How To Layer Properly

1:30 a.m. on December 26, 2009 (EST)
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I was wondering if there was anyone that could tell me how to layer properly?
I know you need a base layer that wicks away moisture, a second for insulation, and a third to keep out wind and rain.

I've tried this approach and keep finding myself too cold or too hot for the activities I'm doing. Hiking and snowshoeing mostly. Is there a way to know how thick of fleece I need or do I just carry all my stuff in a big backpack and carry three different jackets for when I get to hot or cold?


10:02 a.m. on December 26, 2009 (EST)
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I think of it in terms of FOUR:


**Baselayer: thin silk top or t-shirt.

**Midlayer: over the baselayer comes the polypro/capilene/merino tops(I use two Icebreaker tops, a medium and a large sandwiched together).

**Outer layer: Herein comes the fleece jackets and bigger wool sweaters or the Primaloft jackets.

**Extreme Outer: Severe winter gear including down parkas and down vests.

NOTE: In cold and wet conditions, a gtx rain jacket can be worn over the t-shirt baselayer while hiking and this will keep you just warm enough, may even break a sweat which is okay with just a wet t-shirt. The main thing of course is to not sweat out your clothing layers NO MATTER WHAT.


**baselayer: underwear and shorts.

**midlayer: thermal longjohns under shorts(can be polypro or merino).

**outer layer: gtx rainpants/bibs or convertible pants over long johns.

**Extreme outer: goose down winter pants(WM makes some nice ones--used only in severe cold--too warm for hiking).

10:10 p.m. on December 27, 2009 (EST)
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Depending upon how much heat you are generating, dress for comfort. The best way to do that is to add or remove a layer. On a cold day I start out bundled and warm, then depending upon shade and wind, I add or remove a layer.

I spend time venting like an old crone flapping her skirts.

In summer in the Sierra and Rockies where it gets HOT during the day, I hike in shorts and a shirt. But I keep a 200 fleece handy at the top of the pack ready to put on immediately after I stop for more than just a breather. At altitude and low humidity and a breeze, putting that pack back on over a sweaty shirt that has been evaporating is like no other sensation in the world.

Well, maybe wife's cold feet in the middle of my back on a brisk night.

10:50 p.m. on December 27, 2009 (EST)
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The thing about layering: it requires discipline to stop what you're doing and remove one before you start feeling too clammy, and enough sense to re-layer when you're taking a break. It's a pain but if nothing else it avoids a soggy drive home.

I hiked today in upper 30s to mid 40s with almost exactly what Tipi described for top layers: sleeveless base layer; silkweight midlayer; very light primaloft jacket and lightweight external jacket. After a mile or so I removed the primaloft jacket and the three light layers were fine.

1:37 a.m. on December 28, 2009 (EST)
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Wow, I didn't know it was so complex. These tips are great!
There seems to be a lot of technical things I can't find too much info on such as 200 fleece, silkweight, permaloft (sleeping bags right?), polypro/capilene/merino...
Are these all fabric types?

Also does this really mean that to stay comfortable on a day hike I need to bring my massive day bag and not just my camelback? I like to keep my gear to a minimum. I'm no ultra light fanatic, but a day hike just isn't a day hike if I have a massive pack with all my layers in it.
FYI, I usually start my hikes in the morning when it is the coldest then finish in the afternoon.

8:35 a.m. on December 28, 2009 (EST)
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"200 fleece": The number is a measurement of the weight of a fleece fabric; lower is lighter, higher is heavier.

Polypro: Short for polypropylene -- a synthetic fabric used in many base layers.

Capilene: This is Patagonia's trademark base-layer fabric; it's very popular.

Merino: Wool fabric that's growing more popular as a base-layer.

Silkweight: Basically the thinnest weight of base-layer fabric, so called because it's usually smooth and silky to the touch.

Primaloft: Synthetic insulating fiber for jackets, sleeping bags, gloves (even some boots if I recall).

I don't think you need a huge daypack to carry layers; I have a Gregory daypack that's 1500 ci that has plenty of room for my layers plus hydration bladder and 10 essentials stuff.

9:05 a.m. on December 28, 2009 (EST)
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I don't think it has to be that complex, though it may require some experimentation.

Especially in cold weather, a lot of it depends on anticipating when you'll get hotter or colder. Start off a little cool, so you don't have to stop shortly up the trail to remove a layer, or worse, get all sweaty. You don't want to get sweaty in your winter layers.

In the cold, add warm layers as soon as you stop for a longer break. It's much easier to conserve your existing heat than to generate more heat.

