There is so much that has been written about clothing and the layering system for outdoors adventures by many great outdoor adventurers. In any case, clothing and layering outdoors is an extremely subjective and personal topic, so I figured I can add my preferences and opinions to the abundance of articles on the subject.
I want to start with an important bit of background: how my body behaves when active. I think this is the one thing that should lead your clothing decisions outdoors: how warm/cold you get. When I’m active, I get warm pretty fast but I manage to keep myself below the sweating buckets level, so I can keep myself pretty comfortable hiking with a 20+ lbs pack at 3+ mph on flat and 2.5+ mph climbing. The problem is that the second I stop (or within a minute or so), if the temperature is below 80 f (27 c), I get cold quickly, very quickly. If that sounds like you, then maybe you can learn from my experience.
Obviously, clothing and the layering system varies according to the trip and the time it takes place, with a host of factors going into it: temperature, wind exposure, condensation, trail conditions, the length of trip, etc. The real point of the layering system, in my opinion, is to provide the most versatile clothing protection for your specific needs. The goal is not to be the most “bomb proof” or the lightest, not to look coolest on the trail or even be the most technically correct – it is about versatility. Most of my hiking and backpacking days have been in places where the weather is far from stable: the Andes, New Zealand, Scotland, Oregon (US): all are areas where rain and shine are normal occurrences in one day, along with freezing nights and hot days. I have always needed a versatile layering system that will work for exposed conditions, wet, hot or just plain cold camps. So here it is in a few points:
- Base (3 seasons): Merino/synthetic tee, synthetic underwear (long boxer jocks), thin merino socks.
- Base (4 seasons, addition to 3): thin synthetic tights (can be running tights)
- Mid (summer): hiking shirt for bugs
- Mid (3 seasons): Merino or Micro Grid fleece long sleeve hoodie
- Mid (4 seasons): Powerstretch hooded fleece, mid thickness merino socks
- Trousers (summer): bug pants or running shorts
- Trousers (3 seasons): light to mid thickness softshell or running tights
- Trousers (4 seasons): softshell
- Shell 1: wind jacket
- Shell 2 (occasional rain): poncho
- Shell 2 (Lots of rain predicted): WP/B (waterproof and breathable) rain jacket with a hood
- Base accessories: running cap, buff, fleece gloves, running gaiters
- 3 seasons accessories (addition to base): beanie, running gloves, WP/B mittens
- 4 seasons accessories (addition to 3): insulated gloves
- Camp/stop insulation (summer): down sweater or powerstretch fleece
- Camp/stop insulation (3 seasons): synthetic insulation or a down sweater, thick wool socks
- Camp/stop insulation (4 seasons): thick down jacket, down beanie, thick wool socks/down booties
As you can see, there is a clear theme here: each layer functions to allow me the most in each season where my goal is to change (layer up/down) the least and stay comfortable the whole time while hiking. Another important point is that my hands and feet get very cold very fast, hence all the extra gloves and foot layers.
I’m breaking down my clothing into 6 groups, 3 are on at all times. There is a reason behind this; it is less the item itself but more the function it provides.
I have written my share of opinion about base layers in a pretty controversial post, but the bottom line is: I always wear something next to the skin to protect my feet, groin area and torso, even in the summer. I find that this works for me even when it is very hot, as that layer will either dry fast to avoid rapid cooling or dry fast to avoid discomfort in hot weather.
My 3 base items are simple enough that in reality I can just stay with them at all times with additional clothing if I need to or I can wear just them if the weather permits (might throw on some running shorts for some modesty…). There are a couple of points here though that I want to highlight:
- Merino is for most mild conditions and a synthetic top is for the extreme ones: very hot (over 100f) or very cold (under 30f)
- I like synthetic boxer jocks with a 9″ inseam to cover my thighs, I find it is perfect to avoid chaffing. The reason for synthetic is that I can carry an extra pair and wash one every evening, leaving me with clean underwear every day
- Merino for socks (the running kind) as they strike the right balance between comfort and dryness as I abide by the wet feet philosophy while hiking.
All I add for winter is a thin layer on my legs to avoid actually feeling my cold softshell trousers, I don’t need more as my legs stay warm while I’m actually hiking.
Mid layers are where things start to be more weather dependent, but I always carry some form of active insulation/protection. In the summer it is a bug shirt, when it is cooler it is a warmer, long sleeve fleece or merino, and in deep winter, when moving slower in colder conditions: a thick power stretch fleece.
The idea here is to compensate for the amount of lost heat while still absorbing sweat and moving it out. I’ve never been a fan of a “one layer that does it all” item as you always end up losing somehow – I want my mid layers to be stand alone items.
The idea is to have some useful layer, be it bug protection, some skin warmth (thin fleece) or full on warmth under your shell (thicker fleece), it is just a means to an end here. You can look more deeply into this in the insulation article I wrote a while back: scroll down for the mid layers.
The reason I look at trousers differently than torso layering is that my legs get very warm when I’m moving, so I rarely need to actually protect them. As long as I’m moving, I don’t need much on my legs, but I do like some protection from wind, rain and when I fall (which happens too often when it is muddy). I opt for a mid weight softshell pair of trousers for almost everything, though I am playing around with hiking in running tights (and shorts).
