A version of this story appeared in the winter 2020 issue of Uncommon Path.
A layering system tends to incorporate three pieces: a base layer, a mid layer and an outer layer. Worn closest to your skin, the base layer should have a snug fit; it wicks perspiration away from your body to prevent your core temp from cooling. Next, the mid layer acts as your insulation, or your warming item. Last, the outer layer blocks wind, rain and snow. Use this guide to create the perfect layering system for your winter activity.
Layering for Snow
Ice fishing, belaying, hunting in a blind, an easy walk around the block
Synthetic fleece is usually made of polyester. It’s highly breathable and dries fast, and because it typically isn’t bulky, you can easily slide it between other layers.
Down is the fluffy stuff between the bird’s body and feathers. It creates tons of pockets of air (an ounce of down can have as many as 2 million filaments) for the best warmth-to-weight ratio when it’s dry. (It loses loft when wet.)
Resort skiing, building a snowman, a moderately paced walk
Body-mapped base layers use a construction that places different weights of fabric across the garment. Heavier materials go where you require more insulation, like your torso, while lighter materials go where you sweat, like your back and underarms.
Synthetic insulation is composed of man-made threads that are spin to create pockets of air, mimicking down. It’s not as compressible as down, but it’s warm when wet, dries quickly and is usually less expensive.
Waterproof/breathable shells (like GORE-TEX) often use a three-layer sandwich: The interior liner wicks sweat off your skin through a membrane, and the face fabric repels moisture.
Snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, fat-biking, ice climbing, a snowball fight
Synthetic base layers are often lighter and more breathable than wool, making them great at wicking sweat from your skin and drying quickly. But they aren’t as resistant to body odor.
Hybrid mid layers take the best of your base and mid layers to create breathable insulation. Typically, down or synthetic insulation is used around your core, while the remaining areas are constructed with thinner, more breathable fabrics.
Performance waterproof/breathable shells let sweat escape and repel moisture. This one uses GORE-TEX C-KNIT, a three-layer sandwich with a more breathable and stretchy internal liner.
Running, cross-country skiing, any cardio workout
Nylon is highly abrasion-resistant and strong enough to be worn alone (unlike a base layer). Its fibers have solid elastic-recovery behavior and wick sweat.
Ultra-breathable synthetics, like Capilene from Patagonia, sacrifice heat retention in the name of breathability, wicking and quick-drying capabilities.
Polyester on its own isn’t waterproof (and barely water-resistant), but it excels at blocking wind while allowing sweat vapor to escape. Plus, it’s light enough for cardio activities.
Layering for Dry Weather
Hiking in temperatures between 30°F and 50°F
- Icebreaker 200 Oasis Crew Top
- Fjallraven Abisko Trekking Tights
- Patagonia Nano Puff Vest
- REI Co-op Westwinds Jacket
Look into a base layer with offset shoulder seams like the 200 Oasis Crew. Such tops have seams that won’t chafe beneath your backpack straps. Combined with merino wool, which is naturally abrasion resistant, this shirt should ensure your comfort on the trail.
Pants with built-in armor like the Abisko Trekking Tights will withstand natural wear and tear longer. These specific tights use aramid, an insanely strong, heat-resistant class of synthetic fibers (commonly referred to under the brand name of Kevlar). Frequently used in body armor and aerospace fabrics, aramid is woven into hiking apparel throughout abrasion-prone areas for protection.
Insulated vests are the do-it-all layer for active warmth. The Nano Puff Vest uses PrimaLoft Gold Eco insulation made with 55 percent post-consumer recycled content, which surrounds your core where you need warmth the most. The lack of arms prevents overheating when you’re exerting yourself on tough climbs.
Cover it all with a lightweight shell than can easily stow away in your pack like the Westwinds Jacket.
Hiking in subfreezing temperatures
- Odlo Warm Half-Zip Turtleneck
- REI Co-op Merino Mid-Weight Boot-Length Bottoms
- REI Co-op 650 Down Jacket
- Arc’teryx Norvan SL Jacket
- Mountain Hardwear Chockstone Alpine Pants
Hybrid base layers like the Warm Half-Zip Turtleneck are constructed from a blend of wool and synthetic. This means they grant the odor-resistance and warmth of wool combined with the durability of synthetic fibers for long-haul days on the trail.
Pair a hybrid base layer with boot-length base layer tights like the Merino Mid-Weight Boot-Length Bottoms. They cut off the leg at the shin like capris, which prevents bunching and hot spots around your socks. You still get the warmth and moisture management of a full-length base layer bottom.
Go for a softshell pant like the Chockstone. Softshell fabrics (like the 91 percent nylon/9 percent elastane blend here) maintain a high level of warmth like hardshells but are more breathable. Softshells also allow for a full range of motion while climbing steeps. Note: They’re often heavier than hardshells.