It's best to anticipate and take care of maintaining temperatures on a regular basis, rather than getting too hot and sweaty or too cold.

Can you tell us where and in what temps you're out in?

2:37 p.m. on December 28, 2009 (EST)
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As Alicia said, it really is not complex. Your basic goal is to stay warm and dry, whether it is sunny, raining, snowing, calm, windy, or whatever the conditions. The 3 layers are "WWW" -

W = wicking (get your sweat/perspiration away from your skin and out of your clothing)

W = warmth (insulating - warm enough for your conditions, but not too warm)

W = wind and/or water protection (wind can chill, especially if your clothes are damp, so you also want to keep outside water out, whether rain or snow that can melt).

Each of these layers may be made up of one or more sublayers. For example, in really cold weather, you might have a merino wool shirt, a Primaloft vest, and a down parka for your warmth layer - 3 sublayers. In warm weather, say in Florida in summer, you might eliminate all but a thin wicking shirt that is light in color to reflect as much of the hot sun as possible.

Do not fall into the "rigid rules" trap. Since everyone is different and even the same person will vary under different conditions, you have to learn from experience the needed fine tuning. The basic thing is how you feel - if you are sweating, you need to shed some of the insulating layer (a good reason for having several sublayers), or perhaps unzip the jacket to get some ventilation (some jackets have pit-zips).

Talk to others out there on the trail (best way to learn is just get out there and try things out on short hikes). Pretty soon, it just comes naturally.

This last week, I was in a wide range of temperatures - subzero on the low end, 50s on the high end, clear and windy 2 days, blizzarding on 2 days, and on the way home, heavy rain. Layers made it easy to stay comfortable.

2:50 p.m. on December 28, 2009 (EST)
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Something else to keep in mind: we're talking about layering for recreation rather than, say, competition.

I have a brother-in-law who used to compete in triathlons. I asked him last night about his layering systems for biking and running in winter weather and he said that invariably during training, he'd work up a huge sweat that would form into ice crystals that would become super uncomfortable, and that no combination of wicking fabrics worked against it. He suffered because it was part of the training but it was not nice. Trying to delayer during bike training was a major pain, too.

Another way to avoid overheating is to simply slow down.

4:22 p.m. on December 28, 2009 (EST)
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C4B7 - As Bill and others have said, what you wear really depends on the conditions. There is a bewildering array of types of jackets and various layers made out of all kinds of proprietary fabrics, none of which I know anything about except what I own.

Once it starts to gets cold, my very basic system is this-

briefs-Jockey synthetic (not cotton because it gets too clammy if you sweat at all);

base layer - old midweight Capilene turtle neck long sleeve top and midweight bottom (Patagonia now makes 4 different weights, so not sure what the new equivalent is-probably 2nd lightest). I wear these when skiing or winter camping. I am wearing them in my picture. You can see the top under my fleece jacket.

outer layer-I have Marmot Precip pants (in picture) and an REI rainjacket which are fine for aerobic activity in cold weather and rain.

Insulated layer- TNF Baltoro big Goretex down parka and Go-Lite synthetic insulated pants. I also have a pair of fleece pants, but usually don't take them. I also have a midweight fleece jacket (in picture). I wear this jacket all the time. I live in LA and probably wear it 200 days a year as my everyday jacket. It is a cheap Columbia jacket and I've owned it for years. Probably the best value in a piece of clothing I ever bought.

This works for me in weather down to about +15F. It should work in even colder weather since the TNF should be good to around -20F or so. I've only worn these combos in moderate cold weather, not heavy storms, so don't know how it would hold up under those conditions.

I have hiked in mildly cold and misting weather (maybe around +45F) in just my Capilene with a pair of nylon shorts over the bottoms and a light jacket.

The Marmot pants have full zips which I open if I start to get hot while skiing.

Snowshoeing and skiing will generate a lot of heat, at least that is my experience. I would advise carrying liner gloves of some sort, heavier gloves or mitts, and a balaclava or neck gaiter and fleece or wool beanie. Those are put on while stopped if it's cold.

Once you stop, you will want to layer up, but try to avoid sweating while moving. You'd be surprised how little you need to be wearing while moving in cold weather, as long as you are wind-proofed to some extent.

For a more traditional system, read Tom Mangan's article on Kevin Kinney and Empire Canvas Works.

