Below is a guide to how to layer effectively, in which I’ll go through the constituent layers of a winter layering system. I’ll also give some product suggestions along the way. By the time you’re done you’ll be fit to fight off Jack Frost with without so much as a shiver.
First of all, let’s address the question, ‘why wear multiple layers?’. Firstly, wearing a number of layers traps air between them, providing additional insulation to that provided by the garments alone. The other big benefit is increased versatility: layering enables the wearer to add or remove layers according to changing conditions, ensuring maximum comfort at all times. Finally, through wearing multiple layers the wearer is able to select the optimum materials for each layer, in accordance with factors such as activity type, activity intensity, trip duration and personal preference. Again, this is a huge benefit in terms of flexibility, and through combining differing combinations of a few simple layering pieces, it’s very cost effective as there’s no need to buy specific garments or outfits for different pursuits.
Every good layering system, when stripped back to basics, is made up of three essential components: the base (or wicking) layer, the mid (or insulation) layer, and the outer (shell/waterproof) layer. Each fulfils a specific role in ensuring you stay warm, dry and comfortable in winter conditions. It’s also important to note that to achieve maximum benefit from your layers, you need to ensure that no one component is letting you down! A bog-standard cotton tee or woollen jumper, even if worn with the most breathable waterproof in the world will still result in sweat-drenched misery.
1) BASE LAYER
Base layers are a vital part of any layering system, and perhaps the most commonly overlooked. Modern base layers not only trap air against the skin to provide insulation, but also provide ‘touch points’ to wick away sweat that could otherwise make the wearer damp and uncomfortable. In cold conditions this is especially important, as when going from exertion to rest, sweat can cool, leading to hypothermia. Base layers are available in synthetic forms, and in wools, the best being Merino. Both act along the same lines, providing thermal, stretchy next-to-skin wear, although they have their own unique pros and cons. Merino Wool is unbeatably soft and odour-resistant, whilst good quality synthetics have superior wicking properties and a faster dry time. Which you go for is largely a matter of preference, and depends upon where your priorities lie. Many outdoor professionals favour Merino for longer trips and synthetic for shorter, more physically demanding pursuits.
Synthetic Base Layers:
For synthetics, Lowe Alpine DryFlo garments are pretty impressive. Available in two weights (thicknesses) for different conditions (150 being the warmer one, 120 the cooler), they’re great insulators, and feature natural coconut particles (Cocona) for enhanced UV protection and accelerated dry time. They’re also treated with Microban, which discourages bacteria and resultant odour. The North Face has also released an extensive range of quality synthetic base layers for this winter. The North Face base layers are available in two winter thicknesses, Warm and Hybrid, they are made from HyActive fabric, which features hollow-core yarns to enhance moisture removal. They also feature flat-locked seams for minimum chafing, and body-mapped warm zones to target cold-prone areas. Also available at Webtogs is the Marmot ThermalClime range, constructed in quick-drying, wicking Polartec PowerDry. If you want a super-techy base layer, the ultimate in scientific thermal design is x-Bionic Using advanced materials and a complex network of air channels on the front and back of the fabric; X-Bionic base layers control the speed of evaporation to keep your body temperature at a constant 37 degrees C. This tech comes at a price, but for maximising performance in physically demanding activities, you’ll feel the benefit of an X-Bionic base layer.
Merino Wool Base layers:
At Webtogs we sell two brands of Merino Wool base layer, Smartwool and Icebreaker. Both use ethically sourced wool from Merino sheep farmed in New Zealand. Icebreaker even let you trace the origin of the wool used in your garment, right back to the farm on which it was reared! Whereas Icebreaker use 100% Merino Wool in the production of their garments, Smartwool use a blend of materials – a majority of Merino, along with a blend of synthetics to enhance and complement the performance of the wool. Both Icebreaker and Smartwool base layers have the dual Merino Wool benefits of odour-resistance and luxuriant next-to-skin comfort. Their fine fibres also allow moisture vapour to pass through the fabric uninhibited, before it can condense into liquid water. This ensures good comfort for the wearer, although once wet merino wool garments will not dry as fast as their synthetic equivalents.
