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Layering 101: How to Dress for Outdoor Activities

Layering 101: How to Dress for Outdoor Activities

How to Layer for Outdoor Activities


Experienced outdoor enthusiasts know that layering is essential to staying comfortable, dry and safe, especially in high-elevation settings where conditions change quickly. 

Here's your guide to layering, including what types of fabric are best and how to prepare for drastic temperature changes.

Use a base layer for moisture management

Your base layer will be closest to your skin, so choose a material that will wick away moisture. If you choose the wrong material, your body will have a harder time regulating its temperature. Staying dry isn’t just essential for comfort; it also helps keep you cool in hot weather and warm when the temperature drops

Ideally, your base layer will be made from synthetic fabric or wool. Unlike cotton, which merely absorbs moisture, synthetic and wool materials transport sweat away from your skin and disperse it on the outer surface where it will evaporate. Many outdoor enthusiasts prefer synthetic materials because they aren’t itchy, are more durable, less expensive and faster-drying than wool. On the downside, synthetic materials can collect body odor faster than natural wool.

Base layers come in light-, mid-, and heavy-weight. In general, light- or mid-weight materials are best for running, hiking or cycling in mild to cool conditions. For cold conditions, choose a heavyweight base layer that will keep you insulated.

Choose the right mid-layer for insulation

Your second layer traps air near your skin so that you can hold onto body heat. There are four basic options available: synthetic fill, down fill, fleece and hard-shell fleece:

  • Down provides the best warmth-to-weight ratio and compresses well into a tight volume for efficient packing. Unfortunately, it also dries slowly and feels cold when wet.
  • Synthetic fill is easy to care for, lightweight, durable, quick-drying and retains heat even when wet. It is less breathable than down and doesn’t pack as small.
  • Hard-shell fleece provides a smooth outer surface that helps prevent tears and snags. It’s a durable material with less wind resistance compared to fill insulation. It also tends to be much bulkier than fleece and fill insulation.
  • Fleece provides exceptional moisture management and air permeability. It’s also soft and comfortable. A fleece mid-layer works best when worn beneath a protective shell. 

To find your favorite material, try on a few different options, and be sure to consider weather conditions and your destination before making a choice. For instance, if you expect to encounter drastic changes in elevation, you’ll need to add and strip away mid-layers as needed. 

Choose a wind-resistant and waterproof outer layer

Your outer shell will shield you from the elements. In addition to being durable and comfortable, your outermost layer should be waterproof and breathable. The last thing you want is an outer shell that doesn’t repel wind and moisture

When trying on coats and jackets as potential outer shells, put on some extra layers to see how everything fits. Ideally, your outer layer should be big enough to fit over the top of other layers without restricting your movement.

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