Layering for hiking
‘There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.’
The Scandinavians: they gave us ABBA, IKEA, Fisherman’s Friends, LEGO, Lisbeth Salander and the exquisitely bonkers World Wife-Carrying Championship. For our money, however, the best thing to ever come out of the lands of our Nordic neighbours is the above proverb, which just about sums up the bottom line of our following guide perfectly: there is no bad weather, only bad clothing!
Wherever you happen to be in the world and whatever weather conditions you find yourself in, the most fundamental prerequisite to ensuring your day hiking is a good one is getting your clothing right. (For tips on how to stay cool while camping check out our guides to the best tent air conditioner and best camping fan!) The layering system is how to go about it and, we promise, it’s much easier than assembling an IKEA flat-pack wardrobe or schlepping your spouse across a half-frozen obstacle course.
Why is layering so important?
Getting your layering spot on is a crucial to your days in the hills for a number of reasons, but most notably because - barring an ill-fitting pair of shoes - it is the thing most likely to affect your comfort levels and, hence, your enjoyment of your hikes. On a more serious note, heading into the hills ill-equipped clothing-wise may seem like a fairly minor faux-pas compared to forgetting your compass, map or summit sandwiches, but the consequences can be considerably more severe. Every year in the UK dozens of hikers succumb to hypothermia and fatalities, sadly, are not uncommon.
The “it’s not exactly Everest” attitude has led many a hiker into the mountains attired in their run of the mill cotton t-shirt, hoody, woolly scarf and maybe, for the more weather-fearing, an old Mackintosh raincoat. On a good day, these may well serve your purposes adequately. Given, however, that Sod’s Law tends to operate more fluidly in the hills than it does elsewhere, the chances are that those blue skies you set off in will have turned a rather malevolent grey-black just when you happen to be furthest from the car, pub, or other safe haven.
Why layers instead of bulk?
While the instinctive move in chilly weather is to ‘bulk up’ in the largest items of clothing you have, bulk alone isn’t necessarily going to keep you warm and comfortable. Layering, on the other hand, forms small, insulated layers in which your body heat becomes trapped. Each layer then essentially acts as an added buffer against the elements as well as ‘wicking’ excess moisture by transporting it through the layers instead of allowing it to accumulate in one chunkier layer. From there, the perspiration evaporates, leaving you far drier and warmer than you’re likely to be if choosing a single thick layer.
Breathability is key.
To offer an analogy, a non-breathable layer acts much like the gases, methane and carbon dioxide scientists believe to have created a ‘greenhouse effect’ on our planet - trapping in, essentially, what needs to be out. Breathable layers, on the other hand, function as a conduit to excess trapped heat and the consequent build-up of moisture, passing them out into the atmosphere and away from our bodies. If only the solution for the environment were as easily come by as that for our bodies…
system: What each layer is all about
The base layer: Managing your moisture
The base layer is all about moisture management. Worn next to your skin, the base layer regulates your body temperature by capturing perspiration and shifting it (‘wicking’ it) to the outside of the layer to evaporate, thereby keeping you cool on hot days and reducing the chance of hypothermia in cooler temperatures
There are various types of baselayers which each offer different degrees of moisture control and insulation. The most effective include:
- Merino Wool - The most notable advantage of merino wool is that it tends to retain heat even when wet and doesn’t stink up as quickly as synthetic materials
- Synthetic Materials - Usually cheaper than merino wool but can often become a bit smelly after a few hours of action. Greater wicking capabilities than other materials. Common types include Polartec Powerdry, Lifa, Omni-Wick, Capilene and Polyester-Polypropelene blends.
What you really must avoid when choosing a base layer (or any layer, for that matter) is anything made of cotton, as demonstrated in the following video by Cotswold Outdoors:
The Midlayer: Heat Retention and Insulation
The midlayer is also commonly referred to as the ‘insulating layer’ and works by keeping your body heat trapped close to your body. Midlayers come in various forms and materials, with the most common including:
- Fleece - Different brands tend to use a slight variation or upgrade on the classic pile fleeces first introduced in the 1960s. Some examples you might find in the shop or online are Polartec (Rab, Patagonia Black Diamond), Pontetorto Tecnopile (Mountain Equipment) and Gore Windstopper. Fleece midlayers also come in various ‘weights’ (thickness) and are highly breathable, warm, cosy, lightweight and can insulate even when wet. The only downside to fleece is that it is less compressible than other midlayer materials
- Down - Down is an awesome insulator in dry and cold conditions and usually very lightweight. It is, however, all but useless when wet unless it happens to be of the newly introduced water-resistant variety, which comes at a (hefty!) price
- Wool - Brands such as Icebreaker and Smartwool have recently added heavier, thicker midlayers to their previous collections of baselayers. These layers offer the same wicking capabilities as the baselayers but usually not the same wind-proofing as synthetic or down midlayers when worn without a shell. The upside is that merino wool, unlike down and some synthetic materials, can offer good insulation even when wet
The Shell: Armour Against the Elements
When out in wind, rain, snow or the various other varieties of frigid liquid our skies deign appropriate to bombard us with, we need to make sure that our inner layers remain warm and dry. That’s where the shell layer or outer layer comes into play.
