Over the years, I have experimented with various fabrics on my adventures and have learned a lot along the way. I am no expert on this subject and I have to admit that it wasn't until recently that this all started coming together for me. I thought I would write a quick article about how to layer clothing in hopes that it adds value to your life.
I have worn everything from Merino wool to cotton T-shirts to heavy fleece, in search of the ultimate comfort while running, hiking, biking and skiing. The fact is that in each of these situations, layering clothing and the weather's elements may vary. However, the concept that I am sharing with you today can be applied to any sport in any climate. Here goes...
If you think about it, this topic has a lot in common with the true originators of layering. How did we as humans originally learn about layering? It was by observing things in our natural world. Observing Marino sheep has been one way. I really like the following picture taken from the Icebreaker.com website because it really gets the point across on what an effective layering system consists of. In short, it is a base layer next to your skin, a mid-layer for warmth and an outer layer for breaking the elements (wind, rain, snow).
Layer #1 - Base Layer
This next-to-your-skin layer is normally where most people go wrong. We are all very accustomed to wearing cotton T-shirts in most, daily situations. However, the cardinal sin in layering clothes is using a cotton T-shirt as your base layer. Don't do it!
Cotton tends to get soaked with sweat and takes a long time to dry. Therefore, if you use cotton as your base layer, once it gets wet with sweat, you are in for a long, cold day in winter or a wet and clammy day in the summer.
Your base layer needs to be made out of a fabric that wicks sweat from your body as you perspire and disperses that sweat to the outer layers so it can evaporate. This will keep your body dry so that you stay cool in the summer months and avoid hyperthermia during outside activities in the winter.
Some examples of excellent base layer fabric are merino wool or synthetic fabrics such as polyester. There are some great brands on the market today such as Icebreaker, SmartWool, Polartec PowerDry® and Patagonia Capiline®.
Layer #2 - Mid Layer
The mid layer acts as your insulation and traps heat in the air molecules close to your body. It is best to use goose down, wool or fleece for this layer and it is worn over the base layer.
So which one do you choose for your mid layer? It depends. If you know you will be in a dry, cold climate, your best bet would be goose down like a down pullover sweater or full zip jacket. However, goose down doesn't like damp, wet climates. In that type of climate, it would be best to go with Merino wool or fleece which are both reliably warm and even when damp or wet.
Fleece is a common option and is what you will find in just about every outdoor enthusiast's closet. Fleece comes in 3 different weights - Light-weight, Mid-weight and Expedition-weight. One disadvantage to fleece is that the wind tends to go right through it. However, it is an excellent choice as a mid-layer if your outer layer can combat any wind that Mother Nature throws at it.
Layer #3 - Outer Layer
The outer layer is sometimes referred to as the "shell". This is the layer that will be exposed to the elements such as wind, rain or snow on the outside and the layer that is breathable from the inside to let any sweat moisture escape. Make sure you purchase an outer layer that is big enough to allow room for your base and mid-layers.
There are many types of outer layers to choose from. Some are completely waterproof, making water bead up and run off the fabric. Others can be semi-waterproof or "soft", meaning highly breathable and stretchy. Insulated shells can have fleece sewn into the inside of the jacket for added warmth.
When choosing an outer layer for your layering system, take a look at your base and mid layers then consider the type of climate you will be in along with the activity you will be participating in. For some instances, you may want a lightweight, packable layer just for rainy climates while hiking in the Summer and Fall. On the other hand, you might require a more durable, waterproof and breathable outer shell for mountaineering use in extreme environments.
This layering concept is not new for most, but a lot of people get it wrong and regret it when they get outdoors. At the end of the trail, be sure to have worn a combination of layers that is just right for your body's comfort, the climate and the activity.
Experiment with your layers to find what works best for you while doing the activities you enjoy. I would also encourage you to purchase from reputable outdoor companies that engage in practices that minimize their impact on the environment. I'll have to follow this article up with something about that in the future, but until then, live adventurously!
You might also like my base layer review which you can find here.