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Layer up!

The best way to dress for winter is to wear layers. Layering gives you flexibility to add or remove layers, depending on the weather and your activity.

In general, there are three main layers which are:

  • Base Layer or Wicking Layer - for wicking or moving moisture away from your skin and to provide a little bit of warmth.
  • Mid-Layer or Insulation Layer - for generating whatever degree of warmth you need for your activity.
  • Shell Layer or Protection Layer - for protection against the rain, snow, wind and by default retaining just a little bit of warmth.

Wicking/Base layer: This is the layer worn directly next to your skin. Typically this layer consists of tops, bottoms and socks, considered thermal underwear or Long Johns. The base layer should fit snug (but not tight) next to the skin in order to effectively wick moisture. Tops come in both crew and zip top options and bottoms can be found in a variety of lengths according to your usage needs. Socks come in a variety of weights and are made of wool or synthetic material.  In general, your base layers come in 3 different weights or thicknesses:

  • Silk-weight or light-weight  - For mildly cold conditions as well as high-aerobic activities (i.e. cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, etc.)
  • Mid-weight - For cold conditions and semi-aerobic activities (i.e. skiing or snowboarding)
  • Heavy-weight - For very cold environments or non-aerobic activities (i.e. ice fishing, sitting/standing in the cold for a long time)

Look for base layers made of a synthetic (usually polyester) fiber, merino wool or silk that has "wicking" power. This means the fibers will wick (move) moisture away from your skin and pass it through the fabric so it will evaporate. This keeps you warm, dry and comfortable. Even though it's cold, you will sweat, especially if you are cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Traditionally, the synthetic fiber options have been more prone to retain body odor but now there are treatments that help them smell fresher longer. Natural fibers (like wool or silk) resist odor for longer, even over multiple days of use. Now, with the rising popularity of merino wool, we have a fantastic option for base layers that are lightweight, breathable, wicking AND retains heat (but not odor). The only down side to merino wool is that it’s sometimes not as durable or long-lasting as the synthetic options. In the end, it’s personal preference.  There are die-hard fans on both sides of the synthetic vs. wool argument. The most important layering tip is to remember to avoid COTTON at all costs. There is a saying in the outdoor industry when referring to cotton in cold conditions; “Cotton Kills” when wet or damp.

Insulating/Mid-layer: This middle layer includes sweaters, vests, jackets and pullovers. The purpose of this layer is to trap warm air between the fibers effectively keeping heat in and cold out. With recent strides in technology and design, the mid-layer is now being stretched and bleeding into the lighter or fair-weather options of the shell category. Comfort is key for the insulation layer, it should be loose enough to trap air between layers, but not so bulky that it restricts movement. Some of the popular insulation materials include:

  • Wool  - naturally wicks away moisture.
  • Fleece - a synthetic material that maintains its insulating ability even when wet and spreads the moisture out so it dries quickly.
  • Synthetic Fill - like Primaloft or Polartec Alpa which has “down like” properties and is both compressible and warm.
  • Down Fill - can be found with a water-resistant treatment so that it can maintain loft better when wet.

The thickness and type of insulation you will wear will depend on your intended use. Again, the higher aerobic activities will require lighter weight insulation options and the opposite is true for the non-aerobic activities.  If there are blue skies and no wind, then many people are fine just wearing this insulation layer along with their base layer and that’s all since there is no need for water or wind protection on cold but clear weather days. Most of the mid-layers now days come with a decent DWR (Durable Water Repellency) coating which will allow them to shed very mild moisture but are not intended to be used as “shells” when the weather turns bad.

Shell/Protection layer: The exterior layer, generally a top shell and pants, serves as your guard against the elements of winter. It should repel water from snow, sleet or rain and block the wind, while also letting perspiration evaporate. This layer should fit comfortably, offering you maximum range of motion. This is an area where the industry has made some decent progress. Now there are basically 2 types of shell layers for both tops and bottoms; “Soft Shells” and “Hard Shells”.