The shell layer is all about protection from the elements and comes in various forms and with various features. The two most basic types, however, are those which offer wind resistance and those which offer water resistance.
The downside to a wind-resistant shell is that, unless worn as a mid-layer, it means having to carry and additional waterproof jacket as an outer in case the rain makes an appearance.
Within the category of rain-stopper shells there are many potential subdivisions, but the most important consideration revolves around the distinction between water-resistant and waterproof. Water-resistant shells are usually cheaper models that can handle light precipitation thanks to a durable water repellent finish (DWR), whereas genuinely waterproof shells are usually in the higher price range and feature a laminated membrane, sealed seams and Gore-Tex fabrics for maximum protection in more extreme conditions. Whichever shell you deem most suitable for your hiking adventures, be sure to plump for one which is both breathable and roomy enough to accommodate the layers you’ll have on underneath without restricting your movement.
For an in-depth dive into the world of waterproof and water-resistant shell layers, this article from UK Climbing covers pretty much every base that needs to be covered.
How to Layer Up for Different Weather Conditions
Different weather conditions require different levels of protection - know thy enemy and thou shalt know thy ensemble! While we’d always recommend carrying a layer or two more than you think you’ll need (don’t we all know how wrong those forecasts can be, eh?!), as a general guide we’ve put together a few pointers covering each season.
Even if the sun is shining and the breeze is moderate, the vagaries, volatility and nigh on sadism of the weather in higher ground should never be underestimated. Very few make the mistake of heading to the hills in winter short on insulation, but the long, warm days at sea or valley level during the summer can lead many into a false sense of security. The safest way to layer up for summer hiking is to set off with whatever is comfortable at the trailhead but for backup pack either a baselayer and light midlayer together or a single, more sizeable midlayer.The outer shells (both bottoms and top), of course, are indispensable and should go with you whatever the weather.
Mid-season hiking (Spring and Autumn)
The best way to prepare for a day in the hills in spring or autumn, no matter what the forecast says, is to pack as you would for winter. The only exception here is that you might - depending on where you are in the world - get away with leaving your heavy midlayer or down jacket at home and plumping for a lighter insulation layer instead.
One of the greater frustrations of winter hiking is the additional gear often necessitated by conditions - crampons, ice axes, thick gloves, insulated trousers, thermos, etc. While the temptation may be to skimp on a layer to save on pack weight and storage space, we wouldn’t recommend it. The ideal combination of layers for winter hiking should feature a heavy baselayer (top and bottoms), a down or medium-to-heavyweight fleece insulating layer up top, soft shell trousers and a durable, water-resistant (DWR) outer shell.
The best advice we can offer for winter hiking is to get your layering right from the start - it’s far easier to cool down than it is to warm up. Once your core temperature has dropped when out in temperatures around or below zero, it can be very difficult to get it up again. Not only will this affect your overall body heat, but also means your extremities - your hands and toes - will be far more liable to turn stiff with the cold.
Select your layers based on temperatures at the altitude at which you will be doing your walking, not the starting altitude. On crisp, clear days, an outer, waterproof shell may be forsaken in favour of a heavier down midlayer, but on even slightly overcast days that outer shell - whether hardshell or softshell - will provide a much-needed barrier against air moisture content and keep your inner layers warm and dry.
We’ve all experienced the sticky discomfort of a soggy shirt or sweater beneath our waterproofs when out hiking in the rain. Many of us, in fact, would rather take a soaking from the airborne stuff than suffer the clammy, bodily-borne moisture created in the sauna-like microclimate beneath our jackets!
While the quality of your waterproof shell will no doubt influence your under-layers’ ability to shed perspiration, your layering choices are equally important in countering the clamminess. During your ascent, ditch the midlayer and wear only your baselayer beneath the outer shell (if you don’t anticipate making too many stops), opening the cuffs and pit-zips on your jacket to aid ventilation without letting in any moisture. On the descent, when your body is producing less heat, either do up the zips and cuffs or throw your midlayer back on to stay warm .
TIP: In any season, your core temperature can drop fairly rapidly if your hike involves scrambling, route-finding or otherwise remaining relatively stationery for any length of time - particularly if you’ve been working up a sweat between stops. A good tip is to keep a midlayer or shell handy, attached to the outside of your pack if possible, so you can easily throw it on whenever you anticipate moving slowly or being stopped for a more than a minute or two.
The finer details of your layering system will depend largely on where you live, the season and conditions you’re trekking in, and your own preferences as regards your ideal body temperature. That said, however, the basics of the three-part layering system remain applicable no matter where you are, what you’re getting up to and what obstacles the weather gods choose to lay in your path. By ditching the bulkier, sweat-sealing system of yore and getting your layering system right, you not only reduce your risk of hypothermia or just a nasty dose of the chills but also maximise your chances of staying comfortable, warm and dry for the duration of your hike.
For a general, non-salesy recap on the layering system and its benefits, check out the following video from GoOutdoors:
Kieran Cunningham is a Scotsman based in the Italian Alps. He’s a climber, mountaineer, trekker and all-round lover of all things high and rocky. He’s climbed extensively in the Himalaya, Rockies and Alps but is just as happy roaming the Scottish Highlands, exploring canyons in Utah or messing about at the local crag.