In extreme cold weather (-30C), some campers will wear wool tops and bottoms in place of down or synthetic jackets and a cotton/canvas outer anorak or jacket that is good for below freezing. Cotton will breathe just as well, if not better than modern fabrics in very cold weather and is resistant to sparks from camp fires, unlike nylon. The old saying "cotton kills" remains true, since it is a poor insulator and stays wet, once it gets wet, but it works as an outer layer in sub-freezing temps.

4:30 p.m. on December 28, 2009 (EST)
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Kinney told me that at a certain point Gore-Tex and other "breathable" fabrics can't work below a certain point because water vapor freezes and blocks the pores in the fabric. Not sure how far below the freezing mark it has to get to reach this point.

4:38 p.m. on December 28, 2009 (EST)
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Not sure either since I've never been out in that kind of weather. Bill might know, but I suspect that what happens is that water vapor from sweating freezes before it can transpire through all the layers of different material so you wind up with a thin layer of ice crystals inside the jacket somewhere. Just a theory based on what I have read.

5:53 p.m. on December 28, 2009 (EST)
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Tom and tom,

I have never experienced such an occurrence, even though I have spent a fair amount of time at -40 and lower. I suspect that it might depend on humidity level. I have had the experience of climbing hard at -30 or so and starting to get damp, so I would open the pit zips and front closures, to find that the fleece and wicking layers did not block the breezes. No frost or ice layer in the clothing. Goretex and to a lesser extent eVent do get stiff at low temperatures. I have never seen frost on the inside of my gtx and eVent jackets.

I will note that ice will sublime even at subzero temperatures (that is, for those who don't know, evaporate directly from the solid state to vapor). The heat loss from subliming directly from solid to vapor is 80+540 cal/gram or 620 cal/gm, compared to 720 cal/gm if you melt the ice, heat the water, then boil it away. In other words, pushing the ice into vapor directly takes almost as much heat away as going through all the stages in between.

10:24 p.m. on December 28, 2009 (EST)
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Listen to Bill S. The BS and I mean BS with capital B and S about water vapour freezing in the pores of goretex is BS. Some certain PhD wrote about this and so everybody believed it, but apparently he was not a PhD in either chemistry or physics. Its like the BS about water vapour freezing when it touches the outside of your sleeping bag - more BS that makes me so upset my eyes cross. ALL of the heat that you body gives off MUST be radiated by the outside of your sleeping bag making it warmer than ambient AND a lot of people fail to understand that H2O is a tri state material capable of going from any state to any other state. Single molecules CANNOT freeze. The pores in goretex are too small for enough water vapour to enter to freeze.

I think Bill S and I have used goretex in some pretty extreme situations and well gee it seems to work for us.

Jim S soap box off.

10:28 p.m. on December 28, 2009 (EST)
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About layering,

I prefer two layers, I can't move - too constricted in 4. Three is moderately ok. I like to wear an appropriately thick under layer and have a shell that can be adjusted to vent differently as required, like full zip packlite pants over 200 weight fleece if its cold enough, simply unzip the top 10 inches and they are medium warm, zip up and they are more warm without having to constantly remove and add layers which is why I am always saying "I don't layer, I adjust". is why I always buy outer warmth layers with built in wind rain shells. like goretex shelled down coats and goretex shelled down pants for instance. In really cold weather I wear light long underwear, down goretex bibs, fleece jacket, down coat.

Jim S ok soap box off again.

10:46 p.m. on December 28, 2009 (EST)
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One thing I do for regular cold weather hiking is that if you are standing at the trailhead and haven't hiked yet and are warm, comfortable, or sweating; you have too many layers on. I like to be brisk or chilled when starting a hike in cooler weather and after a few hundred yards, I warm up and happily keep my layers in the pack until I stop for lunch.

As mentioned, overheating and sweating are not a good thing in cold weather. A cold day can only get worse when it is a wet and cold day.

10:50 p.m. on December 28, 2009 (EST)
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We did a thing along the lines of this topic on our Blog a couple of years ago.

It is very NON technical but the "system" works well for us. We don't get the really cold , snowy conditions here in Australia that many of you would normally experience, but it works well for us.

I am a visual person so that is why we put it together with pictures!

The post is called Best Hiking gear for a multi day hike? Would be very interested in some feedback.

3:41 a.m. on December 29, 2009 (EST)
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Thanks Bill and Jim. As I said, I have no personal experience at those temps. The other possibility is that this theory is just a justification for promoting traditional wear over modern fabrics. I'm not saying Kevin is just making this up, but that the evidence may be more anecdotal than anything actually tested.

6:15 a.m. on December 29, 2009 (EST)
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Kevin Kinney told me of his experience attending a sled-dog race with all his high-tech layers (gore-tex, etc.) and standing around shivering while all these folks in their cotton anoraks seemed comfy.

