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Monday, May 29, 2023

How to Layer Clothes for Your Next Outdoor Adventure

In the great outdoors, sweat is the enemy. Sweat too much and you'll dampen your clothes, and wet fabric will chill and rub your skin raw. That's why each day on the trail or in camp is a balancing act of putting on and taking off just the right combination of clothes to stay warm, but not enough to sweat. 

It's a golden age of outdoor gear, but it can be confusing. Is a mid-layer alone enough? What about fleece? Our guide can help you make sense of it all.

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How to Layer Your Clothes

From skin to your outermost top layer, here's the order in which you should wear your clothes.

  1. Base layer
  2. Mid-layer
  3. Shell jacket
  4. Belay jacket

Bottom layers are a bit simpler, and rarely will you need an insulating layer on your legs. Just put on your underwear and a shell pant over it.

I've omitted outlier situations, such as mountaineering 8,000-meter peaks or traveling in polar regions. You'll be looking at very expensive, specialized equipment that you'll rarely use elsewhere.

Base Layers

Long johns, tights, or whatever you want to call 'em, base layers are always going to be on your body, so they need to be thin and snug. Your best choices are merino wool and synthetic fabric. Wool keeps you warm even when it's wet, but it takes longer to dry out. Having once been a wool devotee in my early years of hiking, I've switched to synthetics because they dry out easier. 

Despite the preconceptions, thin merino wool base layers are fine and popular for warm-weather use. For high-intensity activities, such as climbing or backpacking, choose very thin base layers and short underwear. For low-intensity activities in cold conditions, such as camping or birdwatching, you can choose heavier baselayers and long underwear, but it's nice to bring a spare pair of boxers, briefs, or boxer briefs. They don't take up much room. 

Read our Best Base Layers guide for recommendations on our favorite top base layers. 


Mid-layers break down into fleece and puffies. Synthetic fleece (such as Polartec) is the traditional choice, and I still prefer it for mid-layers. My favorite is the Patagonia R1 jacket. Fleece is a little bulky to pack because it doesn't really compress. But it dries out quickly and fits snugly under outer layers without bulking them up.

Puffy jackets are generally worn as the outermost layer, especially by climbers, and we'll get to that later. By wearing them underneath another jacket, you compress some of the insulating material and lessen its insulation properties. It's also easier for your perspiration to wet out the insulating material, and puffies don't trap heat well when damp.

That isn't to say they don't have their place or that they won't work for you. Lots of people use them. Synthetic insulation dries out more quickly than goose down, and so I prefer it for mid-layer puffies. Goose down is commonly coated with DWR (durable water repellent) though, and DWR is getting better and better these days. Although synthetics are catching up, goose down is still lighter, compresses more tightly, and insulates better than synthetics.

Shell Jackets

There are two types of shell jackets: hard shells and soft shells. Hard-shell jackets are sometimes referred to as rain jackets because they're more (but not completely) impervious to hard rain, but the soft-shell jacket also counts, although it's less rainproof and ideal for only certain conditions.

Hard shells trap more warmth but also get clammier with exertion. They're ideal for trips where you expect very heavy rain, because they won't wet out (become soaked) as easily as a soft shell. Soft shells have better breathability, so bring them when heavy rain isn't in the forecast. Also, in extremely cold conditions, a soft shell beats out a hard shell. Snow stays dry and is less prone to melting, and it won't rain. You can forego the hard shell's superior water resistance. If you'll be exposed to extreme weather changes, you might want to take both.

Match your shell pants to the type of shell jacket you're bringing. For example, if you've got a soft-shell jacket, bring soft-shell pants.

For wet and very warm climates, where even a breathable soft-shell jacket would be unbearably hot or become soaked, you can swap out the shell jacket and pants for a poncho or umbrella. Ponchos will make you less sweaty than any jacket. Umbrellas are more of a niche item for people hell-bent on saving as much weight and space as possible. Read our Best Umbrellas guide for recommendations.

Belay Jackets

It's called a belay jacket because, while pausing to belay their climbing partner (control the climbing rope, for safety reasons), climbers will quickly throw this puffy jacket over their existing layers and climbing harness. When it's their turn to climb, they pop it off easily so they don't overheat when they start moving. You don't have to be a climber to need a belay jacket. It's just a handy term for the outermost layer, which is almost always a puffy jacket.

I prefer synthetic belay jackets at temperatures near the freezing point and in humid environments. I'm partial to this one from Marmot (Women's). Even if you don't sweat hard in your clothes, they'll absorb some unavoidable perspiration and moisture from the air, and puffies don't insulate well when wet. You can dry them out more quickly overnight than goose down. For dry snow conditions, where temperatures stay far below the freezing point, I go with goose down all the way. It's simply warmer, given the same volume.

You might need to size up. Try on your belay parka over the other layers you'd wear underneath it.

