Hiking, kayaking, mountain climbing – it doesn’t matter what activity you are doing, or even what season you are doing it in, every outdoor adventurer can benefit from properly layering their clothing.
What many more casual outdoors people understand about layers is the bare basics of “put on multiple layers of clothes”. However, you need to put thought into what those layers actually are.
While it is a simple concept, if you know how to layer effectively, this simple method can have a big effect on your overall comfort. With layering your clothing, you can make lightning-fast adjustments to accommodate your activity level and keep it going as well as deal with any changes in the weather.
As you get deeper into it, you learn to plan around the three basic concepts of layering – the base layer, the insulating layer, and the shell layer. While that makes it sound like layering is only for cold weather, it can be just as important in warmer temperatures as well.
Base Layer – Controlling Your Moisture
Your base layer is the layer that actually sits on your skin. It helps you keep your body’s temperature regulated by wicking perspiration away.
While perspiration is meant to cool the body, but this only works if the perspiration can evaporate. So by wicking the moisture away and keeping your skin dry, the base layer can actually keep you cooler in the summer while preventing hypothermia in the winter.
When it comes to the base layer, the type of fabric you are wearing is absolutely crucial.
If you wear a fabric that retains moisture, then that will leave you feeling wet within minutes of prolonger perspiration. A prime example of this is cotton undershirts.
Cotton is a popular choice because it is very breathable, but it soaks up moisture like a sponge. This can actually make striping down to your base layer in the summer pretty refreshing at first, but that is just because all that moisture has built up! In any other temperature, it will leave you chilled to the bone.
For good base layer materials, you will want to lean more toward synthetics like polyester or merino wool if you are dead set on staying natural.
Both of these fabrics take perspiration and instead of retaining it, they spirit it away to the outer surface is so it evaporates before it leaves you feeling wet.
In hot weather, a lot of the time your base layer will be about the only thing you wear to keep things light. Polyester underwear like sports bras and briefs are best for keeping all your sweaty intimate areas significantly cooler.
However, if it isn’t a scorcher out, t-shirts and tank tops are also fitting, but probably not the cotton ones unless you aren’t going to be doing any strenuous activity.
When adventuring out in colder temperatures, the base layer turns from your underwear to you thermal underwear such as long johns. You can get these in light, mid, and expedition weights. This wholly depends on what you will be doing and how cold it will be when doing it.
Insulating Layer – Retaining Heat
As you would expect, when you are hiking in the desert heat, you can skip the insulating layer unless you are hiking after dark when the desert cools down dramatically.
However, it is really needed for cooler temperatures where the insulating layer is crucial because it traps air, and thus warmth, close to your body to keep you all toasty warm.
While the insulating layer needs to trap warm air, you also want it to be breathable so that moisture wicked away from your base layer can still evaporate.
You can choose any sort of material for an insulating layer, but the most popular options are wool, down, and fleece.
Wool is a classic choice because it is a great insulator and will keep insulating you even if it gets wet.
Down is the best if you want to keep things both light and warm, but the trade-off is that it needs to stay dry to work.
Finally, synthetic fleece is lightweight, insulating, and breathable – the best of all worlds.
In all honesty, fleece should be your go-to here. It is lighter and more breathable than wool, but you can also get it wet and still have it insulate you. However, the main issue is that wind cuts through fleece like a knife through butter.
The good news is that there are a few more expensive fleece products that are actually made wind-proof by the addition of a membrane on the inside that blocks the wind but don’t add on much weight or compromise breathability. These are called soft shells and are becoming increasingly popular.
However, even if you just get a cheap fleece jumper, by having a shell layer, the wind will never be an issue.
Shell Layer – Weather Protection
No matter what conditions you are outside in – hot, sunny, cold, windy, whatever – you need to have a shell layer with you at least as you never know when rain may hit.
This outer layer is purely for protection for the weather. It can have extra insulation like a mountaineering jacket or be purely lightweight barebones like a windbreaker.
What a shell layer does need to have is waterproofing, or at very least water resistance. This is the jacket your mother would tell you to take in case it rains. However, while also being waterproof, like your insulating layer, it needs to be breathable. If it is non-breathable, all that evaporating perspiration will just condense on the inside of your shell which can be catastrophic if you are using an insulator like down that can’t get wet.
You don’t find a whole lot of variety of materials in shell layers. However, what you will find is a coating that usually just affect breathability. For example, a popular option is a polyurethane-coated nylon, which blocks water excellently and is pretty affordable, but it doesn’t breathe. If you want a breathable and waterproof shell, you will want to make the investment in laminated membranes like eVent or Gore-Tex shells.
If you don’t need waterproofing, but want to block light rain and wind, mini-ripstop nylon windbreakers are perfectly acceptable, but you will probably want to seek shelter when the weather lets loose. If you are going mountaineering, you will want to look at activity-specific shells as you will need some abrasion-proofing that you don’t get with regular shell coats.
One final thing to consider when choosing a shell layer, in particular, is you will want to buy it a little bigger than you normally would. Remember, this layer is sitting on top of two other layers. There is no real benefit of having it skin tight unless you choose a softshell that is basically an insulating layer and shell layer in one package since normal shells aren’t for retaining heat.
As mentioned earlier, newer treatments are now available that make fleece much more weather and wind-proof and have seen an explosion of choice.
Generally softshell outers are more body-hugging, giving you better flexibility, and their fleece giving you better warmth.
They will not provide the same degree of waterproofing as a hard shell, but many people find their adaptability is well worth the compromise.
These are called soft shells and are becoming increasingly popularWe go into a lot more detail on soft-shell and hard shell layers here >>
Matt Green, is an avid hiker and lover of the great outdoors. He is always planning his next big trip or hitting the trails for a solo hike.
He’s traveled extensively to many remote regions and has plenty of experience exploring various terrains, and stories to tell.