When undertaking outdoor activity in the winter time you may be asking yourself how to layer clothes for cold weather. The best strategy is to wear these layers:
- the base layer for moisture management
- the middle layer for insulation
- the outer layer for weather protection
As a long-time camping and outdoors enthusiast I get this question asked by many of my friends and family members. It is an important topic for many outdoors enthusiasts, as everyone wants to stay comfortable and enjoy the outdoors even during the long winter months.
In the below paragraphs, I will explain in detail how to layer clothes for cold weather in detail. We will cover the most important layering principles, and explain each layer in detail. I am also going to share additional cold-weather layering tips and also mistakes I have made.
Topics Covered In This Article
- Cold Weather Layering Principles
- The Layers Explained
- Accessories For Added Comfort
- Additional Cold Weather Layering Tips
- Most Common Layering Mistakes
Cold Weather Layering Principles
The layers are used to insulate and protect your skin against the cold while wicking moisture away from the skin. The layers function like a protective barrier against the damaging effects of cold, dry winter air.
Layering allows you to add or remove layers depending on your activity level. Add or remove clothes as necessary to maintain the ideal body temperature.
To best explain how to layer clothes for cold weather, let’s start with the most important layering principles:
- Layers should not be too tight yet tight enough – You want warmth trapped inside the layers and moisture wicking away from your body. The layers should be snug enough to trap the warm air inside and loose enough to allow you to move freely. Three to four layers should be enough in most situations
- Add layers to keep a comfortable temperature – The golden rule for winter camping (or any winter activity) is to stay dry. To prevent sweating right from the get-go, my advice is to start without one of the layers and only add it when you are getting cold
- Remove layers when getting warm to prevent sweating – If you are getting warm and before your base layer is wet, you can remove layers to prevent sweating. It helps your body to stay dry so that you can continue to perform in the cold
- Choose the right material for each layer – The correct material traps in the heat, wicks away sweat, and is breathable, and keeps you comfortable simultaneously. Some of the best materials for layering are wool, wool blends, silk, and synthetic materials (like GoreTex). The worst material to layering in cold weather is cotton (especially in the base layer). It absorbs all of the moisture, it takes a long time to dry and it will keep you cold for a long time
The Layers Explained
These are the three layers you should wear for ideal temperature control in cold weather:
The base layer (for moisture management)
The job of the base layer is to move sweat away from the skin. The best clothing for this job is a thin long-sleeve shirt that fits close to your body. It will be warm, stretchy, and comfortable. Its main job will be wicking and moisture management since this layer is closest to your skin.
The best material for base layering is merino wool because it is great at wicking away moisture and drying fast. This way you will feel warm, even when sweating.
Other good options are natural materials like wool, wool blends, and silk, and synthetic materials, like nylon and polyester.
Avoid cotton at all costs, because it absorbs sweat, and takes a long time to dry (compared to other materials). If you’re wet you will stay wet for a long time, because it takes a lot of heat to heat up moisture. And if you’re cold long enough, you might get hypothermia.
The middle layer (for insulation)
The insulating layer helps trap warmth in the layers underneath. Precisely, it retains the heat radiated by your body. The better the middle layer traps the heat, the warmer your body will be.
Fleece is a good option for the insulation layer if you are on a budget. But, if budget is not an issue, wool and down are excellent options.
Wool is more expensive but has better insulation qualities than fleece. Down is also a warm and lightweight insulation material, therefore, a good option for cold weather.
For pants, fleece or wool are the best options since they will help keep you warm in cold and high-humidity environments.
The outer layer (for weather protection)
The outer layer has to protect you from bad weather, whether it’s rain, wind, or snow. The right material should allow some moisture to escape to regulate your body temperature. And at the same time don’t let the effects of the harsh environment get in.
The best materials for outer layers (for both trousers and jackets) are breathable fabrics like GoreTex. GoreTex is a waterproof fabric that allows body moisture to get out through the fabric. This material is preferred since it is breathable and provides excellent weather protection.
Accessories For Added Comfort
Since we already discussed clothes, we can now move to winter accessories. You can improve your defense against the cold weather with hats, gloves, socks, boots, and more. These are a very important part of the process of layering clothes for cold weather.
Hats should be made of breathable materials, cover ears, be well insulated and be breathable.
My best advice is to pack 2 different types of hats for your next winter trip. A lighter one for activity and a warm one for resting periods.
Wool is a superior material for cold-weather hats, with merino wool hats being on the top. Fleece is also a good option, however, the price difference to merino wool is only about $10 on Amazon.
There are many different styles, but the most common ones are beenies, bobble hats, and aviator hats.
Wear thin base layer gloves on your hands and thicker, insulated, and waterproof gloves on top of them. Your hand will thank you later.
Choose gloves based on your intended activity. Consider materials, thickness, and insulation to fit the desired activity. The gloves should be weatherproof, and the fingers should be non-slip.
