Guide to Layering
Staying warm in cold environments is a skill that takes some practice to master. The key is an effective layering system that allows you to adjust your clothing to match your activity level and avoid sweating at all costs. Managing your moisture will allow you to stay dry and therefore stay warm!
A Few Key Tips:
- Cotton Kills! Cotton has no place in the backcountry in the winter, and should not be worn as part of your layering system. When wet it does not maintain any insulating properties and will make your core temperature drop dramatically. Synthetic materials like fleece and wool are much more appropriate.
- Leave the trailhead feeling a bit chilly- you will find that you will not have to stop early on to remove layers and will avoid the temptation to continue on when your are starting to feel sweaty.
- Rotating things like gloves and even socks will make a huge difference when you are exerting yourself in cold temperatures. Sometimes avoiding sweating is impossible, so having a spare set and drying the wet pair inside your jacket and continually rotating will allow you to keep your digits much happier!
The 3 Layers
This is the layer that is against your skin. A thin, silk weight synthetic layer acts as a moisture wicking layer, pulling sweat away from your skin. For colder temperatures a thicker base layer may be used. Merino wool or polypropylene are fantastic base layers.
Worn on top of your base layer, this is the layer that keeps you warm. You want breathable fabrics and will depend on your activity and temperatures you will be exposed to. Synthetic materials and wool will maintain insulating properties even when wet, but down will compress much smaller and is lighter. Fleece is usually a good, inexpensive, compromise as it has a great warmth to weight ratio and will keep you warm even when wet.
This is the layer that protects you from wind and precipitation. What is going to work best varies with each situation, and you are always trying to balance breathability and protection. As a fabric becomes more breathable, it will protect less against wind and precipitation, and the opposite is true as well.
Hard shells with fabrics like Gore Tex and eVent are expensive but offer the most protection without sacrificing much breathability. Laminate hard shells are less expensive but offer similar protection, but are not as breathable.
Soft shells will often work just fine in the winter when precipitation is mostly snow and will not get absorbed like rain, and they are typically more breathable than hard shells.
If you have to choose only one shell on a limited budget, a laminate hard shell will still give you a decent protection from snow and rain, but you will have to be diligent on your moisture management as to not overheat and wet out from the inside, sweating through your base and insulating layers.