2) MID LAYER
Whereas the base layer provides next-to-skin wicking, the primary function of any mid layer is insulation. Here you’ve got three main options; fleece jackets, synthetic insulated jackets, and down jackets. In extreme cold, you can even layer up a down or synthetic jacket over a fleece for double protection. Here’s the rundown on all three:
Fleece is the classic insulation material used by walkers and backpackers for decades. It has a good warmth-to-weight ratio compared to woven fabrics, is quick to dry, and wicks efficiently. The pick of the fleece crop at the moment in terms of warmth, consists of high-loft fleeces, especially those made from Polartec Thermal Pro High Loft. Their long, fluffy fibres not only feel and look great, but trap loads of air – just what you need from a mid layer. Here are some of the finest examples from our fleece collection:
Down is nature’s ultimate insulator, and as a mid-layer for extreme conditions it is unparalleled. It has a better warmth-to-weight ratio than any man-made substance, and will certainly keep you cosy through the worst conditions the British winter can throw at you – so long as you don’t get it wet Some of the best down jackets for layering at the moment are the high-fill power micro-baffle designs from Rab and The North Face. They’re warm, highly compressible and even feature water-resistant down for added protection should you fail to get your waterproofs on in time.
Modern synthetic insulation is rapidly catching up with down in terms of its warmth-to-weight (the best synthetics being equivalent to 500-600 fill down), and has some advantages in real-world usability. Firstly, insulation such as Polartec Alpha, Primaloft and Thermoball continues to insulate when wet, and are not damaged by exposure to water. They also breathe better than down, the prime example being the Strata range from Rab, which is claimed to be the most breathable ‘puffy’ insulated jacket ever. You can read in about the advantages of Synthetic insulation in more detail here. Any of the synthetic insulated jackets offered by Rab, The North Face and Mountain Equipment on Webtogs would make great additions to any layering system – you can check them out via the link below.
3) SHELL/WATERPROOF LAYER
The shell or waterproof layer is the weatherproof coating that tops off all the insulating goodness beneath. It’s essential for it to be breathable, waterproof and windproof, in order to reduce potentially dangerous moisture build-up, keep you and your inner clothing protected against rain, snow, and wind chill. At Webtogs we’re lucky enough to have a few options when it comes to waterproof shells, and they’re all great. We’ve got various lightweight waterproof technologies made in-house by our brands, and by the likes of Pertex (Shield+), but here are the more robust ones most suited to season-long winter use:
The first and most obvious waterproof fabric group is Gore-Tex, which is waterproof, windproof and breathable in all its forms. The ultimate winter variant is the new Gore Pro fabric, which makes for highly durable and abrasion resistant waterproofs that still retain great breathability. You can read about the various variants of Gore-Tex on our Gore-Tex Gear Guru guide.
Another of our main types of waterproof is eVent. Used extensively by Montane and Rab, eVent fabrics get their unique properties from a patented waterproof membrane technology, featuring millions of pores to vent water vapour directly to the outside of the fabric. eVent garments are amongst the most breathable waterproof shells available as a result, as well as boasting impressively high hydrostatic head ratings. Their finishing quality has been improved markedly over recent years and is fast approaching that of the finest Gore-Tex shells.
NeoShell is Polartec’s take on the high-performance waterproof fabric, and combines features of soft shell, and hard shell fabrics. Polartec have worked hard to push the breathability of the fabric as high as possible, whilst still achieving water resistance ratings above 10,000mm. For those who like the comfort, ease of movement and breathability of soft shells, NeoShell are well worth the slight price premium.
And there we have it: layer up with any of the given suggestions and you’ll be set to brave the worst blizzards of Winter. And remember, a layering system is only as efficient as it’s least efficient layer. If you’re wearing a cotton t-shirt under a super-breathable mid-layer and the most breathable shell available, you’ll still be drenched with sweat by the end of your hike! So be sure to invest in good garments for every layer in the system, base, mid and shell.
Of course, to complement your winter layers, you’ll need something to keep your extremities warm! You can check out our great range of winter mountain socks, and shop our lovely warm hats and gloves via the links below.