The best gloves materials for cold weather are nylon, polyester, and leather blends. These materials are thin yet warm enough to keep your hands warm during high-activity outdoor activities such as skiing.
Wear at least two layers of socks during the winter, to best protect your feet from the cold. Add or remove layers depending on the temperature and weather you will be tackling. Here are a few details on socks layering:
- The base layer – is the most important in the winter since it helps to get the moisture away from your feet. Merino wool or wool nylon combination socks are the best for the base layer. They provide the best moisture management, allow you to regulate your temperature, and keep you warm when wet
- The second layer – provides insulation, so use warm wool socks for this layer. It is advisable to use socks with extra cushioned heels and arches to protect from blisters
- The third layer – You can use the third layer of thick wool socks for very cold days. Cotton is not recommended because it absorbs sweat and water, which makes you cold
The boots are an essential part of your layering system. There are various types of boots that you can get, including waterproof and breathable ones.
My recommendation is to match the boots to the right type of activity. Check out the manufacturer’s website to see if the boots you are about to purchase match the intended activity.
Ensure that the boots are comfortable and waterproof and you can fit your sock layers in comfortably.
The materials of the boot should be both breathable and water-resistant. A pair of GoreTex boots are perfect because they are breathable yet waterproof.
Face protection is essential in cold weather conditions. You need to protect your skin from snow, wind, and ice. The most common protection is a ski mask also called a balaclava. The balaclava helps to protect your face from being cold and prevents snow from getting into your ears and nose.
Additional Cold Weather Layering Tips
Some additional layering tips that didn’t fit into any of the above topics particularly well, but are too important not to share are:
- Keep your clothes dry – Try your best to keep your clothes dry during the day. If your clothes do get wet, do your best to dry them while in the camp, before going out the next day. Hang the wet clothes on a clothesline inside your tent or cabin, or use the warmth of the campfire to dry them
- Keep a pace at which you won’t break a sweat – Listen to your body and when you start noticing the sweat coming, slow down. The absolutely best way to stay dry is to not sweat in the first place. So take it down a gear and stay dry
- Adapt your layering to the planned activity – When it comes to choosing clothes for your outdoor activity it is important to adapt your layering to it. What I mean is you would wear different types of clothes, materials, or a number of layers for example when going hiking or camping. Both activities involve a different level of movement and therefore require a different approach
- If possible, use zip-through garments – Adding on or removing a layer is much easier with zip-through clothes in your layering setup. One simple trick that may change a lot
- Don’t overlayer – It is very easy to overlayer when you’re going out there, into the cold wilderness, especially your first few times. You might think that putting on an extra layer or two might help, but actually, the opposite is true. When you are wearing too many clothes you will sweat, get wet and be cold. Therefore my advice to you is to start a bit light, skip a layer and add layers as you are getting cold, to prevent sweating
- Test your gloves at home – Give your new gloves a try before you travel. Make sure that you can move all your fingers freely without any problems. Using your hands for finer tasks such as unzipping, opening a backpack, tying a knot, and more is inevitable, even in the cold. And believe me, the last thing you want to do is to remove your gloves for any one of these tasks, when you’re out there.
Most Common Layering Mistakes
And finally, here are some of the common mistakes I made and would like you to avoid. Some of them are a bit more obvious than others, but it is better to get to know them all.
- Overlayering – Wearing too many layers will make you sweat and you will get cold. It’s best to start a bit chilly and add on a layer, then get too warm and sweaty right from the start. Being wet in the cold can cause hypothermia
- Skipping a layer – This one is on the other side of the spectrum. If it is freezing out there you should be very careful with removing one of the 3 base layers. You can still start a bit light, but ALWAYS bring the layer you initially skipped (and maybe even an extra one) with you to use later when you get cold
- Getting too warm and stopping too late – If you are getting too warm, you may be overdoing it with your pace, or have too many layers. If you feel like you might start sweating either lower your pace or remove a layer and take a break to counter sweating
- Dressing for fashion, not for utility – When dressing for cold weather conditions, never prioritize fashion over functionality. Always dress to be warm and dry and (ultimately) comfortable. It would be best to find a balance between style and functionality if fashion is what you desire
- Not protecting your face – It is important to cover as much skin as possible in cold weather. The more skin is exposed, the higher chance of frostbite. So to prevent frostbite from happening on your face protect it with a balaclava or ski mask
- Not wearing a hat – The head is where people lose a lot of warmth, so make sure you wear a good quality hat whenever you’re out there in the cold weather. The hat will help to keep your body warm and dry
While you may desire to go camping (or do any other outdoor activity) even in the winter months it is important to understand and implement the most important cold-weather layering principles. This way you will stay safe and comfortable whatever your beloved activity out there is.
Remember to avoid cotton, instead choose wool or wool blend products if your budget allows it. Especially in the base layer.
Was (or not) your question of how to layer clothes for cold weather answered? Please share your opinions and questions you still may have in the comment section below.
Check out my other camping tips and guides to learn more about camping and the outdoors in general.