Soft Shells:

  • Greater flexibility and stretch
  • Better for sports that require a greater range of motion.
  • Considered more breathable, the weave and knit of the material allows for more stretch and greater breathability which is preferred in high-aerobic activities.
  • Because of breathability and stretch, soft shells generally are not 100% waterproof and usually do not come with a membrane laminate or taped seams for waterproofness. However, they are very weather resistant with a substantial DWR coating on the outside which can be re-applied and refreshed as often as needed.

Hard Shells:

  • Typically will have less stretch but will provide a greater barrier between you and the elements.
  • 100% waterproof with some form of laminated membrane to the underside in addition to taped seams.
  • Because of the waterproofness they are preferred for very wet or very harsh conditions and excel when weather turns bad for prolonged periods of time.

There is a shell for just about everything now, so pay close attention to the features that are offered and how they relate to the activity you intend to use it for. Look for functional hoods, cuffs, pockets, zippers, reinforced panels, stretch panels and other designs that will enhance your activity and allow for greater comfort, convenience and protection.


Headwear:  Up to 60 percent of your body's heat can escape from an uncovered head, so wearing a hat, snow cap, beanie, buff or helmet is essential when it's cold. (Tip: If you wear something on your head, you may be able to wear one less layer on your body.) There are thousands of styles of hats and beanies, usually made from wool, fleece or other synthetic materials. Many have non-itch liners. Helmets are becoming very popular now for skiing and snowboarding and climbing as well. Not only do they protect your head from bumps, falls or falling objects but they also keep your head warm. A fleece or wool neck gaiter, buff (like a collar), or face mask will protect from the sun glare and is an absolute must on cold days. 

Sunglasses and goggles: Sunglasses do much more than make you look cool, they also protect your eyes from damaging solar radiation. Snow, or any other reflective surface, makes ultraviolet (UV) rays stronger while increased altitude also magnifies the danger of solar radiation. On flat-light days or when it's snowing, goggles are vital. They protect your eyes and use special lens colors increase the contrast so you can properly discern terrain features. Look for 100 percent UVA & UVB protection in sunglasses. Make sure the glasses fit snugly behind your ears and rest gently on the bridge of your nose. Goggles should form an uninterrupted seal on your face, extending above your eyebrows and below your cheekbones. Watch for gaps, especially around your nose, which goes for sunglasses as well.  So, get a good pair of sunglasses and goggles and know when to use them!

Gloves and mittens: These come in a huge variety of weights, sizes and styles to accommodate an equally huge amount of activities. Liner gloves are the thinnest and are usually always in your coat pocket for around town use as well as added warmth when combined with heavier gloves or mittens. When looking for anything warmer than liners, look for gloves and mittens that use waterproof, breathable fabrics. Mittens, in general, are warmer than gloves, but offer you less dexterity. Consider the type of activity you'll be doing. Snowboarding, skiing and alpine climbing gloves and mittens often have a reinforced palm because of extra wear from adjusting bindings and balancing on the snow. Some snowboarding gloves and mittens also have built-in wrist guards, which are excellent for novice snowboarders. Cross-country skiing gloves tend to be lighter weight for extra movement and extra perspiration. Some gloves are designed to fit over the cuff with a gaiter while others are meant to go under the cuff depending on your winter recreation activities. Don't buy gloves or mittens that are too tight. There should be a little air space at the tips of your fingers, which acts as additional insulation. It’s hard to have one glove work for every activity so chances are you will likely have a variety of gloves or mittens for your various winter activities.

Socks: Investing in quality merino wool or synthetic socks is worth every penny! Again, there is a sock for almost every outdoor activity so choose the appropriate size and weight for your activities. Most of them can be lumped into these categories; liner, lightweight, mid-weight and heavy-weight. These follow the same guidelines that we covered above in the base layer section. In general, the higher the aerobic activity the thinner the weight of the sock and the opposite for less aerobic activities. Your genetics and circulation also play a role when choosing a weight. Socks need to have great wicking ability in order move moisture away from your feet keeping them dry and comfortable. As mentioned above, avoid cotton at all costs. Resist the temptation of putting on several pairs of socks. You'll restrict circulation and actually cause your feet to get colder.

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