Layering - Moosejaw.com

Layering Guide

In the backcountry, conditions and temperatures constantly fluctuate, as might your activity level. This means that your body temperature will constantly fluctuate as well. To stay comfortable in all this crazy fluctuation, your clothing has to be ready to adapt. This is why layering in the backcountry is so important. Overheating can be very dangerous. So can underheating. You need just the right amount of heat, and a properly planned layering system will get the job done.

Check out the Smartwool Men's NTS Mid 250 Zip T.
This model has really great posture.


Start with a good base, just like in construction, tanning or playing capture the flag.

You need a good foundation

A base layer is the layer you wear next-to-skin to manage moisture and regulate body temperature. “How does a fabric manage moisture?” you may ask. When a fabric gets wet, it can draw up moisture into the fibers and in the spaces between the fibers. Moisture between fibers is good, as it evaporates and dries quickly. Moisture absorbed into the fibers themselves isn’t a good thing, this can lead to prolonged wetness (think wet cotton). For this reason synthetic fibers and wool are ideal. They are able to pull the moisture from your skin and disperse it across the fabric face without wetting out the fibers. Fabrics that take a long time to dry will leave you feeling a chill for a long amount of time, as water requires energy to evaporate and it does so by taking heat from your body. Sorry if this is too much science, but it’s an essential principle of base layers and layering in general.
In addition to regulating body temperature by managing moisture, base layers also offer warmth in terms of fabric weight. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Heavier and more densely knit materials will retain heat better than lighter weight materials.  So if you’re heading out in the middle of summer, wear a lighter weight base layer. If you’re trekking around in the winter, pick up a heavier next-to-skin layer.
So it boils down to synthetic or wool. They both will get the job done, but each has pros and cons. Wool has a softer, more comfortable feel against the skin, and it naturally resists odor. If you’re going on a hiking date with a cutie, wear a wool base layer. Synthetic isn’t as soft, but it does just as good a job on the technical aspects and usually at a much lower price point.

Check out this midlayer.
Photographer: Gabe Rogel


This would be the meat of a layering sandwich. Or the portobello, if you don't like meat.

Hold onto the heat

The mid layer is also known as the insulating layer. The function of the mid layer is to trap body heat so you stay warm. When used in conjunction with a base layer, they become a versatile system that can keep your body at a comfortable temperature throughout changing conditions and activity levels. In the morning, when there is a chill in the air, start your day with a ¼ zip pullover over your next-to-skin layer. As you hike, climb, get into a heated game of Boggle, or simply when the sun gets higher in the sky, your body will start to warm up at which point you can shed your mid layer. During resting times or later on in the day, just pull your mid layer back on and get all toasty warm again. That’s the beauty of a finely tuned layering system, you’ll be ready for anything.
Choosing which type of mid layer is best for you depends on the trip you’re taking. Your options are down insulation, synthetic insulation, fleece and wool.
Down insulation gives the most warmth for the least weight and bulk. It is composed of the soft, fluffy underside feathers of geese or ducks. That’s how you know it works, ducks and geese are thriving species. If it were the soft feathers from dodos, then I’d be leery. The key feature of down is loft and the related unit called fill power. In simple terms, loft refers to how well the feather expands, and thus the amount of air it can retain (which is a factor of insulation). Fill power is a standardized measurement of the volume of one ounce of expanded down. For example, one ounce of 800 fill down will expand to 800 cubic inches. One ounce of 500 fill down will expand to 500 cubic inches. So if you have two down jackets of equal warmth, the one with the higher fill power will be lighter and more compressible. Due to its incredible heat retention, it is often too warm to wear during very physical activities like backpacking or skiing, but it’s nice to have on hand for day hikes or relaxing around camp.
Synthetic insulation consists of polyester fibers that are designed to closely mimic the heat-trapping properties of down. As technology keeps progressing, synthetic insulation has been getting better and better, but still can’t match down’s natural warmth and compressibility. However, it still has its advantages, namely due to its woven mixture of different size fibers, it can retain almost 100% of its insulating power after becoming wet. Plus it dries out faster than down and comes at a lower price point. All of this makes it an excellent choice for a mid layer if you know rain or snow might be in your future.
Fleece is soft to the touch, inexpensive, breathable, lightweight, wicks moisture and dries quickly. This makes it a great option for more aerobic activities. It keeps performing after it gets wet. However, fleece is bulky and will take up a good deal of pack space when not in use. Plus wind cuts right through it, so a strong gust could wipe out all the warm air that it built up.
Wool shares a lot of the same benefits and drawbacks of fleece. It is soft, very breathable, and performs well even when wet. In addition to that, it is naturally odor resistant. Have you ever smelled a sheep? They smell delightful (don’t quote me on that). However, wool usually comes at a higher price point than fleece and is a bit heavier.

