Effective layering isn’t just about being warm; it’s about thermal regulation and achieving that Goldilocks “just right” temperature at all times, whether you’re getting the blood flowing mid-ascent, or feeling winter’s chill on the way down.
Understanding the purpose for each layer, and how they work together as a system, is key to knowing how to properly dress for every winter adventure — whether it’s alpine, backcountry, or Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, fat biking, trail running, or simply walking the dog.
The foundation of your layering system is the baselayer, which sits close to the skin to effectively wick body moisture — its primary purpose. You probably know that wet clothing in cold temperatures is a recipe for disaster, including hypothermia; but did you know that dangerously “wet clothes” include those dampened by your very own sweat?
High-intensity activities like Nordic skiing, ski touring, and running cause perspiration, which soaks your clothes and as a result, causes body heat to dissipate rapidly. The right baselayer will prevent this, by moving moisture away from the body and drying at a swift rate.
- Synthetics, like polyester and nylon
Synthetics often dry the fastest. Silk has a lightweight feel, making it a suitable layer for summer play as well. Wool is extremely popular, for its natural durability and resistance to odors; plus, many wool pieces are available in light-, mid-, and heavyweight constructions, with the latter being the warmest, to match your needs. Ultimately, baselayer material is a personal preference, and we recommend choosing one that feels most comfortable for you.
Never wear cotton as a baselayer; though breathable and comfortable, cotton does not offer adequate moisture-management, and its slow drying time can be hazardous.
The layer over your base should trap body heat to effectively insulate it. Mid-layers range from a fleece pullover to a down puffy zip-up.
- Synthetics, like fleece
- Synthetic insulated
- Down insulated
Your insulation layer is dependent on the activity and the conditions. If you’re outside on a warmer day, you could easily get by with a fleece or wool hoodie. For frigid temperatures, an insulated mid-layer offers necessary warmth, breathability, and sometimes wind- or water-resistance.
And now, the age-old question: synthetic or down? Down insulated pieces are typically superior in terms of warmth to weight ratio and compressibility, but untreated down loses insulating efficiency when wet. On the flipside, synthetic insulations’ warming capabilities are not hindered by precipitation, but some types of synthetic do not pack down as well. Many brands are blurring the lines between down and synthetic with innovative technologies that challenge these principles – like Marmot’s DownDefender, which coats down insulation with a water-resistant finish; or Patagonia’s Nano-Air line, featuring highly-compressible synthetic FullRange insulation.
When shopping for a mid-layer, consider what you’ll be using it for. For example, if it’s for alpine skiing, it’ll likely be protected by your outer layer, so water-resistance isn’t as essential as warmth, breathability, and mobility.
The final piece to your layering system is the outer or shell layer; this layer gets the most exposure to the elements and must be equipped to protect you and your other layers from precipitation and wind, while managing body moisture – which is why waterproof and breathability ratings are important factors in choosing an outer layer.
A waterproof rating, measured in millimeters (mm), refers to how much water pressure a given fabric can endure – the higher the waterproof rating, the better the resistance to water. For winter layering, we recommend a shell with a waterproof rating of at least 10,000 mm, and if you tend to play in wet conditions, opt for a waterproof rating closer to 20,000 mm.
Breathability, measured in grams (g), is based on how much water – or body moisture – can be transferred through a given fabric, and a larger rating indicates a more breathable material. However, a highly breathable jacket or pant isn’t always necessary. If you tend to ski in-bounds and take advantage of lodge breaks, a layer with a lower breathability will be enough. If you’re looking for a shell for vigorous activities like ski touring or Nordic skiing, you’ll feel comfortable with a 10,000 to 20,000 g breathability rating.
- Waterproof, breathable laminates or membranes, like GORE-TEX
- PU (polyurethane) coatings
- Durable water repellent (DWR) finishes
- 2-layer construction
- 2.5-layer construction
- 3-layer construction
- Taped or sealed seams
The most popular weather-proof shells are membranes or laminates, like GORE-TEX or similar proprietary technologies, which bond a thin layer of a waterproof and breathable material – like expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE), polyurethane (PU), or both – to the face of a fabric. Unlike a membrane or laminate, a PU coating is applied to the interior of the outer layer; though less expensive, PU coatings are not as breathable.
DWR (Durable Water Repellent) is a fluorocarbon-based coating that renders a garment water-resistant. Fabrics treated with only a DWR finish can repel light precipitation, but aren’t recommended for heftier snow- or rainstorms. However, some brands will pair a waterproof membrane or laminate with a DWR coating for added protection, to prevent water saturation in the material.
Waterproof, breathable fabrics are offered in 2-, 2.5-, and 3-layer constructions, which refer to how many layers surround the waterproof membrane or coating. With a 2-layer jacket or pant, the membrane or coating is applied within the outer fabric and then paired with a loose-hanging liner. A 2.5-layer construction features a lightweight first layer with a membrane or coating – the second layer –finished with a protective “half layer,” or a partially protective layer that is applied over the second. Finally, a 3-layer approach applies the membrane between a durable outer fabric and a liner – 3-layer constructions do not use coatings.
A 3-layer shell offers the best in waterproofing, breathability, and durability, while remaining lightweight. A 2-layer tends to be heavier, and is preferred for everyday weather protection. A 2.5-layer is the lightest, making it a great option for mountaineering or ski touring.
Brands tape or seal an outer layer’s seams to ensure that water cannot enter through the garment’s stitching. When seams are “critically taped,” it means only seams in high-impacted areas are taped; “fully” taped means all seams are taped.
Your budget will be a deciding factor in your outer layer choice, and high-quality waterproof, breathable fabrics like GORE-TEX and 3-layer constructions will be on the higher end of the spectrum.
In addition to your base-, mid-, and outer layer, you can keep your body temperature in check and shield your skin from harsh conditions with neck gaiters, balaclavas, beanies or hats, mittens or gloves, and socks. Just like your baselayers, synthetics and wool make great ingredients for winter accessories for your neck, face, head, and feet. When it comes to your hand-wear that will come into contact with snow, opt for materials used in outer layers, including GORE-TEX, CZone, and other waterproof membranes.
Still have questions about the best layers for your winter pursuits? Reach out to a Jans Expert and we’ll help you out.