When you’re shopping for outdoor clothing, there’s a term that will pop up over and over: layering. You’ll see things marketed as base layers, mid layers, and outer layers– but what does that mean? Isn’t a shirt just a shirt, or a jacket a jacket?
Some types of clothing are better suited to being worn in layers than others. In this guide, we will explain what layering is, why it works, and what each layer of clothing needs to do. We’ll also share how to layer in all seasons.
What Is Layering
Layering is a great way to stay warm and comfortable in the outdoors, especially in the winter. The key to dressing in layers is to use multiple thin layers instead of a single thick layer. This allows you to easily adjust your clothing to suit the weather and your activity level.
Why Does Layering Work?
Layering clothing works well for hiking, skiing, walking, and other activities because it allows you to adjust to the changing temperature and weather conditions that you may encounter on the trail. There are lots of advantages to layering as opposed to just wearing one thick layer.
- Wearing multiple layers of clothing lets you easily add or remove layers as needed
- Layers can help you avoid getting soaked with sweat in winter, which can lead to hypothermia or simply being uncomfortable.
- Layering allows you to pack fewer items, as you can use the same clothing for different conditions by adjusting the layers.
- Layering allows you to wear the most comfortable fabric close to the skin, while heavy-duty, rougher fabric is worn towards the outside of your layers
Layering Decision Matrix
Not sure what to wear? Let this chart be your guide.
|Very Cold (deep snow, alpine conditions)||Cold||Moderate||Hot||Wet|
|Base Layer Options||Long underwear, wool, flannel-lined leggings under your pants||Merino wool, other types of wool and wool blends||Lightweight merino wool or performance fabric shirt||Lightweight, moisture wicking shirt; performance fabrics are great for hot weather||Lightweight polyester long underwear, water resistant, moisture wicking shirt; merino wool is ideal|
|Mid Layer Options||Insulated vests or jacket, long-sleeved shirts, potentially multiple layers, puffy jacket||Insulated vests or jacket, long-sleeved shirts, puffy jacket||Microfleece tops, merino wool tops, soft shell jacket||Probably not necessary||Microfleece tops, merino wool tops, water resistant soft shell jacket|
|Outer Layer Options||Waterproof and windproof outer shell. Even if not warn, this should always be brought.
Down or synthetic insulated winter coat
|Waterproof and windproof outer shell. Even if not warn, this should always be brought.
Down or synthetic insulated winter coat
|Light jacket (if needed)||Potentially a lightweight long-sleeved shirt for sun protection||Water resistant or waterproof jacket or coat|
|Extra info||Absolutely do not wear cotton; wool will keep you warm even if it gets wet
Outer layers need to be wind and
|Do not wear cotton in cold weather!||If rain is on the radar, bring an extra water-resistant jacket or merino wool base layer.||If the UV index is high, consider lightweight long sleeves or fabric with built-in sun protection.||Wool socks will keep your feet warm even if water gets into your boots.|
Each layer of clothing serves a unique purpose in your layering setup. Here are the very basic functions of each layer:
- Base Layer: Moisture management, skin protection, and thermoregulation
- Mid Layer: Insulation
- Outer Layer: Protects you from wind, rain, and the environment
The base layer is the layer of clothing worn next to your skin. In some instances, like hiking on a hot summer day, you might only be wearing a base layer.
You can always remove or add mid and top layers, but your base layer typically stays on– unless you’re about to jump in a lake or something similar, you shouldn’t hike without a shirt on.
There are three major functions of the base layer:
- Managing moisture
- Protecting the skin
- Thermoregulation, or maintaining the body’s correct temperature
A key element of your base layer is that it is moisture-wicking. Moisture-wicking base layers are designed to move sweat away from the skin and to the outer layers of your clothes, where it can evaporate more easily. This can help to keep you cool and comfortable, especially during activities that involve a lot of physical exertion.
Some key information about moisture-wicking fabrics:
- Moisture-wicking fabrics are typically made from synthetic materials, such as polyester or nylon; however, wool and merino wool are also moisture-wicking
- It is important that your moisture-wicking base layer is lightweight and able to quickly transport moisture away from the skin
- Some moisture-wicking fabrics also feature additional technologies, such as built-in ventilation or antimicrobial treatments
We have a complete guide to understanding how moisture-wicking works if you would like to know more about it.
Protecting the Skin
There are a lot of hazards on the trail: the sun, rocks, and sharp vegetation, just to name three. Even if you’re only wearing a base layer, look for one that can protect you from these threats– particularly if you’re hiking in direct sunlight.
Our bodies have a natural way to cool off and maintain temperature: sweat. Sweat forms on the skin and evaporates, cooling us off. But when we’re wearing clothing, sweat has no place to go… unless your base layer is moisture-wicking, like we just discussed.
Your base layer also needs to keep you warm. This is why cotton should be avoided– cotton just absorbs moisture and traps it next to your skin. This can cause hypothermia in winter. If it’s wet out, you should choose a moisture-resistant base layer; merino wool is often ideal.
Base Layer Options
A base layer is just the layer of clothes worn closest to your body– and yes, this does include your underwear. Your base layer choices include, but are not limited to the following:
- Long underwear
- Tank tops
- Performance athletic shirts
Base Layer Materials
Base layer materials are lightweight and should be both moisture-wicking and ideally odor-resistant. The following materials are commonly used for base layers:
- Cotton Blends
- Merino wool
For more information, check out our guide to base layer materials.