Socks and Sleep Clothes

Hikers in the older days often used liner socks under their regular socks to prevent blisters, and some traditionalists still do. Two layers of sock slide against each other and reduce friction on the skin, but some folks don't like the thickness of the two layers or the slipping feeling. Enter WrightSock. It has been my go-to for the past few years. Each sock is composed of two layers sewn together into one sock. The layers are each very thin, so the finished sock doesn't feel any thicker than a regular sock. And I've never gotten a blister in WrightSocks (yet). 

Like with base layers, wool and synthetic socks have the same pros and cons. Having used both, I've settled on synthetic. Keeping feet dry is a bigger need for me, and in my experience, it's easier to dry out synthetic socks. 

Bring two or three pairs of socks. Take them off on breaks to let your feet dry out. Switch into dry socks periodically, and always reserve a dry pair for bedtime. Constantly wet feet that never have a chance to dry can lead to serious problems, even amputation. I usually use a pair of Darn Tough socks for sleeping. You might want to bring a spare set of clothes just for sleeping. A polyester T-shirt and pants will be fine. Let your hiking clothes air out overnight to ensure they're dry by morning.

Gloves, Mittens, and Hats

There's a popular US Army study from the 1940s that says you lose most of your body heat through your head. Well, it's incorrect. But you still need to cover up your noggin if it's cold. I've found that I feel just as warm with a thin, tight-weave beanie as I do with a thickly knitted one. The Smartwool Merino 150 Beanie is my stalwart. I strongly prefer merino wool for hats because it's soft, warm, and breathable. 

Mittens, which don't have individually separated fingers, are warmer than gloves because they have less surface area by which to lose heat. I won't go too deeply into handwear here as it depends so much on the environment and activity. 

For general advice, gloves made only out of fabric are less cumbersome, but the wind will bite through them, and they'll get wet if you touch snow. Soft-shell gloves block wind and water more effectively but are clumsier to use. Thin wind-blocker gloves are a compromise—less warm than full-on soft shells, but dextrous enough, and they prevent convective heat loss from wind.

Environmental and Ethical Concerns

Almost every layer of outdoor clothing for sale is the product of either animal- or petroleum-based ingredients. That brings with it a responsibility to seek out gear that does the least harm.

For wool, look for companies that source wool from suppliers who don't practice mulesing, which is the cutting away of certain strips of skin around the sheep's buttocks. They should be transparent about humane conditions for animals and grazing in ways that are sustainable for the surrounding environment. Look for mentions of the Responsible Wool Standard.

Likewise, make sure any goose-down product you buy is sourced ethically. It should never be plucked from an animal live or from animals kept in inhumane living conditions. Look for companies that adhere to the Global Traceable Down Standard; even better is Advanced Global TDS.

Among outdoors companies, synthetic fabrics these days are frequently made from recycled polyester. Nylon is harder to recycle than polyester, but it's become common too. You can usually find out on the retailer's website or the item's label if you're shopping in physical stores. Also, try to buy bluesign materials. Bluesign is a voluntary set of chemical safety standards, and it may reduce environmental impact during manufacturing.

That doesn't alleviate the problem of microplastics shedding, though. These plastic fabrics release tiny particles in the laundry that aren't captured by filters or wastewater facilities before they wash back into waterways. 

What About Plant-Based Fabrics?

Avoid cotton. It's fine for day-hiking in the city park or camping, but it's horrible for most outdoor activities. It gets wet and takes forever to dry, and unlike wool it doesn't keep you warm when wet. Even if it's not what you consider very cold outside, being wet for long periods of time can chill you to the point of hypothermia. There's an old saying that's still popular: “Cotton kills.” Whether you're hiking in a warm desert or a cold forest, choose merino wool, goose down, or synthetic fabric.

Plant-based plastics, most notably in shell jackets and pants, are relatively new, and we at WIRED are testing more and more of them. I'll update this guide after I get a few backpacking trips with them under my belt this season.

Extra Tips

You'll rarely wear all these layers, especially while moving, as you'd work up quite a sweat. Even on glaciers, most of the time I'm wearing a thin base layer, a soft-shell jacket, boxer briefs, and a pair of soft-shell pants. I don the mid-layer and puffy outer jacket during rest breaks and low-intensity activities, such as tightening tent guy lines and cooking breakfast.

When you start moving, start out a bit cold. You'll heat up quickly, and it's easier if you don't have to stop 15 minutes into your hike to strip off layers.

Don't get sweaty. Your clothes get wet and, with the exception of wool, lose their ability to insulate you and keep you warm. It's not just uncomfortable, it's dangerous. Wind moving over your wet clothes can strip an awful lot of heat from your body quickly, and if you're wet you can get hypothermia in temperatures warmer than you think.

Take a look at our favorite cheap cold-weather gear guide for recommendations on various layers, gloves, socks, and more. Stay safe and dry out there!

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