10 Smarter Ways to Think About Your Layering System
By Michael Lanza
Think of your layering system of clothing for outdoor activities as a musical instrument. When you’re first learning how to play, you practice one chord or note at a time. But you only begin to produce music once you can link chords in a way that sounds good—because they work together. Similarly, we tend to acquire the parts of a layering system piecemeal, regardless of how well they work together. In this article, I’ll give you 10 specific tips for thinking about your layering system in ways that make it work better for you—and ultimately help you spend your money more wisely.
A layering system is, of course, the various pieces of clothing we wear when active outdoors, including base layers, insulation, and outerwear. Especially for outings that last several hours to several days, that layering system has to keep you mostly dry, warm, and comfortable most of the time, through a wide range of temperatures and weather conditions.
When I first learned the term “layering system,” years ago, I thought I understood what it meant. But it wasn’t until I started seeing my layering system as a dynamic, interconnected whole consisting of pieces that should function together—rather than a static collection of individual apparel items—that I actually figured out how to move more comfortably, and safely, in any weather. That was when I started playing music instead of individual notes.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money. Get whatever you can afford that is versatile and appropriate for the weather conditions you typically encounter. And then adjust it for each trip depending on the weather forecast and how long you’ll be out there.
Thinking about your layering system more smartly should translate to buying apparel that you can use more often, across seasons and environments. It may result in the rare circumstance when less really is more.
#1 Pack For This Trip, Not the Last One
Make your layering system dynamic, adapting it to every situation. What’s the forecast? How much time will you spend moving as opposed to stationary? All of these factors affect your needs in terms of weather protection and insulation. We can encounter myriad circumstances in the backcountry, but I’ll focus on three common ones for me to illustrate this point.
My backpacking trips commonly fall into one of two categories: either with my family (moderate pace and daily mileage, range of three-season weather, plenty of down time in camp), or with a small group of friends (strong pace, range of three-season weather, big-mileage days of long hours). With my family, I need insulation I can wear moving around during long periods of inactivity in camp—particularly on cool mornings, because my family doesn’t pack up camp early. But when hiking long days with friends, I spend most of every day on the move, with my body generating heat; I actually require less insulation because in camp, I’m usually either in my sleeping bag by the time cool night temps set in, or I’m packing quickly to start hiking early the next morning.
My third example: On many ultra-dayhikes, when I’ll hike from early morning until evening and not stop much, I’ll just plan to feel a little cold for the first 30 minutes or so—early morning is often the coldest time of the day. After that, my body and/or the air temperature will have warmed enough that I’m no longer cold wearing all of my layers (which may only be a short-sleeve and long-sleeve plus an ultralight jacket; see tip #7). Because my strategy is always to hike as light as possible, I’d rather feel a little chilled for the hike’s first 30 minutes than have to carry the weight of an extra clothing layer in my pack when that layer becomes unneeded for the rest of the hike.
The takeaway: You don’t have to be an ultra-hiker to think about when exactly on a trip you’ll need warmth or weather protection and how critical it is.
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#2 Live In Your Base Layers
Don’t think of short- and long-sleeve base layers as pieces to be worn separately; integrate them so that they function like three pieces instead of two.
I typically bring one synthetic T-shirt and one, midweight, long-sleeve top on three-season backcountry trips in moderate temperatures (see tip #9), and there are many trips where the T-shirt almost never leaves my body. I wear it alone or under the long-sleeve top in cooler temps, so that the short-sleeve’s wicking ability keeps me and my long-sleeve top drier. In camp, I swap those two base layers around, putting the damp short-sleeve on over the drier long-sleeve top, so that my body heat dries out the short-sleeve without having its dampness against my skin, which might make me feel cold. I’ll wear the T-shirt, the long-sleeve, or both while sleeping.
Base layers I recommend:
Smartwool PhD Ultra Light Short Sleeve ($70) and Ultra Light Long Sleeve ($80)
Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck LS, $139
Ibex Woolies 1 Short-Sleeve, $70
The North Face Men’s Warm Long-Sleeve Zip Neck, $60
Patagonia Merino Air Crew, $129
Kids base layers I recommend:
#3 One Word: Vest
From cool to very cold temps, a fleece or insulated vest delivers warmth to your core while letting your arms ventilate, so that you don’t overheat easily when your body cycles through the normal periods of feeling warmer and colder with changes in your exertion level (going downhill vs. uphill, etc.). Without adding much weight to your system, you can wear a vest over any base layer or under any puffy or shell jacket. It’s like adding a removable, insulating liner to every jacket you have.
