As a warm-blooded southerner who gets uncomfortably cold in overly air-conditioned grocery stores, I always wondered how people could live in cold climates. No matter what I did, I felt like I could never escape the cold. I used to dread traveling to the great white north.
Luckily, my cold weather savvy friends enlightened me on how to dress for cold weather. Winter climates demand a specific and trusted method for dressing: layering for cold weather.
How to Layer
Layering amounts to strategically covering your body with articles of clothing that overlap each other while simultaneously serving distinct purposes to obtain maximum warmth and comfort. Once I learned the critical art of layering, I was not only fearless of the cold; I enjoyed cold weather immensely.
Here we will explore layering details for cold weather, including how to choose layers, examples of typical layered outfits, and the best materials, accessories, and cold-weather wear brands.
Winter wear experts have a simple and effective method to layering that involves three essential layers, each serving a specific purpose to keep you warm: the base layer, the middle layer, and the outer layer.
When you explore the great outdoors, you are generally engaging in physical activity, whether hiking, skiing, grilling, or building a campfire. When we engage in a physical undertaking, we tend to sweat, and the last thing you want in cold weather is wet skin.
Consequently, the base layer’s primary function is moisture management, so you want this layer to be the thinnest, most sweat absorbing material on the market.
The middle layer bears the almighty task of insulation, the ability to retain body heat in cold temperatures. The middle layer is what most of us think of when we imagine winter wear; wool sweaters, fleece pullovers, puffy down jackets, to name a few.
The middle layer is generally worn at all times outdoors. It may be the layer most people tend to see, so there appears to be the greatest amount of diversity in terms of aesthetic and design with middle layer winter wear.
We love heading to nature because we can disconnect with our daily, hectic lives, and the technology that continually reminds us of appointments, deadlines, and pesky work obligations. We leave our phones at home or use them sans signal to take pictures. We are free of the internet, which leaves us in the exciting and unpredictable hands of our climactic surroundings.
Snow, rainstorms, and sudden gusts of wind appear and disappear rapidly. The outer layer is our foremost protection against wind and rain. Outer layer garments act as shields, and sellers call them “shells” with technologies that water and windproof materials to expel outside moisture and buffer strong winds.
The newest out layer materials go the extra mile by safeguarding against external water entry while also allowing water vapor generated by sweat to escape.
How to choose your layers
In the previous section, we established a clear strategy involved in layering for cold weather that includes a base layer for moisture management, a middle layer for insulation, and an outer layer for wind and rain protection. Now we’ll explain how to choose your layers by breaking down the specific characteristics to look for in each piece.
How to Choose a Base Layer
The base layer must be thin, tight, and snug on your skin so that it can effectively absorb all sweat emanating from your pores. It then follows that the material in the base layer must be quick drying. The best materials for sweat-wicking and quick-drying are:
- Synthetics- the primary synthetic material for base layers is polyester. Synthetics are the fastest drying materials and the most durable materials. The only downside is that synthetics tend to hold onto smells, so they may not be ideal for long hiking or backpacking trips.
- Wool- Wool is the warmest base layer material and is also great at absorbing sweat; however, it dries more slowly than synthetics and retains the moisture for longer. Unlike synthetics and silk, wool is odor-free.
- Silk- Silk is the most lightweight material and generally feels the best against the skin. It is the easiest to slip under all the layers, but it is also the least durable material and retains bad-smelling body odors.
You might see base layers labeled “long underwear,” and you will also see them categorized as lightweight, midweight, or heavyweight. Lightweight is for moderate temperatures, midweight is for cold temperatures, and heavyweight base layers are for subzero temperatures because they are thicker and thus warmer.
Nevertheless, you do not need your base layers for warmth as much as you need them for sweat absorption and dry-wicking. My favorite base layer brand is Under Armour.
How to Choose a Mid Layer
Mid layer apparel is the most diverse in terms of design, materials, and aesthetic, so you can bring different mid-layer options with you depending on your activity level. A good rule of thumb with mid-layer clothing is that it should be easy to put on and take off according to your ever-changing body temperature during physical activity.
Mid layer apparel comes in the form of vests, sweaters, zip-up fleeces, and puffy down jackets, depending on outside temperatures. The best materials for mid-layer insulations are:
- Wool- As mentioned earlier, wool is one of the best insulators with sweat-wicking odor absorbing properties to boot. The softest, warmest wool is known as Merino Wool. My favorite wool products are from Smartwool.
