guide to layering winter

Learning Proper Layering For Cold Weather Activity

For some reason, there is something about cold weather that makes the outdoors that much more fun. Exciting. Maybe it’s the crisp air as fall and frost settle in, or the foot of the snow on the ground in the middle of winter, but cold weather brings a whole new element to hiking and camping. Of course, you will also have to be properly prepared and dressed for such weather, which is why it’s so important to learn proper layering.

Learning proper layering is important for a few reasons. First, is safety. As we all know, hypothermia can set in quite quickly, and it’s of utmost importance to remain prepared and properly insulated for  sudden changes in the weather. Second, comfort. What’s the point of heading outside if you’re too cold to have fun?

The classic cold weather layering system consists of 3 layers – a base-layer, a mid-layer, and an outer shell. This approach allows you to add and remove layers as you heat up or cool down, and whenever the weather changes – whether unexpectedly or unexpectedly.

icebreaker merino baselayer

THE BASE-LAYER

The first and most fundamental piece of your cold weather outfit is the base-layer. Usually a lighter layer with an athletic fit made of breathable materials, its job is to wick moisture (aka sweat and rain) away from your skin, allowing you to stay warm even in cold weather.

Staying warm in cold weather is all about staying dry. Non-breathable materials, such as cotton, will simply soak up your sweat – and any water, keeping you cold and miserable. Common breathable materials include synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, nylon, fleece, and merino wool – soft, comfortable and warm. You can even get silk base-layers if you want.

We prefer merino wool, first because of its supreme softness, and second, for its natural antimicrobial properties; it not only naturally wicks moisture away, but also keeps bad odors from forming in your sweat. It costs a bit more than synthetic fabrics, but is definitely worth it; it’s like the down of clothing. Our choice for a merino wool base layer would be Icebreaker Everyday Half Zip, made of 200G Merino wool, or the SmartWool NTS MidWeight. Patagonia Capilene gets our pick for a synthetic base layer.

patagonia nano puff hoody layering

The Mid-Layer

A mid-layer, or insulating layer, keeps your warm by providing a full layer of warmth over your baselayer. It can take on the form of anything from a classic fleece, a puffy jacket, or some of the newer, hi-tech insulated jackets that populate the marketing (like the Arc’Teryx Atom LT). Like the base-layer, a good mid-layer can be made of natural materials (wool, down) or synthetic. Down will be the absolute warmest of all these materials, thanks to its extremely impressive warmth-to-weight ratio, but it doesn’t do as good a job at insulating once it gets wet. Wool does better than down when wet, but just isn’t quite as warm for its size. Our pick for a down mid-layer would be the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer, packed with 800 fill down for some serious warmth, even in the wet.

Synthetic fabrics can be made of Fleece, or from a synthetic fill (usually a polyester/nylon mix ) that resembles down, in both appearance and properties. They will come in just about any weight you like. Some of our favorites include the aforementioned Arc’Teryx Atom LT, on the lighter end, and the Arcteryx Atom SL for a thicker, warmer option. These premium mid-layers are stylish, slim and athletic, allowing for enhanced range of motion and activity. Another solid option if the Patagonia Nano Hoodie, which is one of the lightest, most-versatile and packable jackets on the market. Polartec Fleece Jackets also come in a variety of different weights for every weather and situation. However, fleece does not block wind as well as synthetic jackets with an outer fabric layer.

arcteryx alpha sv

THE SHELL

The last, but not insignificant, part of your outfit will be the outer shell, which serves to keep wind, rain and snow off. There’s quite the range of shells available, from simple rainshells to hardcore mountaineering jackets engineered for extreme weather.

Generally, they will be breathable to allow moisture and sweat to escape, while at the same time waterproof, to keep snow and rain out. This is a tough job; if sweat can’t escape, your insulating layers will become soaked and ineffective. But if water gets through, the shell itself is useless. DWR finishes ensure water bead up on the surface, as opposed to soaking in.

Shells will also be extremely packable and compact; most likely, it will spend most of its time packed away in your bag, and only pulled out when the weather takes a turn for the worse. If that is the case, keeping weight down is very important.

The most versatile shells are made using using laminated membranes such as Gore-Tex, or other custom fabric. These are also the most expensive options, but are meant for alpine activities, winter storms and rain, as well. Our choice would be the Arcteryx Beta SV, and the Arcteryx Alpha SL. Both offer Gore-tex membranes with DWR coating, as well as slim, athletic cuts and storm hoodies, and are built for the toughest of alpine conditions.

If you don’t need quite as much insulation or just need something to keep the rain off, any simple rainshell will do. These will usually have a waterproof membrane and DWR coating, much like the hardshells above, but won’t be built to the same level of durability and features that you would expect from a high-end, mountaineering hardshell. A good option in such a case might be the Marmot Minimalist Jacket, or the Patagonia Houdini.

Now, for extreme conditions, you may need some more extreme insulation. There are insulated hardshells, which provide warmth and waterproofness in the most demanding of weather. You won’t have as much flexibility in warmer weather, but you’ll be toasty warm and dry in the coldest. A good choice for such a situation would be the Eddie Bauer BC Downlight Stormdown Jacket, which consists of 800-fill down and Weatheredge Pro fabric, coated with DWR finish. It won the Backpacker’s Magazine Editor’s Choice in 2012 for an outstanding, all-around winter jacket.

What about Pants?

Layering for your legs works much the same as layering for your upper half; a good, moisture-wicking base-layer, heavier, active outer layer, and a hard-outer shell to keep the rain off. Your mid-layer will not be quite as insulated as a puffy jacket, and will more likely be a softshell or something abrasion-resistant. Still, when coupled with a good base-layer, will provide enough warmth for activity.