Might've been an issue of his first extended exposure to extreme north-country cold. One of the key tenets of the winter-trekking crowd is camping in a big tent (towed in on a sled), with a stove inside so you stay toasty & warm and need less insulation for hanging-around-camp time. The issue of cotton being less likely to melt from sparks is probably the main thing in its favor at such times.

Perhaps the issue causing the most confusion is that no two human bodies sweat the same way -- there are hundreds of versions of "what works" and the only scientific way to find "the best" would be to test the thousands of possible variations using identical twins who have identical fitness, diet and life experience. Impractical bordering on impossible.

(I think for the sake of Jim's blood pressure we should all vow not to repeat the stories of Gore-Tex pores freezing shut.)

2:01 p.m. on December 29, 2009 (EST)
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The other thing to note is that the wintertrekkers (according to their posts) are wearing everything from wool or synthetic base layers, plus wool sweaters or down or synthetic jackets and vests under the anorak or parka, so when standing around, they are pretty well bundled up. Plus, when moving, they are often in deep snow pulling a sled with 100 pounds of gear on it while wearing big snowshoes, so they are generating a lot of heat from that.

The other thing they mention is that many of them buy surplus CF (Canadian Forces) gear, which is often wool and really cheap, so economics plays a part in how many of them dress. They can outfit themselves completely for the cost of one high tech jacket.

Another thing some of them often mention is that they like the aesthetic of the traditional wear as opposed to the high tech stuff, but that seems to be a style choice more than anything else.

When I was in New Zealand back in the 80's, the locals wore mostly wool, often had canvas rucksacks and some even wore Japara jackets because that is what was readily available there at reasonable prices. Now you see on NZ websites much of the same high tech brand name clothing and gear you see here, so things change over time.

2:45 p.m. on December 29, 2009 (EST)
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I was tempted to buy one of Kinney's oilskin coats, just to have one. Supposedly they last forever, as long as you can find somebody to reapply the oil every few years.

5:14 p.m. on December 29, 2009 (EST)
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Aha so Kinney sells oils ski coats...

Anyway I guess if they use goretex in space suits thats about as cold as you can get eh?

If the water vapor did freeze inside the pores it would make the clothes warmer because the wouldn't vent out heat.

That said - only so much can go through the goretex depending on a lot of things and some people sweat so much and doing scarey areobic activity that then its not a great deal berter than non venting material, but in those cases you have to unzip enough to let some steam out and thats where pit zips excell. One rule of staying warm - is don't sweat.


5:18 p.m. on December 29, 2009 (EST)
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I've had frost build up inside gore tex shells in the winter. I suspect gore tex and the like function much better in dry alpine air than in the humid midwest.

3:26 p.m. on December 30, 2009 (EST)
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Tom. the Japara jacket I mentioned is a type of oilskin. I have a Driza-bone riding coat I bought in Australia years ago. It is canvas oilskin. I don't wear it often. It is bulky and heavy but can take a lot of abuse. It makes a great raincoat for casual wear.

Frank, your first list looks pretty much like what I wore in NZ in the 80's much of the time. When it got colder, I added a Swanndri pullover and pair of Alp Sports fleece pants. My list of current wear is posted above.

I would disagree about wool jumpers (what we Yanks call a sweater) though. Even when somewhat wet, they stay warm in my experience, I have two really nice ones handmade by friends in NZ, but today, I just wear my fleece jacket and save the jumpers for around town. Jeans - definitely not for hiking.

6:15 p.m. on December 30, 2009 (EST)
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I would disagree about wool jumpers (what we Yanks call a sweater) though. Even when somewhat wet, they stay warm in my experience, I have two really nice ones handmade by friends in NZ, but today, I just wear my fleece jacket and save the jumpers for around town. Jeans - definitely not for hiking.

Hi Tom,

I suppose I was focusing on the problem of drying wool "sweaters" compared with synthetics. Appreciate the fact they can still be warm but once wet, weight increases and the possibility of getting them dry is slight.

I too have a few handmade "jumpers" love em, but not when I am out bush!

5:18 p.m. on January 1, 2010 (EST)
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Frank, you are right, that's why I don't wear mine in the bush, too heavy. But if that is what someone has, as long as you don't mind the extra weight, it isn't a bad choice. Wool jumpers, like the British or Canadian Forces military surplus ones, are often readily available for far less than name brand fleece jackets.

