How to: Layering For Winter

September 15, 2018

While on an expedition through the wet Patagonian jungle.


Oh well… This is quite a tricky subject. Layering is probably one of the most important skills in the book when it comes to outdoor activities.


Now, I want to set straight one thing: Good layering depends on many factors and varies a lot from person to person so, I’m going to try breaking it into simple facts.


The first fact: Layering is crucial in winter or cold environments. Since I’m not a big fan of expeditions or travelling in extreme hot weather, I’m will try sticking to the part that I know the best, which is freezing temps


The second fact: no piece of garment is all-mighty. Be very careful with this, as many brands promise heaven when it comes to insulation, breathability and other specs. Know your fabrics!


The third fact: In cold weather, sweat is the enemy! And you will sweat!


With those well established points, let’s move to the “How to” part. In the first place, how you compose your layer structure is normally understood on the base of this:


  • Base layer: Should be a synthetic fabric (No cotton please) that will allow you to move the sweat towards the outside and will dry faster.


  • Windstopper layer: Microfibers or a thin jacket is preferable here as they will help you keep the chill-factor away and retain the heat while moisture goes out. Should be a lightweight piece that will allow mobility and comfort.


  • Insulation layer: The idea is to have a certain volume of air that your body temp can heat to keep you warm. This is a loose piece that needs space.If you compress it by putting it under a too-tight jacket, then you’re going against this principle.


  • Hard Shell layer: This can be the typical “rain jacket” (Polartec, Gore-tex, etc.) that will basically reduce the wind chill factor and keep rain or snow away. Also consider the toughness of the fabric depending on the activity. For a deep winter alpine climb you will prefer carrying a heavy duty, thick hard-shell. While for an early spring with occasional showers, you might prefer a thinner, yet lighter piece.

 Technical Ice climbing


The above is nothing but a very simplified view of the different layers so, let’s put them in context to get you a better idea how this whole thing works. We have to consider also that -normally- the legs (or bottom half) tends to sweat a lot less than the upper body (especially the back and armpits)


An important thing to keep in mind when choosing how to layer is to consider the following:


  • Do you normally sweat a lot when doing exercise?

  • What’s the weather going to be where you’re planning to go?

  • Do you have enough space/weight availability?

  • Is weight and volume an issue for the activity?

  • When the activity involves more than one day: Do you have the means to dry your gear?


After taking a look at these questions let’s try to put a practical example by considering a climbing or ski touring day in order to put this logic to work.


So, let’s say you’re going out for a nice day out in the mountains and you have your 4 basic layers to choose from. If we see this on the base of each activity, this is more or less what I bring to the field.


- A synthetic top layer to sweat on the approach like a freaking pig. This layer I use for example to do the approximation to the base of the climb or for most of the uphill part of the tour. Trust me, you will get warm and sweaty.


- Consider bringing a plastic bag to put the wet top layer into or consider having a dry bag to carry your unused layers to keep them safe from snow or your own sweat when you store dirty equipment.


- A merino/blend wool top layer to change once you reach the base of the climb or top of the tour.


- If you’re about to start the climb and you will have to belay or spend idle times, it is crucial to change to a warm and dry layer to avoid suffering from the wet layer getting cold. (This one is extremely important)


- A Fleece Hoodie that will help keep the warmth when you’re starting to move and it’s very cold.


- This lightweight layer is very useful when you’re getting out of the tent or out of the car and you need to be somewhat warm for the first 10 minutes while your body starts generating temperature. As soon as you start feeling you’re getting warm, remove this layer to avoid making it wet.


- Down Jacket is especially good when you’re making a pause or simply belaying or anything that involves staying still.


- I normally bring a 700 fill down jacket to have in case of extreme cold and another 150 fill lighter down jacket that I can easily use and keep performing. This one you can hang from the harness while climbing or keep it in a small pocket in your backpack for easy access.


- Hard Shell Layers should be used in case of snow, rain or heavy wind wo avoid losing your warmth or getting wet. However, you have to consider that if the breathability of the jacket or pant is not ideal, you will generate moisture from the inside and you will get wet anyway.


- If it’s not raining I usually keep the front of the jacket open to allow the body heat to escape and that helps me better regulate the temperature.


- Gloves & Socks mostly follow the same principles, with the difference that you won't be able to change your socks that much and that you need to consider what kind of action you will perform with your hands when choosing your gloves.


- I always keep a pair of big, fat gloves inside the backpack just in case.


- I use a merino wool base layer for the hands and then throw a waterproof-working glove for climbs and the like.


 Rainy day in Patagonia under cold conditions


Note on backpacks: No matter how good your layering system is, you have to consider that your backpack will be most likely pressing on your back and this will make the area prone to sweating.


Try choosing a backpack with a good arching system that allows air to flow freely on the back to avoid this. If you can’t, then the extra dry layer will always save you. Here's an article on how to choose a backpack


Like I said at the beginning, layering is something one needs to tune according to how much warmth you normally generate and to the conditions of the specific activities.


I constantly recommend having extra dry gear just in case, even if the weight is an issue, you will appreciate having those extra pair of socks.


I hope this was useful and If you have anything to add, make sure you leave a comment :)




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