The middle layer or layers of clothing are all about insulation. You want to choose a middle layer that will trap the air next to your body. Typically in the spring and summer, you won’t want mid-layers, because you want your clothes to help you stay cool. But for fall and winter, a mid-layer can be the difference between feeling miserable and having a great time.
Mid layers work on the principle of air insulation; that is, they trap the warm air to help you stay toasty. Because of this, the general guideline is that thicker or puffier insulation is warmer. However, when you get into options like Thinsulate, this is not always true– you need to check the insulation’s strength.
You want your mid-layers to be light enough that you won’t get too hot, but warm enough that you won’t get too cold. Choose your mid-layers carefully based on the weather. Your mid-layer choices include, but are not limited to the following:
- Down insulated jackets
- Down insulated vests
- Long-sleeved flannel shirts
- Long-sleeved fleece shirts
- Microfleece or polar fleece vests
- Soft shell jackets
- Synthetic insulated jackets
- Synthetic insulated vests
- Puffy or fleece vest.
If you use insulated options for your mid layer, go for the thinnest insulation you can find– it’s better to have multiple thin layers than one thick layer.
Mid-layer materials can include the following:
- Down or synthetic down filled jacket
- Cotton blend or poly flannel
- Down insulation
- Polyester fleece
- Synthetic insulation
- Wind fleece
- Wool and Merino wool
You usually won’t see water resistant mid layers, unless the material is naturally water resistant, like wool.
Your outer layer (sometimes called the shell layer) needs to protect you from the elements, which means that it needs to stand up to wind, rain, snow, and sometimes intense sun. Frequently, the outer layer will be water resistant and breathable– you want the outer layer to allow sweat and water vapor to escape, but also to keep you dry if it rains.
Your outer layer is very important when it storms; if wind and water penetrate to inner layers, you can get seriously chilled and may even suffer from hypothermia.
Outer Layer Options
Usually your outer layer is your heaviest layer, but it’s not the first to come off when you get too warm. Because this is a protective layer, you should remove middle layers first if you get too warm– those are the layers most responsible for insulation.
Your outer layer options include, but are not limited to:
- Rain jackets
- Heavy zippered sweaters and sweatshirts (for dry conditions in spring and fall)
- Long-sleeved, lightweight shirts (summer only)
- Softshell jackets
- Water-resistant jackets
- Waterproof shell jackets
- Windbreaker jackets
- Winter coats and parkas
On just about any outdoor adventure, it is a safety measure to always bring a waterproof outer layer.
Outer Layer Materials
Outer layers are made from lots of different fabrics that are usually treated in some way to improve their performance. Here are some of the various materials you may find in the construction of your outer layers:
- Materials with DWR coatings
- Coated cotton canvas (highly wind-proof!)
- Down insulation (with a waterproof layer overtop)
- Synthetic insulation (with a waterproof layer overtop)
Many windproof, waterproof and breathable jackets today use a two layer, or three layer system. So the one “outer layer” thin jacket material is made up of multiple layers itself to allow for breathability while still being water resistant.
Layering for All Seasons
Layering is a smart practice no matter what time of year you plan to go adventuring. But each season has its own concerns– whether it’s the temperature, the weather, or other conditions, you need to think carefully about what you wear when you go hiking, fishing, or participating in other outdoor activities.
Layering in Spring
Spring is typically the rainiest season and may even be snowy. Spring temperatures often fluctuate, so it’s important that your layering system is flexible. Remember, you can always remove a layer while you’re out in the field.
Because spring is such a wet season, you want to wear water-resistant layers. Merino wool is a great base layer, and for your outer layer, you can pick a wind and water-resistant shell. Look for a jacket that isn’t too heavy but can provide the weather protection you need.
You may even want to wear lightweight polyester long underwear as a base layer to help keep your legs cozy and dry.
Layering in Summer
In the summer, layering can also be useful for staying comfortable. Start with a light, moisture-wicking base layer, and then add a lightweight insulation layer if you need it.
You can also wear a breathable, light-colored outer layer to protect yourself from the sun. However, it’s important to avoid overdressing, as this can cause you to become too hot and sweaty.
Why Should You Layer In Summer?
When you’re doing outdoor activities in summer, layering might not make a lot of sense to you. After all, it’s hot– why do you need insulation?
In summer, layering isn’t for insulation– if anything, it’s for heat protection. A moisture-wicking base layer can help you deal with sweat, while a lightweight, long-sleeved outer layer can help prevent sunburn.
Layering in Fall
Fall is a great season for outdoor activities. The changing leaves and landscape are beautiful, and the temperature is mild– not too hot, not too cold. Still, you should consider layering. The temperature can drop rapidly, especially as the sun goes down– so it’s a good idea to have at least one extra mid-layer piece with you, just in case.
Layering in Winter
Winter is the season most people associate with layering. It might seem really cold when you’re staying still, but as you hike or ski, your body will heat up and you can actually get overheated quite quickly.
For winter layering, start with a base layer that is made of a moisture-wicking material such as polyester or wool. This will help keep your skin dry and warm.
Next, add a layer of insulation, such as a fleece or down jacket, to keep the heat in. Finally, add a waterproof and windproof outer layer to protect you from the elements.
In general, the key to layering is to choose clothing that is breathable, moisture-wicking, and lightweight. This will help you stay comfortable and adjust to changing weather conditions. You can always add or take away layers– you just need to start out either wearing or carrying them with you. It’s also important to pay attention to the weather forecast and choose your layers accordingly. A good understanding of layering will help you stay warm and dry, no matter what the weather is doing.
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about