Cold temperatures and snowy weather don’t mean that you have to head inside and spend all of your free time sipping hot toddies, playing board games and reading by a fire (though that does sounds like a good way to spend your evening after a long day of ice climbing, winter hiking or skiing). With proper layering and a thermos of hot tea, you can get outside and enjoy the beauty of winter!
Your winter activity of choice should be your initial consideration when curating your layering system. Most activities can be combined into two categories: high-intensity activities; like ski touring, Nordic skiing and trail running; or low intensity activities; like resort skiing, winter hiking, ice climbing and casual snowshoeing. High-intensity winter activities generate body heat and sweat, so it is necessary to wear clothing that is breathable, moisture wicking and has good temperature regulation properties. Softshell outerwear, light baselayers and versatile midlayers are ideal parts of a layering system for a high-intensity activity. Low intensity winter activities require clothing that provides weather protection, insulation, and core warmth. Heavier baselayers, heavier down or synthetic fill midlayers, and waterproof shell outerwear are great for lower intensity activities or for wearing around your campsite at the end of the day.
While your activity of choice can determine a good starting point when choosing your layers for a given activity, weather conditions and temperature are very important factors to note as well. If it is very cold outside you may need to choose a thicker baselayer or warmer midlayer, even if you are participating in a high-intensity activity. Additionally, if the weather is nasty, you may need to wear a hardshell on your trail run, or ensure that you have windproof layers. The great part about layering is that you can remove or swap out pieces to change the dynamic of your layering system. You can always bring along an extra layer or two to account for weather and temperature variations.
No two people react to cold weather the same way. Some people run hot and still feel warm in a blizzard, while others start to get chilled when the temperature drops below 5o. You know your body, so make decisions in your layering to account for your unique preferences. If you are always cold, choose thicker baselayers or warmer midlayers. If you are always warm, choose fleece midlayers or layers with great venting, as well as lightweight baselayers.
Some of the most integral pieces of your winter layering system are your baselayers. Baselayers form the foundation of your entire layering system and are the key to staying warm and dry. Winter baselayers have insulating and wicking properties and are a key to proper temperature regulation. The primary differences between baselayers to examine when selecting the right piece for your layering system are weight and material.
When selecting your baselayers, you can go in one of two directions: wool or synthetic. Each material has distinct benefits as well a s few key detriments. Wool is a natural, renewable fabric that performs well. Wool baselayers are comfortable, naturally antimicrobal (so they won’t stink), have excellent wicking properties, a wide warmth range and great temperature regulation. Wool is warmer for its weight than synthetics as well as more comfortable, but does not dry as quickly, is less durable and more expensive. Synthetics wick very well, dry quickly and are very durable, however they tend to smell bad after long days in outside and have narrower temperature levels depending on the weight of the piece. Select wool baselayers for all-around use and extreme cold conditions, since the wide temperature range will keep you comfortable in a variety of conditions. Go with synthetics for high-intensity activities or wet weather where you need a fast drying piece, or if you are concerned with durability.
Baselayers, both wool and synthetic, come in multiple weights, which correspond with how warm a piece is. Synthetics, like those from Helly Hansen or Terramar have specific warmth levels, which make choosing a layer easy. Choose a light weight set for high-intensity activities, a heavy weight set for low intensity activities, or a mid weight set if you can only buy one for everything. Wool baselayers are slightly different, as the temperature range for a wool baselayer is wider, but you can still choose between a lighter or heavier weight wool piece depending on your activity. The difference is, wool baselayers are more versatile, so you can usually use one set for everything you do, with the exception of activities in extreme temperatures.
Your midlayer is the meat of your layering system regarding warmth and insulation. Midlayers are intended to insulate and provide heat trapping loft beneath your outer layer. Midlayers are also versatile pieces that can serve as outer layers in the ski lodge or on a warmer day, or as pillows in your tent at night. Depending on weather conditions and your activity of choice, you may opt for anything from a super-warm down sweater to eschewing a midlayer altogether. Midlayers are typically only worn on the top.