Summers are rarely really hot and long trousers are useful in tick season, coping with mosquitoes and reducing leg scratches when in less traveled areas. Here again, softshells are useful, even if thin ones, but sometimes bug repellent trousers are needed. Occasionally, when it is hot enough, I will just use running shorts, the simplest kind.
There are two points for me when it comes to trousers:
- I don’t like things in my pockets, choosing to have all my “stuff” in various pack pockets (hip, chest, etc), so I’m now looking for low profile, no hassle trousers
- I don’t protect my legs from rain/snow/hail: they get wet when it is raining, therefore I need my trousers to dry pretty quickly but not cling to my skin when wet, another point in favor of softshell trousers
I have yet to change trousers midday and am usually able to use my sleeping tights as potential hiking tights; this is why on more than 3-night trips I like to have a pair of running shorts just in case.
Last, I have yet to be in conditions that I needed serious insulation for my legs; I usually just get into the sleeping bag if it is too cold for me and I’m done for the day. I do, however, have my eye on a pair of synthetic insulation trousers for next winter.
Shells are very controversial, especially since every backpacker knows that in some point the whole idea will collapse and you will get wet, or just drenched in sweat. This is why I usually don’t use waterproof jackets but prefer a poncho: it is lighter, easier to put on/ take off as the weather changes and can double as an improvised shelter. The only time I will pack a WP/B jacket is when I know for a fact (or as close to it based on weather predictions) that it will rain the whole time, it is just too annoying to try playing with layers.
As a whole, W/P shells are not something I tend to wear all the time and are usually an additional carry item, so here weight is a big deal, giving the poncho a better edge over a jacket. The one issue I have with ponchos is the wet arms problem, making me want to make my own long gloves, a la “milking gloves” – we’ll see.
One shell I always, always carry is a wind shell, even in the summer. Often I get to exposed areas: passes, peaks, ridges, etc and find that removing the wind chill makes all the difference. In colder conditions (late autumn to mid-spring) I’ll wear my wind shell all the time when hiking – I think it is such a versatile item, you rarely need to take it off. I’ll wear it on whatever else I have on (mid/base) and add the poncho on top if the rain becomes too heavy, but opt just for that in light rain.
Accessories are really important (I think) if you suffer from cold hands and feet, but are also very useful on the move with regards to temperature regulation: it is much easier to take a hat or gloves on/off than a shirt.
I treat my accessories the same way as my torso clothing: thin base gloves most of the time, shell mittens if it is raining, windproof gloves when exposed and thick insulation for camp – I know it may sound excessive but when my hands are cold I’m not comfortable at all, so it’s worth the extra weight.
I do like wearing a running cap pretty much all the time when active: it absorbs sweat, stops rain covering my glasses, helps to keep hoods (on jackets) moving better and makes sure I never get sun stroke. The benefit of a running cap (to any other, “cooler”, options) is that it dries quickly and is really meant to stay on and comfortable. A must for me.
Static insulation is very different to the above mid-layer insulation as it is not meant to be used when hiking and has to be thick enough to deal with cold conditions when your body isn’t moving. The important bit here is being static: camping or having a break on your hike. As I rarely have breaks while hiking, it is only down to camping for me.
If I know I will be stopping often, for example if I’m hiking with my kids, I will pack a “belay jacket” that I can just throw over my shell at any time for some heat retention.
For camp, nothing really beats down: it has the best weight to warmth ratio, is most compressible and has longest life if maintained well. It really can be broken down by season, depending on how thick I want my insulation to be:
- Summer (70f/20c nights and up): a fleece is enough, just a layer to wear around as the body cools
- 3 seasons (30-70f/0-20c): down sweater and maybe my mid layer is enough for camp, it does need to have some volume though, not those super light down tops, think around 2.5 oz of fill and up
- Winter (10-30f/-15-0c): thick down jacket or parka with thick baffles and at least 4.5 oz of down fill
I think that when it comes to static insulation, carrying a slightly warmer layer than predicted is not a bad idea as you can always open a zip or not wear a hat, but it does feel much nicer around camp with a warm jacket. To get into the nitty grity of insulation, you can delve into this post.
Using the layering system
The most important part of all this is to actually use your layers wisely, mainly to minimize time in which you need to deal with it. I always start walking a bit cold, knowing I will get warmer quickly, and always throw on a warm layer when stopping to avoid cooling down too quickly.
My layering system is meant to allow me to operate in the greatest range of temperatures with the least amount of items each time, but I also like being comfortable. While hiking I tend to not remove or add layers too often, so finding the right balance of excursion to temperature helps with heat regulation when hiking.
There are other ways out there to layer, some of my favorites are:
- Andrew Skurka and his core 13 system
- Hendrik Morkel’s winter layering
- Alan Dixon about how to use clothing efficiently on the trail
- Chris Townsend’s well-tested layers
- Mark Roberts and the clothing section in the Ultralight Makeover
I know these are all guys, but I haven’t found a good, solid article about layering for women; if you know any, let me know, I’ll be interested in learning.
That’s pretty much it – use your layers wisely to maximize your comfort, not for any other reason. And yes, sometimes you will need to carry a shell and not use it…..