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Adventure, Alpine / December 13, 2013

Your layering system is (probably) wrong

Written by: Matt Minich

We thought we knew how to dress for winter weather. Heck, we’ve been doing it since we were kids. It goes base layer, then insulating layers, then shell. Right?


Turns out our lifelong layering system is more or less completely bogus. Or so we heard from Sierra Designs Vice President Mike Glavin, who shared these tips on staying dry, keeping warm, and not looking like a poser in the winter backcountry.


Leave the shell off

No matter what the marketing people say, hard shells are rain jackets. And putting one over your layer system is sort of like wrapping your cat in Saran wrap: It’s not a good idea.

Layers should get more breathable as they go away from your body, says Glavin, so that moisture generated by activity can wick away. Putting a shell over the system traps that moisture, leaving inner layers to soak it up. And when those layers get wet, you get cold.

Don't believe the hype. Hard shells will keep you dry in rain or heavy snow, but they aren't an essential layer in any other conditions.

Even in low temperatures, opt for breathable outer layers.

Forget “levels of exertion”

Traditional wisdom holds that layering systems should be adjusted by your level of activity. More movement produces more warmth, and that means you’ll need less layers. Makes sense to us.

“That’s bullsh*t,” says Glavin. “In reality, you are off or you are on, and there is no middle setting.” Backcountry travel has just two states of being, he says: going and stopping. So “throw out that fleece/Goretex/layering crap and simply dress for the two situations you will encounter.”


When you go, go light and breathable

When choosing your “going” layer system, dress for the activity, not the conditions. Most people dress with cold weather in mind, says Glavin, and end up soaking their layers with sweat after just a few minutes. If you keep moving, chances are you’ll need far less clothing than you think.

Glavin recommends the “action suit” system devised by legendary alpinist Mark Twight: a base layer (something wicking and warm like wool or polypropylene) covered by a tight-fitting, wind-resistant “semi-permeable vapor layer.” If temperatures are below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, supplement this with a down sweater or a fleece vest.

For the vapor layer, avoid fully waterproof  jackets in favor of something light (Sierra Designs’ Cloud Windshell is a good example). This layer is meant not just to protect from wind, but to release the moisture wicked out by your base layer.

When designing such layers, Sierra Designs aims for permeability of 2-5 CFM (cubic feet per minute per square meter- a measure of the volume of air that can move through the jacket’s fabric). By comparison, a regular fleece has a permeability of around 200 CFM.

Moving through the mountains generates a lot of heat. While traveling, you'll probably need fewer layers than you'd expect.

Don't get complacent. The warmth generated by activity fades almost immediately, so throw on a puffy as soon as you stop moving.

When you stop, get down fast

The whole “going” system is based on the premise (well, fact) that constant movement produces both heat and moisture. But at some point in your backcountry ventures, you’re going to want to take a break.

That’s when you’ll break out your “stop” system: a single puffy (preferably down) jacket that fits over your entire “action suit” to warm you up without the hassle of adjusting layers.

Make this jacket easy to access and put it on as soon as you stop, before you feel cold. Most people, still warm from their earlier activity, spend the first part of their break in their “action suit.” This can lead to a rapid decrease in core temperature, and leave them struggling to get back to a comfortable base.

Spend a few minutes moving around to warm up before you end your break, and take off the jacket as soon as you’re ready to get going again.

How do you layer for cold weather? Email your tips to [email protected] 

about the author

Matt Minich

Matt Minich is Editorial Director for Shoulders of Giants. He has spent more than a decade writing, editing, and curating content about outdoor sports and adventure. As an adventure journalist he has climbed peaks in Patagonia, rappelled waterfalls in Colorado, B.A.S.E. jumped in Moab, and sampled fermented horse milk in Kyrgyzstan.

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