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The Layering System Guide

16 October 2023

When conquering the great outdoors, dressing appropriately can mean the difference between a memorable adventure and a miserable one. Whether hiking in winter's cold, enjoying autumn's briskness or tackling a scorching summer trail, layering is your key to comfort and adaptability.

In this guide, we unlock the art of layering, showing you how to regulate your body temperature by adding or shedding layers. With the right approach, you'll stay comfortable and ready for any weather twist all year round.

Why do we get cold?

To understand layering and how it works in your favour, it’s vital to grasp the science behind how your body loses heat to its surroundings.

Radiation: Your body emits heat as infrared rays. When the surroundings are colder than your skin, you lose heat. Use insulation layers and a warm hat to prevent this.

Conduction: Heat loss through direct contact with colder objects or surfaces. Wear warm socks, insulating layers, and a waterproof outer layer to prevent this.

Convection: Heat transfer through moving air or liquid. Wind or sweat on your skin causes convective heat loss. Prevent this with a wicking base layer and windproof outer layers.

Evaporation: Heat loss through moisture evaporation, like sweat. During physical activity or hot weather, you sweat to cool down. But in the cold, excessive moisture can make you feel cold. Counter this with a moisture-wicking base layer.

The Layering System

The layering system is a practical approach to dressing for outdoor activities, ensuring your comfort and protection in fluctuating weather conditions. It involves wearing multiple layers of clothing that collectively help you manage your body temperature and control moisture.

This system remains effective throughout the year, adapting to various temperatures and weather scenarios. In cold weather, you can pile on the layers to stay toasty without getting too hot. When things heat up, simply shed a layer or two to stay cool and dry.

The key principle behind the layering system is the creation of small pockets of air between each layer. These air pockets act as insulation, trapping heat and keeping you warm. This approach is more efficient at retaining warmth than wearing a single, thick outer jacket.

The Base Layer - Moisture management

Worn closest to your skin, the base layer serves a fundamental role by efficiently wicking away sweat from your skin. Being dry is crucial in preventing you from getting chilly and reducing the risk of chafing.

There are a lot of different materials and weights to choose from when it comes to base layers. Opt out of wearing cotton as a base layer since it retains moisture. Instead, consider base layers crafted from materials like merino wool and synthetics for improved moisture management.

Merino wool

● Low to moderate activity levels

Merino wool offers natural insulation and exceptional temperature regulation, keeping you warm in the cold and efficiently wicking moisture when you're active, or temperatures rise, preventing overheating.

Merino fibres also naturally possess antimicrobial properties, curbing the growth of odour-causing bacteria. This makes merino a top choice for extended wear without worrying about unpleasant odours.

However, while merino delivers outstanding performance, it also tends to be less durable than synthetic alternatives and requires more careful washing and drying. As a solution, many prefer merino-synthetic blends to enhance durability.

Synthetic materials

● High activity levels

Synthetic base layers are designed to excel in demanding outdoor conditions. They are experts at moisture-wicking, swiftly whisking away sweat from your skin to keep you dry. Their quick-drying abilities ensure you stay comfortable during strenuous activities or unexpected rain showers.

The durability of synthetic base layers is exceptional, enduring the challenges of prolonged use and frequent washing without compromising their performance. Yet, it's worth noting that they can retain odours after intense exertion, requiring more frequent cleaning to keep them smelling fresh.

The Mid Layer - Insulation and warmth

Mid layers work by trapping air within the material, creating a layer of insulation that helps retain your body heat. The insulating properties of mid layers are closely tied to their ability to capture and hold air. The more air these layers can retain, the better they insulate.

Mid layers are designed to capture warmth without trapping moisture. They facilitate the passage of moisture through to the outer layers, ensuring that you stay warm even during high-intensity activities. This breathability allows for optimal temperature regulation in various outdoor conditions.

Fleece

●  Varying weather conditions
●  High activity levels

Fleece is known for its exceptional warmth-to-weight ratio. It provides significant insulation to keep you warm without adding unnecessary bulk or weight, making it comfortable and versatile for various outdoor activities.

Furthermore, fleece excels in moisture management, boasting superb moisture-wicking abilities, high breathability, and quick drying time. This allows moisture to escape, which is crucial for temperature regulation during strenuous activities.

However, because it is not tightly woven, it offers no protection against wind. Therefore, a windproof shell is important during windy conditions.

Lightweight insulated jackets or vests

●  Cold and dry weather
●  Low to moderate activity levels

Lightweight insulated jackets or vests are great mid layer options as they provide exceptional warmth without adding extra bulk or weight to your clothing system. They are also easy to compress and carry in your backpack.

