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Proper Layering Technique
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Jason Cravens

Locale: Cumberland Plateau
Proper Layering Technique on 02/16/2012 17:42:51 MST Print View

I finally decided to venture out into some winter backpacking. I went on a winter overnight trip this past weekend with the temps around 8* F for the night.My gear worked out great, but I have some questions/issues with my layers. I wore a dri-fit (sp?) base layer, then my Mont Bell down sweater, and my rain/wind jacket over that.

I was under the assumption, the down sweater should be under the rain jacket to keep from getting wet in the snow and rain? I am a warm natured hiker and usually sweat pretty good when hiking. This setup led me to sweat when hiking, but get really cool when sitting due to the down sweater retaining my sweat. Is there a better combination of the items worn to keep from sweating then chilling or should different clothing be worn?

I have several different types of under armour type base layers, fleeces, down sweaters, soft shells, wind/rain jackets, and heavier parkas. I can't seem to find a combo for hiking while keeping warm, but not overheating, then staying warm in camp without taking multiple cloth changes.

Please advise.


John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Proper Layering Technique on 02/16/2012 17:58:41 MST Print View

I wear a lightweight polartec powerdry baselayer on top and bottom. Over that I wear a softshell shirt and pants. That is the basic outfit. If I get a little chilled I put on a windshirt. When stopped I use a synthetic parka. I'd bring a ran jacket but would not get one to fit over a winter parka. A fleece vest (not windproof) can help if chilled in the basic outfit because it breathes well.

You should not be hiking in down clothing. Wear the thinnest base layer you have and on top wear a softshell top and bottom or regular hiking pants/shirt. If still sweating, you may be pushing too hard. I still sweat sometimes and just have to deal with it. My base layer is thin enough to dry fairly quickly when I stop so I don't have to change clothes.

Edited by jshann on 02/16/2012 18:00:39 MST.

Tad Englund
(bestbuilder) - F - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Proper Layering Technique on 02/16/2012 18:10:04 MST Print View

Jason, what were the daytime temps?

I normally winter hike in a merino wool base layer and a R1 weight fleece and windshirt at 15*-25*F just the R1 20*-30* and above that just the wool base layer.
I put on a down sweater as soon as I stop to keep the chill off. If I'm getting to warm (because of the sun) I take the windshirt off and the breeze helps regulate.
If I know what the temps will be when I start off with what works at those temps and either slow down or speed up to regulate. This keeps me from having to change clothes too often.

I haven't used my down shirt yet to replace the R1 and don't know if I will because this combination for me works so well (i always wear, never carry the R1). If night gets down to 8*F I bring a warmer coat than a down sweater at use it as a resting jacket also.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Proper Layering Technique on 02/16/2012 18:15:37 MST Print View

I've always found the secret in layering is to have my various layers easily adjustable, except for the base layer. A pullover is not easily adjustable, so I wear layers that are either zippered or buttoned.

So, while on the march, I may be wearing base layers plus next layers are are fully opened. That way, I never get very sweaty. As soon as I stop for any time, the next layers are being closed up and covered.


Mike M
(mtwarden) - MLife

Locale: Montana
insulating layer on 02/16/2012 19:39:18 MST Print View

your insulating layer really isn't designed for "moving", it's meant for "stopping"

thin base layers, soft shell pants, upper mid layer(s)-most typically a R1 top, if really cold a fleece vest in addition- if windy a wind shirt over everything- add/subtract as needed; this is for on the move

when stopped- that's when the insulating layer gets broken out

Tjaard Breeuwer
(Tjaard) - MLife

Locale: Minnesota, USA
what were the day conditions? on 02/16/2012 20:12:48 MST Print View

As stated before, what were the day conditions? You said the down jacket should be under your shell for rain or snow. If it is raining, it can't be very cold, in which case a down sweater would be way to warm anyway (and retain moisture, losing significant insulating value). If it wasn't raining, why were you wearing a rain jacket?

In general, a base layer with light fleece topped with a very breathable shell (microfiber or soft shell) is the way to go. The fleece layer can be thicker or double in colder weather.

Indeed, as others have mentioned, make sure you vent, roll up inner or outer layer sleeves, remove hats etc to keep from overheating. This is a specific winter skill, as is adjusting your pace(uphill) to manage your temperature.

