Layering: Easy as 1, 2, 3!

by Jacob Gordon

Just because the temps have dropped and the snow has fallen, there’s no reason to stay indoors. In fact, for many of us, this is the perfect time to get outside.

But with that colder weather comes layers. From base, to mid, to outer, having a proper working layering system will be key to ensuring your enjoyment.  For those just getting started, layering can be kind of confusing. But remember, it’s as simple as 1, 2, 3.

1. Base Layer

As the name suggests, the base layer should be your first layer —  the next to skin layer.

Your main goal with the base layer is moisture management. A nice wicking layer can help keep you dry even as you heat up. The drier you are, the warmer you’ll be. Have you ever worked out or hiked in a cotton tee? Since cotton doesn’t really do well to wick or disperse moisture, that moisture is retained and keeps you feeling damp and chilly. That’s actually why the fabric of your base layer is so critical, and you’ll have plenty of options out there.

A really popular, natural fabric used in base layers is Merino wool. Vendors like Smartwool, Ibex, and Icebreaker engineer base layers (and other layers) either entirely out of Merino or with a Merino-blend. Merino has a lot of advantages, but it’s the natural wicking and anti-microbial properties of Merino that make it so great for base layers. And before you start running in fear over the idea of wool next to your sweaty skin, just know that Merino is much softer and less abrasive than those Christmas sweaters your aunt bought you all those years ago.

ice-breaker-baselayer smartwool-baselayer

If wool is not your thing, there are plenty of synthetic options available. Patagonia’s Capilene series is one of the more popular base layers out there. And best of all, Patagonia has their own system set up for easier layering. Numbered 1 through 4, the lower the Capilene number the lighter the weight, the higher the number the warmer it will be. See? Simple.

2. Mid Layer (insulating layer)

Sitting right atop the base layer, the goal with your mid layer is to create insulation to keep you toasty warm even in frigid temps. Much like base layers, mid layers come in an array of options, but the activity you’re doing and the weather you’ll be in can play a big role in which type of mid layer you opt for.

Two of the biggest options for layering are down and synthetic insulated pieces. We went into more detail with the differences between down and synthetic insulation last week, but just remember: down needs dry conditions to function at its best, while synthetic can keep you warm even when wet.


If you’ve got a Merino base layer, you may want to think of a Merino mid layer. Merino’s wicking and breathability properties tend to work best in tandem. Not to mention, if you use the same fabric for the base and mid layers, you’ll know you’re getting similar properties, but just heavier weights.


Perhaps the most classic mid layer option out there is the fleece. These days, fleeces come in all shapes and sizes offering excellent versatility. Fleece is great at keeping your body heat from escaping and does wonders with breathability. However, it’s that breathability that can chill you to the bone on those windy days. Thankfully, there are now windproof fleeces that take advantage of a windproof membrane that blocks the wind without sacrificing breathability.


3. Outer Layer

We talked about the base and mid layers, so now it’s time to turn to the outer layer. You might also hear this referred to as your shell layer, which is a great reminder of what this layer is doing: protecting you.

Your shell should shield you from the nasty wet elements. Remember, many mid and base layers may not be as effective when wet, so it’s important to try to prevent any wetness from penetrating the outer layer. The outer layer also offers added ventilation often through uniquely positioned vents throughout the jacket.


Much like the other layers, the outer layer has plenty of choices for you, and depending on your activity and the weather, you may want one over the other.

The most effective option is the waterproof/breathable shell. Yes, these shells tend to be the most expensive — using vendor proprietary technology or the famous Gore-Tex lining — but they’re the most functional as well.  We know why waterproofing is so important to layering, but the breathability is also key too. You don’t want to let all the breathability from your mid and base layers getting trapped in your shell.

If waterproof/breathable is out of your price range or you know you won’t be dealing with a lot of wetness, water-resistant shells are your next best option. These will still be breathable and stand up to light precipitation, but if you get caught in a downpour, seek shelter.

The next option is the softshell which focuses more on breathability than protection from the elements. This type of outer layer will often have a stretchier or more durable fabric that is perfect for aerobic activities.

The last option is the waterproof/non-breathable shell. As its name suggests, this shell is great during downpours, but it won’t breath at all. Usually, these would be best served during less active activities, like fishing or hanging out at your basecamp.

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