- Down- Down, made of duck or goose feathers, is the warmest insulator on the market; the more feathers packed in, the better the insulation. It is also the easiest material to compress and thus takes up the least amount of room in your pack or luggage. It is also the priciest material, but well worth it.
- Fleece- Fleece is synthetic wool; it has all of wool’s strengths and none of its weaknesses. Fleece is generally more expensive than wool but also more durable, so your money goes a long way. I have had my Patagonia fleece for over a decade, and it still looks brand new.
- Synthetics- Materials like polyester and nylon are used for a growing number of mid-layer wear and provide the best breathability and water-resistance of the insulating materials. They are the cheapest clothes out there as well. The durability of synthetics run the gamut depending on their category: short staple synthetics are not durable, long-staple are durable. Long-staple synthetics are heavy and hard to compress, while short-staple synthetics are lightweight and easy to compress.
How to Choose an Outer Layer
Criteria for your outer layer gear is much more complicated than the previous two layers as well it should be if it is to act as your most impenetrable shield. You want your outer gear to protect against wind and rain, so there’s specific terminology you should learn and distinguish to find the best gear for inclement weather.
- Waterproof- describes the utmost protection from rain, no matter how torrential the downpour. Waterproof material is generally stiff with an outer coating or laminate that causes water to bead and slide off jackets.
- Water Resistant- water-resistant gear will protect against a mist or a sprinkle and is lightweight, facilitating packability and physical activity like running and hiking. If you plan on braving significant storms, water-resistant gear will not cut it.
- Breathable- breathability refers to a material’s ability to let water vapor molecules from sweat escape the material’s pores so that you stay dry. Waterproof material can be non-breathable when the material is not porous enough for vapor molecules to pass through.
- Windproof- refers to waterproof garments, thus stiff, thicker material with some sort of coating on the outer material.
- Wind-resistant- generally refers to lightweight running jackets or casual windbreakers that are breathable and compact but do not offer the best protection against a full-fledged storm.
- Hard shell- rain gear that is waterproof and breathable, made of stiff, more rigid material, and without insulation.
- Soft shell- rain gear that is water-resistant and insulated.
Another useful material used in conjunction with Gore-Tex and other synthetics is Neoprene, the material used to make wetsuits. The best waterproof and windproof brand out there is eVent. You can find their products and a description of their own patented proofing technology here.
In addition to the material, also look for accessories like seam tape, hoods with brims and adjustable face openings, waterproof zippers, or protective flaps for zippers. These details further ensure that water doesn’t seep through seam lines, face and neck openings, or pockets.
Now that you know how to choose your base, mid, and out layers, here are more suggestions on accessories and how to wear your layers for maximum comfort in cold and stormy weather.
Manage Your Body Temperature
According to Healthline, a healthy internal temperature is between 98 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Our bodies have various mechanisms to maintain this temperature in response to colder or hotter temperatures in the environment. For example, sweating cools the skin by releasing heat in the form of vapor, while vasoconstriction warms the core by limiting blood flow to your extremities.
Your clothing should act as a secondary thermoregulator, complementing internal mechanisms. For example, base layer material allows your body to cool down when sweating while also keeping you dry to ensure warmth.
Wear Good-Fitting Gloves
Frostbite is a serious concern in cold weather, and hands are among the first body parts to get it. Therefore, well-fitting gloves are a must to avoid numbness, stiffness and burning. They should fit snugly so as not to fill up with cold air rendering them useless.
Colombia thermoregulator gloves are warm wool with silk lining to whisk about sweat. Seirus has all-purpose weather gloves with long wrist sleeves, breathability, and superior insulation. My personal favorites are Northface Etip gloves because they are the nicest looking with highly effective synthetic insulation. Down mittens may be the warmest option, but you sacrifice the use of your fingers.
You mustn’t stack zippers in consecutive layers as this is an opening to let air and cold penetrate your clothes. If you stagger the zippers, then the air that gets through one layer cannot get past the next.
Zip-up pockets are an essential accessory as they keep items secure and dry. Unzipped pockets fill up with air in windy conditions, which can weigh you down on a hike, so be sure to zip up all your pockets.
