The Art of Layering Clothes

Published November 04, 2020

What is Layering?

Layering is a method of putting several items of clothing, one on top of the other, instead of using just one or two items. But it’s not just about putting on any clothes in any order: the layering system is a way of using your clothing to keep you comfortable in cold and varied conditions, and to ensure that your movements are not limited by what you’re wearing as you hike, run, bike, ski, climb, or participate in any other outdoor activity.

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Why Layer Clothes for the Outdoors?

Why not just throw on that one thick winter coat you have stashed in your closet? There are several reasons why it’s better to layer than to wear the thickest sweater or jacket you own, as described below:

  • GREATER WARMTH
    Several layers of thin clothing (particularly if they’re snug fitting) have been shown to be warmer than one thick item. This is because thin layers of air get trapped between the layers of clothing, which are easily warmed by your body and act as additional insulation.  
  • GREATER FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT
    As well as being warmer, several thin layers tend to be lighter and less bulky than one or two thick layers. This is important when you are exploring outside in the cold, as bulky clothing can restrict your movements. 
  • PROTECTION FROM THE ELEMENTS
    But layering isn’t just about warmth, it’s also about protection from the wind and the rain. Moisture and air movement are two factors that can change your body temperature dramatically, especially when the outside temperature is low, so your layering system needs to account for these variables too.   
  • ADAPTING TO ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGES
    The thing is, that you don’t necessarily need to be protected from the rain and wind, or even the cold, all the time when you are outdoors. For example, if you hike up a big hill, your body generates more heat than if you are sitting still; and sometimes, the day will start cold, but temperatures will soar later on (particularly at high altitude). Layering helps you adapt to these changes, ensuring that you don’t sweat too much when it’s warmer, and but don’t get too cold when it’s cooler. 

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What Are The Different Layers?

BASE LAYER - Breathability is Key

The secret to being comfortable outdoors is a good base layer. This is the layer that sits next to your skin and its principle function is to keep you dry. A base layer does this by moving your perspiration away from your skin, otherwise known as “moisture-wicking”. This is important, as a wet shirt against your body will be uncomfortable, can promote chafing and in cold conditions, can cause chills or even lead to hypothermia. Some materials, (such as wool) can still insulate when wet, but not to the same extent as when dry. Others, such as cotton, lose their insulating capacities completely when wet, which is why you cool down quickly when you stop after sweating a lot, even on a warm day.

cochineal red alpaca wool t-shirt - ultralight, breathable base layer

In their simplest form, base layers are t-shirts, which can have long or short sleeves. Many modern base layers incorporate features like zippers, thumb holes and hoods, to improve their coverage, ease of layering and versatility. Base layers are made from different fabrics (including synthetics, wools like merino and alpaca, silk, and bamboo viscose): what you choose depends on personal preference (although if you ask if, alpaca is the best!). Base layers are made of fabrics of different weights, which generally reflect the coldness of the conditions they are designed for. That said, insulation isn’t the base layer’s job, so its thickness should not be as much of a concern as its breathability. Learn more in our Best Base Layer article.

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MID LAYER - It’s All About Insulation

A mid layer is the second layer of clothing (sometimes you’ll wear a couple of mid layers) and its principle task is to keep you warm. Your mid layer is there to trap any heat that escapes from base layer, but should still be breathable, as otherwise any moisture wicked away by your base layer will get stuck in your mid layer, which defeats the point. Mid layers vary greatly in materials and thickness, so which one you choose will depend on personal preference, expected conditions and the activity you’re doing. The key types of mid layer are:

Indigo alpaca wool hoodie jacket - insulating mid layer
  • Fleece-type jackets/sweaters
    In the outdoor world, the word “fleece” has come to refer to synthetic polar fleece, made from petrochemicals (or recycled plastics) which is super lightweight and breathable. But similar styles of jackets can also be made from wools like alpaca and merino. Wool mid layers tend to be a little heavier than polar fleece, but much warmer. Sweater or jacket-type mid layers can look quite similar to some styles of base layer and should be relatively snug fitting (with space for your chosen base layer underneath) in order to trap air. It’s the fabric weight, and (in the case of synthetics) the type of fabric, that makes a difference in insulation. 
  • Puffy-type jacket
    Puffy jackets usually comprise of a synthetic shell containing down or synthetic insulation. The loft (fluffiness) of the feathers or synthetic fibers creates thousands of tiny pockets of air, which have the desired insulating effect. The insulating material is contained in smaller pockets, or “baffles” – often horizontal tubes, or sometimes smaller squares or hexagons – by stitching, which ensures a more even spread of the insulating material. You’ll find a lot of variation in puffy mid layers: from super lightweight jackets or vests, not much thicker than a polar fleece, to much heavier duty options which are several inches thick when fully lofted. The use of the thicker puffy jackets while moving is generally unnecessary for most activities, in all but the coldest conditions, but a thicker puffy is essential for rest stops, camp, long ski-lift rides and belaying in the cold. 
Dark grey and pink down jacket - insulating mid layer

