My clothing for the winter SHT has been a continuing conundrum to me. I need to be prepared for a wide range of temps, but I also need to keep it lightweight. I know the heavyweight options that I have used in the past are going to be overkill. I'm not going to take a fleece vest, 300 weight fleece jacket AND a down jacket all together. However, I know this heavyweight option has kept me warm. Thus, I (think) I've boiled it down to what I need.
For my head, I'm going with two hats: a thin fleece beanie and an OR Sonic Balaclava. The fleece hat is my trusty all-season insulating hat that I have taken everywhere. For its weight (1 oz), it is the warmest piece of gear I own (maybe). The balaclava is made of Gore Windstopper and WindPro fleece (ear panels). It also comes over my mouth and protects my nose. I know it is a laminate, so it will not breath as well, but it is there when the wind really starts blowing. My experience has shown me that wind protection on one's cheeks is a necessity. Coupled with a pair of goggles, I should be able to completely close off my face to the weather.
My biggest issues have come with my torso insulation layers. Working from the skin out, I am taking a Stephenson's VBL shirt, a REI Mistral jacket as my primary active wear. Both can serve as a base layer, and the REI jacket, which is made of PowerShield, is there for additional insulation when moving.
(I could just drop the Mistral jacket, but this needs some testing. This would then be placed in the uncomfortable position of being without flexibility in my clothing i.e. down jacket either on or off, nothing in between for my torso. I have also toyed around with the idea of bringing a thin fleece jacket or fleece vest instead.)
For insulation layers, I am taking my Nupste down jacket by The North Face. It's heavy, I know, but it is incredibly warm. I would prefer a lighter weight parka with an insulated hood and baffled construction, but I don't have the kind of cash to throw down for a Feathered Friends Hooded Helios or Hooded Volant Jacket. I would like to take my Thermawrap parka, but I don't think it will be warm enough without bringing some serious fleece to put underneath.
For a storm shell, I am taking my Rab Drillium. See my initial review of it here. In short, I believe a true hardshell is necessary given the uncertainties of weather and the locale where I will be. Although I lack experience with softshells in winter conditions, the theory does not jive with me: the snow may be wet and extensive, and that could/would wet out a hooded softshell, such as the Arc'Teryx Gamma MX Hoody or a Beyond Clothing Cold Play X Jacket.
Quickly, on softshells: Much has been written about the benefits of softshell clothing for winter use, here, here, here, and here. (please excuse the member-only content from last two). I am bringing a soft-shell style jacket with me, al beit without a hood and designed as a flexible base layer. If the weather was drier, I would be going with a softshell-style storm shell. However, the possibility of lake-effect blizzards requires a true hardshell to handle the expected conditions.
For my legs, I am taking a thin base layer for my next-to-skin layer. As my main active pant, I just bit the bullet and bought a pair of Marmot Scree Pants at 20 percent off. I know, it is a softshell and I just railed on them earlier. So let me explain. I am already wearing a softshell material for my lower legs, so I think I should extend that to my thighs. Even in a storm, I do not expect to have snow sticking to my legs like it would on the top of my hood, shoulders and arms. A few reasons: my legs are not horizontal and they are constantly moving. They provide no shoulder for snow to . The only exception to this is a blizzard in 30 degree weather where the snow melts on contact. I have experienced this kind of storm in central Minnesota and it that snowstorm (18" in 18 hours @ 30 degrees F) and it is in the back of my mind (my friends, too!). This, I know is an extreme, but it is something I need to be able to deal with. I the end, it is really about breathability. I am concerned with how much heat I will be putting out, and something more breathable than a hardshell is necessary for my legs.
Finally, experience tells me that a softshell pant is a good decision. At winter camp, the scouts wear wool pants over their base layers and are fine. They rarely wear fleece pants underneath or have hard shells over them. Thus, I have faith in a softshell pant. Eventually, I may move to a true softshell jacket (with hood), but that might take a while.
I am also taking some Stephenson's VBL pants. I anticipate these will only be used for really cold days where wearing my insulated pants while moving is necessary (sub -10 F). For insulating pants, I will be taking some Montbell Thermawrap U.L. pants. They are lighter and more compressible than my 100 microfleece pants, and they fit better.
On my feet will be (skin out), some Fox River X-static liner socks, Integral Designs VBL sock, a SmartWool Mountaineering sock, and lastly, my boots, a pair of Steger Mukluks Arctics w/o ribbon. I will be wearing a pair of MSR Lightning Ascents (25") for snowshoes.
For my hands, I will me taking my tried-and-true Black Diamond JetStream gloves. They're made of WindPro Polartec fleece, and are molded to my hands well. Experience has shown me that they should be good down to at least 0 (F) when moving. For insulating mitts, I will be using a pair of REI Ridgecrest, which are completely waterproof and have a Primaloft-like insulation. Ideally, I would like to take a VBL mitt, a la RBH Designs or the BPL Vapor Mitt, but it's a cost issue - I also can't justify purchasing them when I have perfectly good mitts to begin with.
I have debated these clothing choices much, and of all of the areas, I am most comfortable with my hand and foot layers. I believe I will be able to deal with any temperature the North Shore can throw at me, and probably more. The record low for Grand Marais is -35 (F), which is 15 degrees colder than I have ever experienced. That said, I have dealt with some crazy temps with outrageous windchills, and I believe I have assembled a hit that will be warm enough but also weigh a little as economically possible. Yes, there are lighter alternatives that are warmer for their weight, but those toys are far off. Until then, I'll deal with what I have.