How To Layer for Outdoor Activities

There’s a Swedish saying that goes something like, ”There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” Hardly any outdoor enthusiast will disagree with this. If you want to enjoy nature to the fullest extent, you need to know how to dress.

A thunderstorm in the backcountry can make for a magical and surreal experience if you’re wearing the right clothes. But the same storm will leave you freezing and shivering if you’re unprepared.

When you are choosing what to wear for your outdoor adventures, practicality is of the utmost importance. Your clothing items should keep you cool when it’s hot, warm when it’s cold, and dry when it’s wet.

Is all of this too much to ask for? Not if you can master the ancient art of layering.

The Layering System

Modern technical wear is designed for layering. So, Instead of wearing a single bulky or thick layer of clothing, it is far better to dress in multiple lighter layers. This way, it will be much easier for you to adapt to a wide range of weather conditions.

To be able to easily tackle different conditions, you can combine different layers. For instance, you can remove or add layers according to your exertion level or the temperature.

In order to create a flexible clothing system that minimizes duplicity and maximizes efficiency, it’s key to choose layers that complement one another. Read Icebreaker vs Smartwool review where you can find a plethora of products to layer.

Most outdoor enthusiasts prefer to stick to the 3-layer principle, no matter the season. It includes the base layer, mid-layer, and outer layer. Others prefer to divide their clothing into four layers when the temperatures are extremely cold.

To help you understand how you can customize your own three-layer or four-layer system, let’s take a look at a few different types of layers.

Types of Layers

Base Layer

The layer that is worn next to the skin is called the base layer. Because it’s the layer that collects the most sweat, the fabric of the base layer is extremely important.

It should pull sweat away from your skin, quickly moving it to the outer surface of the fabric. The fabric should also be quick-drying so that the sweat doesn’t saturate the base layer.

When choosing a base layer, you should always steer clear of cotton. Cotton likes to attract and hang on to moisture. It does a poor job of regulating body temperature.

If you wear a cotton shirt in the summer, it may be super uncomfortable but it won’t kill you. If you wear it in winter, on the other hand, it will increase the risk of hypothermia.

When it comes to base layers, wool and synthetic fabrics are the best choices.

Synthetic fabrics that make great base layers include capilene, polyester, and polypropylene (PP). These fabrics wick moisture, dry fast, and are not itchy. Their only downside is the fact that they can become stinky.

Wool base layers are more expensive than those made from synthetic fabrics, but they insulate better when it is cold. When it’s hot, they stay more comfortable.

Wool insulates well even when wet, but it takes a bit longer to dry than synthetic fabrics. Wool base layers work wonders for activities such as hiking and trekking.

Merino wool is the best type of wool for base layers. It doesn’t retain a stench like traditional wool. It is also much less itchy.

However, synthetic fabrics have one key advantage over merino wool—they are much more abrasion-resistant. If you like outdoor activities such as rock climbing, this is something you should keep in mind.

How thick a base layer you should wear depends on the weather conditions and level of activity. Overheating is just as big a concern as keeping warm when you are performing strenuous activities in cold weather.

If you plan to go skiing or mountaineering in the winter, it’s best to wear a thin and lightweight base layer.

If you want to be able to conveniently regulate your body temperature, consider buying a zip-neck base layer. It can save you the time required to remove an extra layer when you are climbing, hiking, or skiing.


A mid-layer is typically a thick wool or fleece layer. It serves to retain warmth through trapped air. To help trap the warm air, a mid-layer should have some loft to it. It should also be breathable enough to prevent you from sweating too much.

An insulating layer such as a thin and lightweight down or synthetic jacket can also work as a mid-layer in a three-piece layering system. As with base layers, a full-zip or zip-neck mid-layer will allow you to easily regulate your body temperature.

Light Wind Jacket Layer

A “wind shirt” (a light windbreaker-style jacket) is a necessary layer in summer layering systems. Quality light wind jackets have an impressive warmth-to-weight ratio. They offer great protection against summer wind chill.

Wearing a technical outer shell may be overkill if you are going day hiking or rock climbing in good weather. Instead, it may be a better idea to bring a light wind layer. Even in the event of a brief afternoon thunderstorm, it will give you enough protection until you find cover.

If you want to keep things as simple as possible, you can eliminate the need for a wind jacket layer by wearing a windproof shell or a windproof mid-layer.

Insulation Layer

An insulation layer essentially does the same things a thick-mid-layer does—it provides extra warmth and loft. However, a proper insulation layer has a much higher warmth-to-weight ratio than a thick mid-layer.

An insulation layer can use natural down or synthetic insulation. Some even feature a combination of both. When you are choosing an insulating layer, make sure that it will fit comfortably over a fleece.

In dry weather, your insulated layer can work as an outer layer. But in particularly harsh and freezing winter conditions, you may need to wear an outer technical shell over your insulating layer.

A lightweight down jacket that offers a high warmth-to-weight ratio, such as a down sweater jacket, is an excellent choice for an insulating layer.

However, if rain and snow are a constant threat, a lightweight synthetic jacket is a better option. Unlike down, synthetic insulation stays warm even when it gets wet.

A hoodie can also be a smart choice for your insulating layer. Hoodies generally aren’t too bulky or heavy, but they offer a substantial increase in warmth.

When the weather is warm, you could forego an insulation layer if you bring a mid-layer or vice versa. On the other hand, wearing a heavy and bulky jacket underneath a hardshell should pay off in particularly cold conditions, such as winter snow camping.

Outer Shell

When you are actively exploring the great outdoors in colder conditions, you can go from sweating like a pig to hunkering down from icy winds in a matter of seconds. Technical outer shells are designed with this in mind.