The hardest conditions are rain or wet snow, some wind and temps around or just above freezing.

Andrew Skurka has a good piece on vapor barrier clothing on his website. If you are a sweaty person you might want to stay away from vbl clothing on shorter trips though.

Jason Cravens

Locale: Cumberland Plateau
re on 02/16/2012 20:40:26 MST Print View

Temps were in the mid 30's that day with a mix of snow and rain/snow mix. The rain/wind jacket is more of my wind jacket layer. I am looking into the R1, it looks like a solid layer with my base layer.

Thanks for the input

Bradford Rogers
(Mocs123) - MLife

Locale: Southeast Tennessee
Re: re on 02/16/2012 20:54:15 MST Print View

That is way too much clothing for 30*F. I normally hike in those temps in a lightweight wool (190g/m) baselayer and a windshirt if needed. As long as you are moving you will be fine. It will never get cold enough to hike in a Mont-Bell down jacket on the Plateau. I think the R1 would be overkill for hiking in as well. I also wouldn't hike in a rain jacket (assuming it inst raining) as they all tend to let you overheat easy. I would get the most "breathable" wind jacket possible (yes that seems like an oxymoron) and use it.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Proper Layering Technique on 02/16/2012 21:37:29 MST Print View

I don't need much more than a medium weight base layer (like Capilene 2) and a shell when hiking uphill in the low 30's F. A light fleece vest would be more than enough if it was a little colder. I would also be wearing a light beanie and gloves. When I stop, it's time to get out the heavier insulation. If I'm in cold rain, I like rain pants with light longs johns on the bottom. Soft shell pants are absolutely the best in cold weather and they work well with silkweight long johns if you need more.

I agree with Bob on full zippers and being able to alter ventilation on the fly.

Stephan Doyle
Re: Proper Layering Technique on 02/16/2012 23:19:58 MST Print View

What were your daytime (hiking) conditions? Temperature, wind, precipitation, elevation change all play a key role.

I like a micro grid or power dry top for most winter conditions. That allows me to hike generally cool (if you're warm, then you're sweating). If I need more warmth on the move, on goes my shell. Hiking conditions never really warrant more than that. While stopped, I throw my puffy on top of everything I'm already wearing.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
mistakes on 02/17/2012 11:01:12 MST Print View


what you did is actually a very common mistake for people fairly new to cool weather activities ...

1. overdressing ... new people tend to want to stay warm at the start, however that is a losing game ... the trick with moving in cold weather is to anticipate where you body temp will be ... that means starting off cool or even cold as yr body will warm up when moving ... and proactively adding insulation when stopped before yr body heat dissipates ... newer people take off insulation when they soak through their layers, by which time its too late ... remember if yr warm on the move in winter, yr soaking through yr layers already

2. using down when active ... now some people can successfully use down in winter actively, however those tend to be in dryer very cold places, or for stop and go activities ... or in other cases weekend warriors who can dry it out after in the local sbucks ... generally though down is too warm for any intense prolongued activities in regular circumstances ... remember you want to stay cool, not warm ... down can work well though for "belay jackets"

3. technique ... the basic premises is to wear as little as you can when on the move, and bundle up like the michellin man when stopped ... when yr active yr body heat will keep you decently warm ... when stopped throw on that big puffy ... match yr layering to yr activity level

4. shell ... unless its a wet blizzard or raining ... there is no point in using a hardshell at the temps you described ... a softshell works and breaths much better ... breathability is the key in winter ... the lack of breathability means that sweat will end up inside yr shell ...

from the university of manitoba ...

5. activity level ..the eskimos knew that to sweat is to die ... so the moved around at a slower pace and white men thought them "lazy" ... if yr wearing as little as you can and are stills sweating, moderate yr pace ... sweating in winter is bad in 2 ways ... first you go through water, alot of it ... second you soak through yr insulation and get chilled, potentially leading to hypothermia when stopped ... if you MUST sweat, wear as little as possible so that it dries quickly, and make sure you dont soak yr insulation layer