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blue waterproof hard shell jacket

OUTER SHELL - Keep Out the Wind & Rain

Even if you have a layering system that wicks moisture and insulates you perfectly for your activity, wind and rain can cause you to lose all of that hard-earned warmth. This issue is fixed by the outer shell. Rain gear – garments made from stiffer, waterproof materials – is generally referred to as “hard shell”, while technologies offering protection from the wind only are referred to as “soft shells”. Again, your outer shell needs to be breathable, because otherwise the layer underneath will just get soaked. Some people choose not to use soft shells, preferring the added protection of a hard shell (which are also windproof), although there are many places in the world where rain jackets are not necessary, at least during certain seasons. It’s important to choose an outer shell that will accommodate the layers you use underneath, without becoming restrictive.

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UNDERWEAR - The First Line of Defense

We often spend time thinking about our shirts and pants, but we completely forget about underwear. What we use every day will be fine won’t it? But in reality, your panties/boxers and bra are sitting next to your skin too, so the principles of the base layer apply. Why invest in great thermal tights for skiing if you’re going to use your normal cotton panties or boxer briefs underneath? You sweat there too, you know, and once you’re sitting in the chairlift, you’ll really know if you’ve got the wrong underwear on!

silver alpaca wool panties - base layer underwear

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Black alpaca wool thermal leggings - base layer for the legs

Layers For Legs?

Most of the time, when people talk about layering systems, they are referring to their top halves. It’s often not as necessary to wear many layers on your bottom half (except in really cold conditions), since keeping your core temperature up can be sufficient in many situations. But when you stop, or are adventuring in really low temperatures or wet conditions, layering on your legs will improve your level of comfort no end. The same principles as for the top apply, although you may find you wear only two layers on your legs, even when you’re using four on top. Also, items like ski/snowboard pants often combine a little insulation with wind/rain protection, so you might find that one pair of thermal leggings under your ski pants (without a separate mid layer) is plenty.

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Don't Forget Your Extremities

Particularly when venturing into cold, wet conditions, don't forget your head, hands and feet.  

  • A super snug beanie, covered with your mid layer and rain jacket hoods will keep your head warm and dry in chilly rain. This also helps to reduce any drafts entering your jackets.
  • There are so many different glove thicknesses, styles and weights available, but often for mountain sports such as snowboarding and ice climbing, it's a good idea to use a liner glove under your water- and wind-proof gloves.
  • As with gloves, there are many different thicknesss and types of socks on the market, and while some people are happy with just one pair, others swear by layering socks. Using two pairs of socks can be beneficial for those whose feet blister easily, especially when hiking. If you do this, the first pair of socks should be light and snug fitting, no matter the weather, and the second should be chosen based on the level of warmth you will need. If you are mountaineering at high altitudes or in extreme cold, you may be wearing double boots anyway, but experience will tell you if you need extra socks too.

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Woman wearing layered clothing on the peak of a snowy mountain

Since each body, each area of the world, each season and each activity are so different, mastering the art of layering is always going to involve some amount of trial and error. Layering is all about finding what works for you. This will depend on your body type, how your body reacts to the cold and, to some extent, your fitness and physical ability (a less fit person will generally have to work harder and therefore generate more body heat than someone in better shape). Your chosen activities, conditions on the day, and budget will also greatly influence the individual items you choose to buy and how you wear them together. All that said, the above principles and guidelines will give you a head start and help you to be more comfortable – and essentially safer – in cold and varied conditions.

Arms of Andes royal alpaca wool fabric provides the breathability and warmth you need to form the basis of your layering system and allow you to move freely and be comfortable in all conditions.

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