Geartrade: Guide to Winter Layering
In Scandinavia, there’s a saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” It seems like a pretty grand promise, but we can tell you that it’s true: with the right layers, nearly anything can be comfortable. You can enjoy even the longest days of resort skiing, backcountry touring, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or winter running—if you understand layering, that is.
Outdoor gear and clothing brands typically classify their winter clothing by layer—base layers, mid-layers, and outer layers. Their definitions aren’t a mystery, but it’s worth discussing how to work with them and plan for a day out.
Many people call their base layers “long johns” or “long underwear,” but there’s no need to limit them to something you’d only wear under your other clothes. Many base layer bottoms work great as running/workout tights, and many base layer tops work well for the same—and can even wear well at the apres-ski bar.
Think of your base layer as something that can be a foundation for the day. You might strip all the way down to it, or stack a number of layers on top. The most important thing is that the fabric is quick-drying. Synthetic fabrics and wool will both dry before you get clammy or soggy. Staying dry is key to staying warm.
For high-cardio activities like ski touring, winter running, or cross-country skiing, consider a thin, breathable fabric, and consider a shirt with a deep zipper for ventilation. On the other hand, if you know you’ll be standing around (or sitting on a bunch of cold chairlift rides) consider a midweight or heavyweight base layer thickness.
Many brands will list the item’s thickness in their product name or product description so you know what to expect. Typically a midweight or heavyweight base layer will have a fuzzy or fleece-y interior to really up the warmth.
Your mid-layers act as your prime insulation against the cold. These include puffy jackets (both synthetic and down), fleece jackets, and vests. These layer on top of your base layer clothing and can stack on top of each other if the weather is truly chilly. You can carefully plot your mid-layers to be worn together when needed or peeled off in an order that you’ll most likely want.
Remember, down is very warm but if it gets wet, you’re in a pickle. So only wear a down jacket or vest if the day is dry or if you’ll be wearing it under a waterproof outer shell jacket. Fleece is more breathable than a puffy, and vests have the wonderful benefit of keeping your core warm while letting your underarms air out and stay drier.
Some puffy jackets, like Arc’teryx’s Atom jacket, are made with breathable fleece panels at the underarms, which is a step warmer than a vest yet won’t get too manky when you work up a sweat.
Also called outerwear, outer layers are whatever you’ll be wearing on your exterior. “Hardshell” pants and jackets are typically waterproof, leaning on a technology like Gore-Tex to block precipitation but let perspiration escape. “Softshell” jackets and pants are merely water-resistant but breathe better and typically lean on a softer, stretchier fabric. Here in Utah, we can more often get away with softshell exteriors because even when it storms, the snow is often quite fluffy and low in water content. However, for wet storms or coastal weather, hardshells are a must to avoid miserable saturation.
When skiing, snowboarding, or ice climbing, you’ll wear a hardshell or softshell over your base layers and mid layers to stay dry. If you’ll be working up a sweat or would really appreciate extra mobility, softshells might be the right move. But if waterproofing is paramount, such as during wet stormy weather, lean toward hardshells.
If you’re doing something more aerobic, like winter trail running, and you’re not worried about getting wet (i.e. your trail run doesn’t involve any swimming across mountain streams), you can often go with just baselayer tights or a baselayer plus light softshell pants, plus a baselayer top and perhaps a vest or light softshell jacket. This applies to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, too.
The power is in the combination
The magic of layering well is that you can stay the right amount of warm, while being able to peel off layers or open vents whenever you’re at risk of getting so warm that you get sweaty. Sweatiness leads to clamminess, which leads to hypothermic misery as soon as you stop moving or the wind picks up.
Layer up before you get cold, and peel off before you get hot. Keep your thermostat squarely in the middle of your comfort zone, and you’ll have a great long day in the mountains.
Whatever layers you need to complete your winter clothing quiver, rest assured we’ve got it all here on Geartrade. Whether you need a cozy fleece vest, a breathable softshell pant, a weatherproof hardshell jacket, or fuzzy baselayer bottoms, we have it here, nice and UnNew.
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.