Roads Rivers and Trails

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Cold Weather Layering Basics

By: Bryan Wolf

The common phrase is “dress like an onion.” But I’ve never seen an onion in clothes before.


Understanding a clothing layer system for your next outdoor adventure is critical. This includes having both the understanding of what makes an appropriate layering set but also how to use that layer set. I can barely dress myself for day to day life, but here are my 2 cents on being a well-dressed adventurer during a cold weather pursuit.

Why is layering so important in my outdoor pursuits? Being in the elements for a prolonged time, often with unpredictable mountain weather can be risky business. We want to stay warm but cool, dry but not sweat, and move but not over heat. Anytime we fail to control the above we subject ourselves to greater consequences such as hypothermia (or to lesser consequence chaffing).

A layer system traditionally consists of 4 layers. By layering correctly, we control our body temperature and protection from the elements. Each layer is intended to provide a unique purpose. We combine our layers and accessories to those layers, making changes as often as is necessary to assure that we are sweat free, warm and comfortable moving.

  1. A base layer is primarily our wicking layer. Taking moisture from the skin and dispersing it to more quickly dry is one of our most important goals. Moisture expedites heat loss by up to 20 times, so controlling evaporation is key. Try a polyester or wool for best performance. Keep your base layer well-fitting so that there is no bunching as you add additional layers. In cold conditions also consider the next to skin warmth potential of your base layer.

My Picks:

Cold Weather: Rab Merino+ L/S Crew.

Frigid Weather: Patagonia R1 Fleece ¼ zip

  1. A mid layer is added to help retain heat in cooler environments, but since you’re moving it is critical that you have some breathability to this piece as well. Typically, a heavier wool or fleece jacket works perfect. The addition of a quarter or half zip and thumb loops help add function to this piece as you can make micro adjustments to control your temperature. This piece is still best utilized without pockets and a smooth face fabric to make additional layers fit easier.

My Picks:

Cold Weather: Sherpa Karma ¼ zip

Frigid Weather: Rab Paradox

  1. An insulating layer is the third in the set. At this point we are not focused on breathability but more so maximizing our heat retention. A high loft synthetic or down jacket helps hold the heat radiating out. The amount of insulation being more dependent on your trip. This jacket needs to layer with the other two pieces. In more bitter cold trips this will be at the top of my pack for quick layering on snack breaks, summits, or even down hills. If you plan to wear this piece more while active a synthetic is preferred for its loft retention when wet.

My Picks:

Cold Weather: Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisper

Frigid Weather: Rab Positron

  1. The final and fourth traditional layer is your outer layer, or shell. This piece is responsible for both being waterproof and windproof. We already know that being wet from sweat, or rain makes for a dangerous scenario. The additional element is controlling convection, the rapid stealing of heat from with-in your layers. An adjustable hood, drawcord at the hem, and pit zips all help to make micro adjustments to my body temperature.

My Pick: Rab Latok Jacket

An important distinction is that these four pieces should work in unison but also in any lesser combination. Here are a few examples for you. It’s 40 degrees and raining; I’m going to pair my outer shell with my long sleeve base layer top. At a dry 20 degrees I’ll use my base layer and fleece pull over. At camp when I stop moving for the day, I’ll switch to a new completely dry base layer with my down jacket. You can treat your leg wear the same way.

The most versatile and frequently changed pieces to the system however are your accessories. With mittens, gloves, beanies, and a buff or balaclava I can make quick and easy changes to my body temperature. Having these accessories in a pant pocket or pack hip belt make them a no brainer to add and subtract as the day’s temperature fluctuates or the terrain alters my exertion and heat output.

If I could just turn off my sweat glands for a fall or winter trip that would be easier (and terrifying) but until then I have the perfect collection of clothing layers to assure, I am comfortably and safely travelling in even the coldest or wettest of adventures. Winter continues to be my favorite time to travel to the mountains and backpacking remains the only time I care much of what I’m going to wear that day.

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