Calculating how to layer on clothing for maximum comfort while venturing outside can be a tricky equation—and I hate math.
There are lots of variables, like unknown or changing weather conditions and activity levels that can range on a given day from strenuous boot-packing or snowshoeing to long, sedentary chairlift rides or winter camping.
Everybody’s different, too, with different comfort and exertion levels, so there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the layering question. Lucky for us, we can leave our Number 2 pencils at home, because this is a trial-and-error sort of thing. Once you figure out the layering options that work best for you, your time outdoors becomes that much more enjoyable.
For years I was contrarian, wearing cotton tee and pajama pants under my skiwear and laughing at the shmucks who paid money for fancy long underwear. But then I tried some real baselayers and realized that the joke was on me and that being a sweaty mess didn’t just come with the territory of being a skier.
Today’s baselayers are highly breathable, which allows them to wick moisture and makes them perhaps the most important piece of your arsenal when it comes to pure temperature regulation. The right baselayer complements the rest of your layering system, making the whole system as versatile as possible. Though it might seem counterintuitive, thicker doesn’t always mean warmer. Baselayers come in different weights and thicknesses, and many people prefer the thin and lightweight variety. Most modern baselayers are meant to have a close fit without being overly tight.
As far as fabrics go, baselayers typically fall into one of two categories:
For as long as farmers have raised sheep, wool has been a favorite textile. Gone are the days of itchy, soggy wool long underwear, though. Fabric made from the wool of merino sheep has surged in popularity in recent years for its natural moisture-wicking and anti-odor properties. Brands like Icebreaker and Ibex have pioneered the use of merino wool, though many brands now offer merino wool baselayers.
Synthetic baselayers are made of some form of blended polyester. Many brands have their own proprietary fabrics, like Capilene by Patagonia. These proprietary fabrics are typically designed for optimal breathability. Features to watch for are antimicrobial treatments, UPF certification for sun protection, flatlock seams for chafe-free comfort, and the utilization of recycled polyester in construction. Synthetic fabrics typically have the benefit of drying quickly, and often, though not always, they can have a cheaper price tag than their wool counterparts.
Your midlayer is the layer that really packs the punch as far as warmth goes. It’s also the layer that you will most often put on, take off, or swap for something else to suit the weather and the aerobic output level of your activity. It’s probably the most frustrating layer to get perfectly dialed, but it’s also the layer you’ll most appreciate once you do figure out what works best for you.
Generally, you’ll want a midlayer that’s as versatile as possible and that lacks bulk that could constrict your motions. My go-to for all but the coldest of days is a low-profile, lightweight down vest. It allows optimal freedom of motion whether I’m skiing, hiking, or snowshoeing, and it doesn’t waste any weight or bulk on the extremities, which, for me, rarely get cold. On frigid days, I’ll wear a full 700-fill puffy under my shell, and on warmer spring days, I’ll omit the midlayer altogether.
There are a few popular midlayer categories out there:
Comfortable and classic, fleece has the advantages of being lightweight, breathable, machine-washable, and quick drying. Whether you prefer pullover, 1/2-zip, full-zip, hooded, long-sleeve, or vest, you’ll find a fleece to suit your needs. Fleece now comes in a variety of weights, ranging from thin small-grid to plush sherpa.
Offering a bit more warmth than fleece, insulated jackets and vests are a great option for people who like to wear a very thin outer shell. Insulation can be either down or synthetic. Natural goose or duck down offers an excellent warmth-to-weight ratio and can pack down small. Synthetic insulation has the advantage of maintaining its warmth even when wet. Many new synthetics, like Thermoball from The North Face, provide packability and warmth-to-weight ratios that rival those of down.
Hybrid midlayer designs are taking off in popularity, with most brands now carrying designs in this category. Most of them offer some combination of insulation and fleece or insulation and softshell. The advantage here is body-mapped warmth, with thicker insulation covering areas of your body that most need it and thinner materials in places where extra warmth isn’t a necessity.
The shell, this is the layer that gets the most attention, and for good reason. It’s the layer that protects you from the weather; it’s the layer made of the most technologically advanced materials. Good shell pants and jackets are windproof, waterproof, and breathable. Most shells are just that, a shell that protects you from weather and lets your other layers do the insulating, while some shells include their own insulation of varying thickness—my preferred shell has an extremely light layer of insulation.
Other options for outer layers include down and softshell jackets and pants. Down, the standard puffy coat, is incredibly warm and works great for really cold but bluebird days when here isn’t a chance of precipitation. Many brands now offer down jackets with hydrophobic coating on the down and water-resistant face fabrics, but down jackets don’t compete with shells when it comes to protection from snow, water, and wind.
Softshells are another excellent outerwear option in certain circumstances. They are incredibly breathable, provide a great range of motion, and have come a long way in recent years as far as weather protection goes. Because of their breathability, softshells are great for highly aerobic endeavors like ski touring or snowshoeing, and they’re also ideal for mild ski days where precipitation isn’t much of a threat.
As far as pure weather protection goes, though, puffy coats and softshells can’t match hardshells, which will remain the go-to snow sports outer layer. This outer layer is the part of your winter kit where you’ll most consider the features that are most appropriate to your use: in a jacket, powder skirts, pass pockets, fleece-lined collars, and hoods of all kinds. A must is core vents, usually under the armpits on jackets and at the thighs on pants. These are essential for regulating temperature throughout a day in the mountains. In pants, boot gaiters and ventilation options are key features.
As for weather protection, Gore-Tex leads the charge, though many brands now have proprietary fabrics and membranes that rival Gore-Tex for weather protection. In shopping for a shell, you’ll see several terms and tech specs. It’ll be helpful to know what they mean:
Most snow-sport clothing will come with ratings of 5K to 20K+ for both waterproofness and breathability—the higher the number, the more water-resistant and breathable the fabric. A 10K/10K pant (10K waterproof and 10K breathable) will keep you dry during a sunny day at the ski resort. If it’s dumping heavy snow all day, though, your butt may eventually get damp from the chairlift seat—A 20K/20K pant, though, would keep you dry in just about any condition you’d face at the resort.
Why is breathability important? A plastic bag would keep you dry from precipitation, but if the moisture from your sweat can’t escape, you’ll be soaked from the inside out rather than the other way around.
Read more about how Gore-Tex works
DWR, durable water repellent, is the treatment on the outside of the fabric. It’s the stuff that makes water bead up and roll off the jacket. DWR-treatments will break down over time, but even when that happens, the shell’s membrane remains intact. The membrane, rather than the DWR, is what accounts for the item’s waterproof rating.
This refers to the construction of the fabric. In 2-layer construction, the waterproof membrane is adhered to an outer layer of fabric to make a single piece of material. In 3-layer construction, the membrane is sandwiched between a face fabric and a lining to make that single piece of material. Both options can be waterproof and breathable, though 3-layer construction is typically more rugged and durable.
A 20K membrane doesn’t do much good if moisture can just sneak in through the tiny holes created in the stitching process. To combat this, outerwear brands apply waterproof tape along the inside of the seams. Higher-end outerwear and rainwear has fully taped seams, which is exactly what it sounds like; all the seams are taped. Other outerwear has critical-taped seams, which just means that the seams most likely to let moisture in are taped.
The Boy Scouts got it right with the most important piece of layering advice: Be Prepared. Having a wide variety of layering options in your car at the ski resort or in your pack on the trail lets you experiment with different options, helping you to find what works best for you in any given conditions.