These days, there is a general consensus among outdoors-goers that the most effective way to thwart the vagaries of the weather and to stay warm, dry, and comfortable while out getting our hike on is to use the layering system, but when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of exactly how it’s done, many are apt to get a little fuzzy on the details.
In this article, we aim to clear up any confusion with a straight-talking, no-nonsense guide to the layering system with seven expert tips.
7 Tips to Help You Use the Layering System Effectively
Cotton fabrics can hold up to a whopping 27 times their weight in water.
While this might not seem like so egregious an issue on first impression, it becomes so when we take into account the fact that water can also conduct heat away from the body 25 times faster than air.
So, if we happen to get wet or work up a sweat while hiking, those cotton garments soon become a serious health hazard, with hypothermia a very real possibility should temps drop even just a few degrees or if we stop long enough for our body temperature to cool down excessively.
Know your layers
Each layer of clothing has an important part to play in the overall efficiency of the layering system. Knowing what these parts are can help you to choose your layers more carefully both when buying and when it comes to selecting your outfit for any given outing in different conditions or for different types of activity.
In a nutshell, the role of each layer is as follows:
The innermost layer of the layering system is all about moisture management.
In short, this layer transports (“wicks”) moisture away from your body and onto the exterior of the fabric, where it can then evaporate in the ambient air or wick through subsequent layers.
Different types of baselayer offer varying degrees of moisture control, but the best materials are merino wool and high-wicking synthetics. The biggest advantages of merino wool are that it wicks very well, retains heat even when wet, and offers much more in the way of odor-control than most synthetic materials.
Midlayers come in a variety of fabrics—softshell, fleece, down, wool—but share the same purpose in the layering system as a whole: insulation.
Just how beefy a midlayer you need will depend largely on the conditions and time of year you’re hiking and also whether or not you are wearing a shell layer on top, but, again, the most important feature to look for in any midlayer garment is breathability.
This layer is all about weather protection and, therefore, likely to be foregone if hiking in dry and relatively windless conditions.
Even though this layer is often regarded as a “backup” measure, however, ensuring your waterproofs score high in the breathability stakes as well as providing adequate weather protection is essential.
When buying your shell layer, therefore, look for jackets and pants with a waterproof-breathable membrane (such as Gore-Tex or eVent) that features as high a breathability rating as possible (or you can afford!).
Why less is more
It may seem a little counterintuitive to some, but wearing thinner layers instead of bulky ones is far more effective in keeping you warm, dry, and regulating body heat.
One common misconception of many outdoors-goers is that a beefy mid or outer layer will do the trick when it comes to keeping us warm and protected from the elements. While this may be true if we aren’t working up a sweat, if we’re doing anything even slightly aerobic then all that bulk will soon become more of a liability than an asset.
In short, insulating layers work not by actively producing heat, but by trapping the warmth produced by our bodies inside the garment. A trio of thinner layers can outperform a single, thick midlayer (such as a puffy down jacket) in this respect by creating air pockets between the layers that hold enough body heat to keep you warm without restricting breathability.
The gold standard by which all garments are measured in order to gauge their effectiveness in any layering system is breathability.
Whether choosing a baselayer, midlayer, shell layer, or even just a pair of boxers or a sports bra, look for high-wicking and highly breathable materials.
These will allow your garment to “wick” sweat away from your body and transfer it from inside to out as a vapor instead of allowing it to build up on the garment’s interior.
The bottom line with regard to layering is that breathability is required across the board—if one item in your setup is a shoddy performer in this respect then the whole system will fail.
One system to rule them all: seasonal considerations
Some newcomers to the layering system are apt to think that it may well be fine and good for outings in colder weather but not much use or totally irrelevant when temps are high.
On the contrary, for seasonal temperature variations all we need to do is tweak our setup with a little bit of fine-tuning.
Most baselayers and midlayers come in a variety of “weights” (typically 100-400), which refers, in essence, to their thickness and insulating capacity. When variations in conditions call for a little less or a little more warmth for your clothing, simply adapt your layers to suit by choosing lighter or heavier garments.
A simple rule that will ensure your layering system remains effective even when inactive is to throw on an extra layer as soon as you stop moving.
We are never more susceptible to a dose of the chills or even hypothermia than when we’ve just finished any aerobic activity and once our core temperature drops it can be very difficult to get it back up again.
By making a habit of putting that extra layer on whenever we’re not on the move we’ll be sparing ourselves the possibility of a shivery night in the tent or catching a chill.
Optimize your layering system with these simple strategies
Getting wet when out hiking isn’t necessarily a disaster in and of itself, but any moisture soaked into our clothing can quickly become a forerunner to disaster if we stop moving for a significant length of time and allow our core temperature to drop.
As such, nipping the potential problem in the bud by carrying a change of clothes in your backpack and switching wet or damp items for dry ones asap is the best policy.
Use You Clothing’s Built-In A/C
If hiking with a shell layer on, things can get a little steamy under the collar. T
o keep yourself cool, ensure there’s adequate airflow between your layers, and avoid having to take layers on and off throughout the day, use every means possible of increasing ventilation without compromising your shell layer’s protection from precipitation.
This might mean:
- Using your jacket’s “pit zips”
- Undoing the Velcro fastening on the sleeves
- Opening the pockets (if they have a mesh lining)
- Loosening the cinch at the hem or waistline of your shell layer and midlayer
- Pace Yourself!
Staying sweat-free when temps are high or hiking in warm, wet conditions with a rain shell on can be a tricky business, but one simple means of doing so is to take your foot off the gas a little and slow your pace to a rate just below that at which you’re working up a sweat.
If slowing yourself down to a snail’s pace in sticky conditions doesn’t sound like a great deal of fun, another simple means of ensuring you don’t overheat or sweat excessively is to take short, frequent breaks.
Every 30-45 minutes, try to stop for no longer than two or three minutes. This duration will allow your body to cool down enough to reduce perspiration but not so much that your muscles stiffen up or you put yourself at risk of hypothermia.
The clothing you wear when heading into the outdoors is as crucial as any other factor in contributing to your comfort levels, safety, and enjoyment of your trail time.
By getting to know and using the layering system, you’ll be ensuring you maximize your chances of a staying dry, warm, and ailment-free whatever the weather.