6. insulation ... as mentioned a big puffy for stops ... if you MUST have insulation for active use, a lightish fleece is a good alternative ... another technique that is more popular these days is to use a lightish synth jacket OVER yr windshell as a light belay jacket or active use jacket when very cold ... the advantage of this is that you dont need to take everything on/off like you would with a normal layering system .... i personally use a 19$ synth old navy puffy

in short ... wear little on the move to keep cool ... the moment you stop zipper up and throw on the big puffy ... youll end up moving faster, stay cooler, use less water, and are less likely to soak through yr insulation ...

you can tell the newish people in winter by how bundled up they are on the move ...

personally i use

-lightest base layer i can find, synth
* optional R1 style fleece
- light windshirt or softshell
*optional light synth puffy for quick stops or active when very cold
- big puffy for stops ...

rainshell stays in the pack unless its raining or a ginourmous blizzard

references to look at ...

Edited by bearbreeder on 02/17/2012 11:06:42 MST.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: mistakes on 02/17/2012 12:00:42 MST Print View

eric said,

"personally i use

-lightest base layer i can find, synth
* optional R1 style fleece
- light windshirt or softshell
*optional light synth puffy for quick stops or active when very cold
- big puffy for stops ...

rainshell stays in the pack unless its raining or a ginourmous blizzard"


I don't have his cold weather experience but do hike every year in sub freezing temperatures. Also, I don't do well in cold weather compared to most folks, so the temptation is to start out warm which is a big mistake (experience is a good teacher).

So I almost always use in some combination:

Cap 1 or 2

I normally wear a Schoeller material pair of trousers. But I have found soft shell jackets get too hot, even for my low tolerance of cold. And my puffy for stops is very warm, a NB Fugu. For wet weather I like a poncho even in the cold. Keep in mind that I have never hiked in temperatures below 20F. But sweat is a bad thing when operating in cold.

The 3 layer system eric describes has been advocated by many for a long time. In 1984 Colin Fletcher spent a lot of paragraphs on it, something that was not in his earlier editions of the Complete Walker.

Jason Cravens

Locale: Cumberland Plateau
thnx on 02/17/2012 17:18:35 MST Print View

Thanks for all the replies, I really do appreciate it. I have been hiking and backpacking for years, but shied away from winter over night trips. I believe that was part of my issue as @Eric pointed out. I had "extra layers" for the potential cold that night. I am sure I just don't have the proper layers, but will be purchasing some soon. I just didn't have lightweight breathable layers from never needing them before.

Thanks again

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
buy on 02/17/2012 17:51:31 MST Print View

you likely already have most of what you need

why not post up yr current closet ... im sure you should have enough to get you started ...

im betting its a matter of technique. ... not gear that is the issue ...

Jason Cravens

Locale: Cumberland Plateau
gear on 02/18/2012 08:45:28 MST Print View

I have under armour base layers, nothing wool, but the dri-fit style
TNF long sleeve base layers - dri-fit type
Columbia Convertible pants
REI elements insulated pants
Mont Bell Down sweater
couple different soft shells
TNF Hydralite Rain/Wind jacket
Bigger down parka

Just bought a Marmot DriClime and Sierra Designs Microlight

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
Re: gear on 02/18/2012 10:53:18 MST Print View

base - dri fit
shell - dri clime

belay when stopped- down puffy, which one is dependent in temp .... better a bit heavier than colder until you figure what you need

you can add a light cheap 100wt or R1 style fleece if yr still cold on the move, or wear one of yr soft shells instead of the dri clime .... if yr too warm next time just use the microlight as yr shell ... bring the rain jacket in the pack in case of rain ....

pants ... use the softshell pants, or the convertibles with long underwear ... the insulated pants go on for longer stops or camp

basically youll only have 3 layers

belay jacket/pants for stops/camp

with an optional light fleece or synth should you not be warm enough on the move

Jason Cravens

Locale: Cumberland Plateau
thnx on 02/18/2012 20:16:44 MST Print View

Thanks again for your help. I am going again on the weekend of March 9th and will try the suggestions.

Stephan Doyle
Re: Proper Layering Technique on 02/18/2012 21:38:19 MST Print View

Also, in my experience, my "base layer" in winter is sometimes two garments. That means the lightest base layer you have (this will dry quickly and could be used for sleeping, and keeps my skin comfortable and adds a tiny bit of wind blocking, paired with a LIGHT fleece (anything more than the R1 is too warm). This is my base system.

