How to layer clothing for maximum efficiency

How to layer clothing for maximum efficiency

Clothing is an aspect of gear where you can save a lot of extra weight if you do your research.  It’s easy to bring along too many clothes or garments that are much heavier than they need to be. This is a result of over thinking your clothing options. Everything you bring regarding clothing should have a stand-alone use, as well as a layering use.

When we think of cold weather clothing, we think of protecting our arms, torso, heads, hands, legs, and feet. That’s a lot of garments that have the potential to get very heavy if we overdo it. We’re talking jackets, long pants, gloves, hoodies, thick socks, long underwear, and possibly more if you’re particularly particular to the cold.  The key to making the correct cold weather garment selections is “layers.” You need to be able to layer every piece of clothing in your pack; fitting together like the pieces of a puzzle. When layering upper body garments, it’s smart to have a base layer, an insulating down/fleece layer, and a wind/rain shell layer. That’s three layers for your upper body. Each one by itself can be worn comfortably on its own, depending on the temperature and conditions. The cooler or worse the climate, the more layers you can put on. The base layer (which can be worn under a T-shirt, or any shirt for that matter) is your first defense against the cold elements. It’s normally very form fitting, acting as a thin insulator to keep your body heat on your body, as well as wicking away moisture from your skin.

The next layer over top of that would be a fleece or down jacket/pullover (down being the lightest and most popular). This layer’s job is to further insulate your own body heat and trap warmth within your garments. Your down/fleece layer will be the warmest article of clothing you take with you. Features like hoods, zippers, drawstrings, and pockets are all things to consider when you factor in how heavy and functional you want this layer to be.

The most exterior layer is the wind/rain shell jacket. This layer can simply be a windbreaker shell jacket (lightest option), or a waterproof shell jacket (which will also work as a windbreaker). Waterproof shell jackets will normally be slightly heavier than a windbreaker due to its waterproof properties.  Regardless of which one your choose, the job of this final third layer is to block out any wind chill or water that could possibly get through to the other layers, subsequently making their job more difficult, or even rendering them useless ( think wet down jacket).

Keep in mind; these layers do not always have to be worn all together. The sequence I’ve just described is simply the warmest most protective way of layering them. You can wear any of those garments by themselves (depending on the conditions), or layer them two at a time. For example, just the base layer and the down jacket; just the base layer and the shell jacket; or just the down jacket and the shell jacket, etc. By using the layering method, you can eliminate the need of going overboard by buying something that could possibly be too heavy or warm by itself during most conditions or worse… not enough. The whole point of the layering system is versatility and economy; essentially a place for everything, and everything in its place.

Choosing your layers

Now that we’ve discussed the types of layers there are, let’s go over options for those three individual garments. Base layer tops come in many different thicknesses for different temperatures. Based on your own individual comfort levels, you should be able to select how heavy a base layer you need in order to layer it with your other garments and be comfortable. Many base layers are made from synthetic materials, but some are made from wool or a combination of wool and synthetic materials. Wool has the advantage of maintaining its insulating properties even when wet, but at the expense of being a little bit heavier. Base layers made from synthetic materials tend to be lighter than wool and wick away moister better, but don’t share the same insulating properties. The ones that are blended with both materials have a little bit of the best of both worlds. It’s up to you to decide which qualities are more important to you based on your tolerance of the cold and how heavy you want your garments to be. Personally, I am not a huge fan of the cold, but I have a high tolerance for misery; knowing this about myself, I go with a “mid weight” (MW) base layer, as opposed to a “lightweight” (LT), or “Heavy” (H) base layer. Balance is the key!