#4 Two Words: Light Layers
While getting a heavy, bomber waterproof-breathable jacket or a huge puffy jacket can feel like insurance against the worst-case scenario, in reality, you’re not likely to wear that security blanket nearly as much as lighter layers—which are much more versatile because they’re interchangeable. Similar to a vest, you can wear lighter layers year-round, making them a more cost-effective use of your money. On a limited budget, it’s even more important to invest in layers that you’ll actually wear a lot.
Light layers I recommend:
#5 Breathable and Water-Resistant Insulation
Yesterday’s fleece, synthetic, and down jackets were outstanding for adding warmth, even when wet in the case of fleece and synthetics, while remaining highly breathable; their downsides are that wind cuts right through fleece, and it doesn’t have much water resistance, while down feathers became useless once wet. But today’s new generation of breathable, active-insulation layers and water-resistant down have changed the way we use insulation.
With breathable synthetic insulation like Polartec Alpha and PrimaLoft, which also wick moisture and dry quickly (unlike traditional down feathers or fleece), you can wear these insulation pieces on the go, standing around, or in camp—greatly reducing the repeated putting on and removing of layers. Water-resistant down feathers eliminate down’s Achilles heel—now you can stay warm even when that down gets damp, and it dries faster. Shell fabrics are often treated to repel light rain, too, adding to the protectiveness of these garments.
What’s this mean? You can wear the same lightweight, breathable insulation sitting around in camp in warm temps and on the move in cold temps. You can wear that midweight puffy jacket stuffed with water-resistant down feathers in a light rain in summer—meaning people out frequently in wet environments don’t have to shy away from down—and as an outer layer skiing in falling snow. It makes sense to think about finding the right insulation piece that suits your typical environments and how to marry it to other pieces in your layering system.
Apparel I Recommend:
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#6 Get a Sleeping Bag That Doubles as a Puffy Jacket
Backpackers have known for years to use gear that performs multiple functions, reducing your pack weight by eliminating duplicative gear. One of the most obvious places to do this is getting a sleeping bag that doubles as a puffy jacket to wear in camp. With sealable arm ports and a foot end that opens and closes, and a way to roll or fold the foot end up so that it hangs on your body like a long, down coat, these bags allow you to walk around and use your hands.
You’ll still need warm sleeves that offer wind protection in chilly temperatures (a long-sleeve shirt and a shell jacket worn inside the bag-jacket can suffice), and it’s comfortable enough for moving around in camp, but not for walking any distance. A bag that can be worn like a jacket also enables you to bring a puffy jacket that’s lighter than you’d normally need for a cold trip; when temps get too chilly for that light, puffy jacket alone, pull the sleeping bag on over it.
Bags I Recommend:
#7 Personalize Your Rain Gear
The best rain shell for you isn’t the one that’s the lightest or the most featured, or the cheapest, or the most expensive, or somewhere in the middle for weight, price, or features. The best rain shell for you is the outerwear you’ll use, and that depends on the environments you frequent and what you like to do in the backcountry. A few examples:
• For all-day hikes or peak scrambles with no more than a small chance of rain, I may wear only an ultralight wind shell that’s breathable, blocks most wind, and has some water-resistance—because in those circumstances, it will be the most comfortable and I’ll actually wear it.
• Backpacking in a dry environment like the desert Southwest, or with a mostly sunny weather forecast in a mountain range that’s often dry in summer but could see a passing afternoon thunderstorm, like the High Sierra or the Rockies, I’ll generally take an ultralight rain shell—because it will keep the rain off me and it will probably spend most of the trip in my pack.
• In a place known for wet weather, like the Pacific Northwest (which can also be reliably dry in summer), the Northeast, Alaska, or New Zealand, I will take along a well-featured rain jacket with good breathability—because I could spend hours a day in it—as well as some rain-protection accessories (see tip #8).
