4 layers and 7 items that you need to know about in the cold backcountry. Let’s talk winter layering. In an earlier post about winter mountaineering, I mentioned the need for proper layering during outdoor winter activities. Here we will examine the 4 layers and 7 items you should wear, the specifications you should consider, and how to wear them.
Layer 1 Your technical shell – This layer should be water and windproof enabling you to brave the elements. There are two types of shells, hard shells, and soft shells. A hard shell is typically both water and windproof where a soft shell is usually only windproof or resistant and maybe water resistant. Both of these options should have a hood. The most important thing to consider with this layer, however, is that it is breathable. This is so that perspiration doesn’t build up under this layer soaking you from within. A hard shell is best for wet, snowy conditions and should have sealed seams, cinchable hoods, armpit vents, mesh pockets, and other features that allow you to ventilate properly. A jacket shouldn’t be your only consideration either, you will likely need waterproof and vented pants as well. Finally, when in snowy or very, very wet conditions gaiters should be worn.
So Layer 1 is a Technical Hooded Jacket (#1), Shell Pants (#2), and Gaiters (#3)
Layer 2 Insulation– All hail the puffy jacket! While your shell will keep you dry and the wind at bay, you need to trap some of that body heat. This layer could be a puffy down or synthetic down jacket. It could be a fleece or even a thicker wool shirt. If you want warmth over everything then you go with down, period. If you are like me, however, and you run hot, a synthetic down alternative or thicker wool shirt can work great. Having a stuff-able puffy jacket of some kind is clutch in changing weather conditions. This layer could also have a hood but keep in mind you likely only want 1 or 2 hoods in your layering outfit, otherwise, things get a little out of hand.
So Layer 2 is an Insulated Jacket of some type, preferably a puffy stuff-able type. (#4)
Layer 3 The mid-layer– Wearing a mid-layer can apply when a base layer is not enough, and a technical shell might be overkill. It can also be necessary for very cold climates to wear in-between your base layer and your insulation layer #2. If you ask your local outdoorsy friend what kind of mid layer they recommend you are likely to get a bunch of different answers. Anything from a hoody to a light jacket to a puffy vest might come up. In all honesty, you probably have 4 to 5 mid layers hanging in your closet already and there really is no right answer. Depending on the use and conditions several different pieces could act as a mid-layer. If you are going to substitute an insulating layer with your mid-layer it should be good at retaining heat like a light jacket or a puffy vest. If you are substituting your base layer with your mid-layer, then something like a fleece or a thick wool shirt would be best. Things to keep in mind here are that you want this layer to have a full zip on the front and you should forgo the hood. (Remember 2 hoods in your layering system max!) Personally, I have a Helly Hanson windproof fleece and a burly wool flannel I tend to use depending on the situation.
So, Layer 3 is anything from a light jacket to a burly wool shirt. (#5)
Layer 4 The all mighty base layer– Go type in “base layer” (or click on the link I added) into Backcountry.com with your size and specific gender that you typically buy clothes in and then make a decision…I dare you. You will get more results than you can shake a ski pole at. There is, however, a way to navigate the madness and good thing too because this is without a doubt your most important layer, period. Keep in mind too that we are going to include a piece of head ware and socks into this layer. If I had to give you a quiver killer one rule to follow here I would say some kind of temperature regulating fabric. Wool, Hemp, and Bamboo are all good choices. A mixed Cotton and other fabric is ok (not death) and is often mixed in for comfort but having whatever you are wearing be made primarily of one of the previously stated materials is important. Why? Because ultimately this is the layer you are going to use to regulate your temperature the most while in the wild. If you are wearing a cotton only t-shirt you’re fucked…no seriously fucked. You are going to sweat, your shirt is going to soak, and you are going to have a bad time. Personally, I opt for a thinner base layer because I usually have one of each of the layers previously discussed above packed with me. This way it is easy for me to alternated and layer on and off as necessary. Depending on the conditions and the adventure ahead of me I go with a wool beanie and buff or a synthetic balaclava, wool or hemp and cotton blend long sleeve or short sleeve, wool bottoms, and wool socks.
Layer 4 is a Beanie/Buff combo (#6), a temperature regulating fabric shirt (#7), a temperature regulating bottom (#8), and wool socks (#9).
Following the above guidelines, you should be able to send it into way below freezing temperatures. I should state that I in no way guarantee your safety unless you are physically with me in the backcountry and that stupidity can get you killed. Hypothermia and or frostbite are both bad looks and I highly advise trying things out in a safe-ish environment before sending up the side of a 14ier in the middle of winter.
A few other noteworthy points here on layering. Starting with your base layer and moving all the way to your outer shell keep in mind movement and that each layer should fit you slightly snugger than the layer after it. So, baselayer should be skin tight and your technical shell should be a bit baggy. This allows for freedom of movement as you tackle whatever you are after. Also, take note of your zippers. You should have full or half zips on everything but your base layer and, even your base layer could benefit from it. You want to hike feeling slightly chilly because you are producing so much body heat and using zippers is a great way to dump heat when you start to feel too warm.
I hope this helps you get out there this winter doing something other than skiing and snowboarding. Stay safe but whatever you do Don’t Die on the Couch! -MU
Shout out to Backcountry.com for being the best spot to send people looking for gear. While I love and rep Backcountry.com they in no way pay for my opinion.