Here are some examples of how to layer clothing appropriately in the cold and in the rain.
I would start with Under Armor thermal long underwear shirt and stockings on cold days, my mid-layer would be a merino wool pullover topped with a puffy zip-up jacket and mid-weight wool pants, and for my outer layer, I would spring for an eVent DVwindproof jacket. Don’t forget those insulated North Face Etip gloves.
For rainy weather, my base layer would be Smartwool merino wool long-sleeved shirt and stockings, a zip-up fleece with a Patagonia Torrentshell insulated water-resistant mid-layer. I would use Simms waterproof breathable rain pants and a Marmot lightweight waterproof rain jacket for outer layer rain gear.
Protect Your Head, Face, and Toes
When it’s cold out, you want most body surfaces covered, and that includes your head, face, and feet.
Headwear for Cold Weather
You’ll find the best winter weather hats in two main style categories:
- Knit beanies or Tuques are round knit caps that have a foldable brim that can act as a double-layered head covering or unfold it to cover the ears.
- Aviator style winter hats have thick fur lining and extended bendable ear flaps that can be tied on top of the head, beneath the chin, or hang loose. At military surplus stores, you’ll find aviator-style army gear (Scandinavian or Canadian is best) and modified aviator hats that use a large swath of fabric to connect the flaps under your chin. Your hat also serves as a neck covering.
Keeping Your Face Warm
The most common face protection is a form of beanie called a Balaclava, known to most as a face or ski mask. Neck gaiters and thermal scarves also serve to protect the face as they have extra material that you can use to pull over your mouth and nose on extra cold days. For skiing and brutally windy hikes, you could further invest in a pair of goggles.
Footwear for Cold Weather
There’s nothing worse than cold, wet feet so make sure you have the right socks for the cold. You can layer your socks; the base layer sock is thinner, sweat-wicking, blister protecting material like merino wool or a wool nylon combo. The second layer socks serve as mid-layer garments that insulate.
Merino wool and alpaca fleece are the best materials for winter socks. For hiking purposes, make sure second layer socks have extra cushioning in the arch and heel for further blister protection.
Most hiking boots are waterproof, but if you know you will be wading through water or stepping in puddles, check out GoreTex’s website for the best waterproof boots and athletic shoes.
FAQ Layering in Cold Weather
Here is a quick review of FAQs consumers have when layering for cold weather.
What is the best layering for cold weather?
- A tight-fitting thermal long underwear made of wool or silk
- Wool, fleece, or synthetic pullover and zipped puffy down jacket for the mid-layer
- A GoreTex rain jacket or eVent windbreaker.
- A neck gaiter, beanie/toque, gloves/mittens, and thick wool socks for your extremities.
How do you wear layers in the winter?
There is an art to layering that serves an all-encompassing strategic purpose:
- Base layers keep you dry by whisking moisture away from the skin
- Mid-layers trap your body heat and protect you from the cold
- Outer layers are water and windproof to protect from wind and rain.
Which fabric is warmest in winter?
- Fleece- synthetic wool that is quick-drying
- Down – the warmest insulator, made of duck/goose feathers, expensive
- Wool-made from sheep hair, odor-free, absorbs moisture, and can be itchy; Merino wool is a softer fabric.
- Synthetics-polyester and nylon are good insulators and keep you extra dry.
How many layers do you wear in winter?
Here you are looking for quality over quantity. Over-layering causes you to overheat and sweat, which will ultimately make you cold when you shed excess layers. Three layers are ideal, that is, one base layer, one mid-layer, and one outer layer. You can use two mid-layer garments such as a vest and a heavyweight down jacket to give yourself different options depending on your outdoor activity levels.
This article has shown you how to layer correctly, how to choose the best products for each layer’s purpose, and how to properly accessorize to protect your head, feet, and hands. Layering for cold weather thoroughly prepares you for the cold, rain, and wind so that nothing gets in the way of your outdoor adventures.
I have been camping and going outdoors for over 15 years! My first experience was when I joined the scouts. There I learned a lot. From building a campfire to set up a really big tent. Then I know this is awesome. Around 2005 I also started Geocaching. This is a lot of fun. And every time we go camping we look at the map to see if there are some nice caches around.