In other words: Don’t buy more or less of a shell than you need. Too little and you’re cold and wet in the first big rainstorm; too much jacket, and it’ll often be too hot to wear.
Plus, your shell offers wind as well as rain protection, and a bit of warmth by blocking wind and trapping some body heat, so it effectively functions like a very lightweight piece of breathable insulation. You want it to be comfortable to hike in because, in some circumstances, such as when ultralight backpacking or dayhiking in summer, it can replace a piece of light insulation (see ultra-dayhikes example in tip #1).
As for pants, I rarely wear waterproof-breathable rain pants because I tend to overheat in them. Instead, I opt for soft-shell pants for cool, wet trips, because they repel light rain, dry pretty quickly from body heat, and breathe well enough that I don’t overheat wearing them (until the temperature’s high enough to change into shorts). I use rain pants in sustained rain and cool temps, when soft-shell pants could soak through and have no chance to get dry, which could make me cold.
#8 Accessorize Wisely
Gaiters, gloves, and the right hat can greatly affect not only your comfort, but can eliminate the need for something else. I’ll illustrate this point with examples:
• Gaiters—In light rain and warm temps, or where recent rain has soaked trailside vegetation that you’re brushing against frequently, in lieu of soft-shell or rain pants, wear less-expensive shorts or nylon zip-off pants with low or high gaiters to keep your lower legs and feet dry. Go for high gaiters in wetter and colder conditions, and low gaiters (which aren’t as hot) for warmer temps and light precipitation, as long as you’re not constantly brushing against or through tall, wet vegetation. Added benefit: Gaiters aren’t as hot as rain pants. Tip: Wear your pant legs over gaiters, so that water doesn’t drain down pants inside the gaiters.
• Gloves—Most gloves offer warmth and a little water resistance, but are not waterproof unless their made with a waterproof-breathable membrane and their seams are taped. Bring gloves for warmth but, for sustained rain, get waterproof gloves or overmitts with taped seams.
• Hat—A waterproof, wide-brim hat will keep heavy rain off your face and let your head and neck ventilate better than will a jacket’s hood will. Also, on cooler trips, I’ll carry one warm, wool hat for camp and a lighter, more-breathable beanie to give my head and ears all the warmth I need while moving.
Accessories I Recommend:
Seirus WindStopper All Weather SoundTouch Glove, $50
Outdoor Research Crocodile Gaiters (waterproof), $80
Outdoor Research Revel Shell Mitts (waterproof), $65
Outdoor Research Seattle Sombrero (waterproof), $75
#9 My Ultralight, Summer Layering System
For multi-day backcountry trips when temperatures will drop no lower than the 40s Fahrenheit, I bring:
• 1 T-shirt
• 1 midweight long-sleeve shirt (synthetic, Merino wool, or a blend of the two)
• Zip-off nylon pants
• Long underwear
• 2-3 pairs of socks
• 2-3 pairs of synthetic underwear
• Lightweight down or insulated jacket (see my tips on puffy jackets) or a sleeping bag that converts to a down jacket (see tip #6)
• Ultralight rain jacket
• Lightweight gloves
• Sun hat and warm wool hat
• Gaiters/low gaiters (optional; see tip #8)
#10 My Layering System For Cold, Wet Weather
For wet, multi-day backcountry trips with temperatures possibly down to freezing, I bring:
• 1 midweight long-sleeve shirt (synthetic, Merino wool, or a blend of the two)
• 1 T-shirt or a second long-sleeve shirt
• Shorts and soft-shell pants or rain pants
• Long underwear
• 2-3 pairs of socks
• 2-3 pairs of synthetic underwear
• Down or insulated jacket (see my tips on puffy jackets) plus maybe a sleeping bag that converts to a down jacket (see tip #6)
• Rain jacket
• Gloves and waterproof overmitts (see tip #8)
• Warm wool hat, lightweight beanie, and wide-brim, waterproof hat (see tip #8)
• High gaiters (see tip #8)
One final note: I don’t cover footwear in this article, but the shoes or boots you wear are obviously critical to your comfort—how your feet feel often dictates how you feel overall. See my “Pro Tips For Buying the Right Boots” and all of my reviews of backpacking boots and hiking shoes.
See my related stories:
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.
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