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October 15, 2021

How to Layer Outdoor Clothing for Comfort in Any Conditions

Picture it: It's late October. You've just parked your car at the trailhead, open the door, and BOOM… you realize you’re woefully underdressed. Sadness. Learning how to layer your clothing for outdoor adventures takes trial and error.

Or does it? We've taken the guesswork out of the process. Read on for how to nail your layers for any outdoor activity in any conditions.

How to Layer Clothes for Cold Weather

Building a layering system for comfort in cool fall temps and cold winter conditions relies on four essential things: moisture management, breathability, insulation, and protection from the elements.

The goal is to select materials that will wick sweat away from the body and push it through each layer and out to the surface where it can evaporate. After all, staying dry is the key to keeping warm.

Here are the elements of a high-performance layering solution to keep you comfortable and warm when you’re outside in cool or cold conditions.

Base Layer

Your base layer is the key to being warm, and you want it to be fitted, but not skin tight. Allowing room for air to circulate around your body will help the fabric perform its

Ever heard the saying, “Cotton kills?” It’s true. It is essential to avoid wearing cotton as a base
layer. Cotton will absorb sweat and keep that cold, wet fabric against your skin and undo anything your other layers are attempting to accomplish. This includes socks, and ladies, this includes your sports bra! Just don’t do it.

Merino wool, silk, and moisture-wicking synthetic fabrics are common for base layers.

Fun fact: Wool continues to insulate even when wet, making it an ideal base layer. However, for those with sensitivity to wool, and don’t have the budget for silk (it’s not in everyone’s budget, for sure), the best synthetic base layer for cold weather is going to be stretchy, moisture wicking, and quick drying.

Sometimes base layers feature a brushed lining similar to fleece. These are extra cozy on ultra-cold days in the outdoors. We give these five stars – if you find one you like, grab it!

Mid Layer

If your core is warm, it will be easier to keep the rest of your body warm.

A single mid layer can function on its own in mild, fall temps when you don’t need a ton of extra warmth, but in ultra-cold conditions you might find yourself reaching for more than one mid layer.

The best insulating layers are engineered to trap warm air close to the body. Think of plush fabrics, like fleece, where small air pockets naturally form around the fibers to help retain warmth.

Pssssst… guys… take a look at what we have available for men's fleece at Rerouted. These styles are *chef’s kiss* perfect for adventures from autumn all the way through to spring. If you missed out on finding a human snuggle buddy during cuffing season, maybe a cozy fleece to snuggle up with is a decent substitute?

A jacket with down or synthetic insulation functions the same way and can be a stand-alone or additional layer depending on the conditions.

Facts About Insulation

  • Synthetic insulation is basically a squishy sheet of really long filaments of polyester that wind around each other like spaghetti. It is designed to mimic the heat-retention capabilities of down, but it is highly durable and it will continue to insulate even when wet.
  • Synthetic down insulation takes that same, polyester filament but turns it into tiny little balls to mimic the feeling of down and is often used in puffy-style jackets. It is an excellent, hypoallergenic alternative to natural down.
  • Natural down has an excellent warmth-to-weight ratio (it's super light!), and its warmth is measured by fill power. It comes from goose and duck plumage, the downy stuff
    under their feathers, and it creates a high-loft place to trap warm air. If ethics is top-of-mind for you, seek out brands that operate by the Responsible Down Standard (RDS). It’s important to note, however, that natural down doesn’t insulate very well when it gets wet.

Pro tip: Down insulation, including synthetic down, needs chambers to hold the material in place, otherwise, it would all slide to the bottom of the jacket and only insulate your hips. For daily wear, your standard puffy with sewn chambers is going to be just fine, but for ultra-cold conditions, consider a jacket with bonded chambers.

Bonding is a process when the inner and outer fabric layers are bonded together, rather than sewn. By eliminating the tiny holes created by a needle, you’re actually going to have a warmer jacket because it will prevent that much-needed warm air from escaping through those holes. The more you know, right? Also, who doesn’t love a puffy?

Bottom line, the best insulating mid layers are those that keep your core warm. Vests are an excellent option when you need more mobility for your arms, but a jacket with some stretch will do the job, too.

Outer Layer

Sometimes your insulated layer has the outer layer integrated – think of things like ski and snowboard jackets with the water-resistant exterior. However, many people like to create their own custom ‘fit by selecting separate insulating mid layers and outer layers. In this case, your outer-most layer is going to be a shell.

When selecting a shell to keep the elements out, believe it or not, waterproof and windproof fabrics are not your friend. They trap moisture within your layers which brings down your body temperature.

It’s like sweating inside of a trash bag while standing in the cold, pouring rain – you’re wet inside and out, so why bother?

