Knowing how to layer properly can make the difference between a miserable winter adventure or one that you cherish to the end of your days. A couple things to consider before we get into the details: 1) avoid white, as white-anything is hard to find in the snow, and 2) as you add base layers to your collection, remember it is important to stagger zippers. You don’t want a series of zippers stacked on top of each other rubbing you the wrong way.
Layer 1 | Base Layering
Your base layer is the one right next to your skin (underwear, sports bras, long underwear, t-shirts, long sleeve t-shirts, etc.). Its main function is to facilitate moisture removal from the skin, thereby helping you regulate body temperature. Removing perspiration from your skin helps keep you dry and avoid hyperthermia.
Fabric is key to how well moisture is removed from your skin. At all costs, avoid cotton. Have you ever worn a cotton shirt underneath your shell on hike? You know that wet, clammy feeling you get after a while? That’s what you want to avoid - cotton does not wick, it absorbs and will lead to you being cold.
Most quality base layers will be made of merino wool or a high-grade synthetic. Quality brands include Smartwool, Icebreaker and Woolx. Synthetics fabrics are also an option. Popular choices include Polartec Power Dry® or Patagonia Capilene®. These are great wicking fabrics that dry quickly.
When the weather is particularly cold, you might find it helpful to wear an additional set of long underwear over your underwear, if so, consider opting for a long sleeve shirt with thumbholes. The thumb holes will prevent the shirt from sliding up your arms and help prevent frigid air from ever reaching bare skin. Lastly, the thinner the fabric of your base layer the faster it will dry.
Layer 2 | Mid Layering
In particularly cold weather you will likely want to add a mid-layer. This is generally the same type of fabric as your base layer, just a thicker version. Its main purpose is insulation and to provide layering options while on the move.
Layer 3 | Insulation
The insulation layer is essentially a heat trap. Its purpose is to keep warm air, an excellent insulator, next to your body. There are several options here all of which have their pros and cons.
Thicker merino wool layer:
Pros: That natural fiber is an excellent insulator and maintains its warmth when wet.
Cons: The warmth-to-weight ratio is less than others, and it will dry slower than most synthetic options.
Puffy Down Jacket:
Pros: You can’t beat the warmth-to-weight ratio of goose down. On bitter cold, dry days it’s likely your best option.
Con: The biggest concern with down is that it MUST stay dry to maintain its warmth. There are forms of water-resistant down available, however.
Pros: Essentially all fleece is lightweight, breathable, has a higher warmth-to-weight ratio than wool and maintains a certain degree of warmth in a variety of conditions.
Cons: Fleece can be bulky and if you are not wearing it, will take up a lot of room in your pack, as it is not nearly as compressible as other fabrics. Also, unless the fleece has a windstopper built in, which can affect breathability, fleece is very permeable to wind.
Layer 4 | Protection from the Elements
Your last layer is kind of like your armor. It’s your first line of defense against the elements. The outer shell layer shields you and the inner layers from the elements such as wind, rain or snow.
Like all outdoors gear, there are plenty of options. If you generally day hike in areas that seldom see rain, perhaps a basic windproof jacket suits your needs. However, if fierce weather on mountain slopes sounds like something you are interested in, perhaps a water/windproof mountaineering jacket is for you.
Again, there are many options and you can expect to pay as little as $60 or more than $500. The most important thing is to consider your needs. A few things that we always prioritize include:
Waterproof - Gore Tex is always a good bet
Ventilation - Pit Zips always come in handy
A Hood with cinch cords - Protect your head
Taped Seams - To sew something you must punch holes in it. Taped seams remedy a potential problem before it occurs.
Sealed Zippers - Further helps keep the elements out.
Zip-up pockets - With sealed zippers. Need places to stash additional things like a map, facemask or gloves.
Loose Fit - Need to be able to comfortably fit layers underneath.
Bright obnoxious color - There is a reason outdoor gear is always available in bright colors, it makes it easier to find in the dark or in the snow.