How to layer clothing for winter activities

January 8, 2015 How to
Latest posts by Alicja (see all)

Layering Basics

If you like to stay active in the outdoors in the winter, you know that layering is an important part of maximizing your comfort. Even when it’s cold out, we sweat and get hot, and when we cool down and are sweaty we can get cold very fast.  The beauty of layering is it allows us to make quick adjustments based on our activity level and weather changes.

There are three main layers, each with it’s own specific function. The base layer, the main layer against your skin, helps you manage moisture; the second layer is the insulating layer which protects you from cold temperatures; and the shell layer, your outer layer protects you from elements like wind, snow and rain.  Simply add or take off layers as needed.

Layer one: Base layer for moisture management

The main function of this layer is to move precipitation away from your skin, hence regulating your body temperature.  If you are too sweaty, and this moisture is not allowed to dissipate into the fabric and dry, you can become cold very quickly when the temperatures are low.  Hence the choice of this layer is very important.  This layer helps you maintain a cool body temperature in the summer (keep from overheating) and avoid hypothermia in the winter.  Have you ever exercised in a cotton shirt? You know that cotton doesn’t dissipate moisture, but stays saturated. A wet shirt will have you feeling cold and clammy even when it’s not raining out.

The Icebreaker Oasis is soft, chafe free and moisture wicking.

The Icebreaker Oasis is soft, chafe free and moisture wicking.

For the best outdoor comfort, we recommend merino wool. It simply is the most effective moisture-wicking fabric, it doesn’t retain body odour and, it’s easy to wash. You can use these layers over and over and they don’t stink.  Try our favourite brands, Icebreaker or Smartwool, which use the finest merino fibre, but are available in many other labels as well.  Another good choice is a synthetic fibre, such as Patagonia Capilene or Polartec Power Dry.  For less active users, try silk.  Unlike cotton, these fabrics don’t absorb moisture, rather, they wick it from your skin into the surface of the fabric, where it can evaporate. The result is you stay drier even when you sweat, and your shirt dries after afterwards.

The base layer can be anything that is next to your skin. It can include the shirt, sports bra, underwear or long underwear. For cold conditions, layers are available in different ‘weights’, light, medium or heavy.  Choose the weight for the temperature conditions and activity level. For example, choose a heavier weight for more cold environments, and a lighter base layer for high output activities such as running or cross country skiing. Lighter layers are thinner so they shed moisture better, but are not as warm.

Layer two: Middle layer for insulation

The middle layer keeps you warm by trapping air close to your body. There are many options here from natural fibres to fleece.  Natural fibres, like down and wool are exceptional insulators. Merino wool sweaters and shirts retain warmth even when wet.  If it is very cold and dry, try down.  Down is best for when you are not working hard as it doesn’t perform well if it gets wet, and is best to put on when you are not moving. There have been innovations in down lately, in which a new water resistant down has been created.  This would solve the problem of down not insulating when wet. Read our guide on choosing down verus synthetic insulation.

The REI Therum Duck Down Jacket is also water and wind repellant

The REI Therum Duck Down Jacket is also water and wind repellant

You can also choose a classic fleece such as Polartec, available in 100, 200 and 300 weights.  Thermal Pro polyester and Thinsulate synthetics provide insulation and stay warm when wet.  They dry faster and have a warmer warmth to weight ratio than wool does, and are lighter.  They are bulkier than wool, and are very permeable to wind.  They are quite a bit less expensive than wool, especially merino wool.

Some fleece are available with wind resistance, look for wind fleece in Polartec WindPro and Gore Windstopper. Wind resistance is provided by a hidden membrane embedded in the fabric. It does not affect breathability.

Some soft shell jackets are quite suitable as a mid layer, they are not as insulating but provide a wind and light storm barrier.  These are more breathable than fleece.  Try fabrics such as the Schoeller, which are pleasantly soft stretch woven fabrics. Other polyester fabrics are very similar, such as the one on this Black Diamond Crag soft shell.

Choose from three weights: lightweight for high output aerobic activity, such as cross country skiing, running or backcountry skiing, or for mild climates; mid weight for moderate output aerobic activity and/or climates, and heavy, or expedition weight layers for low activity such as downhill skiing, or very cold climates.


Layer three: Shell layer for protection from the elements

This layer protects you from wind, rain or snow.  This layer has two main functions. It keeps weather from soaking in, keeping your inner layers dry, and repels wind; it also breathes, like the other layers, to keep you from sweating.   Without proper ventilation, perspiration can’t evaporate but builds up and condenses on the inside of your shell, making you uncomfortable.  Another important factor is fit. How many layers do you plan on wearing underneath it?  The outer layer should be roomy enough to allow for adjustments to be made in inner layers, and should not restrict your movement.

Climbers happy and dry in their GoreTex jackets.

Climbers happy and dry in their GoreTex jackets.

There are five main categories of shells:

1. Waterproof/breathable shells – recommended

These are the most practical, functional and most expensive. They are best for alpine activities such as backcountry skiing, and for cool, wet weather.  Gore-Tex is your best bet.

arc'teryx rush shell jacket

The Arc’teryx Rush Shell Jacket is waterproof and abrasion resistant – perfect for backcountry skiing.


2. Water resistant/breathable shells

These offer light protection from rain and precipitation and are best for high activity levels, and are less expensive.

3. Soft shells

These are very breathable and can also be used under a waterproof/breathable shell.  They can often be a two in one layer – that is, an insulating layer plus outer layer protection, as long as the conditions aren’t too stormy, windy, or cold.  They come in options for cold and moderate climates.

 4. Waterproof/non breathable shells

These are best for low activity levels and for rain.  Typically in the city you will want to use this type of fabric.

5. Insulated shells

These are convenient for cold and wet conditions however they are not versatile for layering.

Also check out the selection that suggests for individual layers, and if you are looking for something specific, be sure to check out our outdoor gear price checker.


How to look cool out on the ski hill
February 22, 2017

[…] should be layered and cotton in general should be avoided to keep you from getting cold and clammy since it […]

Gear review: The Marmot Precip rain jacket
November 4, 2017

[…] It’s not that fair to list breathability as a disadvantage here considering how much this jacket costs, but I just have to mention that on the ‘waterproof and breathable’ jackets category, the jacket runs quite hot compared to Gore-Tex jackets. The inner membrane has a slick almost plastic-like coating which protects it from wear and tear, but also makes the jacket quite warm. The coating is meant to keep you from feeling too clammy when you start to get hot, but doesn’t feel that nice against the skin and should be worn with a long sleeved shirt. Read more about how to layer here.  […]