Layering your clothing for cold weather travel and the outdoors

15 May, 2020


When venturing into the outdoors for extended periods of time, you need clothing that will protect you from the elements – the blazing sun, freezing snow, and pelting rain. It’s particularly important that you have the right clothing when in the cold for extended periods of time, otherwise you risk developing frostbite, hypothermia and even dying - it’s that simple. Staying dry and warm is essential when outside in the cold weather, and this can be done by selecting suitable clothing and equipment to protect you from the elements. 

The layering method - it's as easy as 1,2,3.

A proven practice for dressing for the outdoors is to layer your clothing. Rather than using one jacket for use outside, you wear a combination of layers of clothing that can be worn depending on the weather conditions. In colder weather the layering principle helps to trap air between the layers of clothing, keeping you warm. It also means you have more clothing options available to you so you can dress to the weather conditions and your level of physical activity. There are three key layers that are used when layering clothing and they are: the base layer; the insulative layer, and the outer layer. 


1. Base Layer / Next to Skin Layer / Thermal Layer


The base layer’s primary job is to manage your body’s moisture by “wicking” perspiration off your skin, into your outer layers of clothing, where it can evaporate, leaving your skin dry. The base layer fabric not only has to be good at wicking moisture, but it needs to dry out quickly, so that your body stays dry. Wet clothing against your skin will cool your body down very quickly and in colder conditions this could lead to hypothermia.
For this reason, cotton is not an option. Cotton does a great job in soaking up water, but it then holds onto it, and takes a long time to dry out. For anyone that has had the unpleasant experience of wearing cotton in cold weather, you will remember the uncomfortable feeling of feeling clammy and cold.

Synthetic fabrics such as polypropylene and polyester are good options. Both these fabrics are excellent at wicking moisture off your skin and do not retain moisture. In recent years, wool has been modified to the point where it also can be worn as a thermal layer as it dries out relatively quickly. Wool, unlike polypropylene and polyester, naturally possesses antimicrobial properties making it more resistant to body odours. Polyester fabrics treated with silver chloride are also effective in inhibiting the growth of odour-causing bacteria. 

When choosing the sizing for base layers, ensure you go for a snug fit as you want the clothing to be in contact with your skin so that it can wick the sweat from your body. Check however, that it still allows for full freedom of unrestricted movement. Base layers can be briefs, sports bras, long underwear, tights and t-shirts. Thermal underwear is available in a range fabric weights suitable for varying activity levels and weather conditions.

Check out our range of Base Layers here:

2. Middle Layer or Insulative Layer.

The middle clothing layer’s primary function is to retain your body heat, trapping the air close to your body to keep you warm. This layer is typically put on when the base layer is not warm enough. Like the base layer, the middle layer of clothing also needs to be able to keep you warm if it does get wet, but dry out quickly. The middle clothing layer should “breathe” well, allowing excess body heat to escape. How warm this layer needs to be will depend on the type of outdoor activity you are engaged in, and how cold it is. Cross country skiers who are exerting high levels of energy will opt for lighter grade mid layers than travellers may require. Having a half-zip or full zip on this layer of clothing will help to regulate your body temperature also.

The middle layer of clothing is generally made from wool, polyesters, synthetic hollow fibres, or down. Synthetic fabrics will absorb very little amounts of water and dry out quicker than natural fibres such as wool and down. Down provides the best warmth for its weight and some manufacturers use down with synthetic fabrics in high perspiration areas within a jacket to prevent the jacket from becoming wet.

Windproof fleece such as Gore Windstopper and Polartec WindPro have the added advantage of stopping the wind from getting through the garment, and preventing warm air from escaping. They use a windproof membrane that blocks the wind but allows body moisture to move out of the jacket, keeping you dry and comfortable.

Check out a few of our collections below of intermediate insulating pieces:


3. The Outer Layer (outer shell)

The outer layer of clothing is designed to keep the wind, water and snow from entering your clothing. It also prevents necessary body heat that has been retained by your middle layer from escaping. The outer layer also needs to “breathe” allowing perspiration from your body to escape.

Finding a jacket that is waterproof, windproof and breathable is advisable for cold weather activities. These jackets tend to use a membrane that keeps the wind and driving rain out, but will also allow sweat from your body to pass through the jacket. You’ve probably experienced wearing a waterproof but non breathable jacket – you end up wetter on the inside than the outside! As your body heats up, the jacket does not allow the water vapour out, and it steams up your jacket, leaving you feeling clammy and cold.

There are varying types of waterproof and breathable jackets on the market, some more breathable than others.  This a complex topic that warrants its own blog post in the near future. For an example of a highly waterproof but also highly breathable jacket, take a look at the Marmot Essence, ideal for high exertion activities.

Most good jackets will also be treated with a durable water repellent (DWR) finish that makes the water bead and roll off the face fabric of the jacket. This means after the jacket has been in the rain, all you need to do is give your jacket a quick shake and it will be dry, so you can put a dry jacket back into your pack or bag.

Check out the links below to some Jackets that block Wind / Snow /Rain:

So there you have it, the layering principle. Next time you go outside, think about taking a few layers of the right gear rather than a bulky jacket, and you’ll be a lot more comfortable, and prepared for what the weather throws at you.

In an upcoming post, I’ll go into more detail about the different types of material used in each layer, and the different types of clothing currently available, so stay tuned!

Tim Coles


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