Fred Souchon hikes and flies from the summit of Mont Blanc. Credit: Fred Souchon
Professional mountain guide and paraglider pilot Fred Souchon tells us how to dress well to be comfortable whether hiking or flying.
Fred Souchon is a mountain guide, paraglider pilot and search-and-rescue professional based in Chamonix, Europe’s biggest mountain playground. An Advance team pilot and ambassador for clothing brand CimAlp, when it comes to outdoor clothing he is a fan of the layering principle – where you wear and can shed clothes in layers so you stay comfortable throughout the day, whatever you’re doing.
“I like to use the three-layers principle,” he says, “and then carry another layer for flying. The idea is you can use each layer individually or in combination. You can wear a T-shirt and Gore-Tex when walking in the rain or combine them all when you need protection against wind and cold. In a word, versatility.”
A common beginner’s mistake is to put all your clothes on and then start to walk. “For walking with a paraglider if your temperature is right before you set off, you are probably wearing too much,” Fred says. “You will have to stop 20 minutes later to take layers off. This not only wastes time, but your clothes will be wet with sweat.”
Olivier Roux from outdoor clothing company CimAlp agrees. “You must tell yourself if it’s ‘a little bit nippy’ then you are properly dressed.”
Replace your hiking top with a dry base layer before you launch. Even with the best insulation on top, flying in a damp T-shirt will see you shivering at base.
Base layers need to be good at wicking moisture away from the skin. Cotton is not ideal because it holds moisture. Nylon used to be the go-to material, but nowadays natural fibres have found their way into base layers, and for good reason.
“Merino wool has good thermal properties, ideal for colder weather, and it doesn’t irritate your skin,” explains Olivier. “Bamboo fibres are soft and comfortable, eco-friendly, and wick well.” CimAlp mix bamboo with silk. “It’s cool and comfortable and its natural elasticity makes it good for compression clothing too.”
Lyocell (Tencel™) is another natural fabric that’s derived from wood. “It also feels soft, wicks moisture well and can be produced sustainably.” Other eco-conscious materials include recycled polyester – blended with cotton it is good for lower activity-levels.
The mid-layer is your insulating layer. Polyester fleece remains a good choice if you’re working hard as it will wick, but it won’t keep the wind out.
Synthetic down is windproof and much warmer for its weight. It’s excellent for flying but you’ll sweat in it walking uphill.
Modern synthetic-down materials such as Primaloft are very good. They offer excellent warmth-to-weight ratio and don’t lose their insulating properties if wet (natural down clumps together when damp). “Synthetic down jackets are warm, breathable and pack down small,” Olivier says. “I love the sleeveless ones as they provide good warmth but ensure your arms have freedom of movement.”
You could opt for a four-layer system and have both a fleece and a Primaloft layer.
“When flying, you want something that provides protection against the wind and cold without being too loose,” says Olivier. “You want zipped pockets for supplies and stretchability to ensure freedom of movement.”
It needs to be windproof for flying – a softshell jacket which also offers some insulation is perfect. For hike-and-fly technical light jackets that are waterproof and wind resistant are good, just be aware they may be susceptible to damage from rubbing on harness straps.
Although not ideal for flying, a hood is a must if you are out in the mountains, in case the weather turns. Look for jackets with Recco reflectors: developed for finding skiers hit by avalanches they can also be used to help find you if you have an incident. Safety-wise, it is worth thinking about colours: bright colours like orange are better than darker colours for spotting from a distance.
Flying with a pod harness reduces the need for layers on your lower half; in summer you can fly in shorts. If you use an open harness you will want windproof trousers, and for colder weather, a thermal base layer.
Boots with good ankle support are always recommended, but there is a counter argument that heavy boots simply move the forces up to your knees. Boots are also heavy to walk in. Many pilots fly with light trail shoes, and if you fly a pod it can be hard to use the speed bar with big shoes.
“I always ask is it technical?” says Fred, “Will I get cold feet from snow and ice?” If so, he wears Alpine boots – the lightest available such as Salomon X-Alp Mtn or Scarpa Ribelle HD. If they are not needed he will use light trail shoes like the CimAlp 864.
Whatever you choose, hooks are “a big no-no” as they can catch lines.
You need warm gloves. One option is to combine lighter summer gloves with thicker gloves or brake mittens. Tuck your gloves inside your jacket sleeves to stop airflow (and cold) creeping in. Ski gloves have big cuffs which can catch the air when you are holding the brakes; tuck them inside. Protect against sun and wind with a balaclava or buff. Goggles give better wind protection than sunglasses, but make sure they have good all-round vision.
dress for success, Fred Souchon’s TOP TIPS
- You won’t be too hot! You never know how long or how high your flight will take you.
- In early season I always carry a pair of speed sleeves in my cocoon and spare gloves in case I drop one.
- The flight can be cold but if you land in a low valley and have to walk it can be hot. Trousers that convert into shorts are a good idea for walking along the road.
- Having the right clothing will make it easier to focus on the flying – don’t neglect the accessories like shoes, gloves and eye protection