When it comes to adventure outdoors, you have to be prepared for whatever weather comes your way. The right clothing used the right way can make a huge difference when used as a layering system. A good layering system will allow you to moderate your body temperature and sweat when you are going hard and keep you warm when the weather suddenly changes for the worse. With the right kind of layering system, you can be comfortable in and ready for any type of weather without unnecessary bulk and weight. It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3. Really. The most basic clothing system for the outdoors consists of three layers.
- The base layer
- The middle layer
- The outer layer
Clothing is a personal thing. This blog is just an explanation of the most basic layering system used for outdoor adventure. Once you understand the three most basic layers, you can customize your clothing system to your liking and adjust it depending on the weather conditions and the intensity of activity. A layering system for a trail runner on a cold day will be much different from the layering system for the bystander at the trail race. Let’s begin with the base layer.
The base layer is the clothing worn directly against your skin. It helps to regulate your body temperature and wick away moisture, this includes moisture from sweat during activity. Wet clothing in the outdoors, especially when it is cold outside will make you much colder. Moreover, it is also why anyone who is hypothermic with wet clothing should change into dry clothing if possible. The three key considerations for base layers are the material, the weight, and the fit.
When it comes to clothing for the outdoors, some materials are better than others, and this is particularly true for your base layer. The best materials for wicking away moisture are wool, silk, and some synthetic fibers like nylon, polyester, or spandex.
Each material has its pros and cons, but generally, synthetics are better at wicking away moisture and are more durable, but are not very odor resistant and are not good for the environment. Wool, on the other hand, does a great job wicking moisture, provides warmth, is very odor resistant, and better for the environment. However, it’s not as durable, expensive, and can sometimes be ruined in the laundry.
And what about cotton? Cotton is not a great material for wicking away moisture and takes much longer to dry. You are better off leaving cotton clothing at home in the winter, save that t-shirt for a hot summer day.
The next base layer consideration is weight. There’s lightweight, medium weight, and heavyweight. Lightweight is better for moderate to cool temperatures with moderate to intense activity. Medium weight is suitable for cold temperatures with moderate to intense activity. And finally, heavyweight is best for below freezing temperatures and not as intense activity.
Of course, this is just a guideline. In the end, it will come down to personal choice and which weights, during which temperatures, doing whatever activity will work for you. The heavier the weight, the more warmth it will provide. However, this is not the primary job of the base layer. Most of your warmth and insulation will come from the middle layer.
The last consideration with base layers is the fit. For maximum wicking efficiency, the base layer should be snug against your skin. Not loose, but not tight and restrictive either.
Keep in mind that a base layer includes both tops, bottoms, and underwear too! Wet underwear and bras are not fun in the winter.
The middle layer is the insulating layer and is meant to retain your body heat. Again, some materials and designs are better than others, but the more efficient the material is at trapping your body heat, the warmer you will be. Options include wool, synthetic blends, fleece, down, and synthetic down.
- Fleece and Synthetic Fabrics
Fleece might seem old fashioned, but it works well even when it’s slightly damp. It also dries fast and is very breathable. Fleece is available in different weights. The heavier the weight, the warmer it will be. Sometimes weights are expressed in 100, 200, and 300.
The cons? Fleece is not very wind resistant, but this is where our outer layer comes into play. Also, contrary to popular belief, fleece is not a natural material. It’s made of polyester, so again, the impact on the environment should be considered.
Middle insulating layers can be made of other synthetic fabrics as well, like a lightweight weight jacket or thinner top.
- Down Jackets and Sweaters
Down is probably one of the best materials for a warm insulation layer. The loose structure of the down features traps air, creating a layer in which cold air cannot enter, and body heat cannot escape easily. The higher the fill power, the puffier and warmer the jacket. Usually, fill power ranges from 400 to 900 fill. The most significant advantage is that down jackets are very lightweight and compress easily. For the warmth it provides compared to its weight and size, you would be foolish to adventure without in the winter or high in the mountains. Especially when you think about the deadly relationship between trauma and decreased body temperature. It’s not a good combo.
Down sweaters are the lighter, smaller options to a full down jacket. They pack down so small but still provide warmth. I carried a down sweater with me on a climbing trip in the Moroccan desert a few years back. I didn’t need it during the day but was so thankful to have it at night when temperatures dropped.
Of course, there are a few drawbacks. A down jacket can tear easily and down loses its efficiency if it gets wet, taking a long time to dry. It’s always recommended to store your down layer in a dry bag. Not only does this protect it from rain or snow, but from accidental water bottle leaks or slips into the river.
- Synthetic Jackets and Sweaters
While I just spoke about down with high regard, it’s not to say that synthetic isn’t a lesser option. Synthetic jackets and sweaters are not as warm or as compressible as down, but they do not lose as much efficient if damp. They are also more budget-friendly and more durable.
The middle layer can be one article of clothing or a few articles. They are not usually worn during activity when you are working hard and sweating. If it is frigid outside, maybe only one is worn during exercise, saving the warmest layer for when you rest as your body temperature will quickly drop even after a short pause due to the moisture on your skin from sweating and dilated blood vessels that radiate more heat from your body.
As for a middle layer for your lower body, again it’s personal. Some people rarely need a middle layer for their legs for a day our ski touring. If it’s a really cold day at the ski resort or hanging out at camp in the winter, then a middle pant layer is a smart option.
The last of the three basic clothing layers for the outdoors is the outer layer, also known as the shell layer. This outer layer protects you, the base layer, and the middle layer from rain, snow, wind, and abrasion. Without this outer layer, the base and middle layers could get wet or be subject to wind, dropping your core body temperature.
- Hardshell Jackets
An outer layer should be wind and waterproof, sometimes called hard shell jackets or pants. These are often treated with DWR (durable water repellent). Some outer layer jackets are water resistant, not waterproof, and are fine for conditions that are not as wet. They are usually cheaper than fully waterproof shell jackets.
The major drawback to hard shell jackets is poor breath-ability. Moisture can get trapped under this layer and make you wet. It needs to evaporate, which is why you should look for hard shell layers with zippered vents to help regulate heat and evaporation.
- Softshell Jackets
Softshell jackets are outer layer jackets that are not waterproof but do have some resistance against wind and light rain. They are more breathable, flexible, durable, and some even have a lining that provides warmth. A softshell is a bit heavier than a, but it's better for environments with little precipitation and dry conditions.
Most hardshell or softshell jackets are synthetic. Again, with consideration to the environment, take good care of your outer layer to extend its life and reduce as much waste as possible.
Head, Face, Hands, and Feet
The head, face, hands, and feet also need consideration. A large amount of heat is lost through the head. Always have a warm hat that covers your ears and is thick enough to provide insulation.
The face and neck should not be forgotten. A thin flannel facebuff or full-on fleece neck gaiter protect the face from cold temperatures and to lock in heat that escapes from the jacket through the neck area.
Eyes need protection as well. Polarized sunglasses or goggles are a must anytime you are outside. Even if the weather is overcast, eye protection from blowing rain and snow is an excellent option to have.
For cool weather, thin gloves will keep your hands warm. In colder temperatures and wet conditions, wear a glove liner and a heavy insulating, waterproof glove over it. Mittens are warmer than gloves but do not have as much dexterity.
For the feet, wool socks are great, thick and thin. However, the sock will not do much good if your footwear is not adequate. Be sure your footwear has the proper insulation and moisture proofing for the conditions. Tennis shoes are not best for rainy hikes or snowy walks.
Now that you have the clothing system down, are you ready to deal with an emergency in the wilderness?