How to layer clothing for outdoor activities

A guy and a girl showing how to layer

If you have been in outdoor shops or around people that play in the outdoors, you have probably heard someone say something about layering. But what does it mean and how best to do it. Layering is a great way to dial in your comfort level while in the outdoors. When done right you will be able to make small adjustments throughout the day to regulate your body temperature no matter the activity level or changing weather.

There are three main components to layering: the base layer, mid or insulating layer and the outer layer. Each layer has a specific purpose in keeping you comfortable. In this article we will cover specifically what each layer is designed to do and then we will give you some examples of products that we have used and love. Layering is all about flexibility and efficiency. No matter the activity you are doing, be it hiking, climbing or skiing, layering makes it easy to adapt to changing conditions.

Columbia Baselayer

The Base Layer: Moisture Management


The base layer is designed to be next to your skin. The purpose behind this layer is to move moisture away from the skin and to keep you dry. When you stay dry it is easier for your body to regulate its temperature in both the summer and winter. If you have ever been working up a sweat in the winter then stopped working you know what I mean.

When looking for a base layer you will want to look for materials that wick or transfer the moisture away from the skin. As the moisture moves away from the skin and to the outer layers it can evaporate. For most instances you will want to find merino wool or a synthetic fabric. Wool has a natural ability to wick moisture away from the skin.

You will see many people where a cotton shirt when in the outdoors, and this might be perfectly alright in the summer but in the winter this is probably not a good idea. Cotton is super breathable but absorbs moisture and dries slowly.

Eddie Bauer Microtherm hoodieThe Mid Layer: Insulation

The purpose of the mid layer is to continue to move moisture away from the body but also to insulate and keep you warm. On warmer days this layer might not be needed but from fall through spring this is an essential layer to have in your pack. Some days this layer might be as simple as your hiking shorts but on others you will want a more technique fabric. 

Some of the best natural fibers to use for mid layers are wool or down. Wool is warm and keeps insulating even if it gets wet. Down is king for warmth to weight ratio. The downside to down is that when it gets wet, it loses its ability to retain heat. There have been some recent innovations with down that have added a water-resistant coating to each down feather and has helped down keep it loft even in wet situations. 

Fleece is also another great mid layer fabric. It comes in a variety of styles and weights or thicknesses for different temperatures. Fleece also will keep some of its ability to retain heat even when wet. Fleece is also known for its ability to transport moisture away from the body and it is fast drying when it gets wet. 

Patagonia Supercell Shell JacketThe Outer Layer: Shell

The outer layer is what keeps the wind and water away from the body. In bad weather, this layer is essential. If your mid and base layer get soaked because of rain, your body has to work extra hard to try and keep you warm. For most summer hikes, the outer layer could be as simple as a wind jacket but if you are expecting rain you would want more. A good outer layer will block wind and rain but also allow moisture to escape and be breathable. 

Gore-Tex is probably one of the best known brands that make waterproof/breathable membranes, but not the only one. Most major brands now have their own waterproof/breathable membranes that preform really well. Also another trick that the industry is doing is to add a DWR (durable water repellent) finish on the apparel to make it water resistant. If caught in a downpour, water will eventually penetrate the jacket but for most light rains this finish works great.

There are a few things to consider when choosing a shell. Does is have to be totally waterproof? If you are not planning on being in hard rain or snow going with a shell that is water resistant will save you some money. But if rain is a concern, spending a little extra will save you from cold and wet. Another thing to consider is your activity level. If you are going to be super active you are going to want something that is more breathable. Soft shell jackets are super breathable and a lot of them come with a DWR finish. Lastly, if wind is all you are concerned about you will want to look for a jacket that is wind-resistant.

Learning how to properly layer your clothes will help you have a more enjoyable trip no matter the weather. Having the ability to make small adjustments by adding or subtracting a layer will make it for your body can better regulate itself. This will not only make you more comfortable but also more efficient. Below you have found some of our favorites to give you an idea of what is out there. 

Examples of Base Layers:

SmartWool NTS Midweight Crew - Men's regularly $94.95 on sale $71.21

Airblaster Merino Wool Ninja Suit - Men's $189.95

Columbia Baselayer Midweight Tight - Women's $54.95 

Examples of Mid Layers:

MicroTherm Down Hooded Jacket $199.95

Rab Boulder Fleece Hoodie - Women's $140.00 

Mountain Khakis Men's Rendezvous Hoodie $159.95

Examples of Outer Layers:

Westcomb Shift LT Hoodie Jacket - $400.00

Columbia Tech Attack Jacket - Women's regularly $189.95 on sale $123.47

Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisper Hooded Jacket - Men's regularly $164.95 on sale $123.71