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KISS Layering in Winter

Dress Like and Onion - Pinkham Lodge Ready Room
Dress Like an Onion - Pinkham Lodge Ready Room, Mt Washington

Many winter hikers use a four layer clothing system:

  1. A base layer, consisting of a synthetic wicking long sleeved shirt and long underwear.
  2. A fleece sweater as an insulating midlayer.
  3. A hard shell jacket and pants as a wind-proof/waterproof layer.
  4. A puffy down or synthetic jacket and pants for even more warmth.

During the day when you are active, you’ll most likely be wearing layers 1-3, in addition to gloves and one or more hats, although during periods of high exertion you may take off layers 3 and 2 to vent as much extra heat as possible in order to avoid sweating. If you do sweat, the function of your base layer is to move the sweat away from your skin and into layers 2 and 3 where eventually evaporate without chilling you, because it’s in a higher layer.

Generally, you really only need the 4th insulation layer when you stop for a break, for hanging around camp, or for very cold summit conditions and high windchill.

KISS Layering

When you go to buy winter hiking layers, it’s tempting to buy a jacket that combines layers 2 and 3, the insulating layer with a wind proof shell in order to save money. There are also many coats available that are waterproof hard shells with a built-in fleece liner, snowsport jackets that have added down or synthetic insulation in them, or so-called 3-in-1 component jackets which only contain 2 components, an exterior waterproof/breathable shell and inner fleece/insulated jacket that can be zipped out. While these might be suitable for downhill skiing or riding the school bus, I wouldn’t recommend them for winter hiking, backpacking or mountaineering.

Instead, my advice is to implement each of your layers using a different best of breed garment. This gives you the most flexibility and let’s you select garments that are optimal for a specific function. It’s also far easier to control your heat level with individual garments versus garments that combine two layers into one, and the failure of a single piece of clothing (broken zipper, for instance) will only compromise one of your layers and not potentially two.

Keep it simple: a separate garment for each layer.

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16 comments

  1. Thin down layer (MB EX Down Light vest/jacket) not advisable for a #2 layer? Certainly better warmth/weight ratio… but perhaps the down can be compromised with sweat?

  2. I wouldn't recommend that. Where will all of the sweat from your base layer go? You will be dripping…Instead, I wear a Patagonia R1 hoodie, which moves the sweat to a higher layer and traps some heat but not enough to make you hot. If you're moving, you actually need relatively little insulation. When you stop, throw on a giant puffy insulation layer, but there's no need in my system for a thin insulation layer like a MB thin down jacket.If anything, I'd add a wind shirt as an alternative layer 3, but I'd still bring my shell layer too.

  3. I was just going to mention that I'd add a wind shirt to the ensemble. Picking upp on the point about onion layers I've found that wearing a thin close fitting base layer (I use a TNF Flight T) under a long sleeve top (a Red Ram Merino one) works well because it traps two layers of air close to the body. The TNF T weighs a mere 70g (21/3oz) not alot for the added comfort.

  4. I wonder if thin down vest = insulating ability of Patty Hoodie w/ sleeves? If so that would keep my weight down as you know I love my JRB down sleeves for my arms around camp and my feet while sleeping.

    But that may still saturate the down w/ hard hiking…then again if I'm hiking hard, I may only need the long john top and DriDucks windproof layer.

    Oh well, I don't have a Patty R1, but I do have an extremely thin Fleece, that may do the same thing.

  5. The 2nd layer needs to be wicking – if it's a down coat/vest with a nylon layer it's going to stop the base layer sweat from migrating up your layer stack and out. Winter really puts your thermoregulation self-knowledge to the test. People use a 100 weight fleece as a mid layer quite often – if possible get one with at least a quarter zip for venting.

  6. Echoing Baz's point: I normally wear a Patagonia Capilene 1 LS jersey as a base layer and bring a second one to wear when sleeping. If my 2nd fleece layer is too warm, but my base layer is still too cool, I will sometimes put my sleeping base layer on over my regular day base layer – so I'll be wearing 2 Capiline 1 jerseys. This works pretty well as long as I keep a dry base or mid layer I can wear against my skin when I get to camp.

  7. I have been using a base layer like a Capilene and a microfleece and then as a 3rd layer I've been using the Rab eVent rain jacket (which I love and bought based on your recommendation) but as it gets colder I am wondering if you would recommend a different hard shell?

  8. Nope – I'll be using the Rab event Momentum as my winter hardshell again, too. It's perfect for winter, actually.

  9. What do you think about the use of a softshell as a replacement for layers 2 & 3. I use softshells of various weights in all but the most extreme conditions and then break out my hardshell on top of it. Its worked out very well for me and it's allowed me to stay "comfortably cool" in condtions as extreme as -30 and I'm one of those people that is cold all the time.

  10. Chris – I don't have any experience with softshells so I can't say. I've avoided them to be honest because they seem like a marketing gimmick to me (that's an invitation to flame me!) because they're a jacket that doesn't provide full waterproof and wind protection which has always seemed pointless to me since you'd need to carry a hardshell in addition to a softshell to check that box. If they work for you though that's really all that matters.

  11. There are quite a few garments that fall into the sofshell niche, and the spec varies wildly some are more water and wind resistant than others, others are lined or unlined. So where one garment would work another may fall short. I own three and the one I use the most is the RAB Vapour Rise smock. It's more soft than shell, whereas my partners RAB Baltoro lite is more shell!

  12. What is your opinion of the Norwegian “fishnet” polypropylene layers that were popular 20 years ago. Worn next to skin under a tight fitting polypro long sleeve shirt. I liked them, but don’t see them much now. Easy to vent out extra heat, but just pulling your collar away from you for 2 seconds. They used to get a little funky smelling, but I assume that could be resolved with more modern materials. Got mine at LL Bean 25 years ago, but I’ve “expanded” since then, so they don’t fit as well. Thanks for your articles and opinions.

    • Sounds kinky! – seriously, I’d imagine that there is no way for the fishnet to transport the moisture to the polypropylene layer, although it probably provided good insulation value by trapping the hot air next to your skin.

      As an alternative, you might want to try the Helly Hansen Warm baselayer which is a composite fabric made using LIFA next to the skin (excellent at transporting moisture out) and Merino wool as the outside layer for warmth. I’ve been real impressed so far with it this winter because it keeps me warm and dry.

  13. katahdinDave- you should try the baselayers from Craft (search for Craft sports; nordic, running, cycling). I actually use this a ‘skin’ layer, then my next layer does not to be as bulky. What’s nice about this baselayer is that it never feels cold/cool (usually warm) against my skin because for me, the moisture transport is superb; even with the most heaviest of exertion. I am a heavy ‘sweater’ even in moderate exertion levels so moisture management is huge for me; whether it is cycling in the cold (sub-freezing) or hiking up a hill.

  14. For a Mount Washington summit trip, how will hard shell bibs pants work with a warmer base layer? Warm enough. Or is another insulating layer nevessary?

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