Something I wish I had bought when I was in NZ is the Swanndri Mosgiel Bush Jacket (the long hooded one). Now they are too darn expensive. I saw a lot of those when I was there.

My jumpers are handknit from wool yarn so they are structurally different from something like my Swanndri pullover, which is a tightly wool woven fabric which looks more like fleece. I like my fleece because it isn't itchy at all. I think Merino wool solves that problem, but I don't own any.

10:27 p.m. on January 7, 2010 (EST)
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I have alot of polyester activewear (Champion brand). Does this make a good baselayer? Also does multiple layers of polyester work for an insulation layer, as I have no wool and only cotton fleece?

p.s. im going to be skiing in humid 5-20 degree fahrenheit weather.

2:32 p.m. on January 8, 2010 (EST)
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Never having heard of Champion brand (and noting that "activewear" is yet another of these new hypermarketing terms for the same old same old), if your poly activewear is truly all polyester (perhaps with a bit of Lycra, which seems to be a requirement for it to be called "activewear"), yes it will work as a base layer. Multiple layers will work for insulation. However, more than a couple layers tends to bind and restrict movement, since "activewear" and most base layers tend to be stretchy and tight fit - the multiple layers tend to fight each other in the flexibility department.

Do not wear the cotton "fleece" in humid conditions, even at cold temperatures like 5-20F. Cotton (even cotton blends with poly) tends to hold the moisture, which will draw the heat away from your body right now! The polyester is wicking, which means you won't retain the chilling moisture (if it is straight poly with no cotton in it).

But note that Big Box Stores (WalMart, KMart, Target, and the like) sell purely polyester fleece at pretty cheap prices these days. It may not be fashionable, but it works. Be sure to read the labels, though, since a lot of their stuff is blended with cotton. You can also find amazing bargains in barely used winter-suitable clothing at Goodwill and other similar recycle shops. I got a barely used (actually looked like it had not been worn at all) full-body wet suit (Body Glove, no less) for $5 (yes, that's five bucks). And I have seen almost new Goretex shells from the quality name companies for less than a quarter of their new prices - people apparently get stuff, wear it once, or maybe decide they aren't really interested, and donate it to Goodwill, Salvation Army, and the other shops.

5:31 p.m. on January 8, 2010 (EST)
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I've seen the Champion stuff before, probably at Dick's or maybe Sports Authority. I've never skied in really cold weather, but around here (30-40F), I just wear a one piece ski suit and Capilene base layer for alpine skiing at my local mountain.

In my pic, I think the temp is around 30-40F at most and I'm not wearing much-Capilene and fleece jacket with my Precip pants. I was warm in just that.

I'd skip too many layers as Bill said. Get a warm jacket for standing around. Get a balaclava or fleece beanie if you aren't wearing a helmet. If you are downhilling, I'd wear a helmet. Take extra gloves to keep your hands dry.

I don't even wear cotton socks. I'd get something like Smartwool or Thorlo instead.

5:19 p.m. on January 10, 2010 (EST)
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this morning's walk: 23 degrees, sunny, breezy (5-15 northwest winds). a pretty cold morning here in maryland. walked for a few carrying about 15 pounds, lighter bag than usual. leather boots, wicking liner socks, smartwool mountain socks (a step below expedition). bottoms, a waffle patagonia fleece (they call it "R1"), top, a thin long-sleeve merino zip neck, a patagonia zip-neck fleece (lightweight, also "R1" though it's older than that classification), gore tex pro-shell jacket. fleece hat, not windproof; windproof fleece gloves with thin liners.

other accessories - camelbak reservoir with warm water; happy dog.

observations - the dog loved it. the warm water kept the camelbak tube from freezing up. my legs were a little cold until i walked for a while; i could have stopped to add shell pants or worn a lighter-weight layer plus a shell, but i ended up not missing the shell pants. i ended up venting the jacket via front and pit zips, ended up with essentially no condensation in the shell. hands and feet were fabulous. the wool baselayer was excellent. doesn't wick as well as some synthetic baselayers, but didn't get that damp and worked great. any colder, i might have swapped the thin fleece top for something mid-weight. had i carried 40+ pounds like i usually do to train, i would have been pretty warm, probably would have unzipped the top layers to vent a little heat.

3:36 a.m. on January 17, 2010 (EST)
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Hey all thanks for the advice! I just did a short hike and had a blast. No sweat, literally. I think this is the first time I haven't sweat on a winter hike. I'm always bundled up a bit too much and realize when it is too late. It is a little harder to leave my warm car to get on the trail, but I compensate by filling my water bladder with hot chocolate!

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