Layering Guide

As the seasons change, it is as important as ever to ensure that your layering system is dialed in.

From ice climbing in 20 mile-per-hour winds, skiing in single digits, and hunting in a downpour, I have had to fine tune my layering systems to ensure that I am warm, dry, and comfortable. Understanding how to layer properly keeps you comfortable and on the move when it matters the most.

The role of the next-to-skin baselayer, or the underwear layer, is to wick moisture and keep your skin dry. Merino wool makes an excellent base for tops and bottoms, because it wicks moisture quickly, helps regulate temperature, breathes well when you’re moving, and somehow doesn’t smell after a couple of days. And don’t worry about merino wool being itchy–it rests seamlessly on your skin and is so soft!

The midlayer is the insulating layer, and can range from a lightweight vest or jacket, thicker undershirt, or a ¼ zip pullover and can be constructed of either fleece, merino, or any range of insulating, non-absorbent synthetic material. If the weather is variable, a good midlayer top and bottom (or pants, tights, or long johns, whatever you want to call them) can be a great extra option for changing temps.

The midlayer’s role is to provide extra warmth while still being breathable and keeping you dry. A grid fleece works great for this as it has high air permeability. In warmer climates, this midlayer will most likely function as your outer layer so keep that in mind when choosing fabrics—make sure that they are durable, water resistant at least, and able to resist abrasion.

In very cold climates, you might look for a midlayer that is quilted and insulates with either natural down or synthetic down materials. Both have their pros and cons. Down has a better warmth-to-weight ratio, meaning it is lightweight and packable but still very warm. If down gets wet, however, it clumps and loses its loft and the ability to keep you warm. Synthetic materials on the other hand stay warm when damp but are less compact. If you are hunting or hiking in wet and cold conditions, consider choosing a garment with synthetic insulation. For cold and dry climates, down works well. Another aspect to consider is when you will be wearing this layer—sitting and glassing or on the go. A heavy down jacket is a welcome reprieve from cold temperatures while glassing but can quickly become too warm when moving quickly.

Although a sweatshirt might seem like a natural option, avoid it if it’s made out of cotton, which can absorb 27 times its weight in water. A wet cotton sweatshirt would be heavy, slow-drying, and dangerous in freezing temperatures. The key is finding a garment that can keep you warm but not overheat you as you head over the next ridge.

Outer layers
For protection from the elements, your shell or outer layer is key. This layer will protect you from snow, rain, cold, and wind. Be prepared to spend a bit of money on this layer—but you will be safer and glad you have it when the weather turns nasty. If the forecast calls for rain and snow, a waterproof jacket (often called a hard shell) and pants are necessary. Without a waterproof shell, your base and midlayers will be unable to keep you warm.

This past October, I hunted through pouring rain for nearly three days straight. Without a waterproof outer shell, I would have been unable to punch my tag. I was thankful to have waterproof layers that kept me fully dry and comfortable.

When looking for outer layers for rain and snow, make sure they are waterproof—not just water-resistant. Another important factor to look for is breathability. Since this layer is not letting any moisture in, it can be difficult to let moisture out. Luckily, rain and snow jackets have come a long way with being breathable yet weatherproof. Many of these garments will have a lining of Gore-Tex or similar material proprietary to the manufacturer. Gore-Tex prevents water from seeping in but allows perspiration to escape. There’s even a Windstopper variety of Gore-Tex. Some great features on a fully waterproof shell include pit zips, velcro wrist cuffs, and watertight zippers.

If the forecast calls for wind and maybe some light rain, a softshell can make a great option. These are typically coated in durable water repellent (DWR) finish. In light rain, a DWR jacket will allow you to brush the droplets right off. Oftentimes, soft shells even include a fleece backing which can help to cut the wind significantly. Since a softshell is much more breathable, you will most likely wear it on the move. Look for a jacket that has some stretch and ideally pit zips.

The layers don’t stop with tops and bottoms! High-quality socks, gloves, and gaiters add the final touch to a refined system. Merino wool comes into play again here since most of these accessories are next to the skin. For socks, merino wool will keep your feet dry, which will prevent cold feet and blisters. If you are extra blister prone, consider a silk liner sock to help prevent friction. Adding in a merino or fleece beanie helps to prevent heat loss through your head and will keep your ears nice and toasty. Depending on the weather conditions, a simple merino wool liner glove can be enough to keep your fingers warm and functioning. If the weather is harsh or the terrain is unforgiving, consider a durable outer layer glove.

Guidefitter Staff
Bozeman, Montana
Share this page
Sign in to comment