The Layering System: What Is It And How To Use It?

The Layering System: What Is It And How To Use It?

Ever wondered why even if you’re wearing a big, bulky, heavy winter jacket you’re still not warming up effectively?

Zip-up all the way and you’ll end up sweating like a hot potato. Pull the zipper down and all that sweat built up inside your jacket’s micro-climate will only make you feel even colder.

How to combat this? Layers.

woman jogging outdoors during winter

Layering system is the best and the most effective way to efficiently adapt your body temperature throughout a day of physical activities outdoors. Be it skiing, hiking, rock climbing or trekking, dressing up in layers is the way to go if you want to keep your body temperature stable. 

In this article we’re going to explain the benefits of the layering system and give you a few tips on how to layer up your clothes correctly. But first of all let’s explain what the layering system is.

As the name suggest, this is a term used to describe wearing many clothes on top of each other. Each piece of garment serves its purpose in order to: 

  • maintain body temperature
  • wick away sweat and moisture
  • insulate, generate warmth
  • protect from the elements while being air permeable

Generally, we can divide clothes into 3 main categories, according to their proximity to the body and their purpose. These categories are:

  1. The inner or BASE layer
  2. The MID layer
  3. The OUTER layer or SHELL

The base layer

This layer refers to clothes that are meant to be worn next to your skin.

These are usually base layer t-shirts or sleeveless shirts made from silk, wool and synthetic materials for warmer weather conditions.

Shirts and crew necks, long sleeves & leggings or long-johns are usually meant to be worn in colder weather conditions.

synthetic materials t shirt layering system base layer

The main purpose of this layer is to wick the sweat which your body generates and transfer it to the next layer of clothing.

If you need a base layer for colder climates, look for materials such as merino wool or synthetic materials, but avoid cotton. Cotton absorbs moisture, which will only make you feel colder as it evaporates from your body.

If the environment conditions are warm and you don’t want the extra heat, silk or lycra should be enough to keep you dry and cool.

The mid layer

This is the regulator layer. The main purpose of this layer is to trap heat from your body while letting air permeate through.

The most common garments of this type are fleece pull-overs or wool jumpers.

wool jumper layering system mid layer

Fleece is a lighter and cheaper option, while wool will give you that extra warmth. Wool also retains its heat trapping properties while wet, but it can get quite heavy; also wool can irritate the skin.

For very cold conditions prefer a down-filled mid layer jacket. Down is the most thermally efficient material, but it’s useless when wet. 

The outer layer

So far you have wicked away the moisture and insulated your body heat. Now it’s time to protect this microclimate that you have built. Protect it from what you ask? From the elements.

This is where the outer layer comes in to work as a protective layer, blocking wind and water.

This is where it gets tricky. If you want maximum protection then expect little to none breathability. Hard-shell jackets provide maximum protection because they have a protective membrane that won’t let rain come in. Most heavy-duty hard shell jackets have some kind of ventilation system, such as pit-zips.

There are synthetic materials which are water-proof but allow air to permeate through the fabric, such as Cordura ® and Gore-tex ®.

For warmer weather conditions, a synthetic wind-breaker jacket should be sufficient.

The layering system plays a critical role when you engage in prolonged outdoor activities. The main benefit of this system is the ability to adapt to the changing climate conditions by removing or adding layers according to your needs.