soon as you stop moving. It took me years to find a layering system with minimal sweating on the ascent, but comfort at the peak. As a result, I am not an ultralight snowshoer, in fact, I am much more in the ultraheavy maximalist range. If you can get away with fewer layers and still have fun in the mountains, I applaud you! If you are sensitive to cold and love to flirt with hypothermia, I offer the down skirt as a solution.
The first year that we started snowshoeing regularly, my poor snowshoeing partners had to endure my audible sobbing on the descent. Once my body reaches a certain level of cold, crying is inevitable, even when I am having fun. This does not make for a joyful outing for my companions. No one wants to hike behind the person that is cry-gasping, “I promise I am ok, I just need to cry for 20 minutes”. It would be one thing if this drama was occurring on the top of K2 after a magnificent alpine feat. It is another thing entirely to subject friends to this drama when it is a bluebird day in the Cascade mountains 4 miles away from Steven’s Pass. Finding a layering system that avoids the chill was a top priority. Now when I cry in the mountains, it is not from cold!
My bottom layer when snowshoeing is CW-X running tights, which wick away sweat, and keep my legs the perfect temperature when climbing. As soon as I stop moving in the snow, I need to quickly layer up and that is where the skirt comes in so handy. With my insulated pants, I would need to align the pants perfectly, then fully zip each side. The zippers were small enough that I needed to remove my gloves and I usually struggled for about 5 minutes before I was fully dressed. With the down skirt, I am able to wear the running tights as a baselayer, and the skirt has a single, easy-to-thread zipper.
The down skirt came with me on every snowshoeing trip this year. It was perfect to quickly throw on at the top of the route. It traps the heat quickly and adds an extra layer of insulation if I decide to sit on the snow. Often, I kept the skirt on as we descended, as it is usually cooler going downhill. I purchased the Marmot Pip model (based entirely on what was at a REI garage sale for cheap…). At 8.3 oz it is lighter than my insulated pants, and the 700 fill power is very cozy. I have found is less compressible than other down items in my gear closet, but fits comfortably in my pack. This model is a little longer than others, and the shorter skirts are often lighter.
Now that is early season backpacking, I still find myself reaching for my down skirt. The overnight temperature has been about 32 F, and the down skirt has been cozy to wear around camp. I wear it to sleep at night inside my sleeping bag and it provides insulation on my hips, which are often cold.
I have also worn it to dinner and bars on the way home from snowshoeing. My running tights are, well, tight and in family restaurants, it is nice to throw a little something on top of my athletic gear. I take comfort in knowing that I brought the down skirt up a mountain before it came into the lodge.
The Unfortunate Fashion Truth
It must be addressed that I look slightly ridiculous. I feel like a badass in running tights on a snowy trail. I can see my muscles strain through the compression gear as I propel myself up a steep bank. With my spandex layers, I am working hard to succeed in a difficult landscape and persevering to accomplish my goals. I am the ultimate weekend snow warrior.
When I am wearing the down skirt, I feel like a gnome that has gone for a jaunt in the garden. I want to explain to everyone I see that even though I am wearing a skirt, I am still a mountaineer. I didn’t have one too many hot chocolates in the lodge and accidentally wander onto a snowfield, or throw money at REI until they gave me every ridiculous piece of their gear on the shelves (ok the last one might be true…).
The truth is, there are many issues with the glorification of masculinity and extreme fitness apparel in outdoor recreation. Wearing a down skirt does not make me weak, inadequate, or suggest that I do not belong in the mountains. It simply makes me warm. Learning to crush the section of my head that worries about appearances in the backcountry is a constant battle, but a worthy one, I think.
Of course, the history of badass women mountaineering in skirts completely abolishes that idea that wearing feminine clothes makes one less worthy of outdoor achievement. A great number of accomplished mountaineers in Washington regularly climbed alpine routes in skirts or skirt-like pantaloons. Perusing the University of Washington’s Mountaineers photograph collection, I saw women from the early 1900’s on difficult expeditions on Mount Rainier and Olympic mountains. These women often wore clothing that weighed 20 pounds, with only an alpenstock for aid.
Of course, women wore skirts to conform to Victorian standards of propriety, rather than a convenient method of staying warm. Nonetheless, early female mountaineers reached incredible heights. The women whose pictures I saw looked like they belonged in the mountains, faces exuberant, without embarrassment or imposter syndrome. With their feats as inspiration, I wear my down skirt with nothing but pride.
Images courtesy of University of Washington Mountaineers photograph collection.
Convinced? Here are a few models to get you started.
- Smartwool Corbet 120 | Synthetic |$120.00 | synthetic allows for insulation even when wet, merino-lined front panel, 2-way zipper.
- SKHOOP Mini Down Skirt | 600 fill down | $149.00 | windproof, water-resistant, 2-way zipper on the right side and venting zipper on the left side, plus 2 zipped pockets. Available year-round and available in longer length.
- Dynafit TLT Primaloft Insulated Skirt | Synthetic Primaloft | $120.00 | Stretchy side panels, full-length zip, and side partial zip.
- Marmot Banff | 700 fill down | $120.00 | Similar to the Pip model, the Banff model is longer with slightly larger baffles and an extra hand pocket.