When up on a ridge, a particularly snowy gully, etc., I'll throw on my shell. Traditionally, this has meant a windshirt or softshell (save weight when you can - so take the windshirt if you aren't going to be fumbling around with rock). The newest WPB technologies, though, mean you can get away with them instead. Some eVent, some DryQ Elite, NeoShell, Powershield Pro come to mind.

If I'm stopped, I take off my pack and let any steam evaporate (hopefully this is not much) and cool off if I need to. After a short time, I throw on my puffy layer.

Jason Cravens

Locale: Cumberland Plateau
thnx on 02/19/2012 09:17:06 MST Print View

Thanks again for the replies. I stopped by the local outdoor store and purchased some Patagonia Capilene base layers to try. I should find out some results in a couple weeks from the suggestions.


Nigel Healy
(nigelhealy) - F

Locale: San Francisco bay area
Re: Re: Proper Layering Technique on 02/19/2012 10:03:45 MST Print View

Hey so this is my experience which has led me to rethink a lot of my layering techniques to more in line with the gurus.

The human body sweats for two independent reasons - its is working hard, and because it is cold. The general perception is that you sweat because you are too warm and that you can be too warm due to working hard, but that is not true. You can be in situations where you are sweating due to working hard and still be cold. I don't know the reasons it might be sweating is localised due to local tissue temperature where high-output locations near the liver and near your main muscles are generating the heat and some of it via bloodflow gets around the body but not enough to warm all the body. I've been biking up a hill in a baselayer, there is nil blocking to evaporation but my base is wet from sweat and I'm cold. I've seen sweat evaporate next to skin to recondense on the outside of my baselayer and been wet with nil blockage to that moisture. So I actually see insulation as moving the point that sweat wants to recondense as further away and to protect those parts of the body which can't be heated sufficiently from warm blood from the heat-producing areas. As the core produces much of the heat - it actually needs little insulation when active in cold.

Hence regardless of the temperature if I'm working hard I cannot be wearing any form of shell, and even my windproofs need plenty of venting options and even different type of windproofs.

I've tried varying the thickness of the baselayer for the general temperature, it does not work, because there are times I'm working so hard I do need to be in base + windproof only.

So when its cold I must protect extremities first, hands, feet and sometimes the head in places (ears, face), because regardless of how energetic I am, if its cold enough the warmed blood from the core/muscles has cooled beforehand and besides there isn't enough blood flow anyway to cope with low temps. If I'm walking very fast I've been at 0C / 32F been in just a baselayer t-shirt and had thick footwear and been just-right in that proportion.

For colder, I then need to add a bit of wind protection to the core, and then to the legs. I can be working hard with a thin base, a windproof gilet and a thick foot protection and be comfortable. In some strange way, raising the temperature a little lets the sweat warm enough to be evaporating but it needs a non-blocking layer to do that.

I then need to thicken up the windprotection to the core and move from gilet to jacket

I then add something to the legs. I give leg some insulation before the torso needs, I get sweaty legs and be cold.

This then continues as my needs for insulation increases, I'll add some wicking mid-layer to the torso under windproof, move to thicker insulation on the legs (say windproofs over cycling leg warmers). As output drops for the temperature this then progressivelly all become thicker.

It is only when my output is low or I'm stationary can I be doing anything to block evaporation like put on a waterproof. If I put on a waterproof when high output, even with eVent, it is simply not capable and I get wet from sweat.

There is also a form of sweating which comes from hunger, if due to a need to get to a particular place for a particular time, and if I've misjudged my food needs and I get hungry, there seems a form of sweating due to hungry-effort, somehow like whilst the brain+stomach are shouting "hungry!" the burning of reserve stores (fat?) seems to give off more heat than the burning of my last meal. Anyone seen that effect?

Down whilst active - a thick down jacket has the issue that it can provide a lot of insulation and its very breathable, BUT the re-condensation temperature can end up sufficiently far inside it is recondensing and possibly even freezing. Hence sometimes to move the recondensing point externally I need to layer over it a windproof and tune the mid-layer under the down to not trip me into too-warm which then increases sweat. It has to be VERY cold to wear down active.

There is a huge difference in my insulation needs between active and inactive.

There is a huge difference in my insulation needs been hungry and not-hungry and I begin to feel the cold about 30-40mins before any hint of hunger.