How to Layer with a Rain Jacket and Stay Warm

How to Layer with a Rain Jacket

Have you ever gotten really cold while wearing a rain jacket and hiking in the rain? It can be really unpleasant and even lead to hypothermia if you let it get out of hand. The best way to stay warm when hiking in the rain, even in summer, is to wear a wicking midlayer under your rain jacket. You may perspire a bit doing this, but it is way better to be warm and a little damp than damp and chilled to the bone. I’ve found that a fleece pullover provides the best midlayer insulation for hiking in the rain and many other experienced long-distance hikers would agree.

Why do you get wet inside a rain jacket? All rain jackets suffer from condensation when the interior is warmer than the exterior when it’s raining because they trap your body heat. That temperature differential is what causes condensation, just like in a tent. Plus a rain jacket, even a highly breathable one, acts as a heat and vapor barrier trapping the warm water vapor that’s generated when you perspire inside.

If you’re just wearing a wet or damp shirt under a rain jacket (in the rain), there’s nothing to prevent the warmth from being sucked out of your body (since it’s cooler outside your jacket and warmer inside). In fact, water (condensation and perspiration) is 25 times more efficient in terms of heat transfer than air, which is why you’ll feel so cold if you only wear a wet shirt under a rain jacket in the rain.

The solution is to wear a midlayer between your shirt and rain jacket that blocks the transfer of body heat to your rain jacket. A polyester fleece pullover or polyester fleece jacket is the best type of garment for this because it is naturally wicking, pulling moisture from your base layers away from your body while maintaining an envelope of warm air around your core. Polyester fleece is also better than wool because it absorbs less water (it’s plastic after all) and dries much, much faster. Polyester fleece is also fairly inexpensive, very durable, and available in different weights so you can dial in the amount of warmth you need for different times of years or climates.

Suggested 100 Wt Polyester Fleece Pullovers and Jackets

What about using a down jacket or a synthetic insulated jacket as a midlayer? While these jackets are more popular (and stylish) than lightweight fleece pullovers or jackets, they’re usually too warm to use as a midlayer garment and are best held in reserve to change into when you stop hiking and want to put on drier and warmer clothes. They also absorb a lot of moisture, even if their insulation been treated with a waterproofing agent, and take much longer to dry than fleece unless you have a clothes dryer handy.

For three-season hiking, most hikers will find a simple 100 weight fleece to be effective as a midlayer under a rain jacket when hiking in the rain. A quarter-zip or half-zip pullover or full zip fleece jacket are all good because they provide venting if you feel to warm, but I’d avoid using a windproof fleece because it is less breathable and wicking. Some people prefer a hood and others not, so that is a point of personal preference.

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About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its detailed gear reviews and educational content. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the 36th person to hike all 650 of the hiking trails in the White Mountain Guide. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. In addition, Philip volunteers as a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont's Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He lives in New Hampshire.

24 comments

  1. In the picture, what appears to be lashed to the tree, above the word “How”?

  2. A 100 wt fleece is the most versatile piece of outdoor clothing. Another option for a mid layer light fleece that is more affordable is the LL Bean “Fitness Fleece” (search for it on LL Bean). I’ve have a couple (a full zip and a quarter zip) that probably have been with me on every backpacking trip, well over 100 at this point in the last 8 to 9 years and other than a few small holes from being too close to a fire are still going strong.

  3. I use my Lands End 100 weight, when on sale, usually can be bought for $25.00. What are your thoughts on a gridded fleece vs a regular fleece like TNF? Does the grid pattern help wicking or allow for faster dry times?

    • I don’t think it makes a damn bit of difference. Generic fleece was never patented so it’s very inexpensive to make. Companies, like Patagonia, go to all kinds of lengths to “enhance” it so they can charge more, but in the end it really doesn’t matter all that much for this application.

      • I climbed Mt.Rainier 2 times with clothing purchased from the Salvation Army. You don’t need fancy gear with fancy labels to keep you warm! Although I did look like a Christmas tree with every color represented….

  4. FYI I just clicked on your TNF link and one of the colors can be bought for less than $29.00.

    • Yep. That’s a steal. It’s also a recommended product in this week’s newsletter coming out on Sunday.

  5. Not liking fleece these days because of the environmental footprint it leaves. If an alternative natural fiber does the same job, I try to go that route instead. Of course, I respect those that choose fleece because it is so versatile, just a personal preference for me not to go there.

    • Existing fleece (buy used) has a much lower impact than raising sheep and all that follows. Not to mention the fact, that wool requires much more care to wash, and breaks down much faster than a fleece pullover. By all means, be more environmentally conscious, but do your homework.

      • And if the zipper fails on your fleece, replace the zipper, not the whole fleece. I have dramatically increased the lifespan of my jackets this way.

      • +1 on the buy used advice. While I have yet to run across a good down jacket at Goodwill, I’ve found several decent fleece pullovers for crazy low prices.

  6. It is worth clarifying that you’re talking about polyester fleece, since some sweatshirt-type cotton garments are called “fleece,” and real fleece comes from sheep. Some polyester fleece is made at least partially from recycled materials, though that is not yet common. If enough customers send comments asking for recycled materials to big retailers like REI, Amazon or LLBean, the practice may catch on. Charity and second-hand stores often have lots of fleece clothing for sale, making it easy to afford a variety of types. I find a lightweight fleece vest is a very versatile layer.

    • Good point. I inserted “polyester” throughout the post.

    • Patagonia has been actively promoting recycling their products back to them for some time now. I buy and send back my old Capilene underwear to them, no questions asked.

      • I honestly can’t decide how much of that is greenwashing. It’s not like Patagonia has eliminated polyester fleece or synthetic underwear from their product line…

      • Well hopefully the recycled underwear is washed, green or otherwise. As an observation, on REI 11 of the 14 polyester men’s sweaters and hoodies made by Patagonia claim to include recycled fiber. Presumably where most of Axel’s skivvies end up.

  7. What else are people wearing under the rain jacket and fleece that helps keep them dry, what type of baselayer?

    • Don’t get your hopes up about staying bony dry in a high humidity environment under a fleece. You’ll be warm though. I usually wear a synthetic fishing shirt with long sleeves and a collar or a wool jersey in cooler weather. I don’t think it matters much.

      • Yeah, I use a wool shirt under my fleece. I was just hoping someone had a magic combination that I didn’t know about.

  8. My 100 wt NF fleece is the best layer I have when it’s cool. I wear a light weight icebreaker wool blend under it a lot. Good article. PS – the IB is 12 years old and still going strong :-)

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