Login | June 18, 2019

Ask the expert: Winter layering tips

Pete’s World

Published: January 7, 2019

One of the cardinal rules for any cold weather enthusiast is to stay warm and dry. Yet sometimes this goal can be a rather illusive and complicated process. Wear just bit too much and you’re going to sweat, which could well spiral into hypothermia. Conversely, wear just a bit too little and you’re going to feel a bone-chilling cold that never seems to dissipate.

Which brings me to layering, an ancient art that’s just as practical today as it was all those thousands of years ago when it was first conceived. Indeed, layering is the lynchpin to staying comfortable in winter weather. And luckily, in this day and age we have a vast array of garments to help us control our temperamental internal thermostats.

To help demystify the many opinions concerning winter layering I’m recruiting my friend John MacDonald, an outdoor/adventure expert and the Director of Student Recreation & Wellness Services at The University of Akron.

ALN: What are the basics of layering for cold weather activities?

JM: There’s a Norwegian saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”  I believe this to be true, that if you dress appropriately and know when to shed or add a layer, the majority of weather conditions can be enjoyable.

A three layer system works well. The first layer is a wicking layer which is typically some sort of thin thermal material of wool or a synthetic fabric. This layer is thin so it can move your moisture away from the body. The second layer is the insulating layer that could be synthetic fleece or wool, and in colder weather could be a light weight insulated jacket that is now commonly referred to as a “puffy”.  The third layer is your “weather proof” layer - a rain jacket (fully waterproof) or soft shell (water resistant). Not all three layers are always worn together, but are great to have as conditions change.


ALN: How does the activity affect layering choices?

JM: Greatly. In highly aerobic conditions the body does not take long to warm up and might only need the first one or two layers. If there are periods when the that activity might slow down such as a rest, or in a longer trip scenario (backpacking, mountaineering, long distance event, etc.), then the additional second and third layers are needed to put on so your body can maintain its heat. 

ALN: Talk about the axiom “cotton kills.” 

JM: Cotton is a hydrophilic material in that it loves water, and when it gets wet it does not allow the moisture to spread across the fabric. Synthetic fabrics are hydrophobic in that when they get wet they spread the moisture across the fabric allowing it to dry quicker and remain more breathable. Wools are also hydrophobic and will also insulate when wet, although not very comfortably.


ALN: Is it better to begin an activity a bit on the cold side, this because the body is not warmed up at that point?

JM: Yes, if you start out too warm and “sweat out” a layer then that can lead to your body having to work to keep that layer warm. Start out a little cold and allow your body to warm up. You can always add and remove layers. Packing an extra base layer is a great idea as well so it can be changed if needed.


ALN: Talk about making adjustments as the length and difficulty of the activity, as well as the weather conditions fluctuate?

JM: Paying attention to your body temperature and making adjustments is one of the best things you can do. Staying as dry as possible is the key, and that’s both with external weather conditions and internal personal conditions (sweat, hydration, food). 

Having warm fluids to drink, and hand and toe chemical heat packs in really cold weather are great additions to your travel kit. Hats and gloves are vital components as well. Many times I use light weight liner gloves, but I keep full gloves in my pack as well as a backup pair of liner gloves.

Taking off a layer when you feel yourself warming up and adding a layer when you are getting cool is very important. Do this when you are “warming up” and “cool”.  If you wait until you’re “hot” or “cold” it’s probably too late.