Instead, look for water- and wind-resistant options that help move moisture from your inner layers to the surface of the fabric where it can evaporate, while the treatments that prevent rain and wind from penetrating can still do their job.

Pro tip: You’ll know your water-resistant layer is working when moisture lands on the surface,
beads up, and rolls right off. Sometimes, these layers require a refresh of the durable water-repellent (DWR) finish, and that’s pretty easy to do. More about that, later.

It’s handy to have a hood on your shell, especially when the wind and precipitation start whipping around. Here are some options to consider when shopping for jackets with hoods:

  • A built-in hood that is always there.
  • A rescue hood hidden inside the collar, accessible by zipper.
  • A detachable hood.

A final note on layering clothes for cold conditions: More layers don’t make you warmer! Air is the best insulator, so carefully selecting fewer layers that help trap warm air near your body is the best solution for layering outdoor clothing in fall and winter. 

How to Layer Clothes for Summer 

Getting dressed for outdoor activities in summer heat seems simple; less is more, right? In reality, it can be tough to nail. What you’d wear for a gentle effort is generally not the same thing you’d wear when you’re in beast mode and tearing up trails in the same temps.

One strategy is to dress for 10-20 degrees cooler than it actually is so that your body has “room” to warm up without overheating. Although, when you’re heading out at the hottest time of day, there’s not a heck of a lot you can do to create a temperature differential. After all, there’s really only so far you can go taking off clothes before you’re risking indecent exposure.

Here are five tips for what to wear in hot and humid weather.

  1. Protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays with UPF apparel. Getting a sunburn raises body temperature and increases dehydration, leading you to feel tired. Nobody wants to bonk mid-ride or run because they got a sunburn.
  2. Wicking and quick-drying fabrics are key for moisture management in summer. They promote cooling by pulling warm moisture away from the skin to the surface of the fabric where it can evaporate.
  3. Select styles that feature vents, mesh, or cooling treatments. Increasing airflow will help cool you down, and fabrics with cooling treatments actively work to lower your temperature.
  4. When possible, reach for styles that are not skin tight. Having some space for the fabric to hang helps promote ventilation.
  5. No cotton. End of story. When it soaks up your sweat it will get heavy and cling to your body, it won’t wick moisture to the surface, and it won’t dry quickly. Plus, the chances of falling victim to chafing rise exponentially. (And chafing sucks.)

Pro tip: Some brands use silver technology or anti-odor finishes to help banish stank. This prevents the natural bacteria on your body from interacting with your sweat, causing you to be stinky. If you’re a stinky sweater, there’s no shame in your game… but if you feel funky about your funk, this is a nice option to have.

Layering by Gender: Does It Matter?

We’re all living with body temperatures in the vicinity of 98.6 degrees, however, it is true that
women feel chilled more often than men. According to medical professionals, it’s because women have a lower metabolic rate, and as a result, tend to produce less heat than men do, making them feel colder.

Ladies, it’s okay to feel justified in your desire to turn up the heat when you’re chilling at home… literally.

While men and women don’t necessarily need to layer differently, nailing the right garments for comfort in any conditions outdoors comes down to personal preference and even timing. Many women may need to wear extra layers for longer until the body warms up during an activity, whereas many men might elect to start out with fewer layers.

Layering by Outdoor Activity: Is It All the Same?

Selecting the right clothing layers for the activity is not a one-size-fits-all solution, not only across activities but even within them. What an elite runner wears for a training session could be entirely different from what a recreational runner will wear.

The key is to gravitate towards brands that design apparel specifically for the sport you’re doing. Brands put a ton of effort (honestly, millions of dollars) into selecting, or creating, fabrics that will perform the way their intended athlete needs them to. For example, a cyclist will need the layers on their upper body to stretch across the shoulders and upper back and
longer sleeves more than a trail runner will.

However, in the end, selecting apparel that is engineered with stretchy, lightweight fabrics with any variety of technical features and finishes is likely to offer a ton of flexibility for crossover between activities for multi-sport enthusiasts who are looking to save a buck on apparel.

Tips for Shopping for Used Outdoor Apparel

When shopping used, check for holes in the fabric, significant wear spots, escaping insulation, and unraveling seams. You may need to refresh water-resistant layers with Nikwax Tech Wash® and a fresh application of TX.Direct® DWR finish. If a down layer has a small hole, those are easy enough to patch up with a fun NOSO® patch or Gear Aid Tenacious TapeTM (this works for your sleeping bags, too!).

Ready to stock up on some key layers for your outdoor activities? Why not go the affordable and sustainable route and shop used with Rerouted? Your wallet and the planet will thank