Check out the pit zips on this Arcteryx Men's Alpha SV Jacket.


Shells are very useful in the great outdoors. Ask any turtle you know.

The first line of defense.

The shell is the outermost layer and its function is to protect you and your other layers from the elements. You’ll want a waterproof shell, but that’s just the beginning. Any old jacket can keep rain out, but there are certain technologies that will allow your outer layer to function in harmony with your mid layer and base layers. First of all, your other layers are working hard to breathe out any moisture and heat build-up, so you want a shell that is also as breathable as possible. If your shell doesn’t breathe well, all of the sweat and vapor that your body produces will turn into condensation and will get you wet from the inside. It’s like that scene in a horror movie when you find out that the call is coming from inside the house. There are other features that can help with this process of dumping heat, pit zips being the most important. There is no better way to make your jacket breathable than by literally opening it up.
Let’s talk about hardshell construction for a second. Hardshells are made up of layers. I know, I know, more about layers. It’s like inception, probably (I never saw the movie). Shells are typically constructed of 2, 2.5 or 3 layers. Here’s a little breakdown of the layers.
Face fabric – this is the outermost layer. Its job is to take a beating and protect the waterproof layer.
Waterproof/breathable layer – this layer stops rain and lets air pass through. This is the layer that all the other layers are trying to protect. It’s the heart and soul of the jacket.
Backing fabric – this layer is the next-to-skin layer. It allows the jacket to rest comfortably against the skin or other layers. It also helps protect the waterproof layer from any sort of internal scuffing, scraping or abrasion.
2 layer shells have the waterproof layer and the face fabric. 3 layer shells have all three of the layers (that one was kinda obvious). 2.5 layer shells are made of the waterproof layer and the face fabric, but with an interior coating which protects the waterproof layer from interacting with your skin and clothing.
The outer layer is almost always DWR (Durable Water Repellant) coated to prevent wetting out. Wetting out is a bad thing. Even if your jacket retains all of its waterproof qualities, it can still absorb water and dirt which can decrease breathability, causing moisture to build up inside. So it will feel like your jacket is leaking, but really it’s just not breathing properly. More often than not, washing and drying your jacket will reactivate the DWR (follow your jacket’s washing instructions).

Check out this picture of the Arcteryx Men's Gamma MX Jacket.
I like to think he's having a staring contest with my soul.


This sounds like a type of pasta.

Balancing protection and mobility

Think of softshell jackets as hybrids of mid layers and shells. They are more breathable and offer much more mobility than hard shells, and better at shedding the elements than fleece and wool. This makes softshells a great choice for highly aerobic outdoor activities in colder temps where the weather might get crummy. But keep in mind, even though they usually have a DWR coating, they are not waterproof and shouldn’t be used as your only line of defense against a downpour or prolonged exposure to rain. Just think of how mobile turtles might be if their shells were softshells. They’d be skipping and jumping all over the place.

Check out The North Face Women's Boundary Triclimate Jacket.

3-In-1 Jackets

These are more jackety than most jackets.

Mid layer and a shell in one

3-in-1 jackets knock a couple of layers out in one shot. They are comprised of an insulating layer and an outer shell. The insulating layer can be any of the mid layers that I mentioned above, or a softshell. The outer layer is always a waterproof layer that protects the inner layer. They zip or button together to form a versatile, adaptable system. The mid layer can be worn on its own in cool conditions or zipped into the shell to fend off colder temps and biting wind and rain. Or you can go solo with the shell in warmer temperatures. It’s pretty much the same as buying each layer separately, except you have the guarantee that the layers will work well together and you don’t have to worry about relative sizing for each layer. However, you’re limited to the layer choices offered in the system when buying.

Now you're ready to thrive.

You gotta be ready to change with the conditions. That’s the gist of it. Once you start feeling a bit too hot or a bit too cold, take the few seconds to shed or add a layer. Following that simple guideline, you can be as active or as stagnant as you’d like and still be comfortable. Do some serious trail running or some serious sitting in a hammock, it doesn’t matter as long as you have the correct layers.

Granite Gear Therm-a-Rest Big Agnes Western Mountaineering MSR Sawyer Sea to Summit
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