Down midlayers are the warmest insulated midlayers available. Many down sweaters that are intended for use as a midlayer feature 700-850 fill down that is extremely warm and compressable, as well as a lightweight face fabric. Down layers will keep you warm when skiing or climbing, and can be packed away in your bag when you don’t need them. The downside to down is that it is not as durable as synthetic fill and moisture may hinder performance. However, many elite outerwear brands make down sweaters with hydrophobic down, which will resist moisture and retain warmth and performance longer. Down midlayers are perfect for dry and cold conditions when Alpine skiing, Alpine climbing, mountaineering, or as an additional layer to throw on after skinning up a peak to keep you warm on the ski down.
Synthetic midlayers are not as warm or compressible as down layers, but they make up for what they lack with superior durability and resilience. Synthetic midlayers will not lose warmth or loft when wet and are significantly cheaper than down layers. While many companies have their own proprietary synthetic insulations, most high end synthetics are comparable in warmth, weight and loft. Synthetic midlayers are excellent for wet conditions or long trips into the backcountry where your layers could get wet over time, or if you are concerned about the level of care involved with down layers.
Fleece midlayers are the perfect choice for high-intensity active winter pursuits. Fleece is snug fitting, quick drying, warm when wet and heat retaining by construction, while also breathing extremely well and allowing for excellent temperature regulation. A technical fleece midlayer can often be used as an outerlayer when trail running or skinning, then covered with a shell or even an insulated fill midlayer when you stop moving or bad weather hits. A fleece midlayer can also be used in conjunction with another midlayer for extremely cold days to add another level of warmth.
Your outerwear is your primary line of defense against the harsh weather of winter and is segmented into distinct categories. Depending on your activity, the temperature and the severity of the weather, you can determine what type of outerwear is best for you!
Hardshells are the toughest and most technical pieces of outerwear that you can choose to complete your winter layering system. Hardshells are essential for activities where you have to deal with nasty wet or snowy weather, high winds, or abrasive environmental hazards like ice, branches or rocks. While all hardshells will repel water, most are specialized for an activity or type of activity and have specific features sets. For skiing, look for a hardshell with a durable (60 denier or above) face fabric, a helmet compatible hood, a powder skirt and hand warmer pockets. For ice or alpine climbing, look for a hardshell with a climbing specific cut that provides mobility in the arms, harness compatible pockets and a helmet compatible hood. Additionally, for high intensity activities where you may not be wearing your hardshell, bring along a minimalist shell with a lightweight face fabric and pared down, packable design that you can throw in the bottom of your pack in case the weather turns nasty.
For high-intensity activities or for mild winter weather, softshell jackets are an excellent choice. Featuring a highly water resistant and wind resistant construction, combined with excellent breathability, softshells are the most comfortable option for winter trail running, Nordic skiing, technical mixed and ice climbing or winter cycling. Some softshells are also seam-taped, for amazing wet weather protection, or feature Windstopper technology for fully windproof performance.
Insulated outerwear is ideal only for low-intensity activities. Insulated shells are great for resort skiing in cold weather or for stationary activities like watching an outdoor sporting event or walking around town. They lack the versatility of a non-insulated shell, since they have a fixed amount of insulation and therefore a set warmth level. An insulated jacket is great for skiing, hiking or climbing when it’s cold outside, but once temperatures warm, you do not have the option of shedding your insulating layer. Because of this lack of versatility, most climbers and hikers choose to avoid insulated jackets. If you are looking for a resort skiing specific jacket, a casual jacket for cold weather, or you tend to be cold all of the time, an insulated jacket may be the right choice.
Let’s not forget about pants! For pants your layering system is similar to the top half of your body, but simplified since you typically won’t need a midlayer; just a baselayer and an outer layer. However, there are some exceptions to the suggestions above when it comes to pants. If you are doing certain high-intensity activities, you may want to wear thick tights on your legs and nothing else. For climbing, hiking or backcountry skiing, you can pair softshell pants with a hardshell for a combination of durable weather protection on top and superb breathability on the bottom. Other than those exceptions, you want to use the same general rules for pants as those mentioned above for jackets. In severe weather or for Alpine skiing, hardshell pants will offer the best protection and longevity. For high-output activities like ski touring, softshell pants are the most breathable and forgiving option. If your legs typically get cold, you may want an insulated shell pant for skiing or other low-intensity activities.