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How Do I Layer for Cold Weather?

I've never really understood the principles of layering. For cold weather treks, should my baselayer be cotton or wool? What about my midlayer? Wool? Fleece? What are the basics of layering for any occasion?


Dear Kristin
I’ve never really understood the principles of layering. For cold weather treks, should my baselayer be cotton or wool? What about my midlayer? Wool? Fleece? What are the basics of layering for any occasion?

Submitted by - Joe, from Binghamton, NY


Hey Joe,
Thanks for asking this question. It’s something we often take for granted–that people know why layering is important and how it works. There are three main components to a layering system. Here’s the gist:

1) Next to skin: The main job of this layer is to wick sweat away from your skin, then dry quickly so you don’t get chilled. Cotton sucks at this because it takes forever to dry. My favorite base layers are wool. They are very efficient, warm when it’s cold, cool when it’s hot, and they don’t stink up like so many synthetics do. The con is that wool tends to dry slowly when it gets wet (either from precip or sweat). Synthetic materials (polyesters) also make good base layers, and people with very sensitive skin often find wool itchy, so poly is a good wicking, quick-drying option. Perhaps the best of all are wool/synthetic blends which are becoming more and more popular because they have the quick-dry ability of synthetics, with the warmth and ant-stink talents of wool. A note about fit: For cool or cold weather, your base layer should be snug, because if it’s not touching your skin, it can’t wick sweat. That means your sweat sits on your skin until it evaporates, which leaves you shivering.

2) Insulation: This is the layer that traps your body heat. It can range from lightweight fleeces and wool sweaters to full-on puffy down jackets; it just depends on the season. In all but the coldest of weather, your insulation will remain in your pack while hiking, so your body heat can escape and dissipate. But as soon as you stop moving, put it on so you won’t get cold as your sweat dries.

3) Shell: The job of a shell is twofold: it cuts the wind and keeps you dry. In summertime, you can get away with a wispy windshell, but for more challenging weather and extended trips, you want a waterproof/breathable shell (like Gore-Tex or eVent) that keeps water out, but lets sweat vapor escape, so you don’t get wet from perspiration inside your layering system.

The guiding principle of layering is that you are regularly adding and removing layers to keep your body temperature even. An example. I start off on chilly morning hike wearing my base layer and a light fleece. As my body warms up, I stop to remove the fleece. At lunch break, on a breezy ridge, I immediately put the fleece back on, and possibly my outer shell to cut the wind. After lunch, it all comes off (except the base layer) and I start hiking. Afternoon thunderstorms roll in. I throw on my shell and open up the pit zips (underarm vents) and continue hiking. I always make sure my extra layers are conveniently located in the outer pockets of my pack, so I can always reach them. Happy trails! —KRISTIN



  1. john-o

    I am surprised that anyone would need help understanding how to layer for activities outdoors. I just want to add my 2 cents…. I have both cotton and polypropylene base layers, as well as Neoprene Shells for really nasty cold weather cycling. If I am going to be just doing normal daily stuff in cold weather I wear the knit cotton blend base layer, I can wear this material all day long, and not be too hot to sit in the kitchen and have lunch. If I am going backpacking in the cold, polypropylene can’t be beat. it is lightweight and wicks moisture. If I am going on a cycling trek, spandex and Neoprene do the trick. You layer up based on the activity you will be doing. I have in the past worn cotton base layers for backpacking because that is all that was available back in the day. Warning; if you wear cotton base layers for backpacking, change your base layer before you go to sleep, the trapped moisture can cause hypothermia. There now I can’t believe that I actually responded to this sillyness.

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  2. Chris

    Two things not covered are that you can use fleece and puffy- down if conditions are cold enough. Also larger fill down jackets like the north face Diaz and shaffle are made to go over all layers as a insulated down cover when you are standing around or sitting at camp. Side note I am also allergic to wool as told to me by my doctor but smart wool sock never bother my skin. The wool is chemically treated before production and that’s what stops the allergic irritation so I’m told.

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