When it comes to insulation, you have two choices: down or synthetic. Down insulation offers a higher warmth-to-weight ratio but loses its insulating properties when wet. On the other hand, synthetic insulation is often more durable and budget-friendly, although it can be bulkier.

The Shell Layer - Weather protection

The shell layer, which is the outermost layer, serves as protection against the weather. The level of protection you’ll need may vary depending on the weather conditions. It should, at the very least, be resistant to wind and able to repel water. However, having a waterproof shell is necessary in heavy or continuous rain.

Hardshell

●   Cold to wet weather
●   Protection against heavy rain and wind

Hardshells are a versatile type of outerwear that offers exceptional protection against various weather conditions all year round. They are specifically designed with a technical membrane that makes them both windproof and waterproof while still allowing breathability. Additionally, they are lightweight and easily packed, making them perfect for carrying in a backpack in case of unexpected rain.

Softshell

●   Cool to cold weather
●   High activity level

Unlike hardshells, many softshells don't have a technical membrane, so they might not offer the same level of weather protection. On the flip side, this often means they're more breathable and stretchy, which makes them excellent for intense activities. Softshells come in different weights and thicknesses; some even have a fleece lining for extra insulation. All this makes softshells a versatile choice for a shell layer in milder weather conditions.

Insulated clothing

●  Cold and dry weather
●  Varying and low activity levels

Insulated outer layers are ideal for cold and dry weather, such as a clear winter day with low temperatures and none or light precipitation. They are more suitable for low-intensity activities since the added insulation might lead to overheating during intense exercise. Also, it's important to remember that most insulated outer layers are not waterproof, so they may not provide enough protection in wet conditions.

Layering for different activities and weather conditions

How to layer effectively depends on the weather, activity and how easily you feel cold. Here are some scenarios to help you get started!

Manage the cold during skiing and snowboarding

When skiing or snowboarding down the slopes, the intensity of the activity and the weather can vary greatly. Therefore, it’s important to dress with flexibility so you don’t freeze or overheat.

Base layer: Wear a moisture-wicking base layer, preferably a bit thicker if it’s colder. A blend between merino and synthetic materials is perfect since it’s durable, insulating, and has excellent moisture management.

Mid layer: Fleece is a great mid layer for skiing and snowboarding since it’s both insulating and moisture-wicking, making it perfect for varying intensity levels. Choose the thickness depending on how cold it is.

Shell layer: Wind protection might be more critical than water protection when going down the slopes. Therefore, hardshell or insulated clothing might work best. Also, ventilation zippers offer more flexibility for regulating your body temperature when the intensity varies.

Heading out for cross-country skiing? Since this activity tends to be consistently high-intensity, you can often skip the insulating mid layer. Instead, focus on your base and shell layers. Opt for a synthetic base layer since they excel in moisture management. Pick a shell layer with a high breathability rate and wind protection to keep you warm without overheating.

Manage varying temperatures and intensity while hiking

Hiking is another activity with a lot of variation in intensity levels. The temperatures and weather conditions can also differ greatly during the day or because of elevation changes or surroundings.

Base layer: Choose a moisture-wicking and quick-drying base layer. Synthetic base layers are often best, but merino wool could be better thanks to its odour-resistant properties if you are going on a multi-day hike.

Mid layer: An insulating fleece is perfect as a mid layer for hiking. It’s easy to pack and does not add a lot of weight, and it can also be used as an outer layer if you don’t need protection against wind or rain.

Shell layer: Hardshells and softshells are great outer layers for hiking. Softshells are great when you need more breathability, but hardshells offer more weather protection. If you want the best of both worlds, why not bring a lightweight, packable hardshell to add on top of your softshell in case of heavy rain?

Manage wind and rain during high-intensity activities like running and cycling

Continuously high-intensity activities like trail running and cycling demand high breathability and excellent moisture-wicking properties.

Base layer: Wear a moisture-wicking and quick-drying base layer. Synthetic base layers are best with their exceptional moisture management.

Mid layer: You often don’t need a mid layer for high-intensity activities since you will get hot and sweaty. But a thin fleece might be a good option if it's freezing.

Shell layer: Choose a breathable, stretchy shell layer with wind protection, at least at the front. Breathability is key. If the breathability of your outer layer does not keep up with your perspiration, you will get soaked from the inside. Therefore, carefully consider how much weather protection you’ll need, a water-repellent garment without a technical membrane is often enough, and it will usually have better breathability than a waterproof garment.

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