No matter what the weather is doing, staying comfortable outdoors starts by building a sensible layering system from the inside out. Creating a smart system, however, starts by choosing the right fabrics.
Cotton may feel great to wear around town, but it absorbs moisture, which can rob your body of warmth when you’re snowshoeing or keep you waterlogged with sweat when you’re hiking up a steep trail under the summer sun.
Natural- and synthetic-fiber materials “wick” moisture away from your skin, transferring it to your outer layers to keep you warm in winter and cool in summer. And with so many great high-tech fabrics and clothing designs available, there’s absolutely no reason not to feel comfortable no matter what the weather gods throw at you.
Here are some tips for putting two systems together—one to keep you toasty warm in winter and the other to keep you cool and comfortable, even on the hottest days.
Working from the inside out, here’s what my layering system looks like.
Boxers and Briefs: When I’m headed out in cold or wet weather, I leave my cotton shorts in the drawer and reach for synthetic briefs. Nike, REI, Kuiu, Under Armour, Patagonia, and Saxx all make good options depending on whether you feel more comfortable in compression-type briefs or something a little roomier.
Base Layers: The layer right next to your skin is super important, but there are some subtle trade-offs depending on which fabric you choose.
Synthetic base-layer designs are rugged enough to wear as an outer layer and they work really well to wick moisture away, but they will hold odor-causing bacteria over time—something to consider if you’re going to out for a few days and don’t have a chance to wash your undergarments.
Woolen options, from brands like Icebreaker, Smartwool, and Kari Traa (amazing options for women designed by three-time Olympic ski medalist, Kari Traa) may not wick quite as well as synthetics, but they are naturally resistant to odoriferous bacteria. Wear them as a base layer with other layers on top and they’ll last for years.
Silk feels great next to the skin, but it doesn’t wick as well as wool or synthetics and it needs to be laundered every time you wear it to avoid being labeled “the smelliest person in camp.”
Many makers are now blending wool with synthetic materials. Stone Glacier base layers feature an 89/11 Merino/Nylon blend that offers incredible warmth without the smell.
It’s also important is to match your base layers to the conditions. If it’s not too cold, a lightweight set of tops and bottoms will suffice. If the temps are hovering around freezing, a midweight layer is what you’ll want. And if you’re headed into sub-zero weather, heavyweight base layers are the way to go.
Most manufacturers offer their products in various weight classes and you can always double up by adding a thicker layer on top of a lightweight layer if temperatures really drop.
Midweight Layers: These are designed to trap air, surrounding your body in a layer of warmth. I like to wear a synthetic-filled vest over my base layer; then a polypropylene fleece layer on top of this.
For years I swore by down insulation, and I still wear down vests all the time. If there’s a chance of rain or snow, however, I reach for synthetic-filled vests and hooded mid-weight jackets as they dry faster when they’re wet. Down’s inability to stay dry when wet may be changing, however, thanks for new innovations in fiber-coating technology.
Stone Glacier is experimenting with hydro-phobic down coatings, which may end up being the ultimate solution. Check out the warming drill they conducted with Special Operations forces who plunged into the Yellowstone River to see how fast they could dry out their base layers using natural body heat.
Companies like Ridge Merino are also combining high-tech fabrics like Polartec® Power Wool, which has incredible stretch and softness, with a brushed Merino wool interior that offers a high warmth-to-weight ratio, great breathability, and natural odor resistance to create an amazing mid-layer.
Outer layers: Insulated jackets and pants are the way to go if the weather is going to get really chilly. Down is a great option if you’re going to take some kind of waterproof outer shell to wear over it. The plus is that it offers more warmth per weight than other materials and it compresses best for packing. First Lite, Stone Glacier, Fjallraven, Kuiu, and Marmot offer some great down jacket designs.
And while synthetic jackets don’t compress down as well as down offerings, they retain more insulating qualities even when they’re wet. Patagonia’s classic Nano Puff Jacket is warm, windproof, and water-resistant. And it’s made using lightweight and highly compressible 60-g PrimaLoft® Gold Insulation Eco. This is made of 100% post-consumer recycled polyester with P.U.R.E.™ (Produced Using Reduced Emissions) technology, wrapped in a 100% recycled polyester shell and lining.
Rainwear/Outer Shells: If the forecast looks rainy or snowy, packing an outer shell (jacket and pants) is the only way to go. Look for lightweight, breathable fabrics that are 100-percent waterproof (not just water resistant).
Helly Hansen, a name synonymous with quality rainwear, offers a full line of shells and rain jackets. Arcteryx offers 27 different shell models designed to face anything from heavy coastal rains to high winds and deep snow. It’s pricey, but the quality is certainly there.
Stio’s Exploit Hooded Jacket is also a great option, and don’t forget reliable designs from big outlets like REI, L.L. Bean, and EMS.
Layering up on hot days may seem counterintuitive, but here again, wickabilty is what you’re looking for because moving moisture away from your skin provides natural air conditioning that will keep you feeling cooler, even on the most scorching days.
Start with a synthetic t-shirt next to your skin. This will wick moisture out to your outer layer to keep you cool and dry.
Look for outer layers featuring fabrics that are lightweight, wickable, and offer sun protection. Kuhl’s AirKÜHL Hoody is super soft, amazingly wickable, and it offers maximum sun protection (UPF 50+) paired with odor resistance.