How to Layer Outdoor Clothing for Winter

8 minute read

Keeping warm in cold weather isn’t just about wearing as many layers as possible. When you layer outdoor clothing, you should think about the types of fabrics you’re wearing and how they interact, and build a system that works for your specific activity. Think about factors such as moisture management – what kind of intensity is your adventure? Will you get sweaty? Consider what kind of garment you’re going to put right next to your skin –  it might feel soft when you put it on, but what will it feel like when it’s drenched, and you’re an hour away from your car in sub-zero temperatures? It can all seem a bit confusing, but don’t worry – it won’t once we’re finished with you! Here’s everything you need to know about getting your layers right this winter.

A layering system generally has three simple elements– base layer, mid layer and outer layer. The different fabrics you use for each layer are key. Your base layer will set the foundation – here, you should focus on moisture management, keeping away from fabrics that are likely to hold perspiration next to your skin. Your mid layer is all about insulation – look for garments with insulating properties that will also breathe – you don’t want to get clammy. Your outer layer is of course weather-dependent. It may be stowed in your bag for much of your trip, but if you go without it, you might find yourself regretting it big time – there’s nothing worse than being caught out in the rain without an appropriate jacket, especially if you’re kilometers away from shelter.

Base Layers

Base layers sit directly on your skin, forming the foundation of your layering system. Their purpose is to manage moisture, and in turn, stop you from getting cold. The fastest way to get cold is having a wet cotton garment on your skin, so you should absolutely avoid that. You’ve got two options when it comes to your base layer: natural merino thermals, or synthetic thermals.

Merino Thermals

Merino wool is natural, renewable, comfortable and warm. High quality merino won’t itch, is anti odour and feels soft on skin. But 100% merino isn’t the best choice if you’re active and likely to sweat as wool naturally holds onto water, and it’s heavy, damp and uncomfortable when wet.

When to wear: Merino is great for stationary or low intensity activities, like watching the rugby from the sidelines on a crisp winter morning, or heading off on a short walk on a cool evening.

Synthetic Thermals

Most synthetic base layers are made from polyester or a polyester blend. This material is known for its durability, technical performance, versatility and most importantly its moisture management. Because of this, synthetic base layers are more suitable than merino when it comes to any activity where you’re likely to sweat.

When to wear:  Synthetic base layers are great for medium to high intensity activity.

Mid Layers

Mid layers are highly versatile and usually worn on their own on top of a base layer, but they can be teamed with an outer layer such as a hard or softshell (more on those later) depending on weather conditions. Mid layers are all about insulation – they’ll trap the warm air close to your body, and prevent the cold air from getting in.

Merino Mid Layers

Merino mid layers team up well with merino base layers. They’re warm and comfortable if you’re not generating much body heat through movement. It can also be a good idea to take a merino layer on a tramping or camping trip – not for use during intense periods of activity, but as a cosy option in the evenings.

When to wear: Merino mid layers are perfect for stationary or slow paced activities, or as a warm option once your body has cooled down post activity.

Fleece Mid Layers 

Fleece is fast drying, continues to perform when wet, and provides great warmth. A high quality, synthetic fleece will also play its part in the moisture wicking process, which starts with the extraction of moisture direct from the skin, and ends with the expulsion of that moisture through your outer layer.

When to wear: Fleece is great for higher intensity winter activities such as tramping, trail running and ski touring. It is also a versatile option for everyday life.

Down Mid Layers

Down is nature’s most efficient insulator – it’s unmatched in terms of its warmth-to-weight ratio. Exceptionally lightweight and compact, down jackets and vests easily stow away into your pack until you need them. Down mid layers are best for cool, dry conditions where you are not sweating too much, as down loses its ability to insulate when it gets wet or damp.

When to wear: When you’re hiking or walking in crisp conditions, a lightweight down jacket will easily fit under an outer shell. Down is not suitable for high intensity activities like trail running or tramping.

Synthetic Insulation Mid Layers

Synthetic insulation’s key benefit is that it still performs when wet or damp. It’s also low maintenance and easy to care for – you can wash it like any other garment. While it does offer great warmth and versatility, synthetic insulation does not compress quite as well as down, so it isn’t the best option if space is at a premium.

When to wear:  Garments with synthetic insulation make great mid layers for medium to high intensity activities – particularly hiking or tramping trips where you are wearing a pack, might sweat, or if there’s a chance it may rain.

Outer Layers

Your outer layer is essential to protect you from the wind and rain – both significant factors when it comes to losing body heat. Water resistance and breathability are the two key considerations when choosing your outer layer.

Hardshell Outer Layers

Hardshells sit on top of your mid layer as a barrier between you and the elements. Generally waterproof and wind resistant, hardshells are an absolute must if you’re heading into wet conditions, as they’re the only thing keeping the rain out of your base and mid layers.

When to wear: You don’t need a hardshell at all times, but you should always have one in your pack if there’s a chance it could rain. While waterproofness is the key consideration in a hardshell, breathability also needs to factor into your decision if you plan on exercising or exerting yourself in wet weather.

Softshell Outer Layers 

There’s a huge variety of softshell options available, but the key function of a softshell is wind resistance. A softshell is constructed from less rigid materials, so your range of movement and abrasion resistance will be greater in a softshell than a hardshell. Softshells will provide protection from the wind and light rain, and some have a soft fleece inner for extra warmth in winter.

When to wear:  Apart from in situations where you’re likely to experience extended exposure to damp conditions or run into heavy rain, there’s a softshell for most outdoor activities. It all comes down to how much you’re likely to move, the type of activity you’re doing and how much protection you think you’ll need from the elements.

Insulated Outer Layers

Many people use an insulated jacket as their main outer layer– particularly for lower intensity activities, when they won’t be moving much at all, or in extreme cold where you are unlikely to sweat. These layers are primarily for providing warmth, but they will protect from very light rain and ice if the garment has a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coating.

When to wear: Sedentary activity is where an insulated jacket thrives. Insulated jackets are generally not suitable for high intensity activity, however a synthetic insulated outer could be necessary if you were intermittently exerting yourself e.g. if you’re belaying for another climber.