A good outer shell offers both weather-resistance and breathability. Still, providing protection from the elements is the primary function of an outer shell.

An outer shell can be softshell or hardshell. A softshell is usually only water-resistant, not waterproof. Some softshells are windproof while others are not. However, softshells are more breathable and flexible. For more information, check out my post on the best softshell pants.

A hardshell is not so breathable, but it is both windproof and waterproof. One or the other may be more appropriate, depending on the weather. If you expect sustained rainfall, the decision is a no-brainer.

The best hardshells often feature multiple layers, waterproof zipper systems, and taped seams. Some models even offer more breathability than you’d expect.

Alternatively, you can wear a technical jacket that combines a shell with an insulation layer. Most modern ski jackets are designed this way. There are also some heavy winter coats that combine a shell layer and a thick insulation layer.

While this approach works great for skiing jackets, there’s an advantage to keeping your outer layer separate when you are hiking, climbing, or backpacking.

When it comes to some outdoor athletic endeavors, you are going to break a sweat no matter how cold it is. When you exert yourself in freezing conditions, you’ll need to regulate your body temperature.

But it’s hard to do this when one of your layers offers very limited breathability. Naturally, shedding the outer layer is the easiest way to add breathability.

If the shell and the insulation layer are integrated, this is not an option. A separate outer shell gives you the freedom to pack away that barrier until you actually need it.

Recommended Combinations

Summer Full Day Activities (Three-Layer System)

In many mountain areas, summer thunderstorms are common and they often arrive with little warning. For example, a full-day hike on the West Highland Way in August can bring many surprises. When it comes to such adventures, it’s always a good idea to pack a bit more in your backpack.

  • Base layer: You can choose merino wool long underwear and a performance shirt. Depending on how hot the temps are and the amount of sun exposure you expect, the shirt can be short-sleeved or long-sleeved.
  • Mid-layer: A mid-weight fleece jacket should offer enough warmth. In fall or spring, when the temperatures are cooler, you can swap it out for a hooded version of an insulated jacket.
  • Outer-layer: A light rain jacket or a water-resistant softshell will do the trick if you plan on doing more aerobic activity on a sunny day. However, a thicker rain jacket or a hardshell along with a pair of rain pants (check out this list of the best hiking pants on the market) are a better option if there is a chance of significant rain.

In case you have to bivouac overnight, it’s also a good idea to bring a whistle, a headlamp, athletic tape, an inflatable pillow, and a warm hat.

Summer Half-Day Activities (Two-Layer System)

There’s no need to overdo it with insulated layers when you’re preparing for a half-day hike in the summer. But you’ll still need some protection if it gets stormy or windy.

  • Base layer: Start with a wicking performance shirt. Depending on the weather, you may also want to wear a pair of wool or synthetic long johns.
  • Mid-layer: You can choose a windproof fleece or a lightweight wind jacket. If there’s a chance you’ll see some rain, bring a softshell that offers some level of water and wind-resistance.

Multi-day Layers (Three-Layer System)

There isn’t a big difference between layering for a multi-day adventure and layering for a full-day summer hike. You just need to be a bit more conservative since there’s a higher chance bad weather will occur.

  • Base layer: You can go with light merino wool thermal bottoms and a long-sleeve shirt with a zip neck. You can bring a light short-sleeve performance shirt as well if you are not too concerned about the weight of your backpack.
  • Mid-layer: It’s best to go with a light insulated jacket instead of fleece because it will keep you warmer in a broader range of weather conditions.
  • Outer-layer: Bring an appropriate rain jacket or a hardshell along with a pair of rain pants.

Winter Adventures (Four-Layer System)

While many adventurers prefer to stick to a 3-layer system in winter, a 4-layer system will give you more flexibility if you’re going mountaineering, snowboarding, skiing, or climbing.

The right combination of four layers will provide the optimum insulation-plus-wicking ratio. They will keep you warm during stormy or slow periods and allow you to cool off during the hard aerobic parts of your adventure. Throughout the day, you can remove or add layers as needed.

  • Base-layer: So that you won’t overheat when you’re exerting yourself, it may be best to go for a thinner base layer. A light merino wool long-sleeve shirt and long underwear should suffice.
  • Mid-layer: Go for a light or mid-weight fleece. Because you’ll also wear an insulating layer, it can be thinner than the fleece you’d choose for a three-layer system.
  • Insulation layer: Pick a relatively light synthetic or down insulation jacket. Make sure it will fit under your shell layer and over your fleece.
  • Outer shell: If you want an outer layer that will provide some level of breathability while keeping you dry, consider choosing an eVent or Gore-Tex hardshell.

Extreme Winter Adventures (Four-Layer System)

If you are adventuring in extreme winter conditions, the layers you choose should be even thicker and more protective than those in the aforementioned system. This system is more suitable for high altitude expeditions that take place in the winter.

  • Base layer: A thin wool shirt is the best solution in this case as well. You won’t sweat too much when you are charging uphill. However, your bottom base layer should be thicker. Alternatively, you can wear a one-piece stretch suit.
  • Mid-layer: A mid-weight fleece should do the trick, but some adventurers like to wear an insulated vest or sweater in addition to the fleece.
  • Insulation layer: A high-quality down or synthetic jacket with a hood is essential. It’s best to choose a layer that uses higher-end PrimaLoft insulation or 800-fill goose down. The outer material of the insulation layer should be water-resistant.
  • Outer shell: You can choose a weatherproof hardshell jacket with underarm zips and a full front zipper. It’s also a good idea to wear hardshell pants.

You should also bring a face mask, a neck gaiter, and a warm hat.

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