The insulating layer that goes over top of your base layer will usually be a down jacket/pullover, or a fleece jacket/pull over. Almost every experienced (or inexperienced) hiker you run into will have a down jacket on them, also referred to as a “puffy.” The warmth, comfort, as well as warmth to weight ratio of “goose down” is simply superior to anything else out there. Choosing a down/fleece jacket is another personal comfort choice. They can be as light as four to six ounces, to as much as a pound and a half and everything in between. The deciding factor in how much your down jacket weighs will come down to how much “down” it’s stuffed with, what the outer and inner materials are made of, how many pockets and zippers it has, and whether it has a built-in hood. The warmth of your down jacket should depend on your own comfort level with the cold, as well as the heaviness/warmth of your base layer and the heaviness/warmth of your shell layer. As an example: Since I have a mid weight base layer and I know I’m not particularly fond of cold, I don’t opt for the lightest of down jackets, but I don’t go overboard either. I personally stay in the 7 to 10 ounce range with my down jacket. I’m a larger guy, so obviously my garments are going to weight more by default. If you’re smaller, you could find something in the 5 to 8 ounce range that will provide you the same insulation. As far as fleece jackets/pullovers go, they are pretty much guaranteed to be heavier than down, however fleece still retains much of its insulation properties when wet; down does not. Also, fleece can be wrung or shaken out of most of its moisture when it becomes soaked. Decide which properties between down and fleece are most important to you when making your final choice.

Your shell layer has the potential to be the lightest of all your upper body layers. If you opt for just a wind shell, you can find them as light as just over an ounce, to only a few ounces. If you’re opting for something waterproof, then you’re looking at around four to six ounces at the very lightest and up (if you’re a smaller individual, then you might be able to find lighter). How do you decide whether you want to go waterproof or not? It all depends on your comfort level with the rain. Some people (myself included) choose to go with as few clothes as possible when it rains. This is done in an effort to spare any layers getting wet from rain, or sweat. The only time some people wear a wind shell is to protect them from cold wind chills penetrating their other layers. If I was to wear a rain shell, I would only wear it by itself when it rained, in an effort to give myself a little more insulation/protection from the water (if it was particularly cold). Remember, no matter how waterproof a garment is, if it rains hard enough, long enough, or both… the water will eventually soak through. At some point, you have to decide if you want to hike in the rain wearing as little as possible (to safeguard any extra layers from potentially getting wet and becoming useless), or if the rain is way too cold/strong to hike in while wearing the bare minimum. Learn when to call it a day, in an effort to avoid accidents or unnecessary misery.

Lower Body Layers

Just as there are layering options for your upper body, there are layering options for your lower body. They are roughly the same types of options as mentioned above, so I won’t spend as much time going over them. Like your upper body layers, you can choose to wear a long underwear base layer of varying thicknesses, lengths (above the calf/below the calf), weights, styles, and materials (synthetic, wool). You can then choose an insulating down layer to wear over top of that, or wind/rain shell pants as the outer most layer. Rain or wind shell pants are decidedly more popular and functional than wearing “down impregnated” pants. In fact, I have yet to meet another long distance hiker who was carrying down pants.

When it comes to layers on the lower extremities, they’re nowhere near as important as layers on your torso. This is because your legs do not contain any vital organs that need to be insulated and protected from the cold. Most people who hike long distance have excellent circulation in their legs, and you will see many people hiking in shorts, even when conditions are freezing. At the very most, some hikers may carry a base layer of long underwear in addition to a rain/wind shell layer of pants. More often than not, you will be able to get by with one or the other. If you are particularly sensitive to the cold, then it would be smart to go with light base layer underwear and a pair of wind/rain shell pants; this way they can be used in the event of strong freezing winds or an exceptionally cold night in your shelter.

So that’s the basics to layering in a nutshell. Below are some examples of different layers to give you ideas. I’ve posted some links and images of a few very popular brands/models amongst long distance hikers.  I’ve even included my own personal choice of layers as well. Now go forth, layer with confidence and be warm!

Down Jackets

Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket

(My “go-to” Down Jacket, as well as a very popular model amongst long distance hikers)

Marmot Quasar Down Jacket

Arcteryx Cerium Down Jacket

Wind Shell Jackets

Mountain Hardwear Ghostlite Wind Jacket

(My current and favorite wind jacket to date)

Marmot Trail Wind Jacket

Arcteryx Squamish Wind Jacket

Base Layer Tops

Smartwool NTS Mid 250 Pattern Crew Base Layer Top

Icebreaker Oasis Base Layer Top

(My current Base Layer Top)

Base Layer Bottoms

(My current long underwear)

Icebreaker Merino Oasis Leggings

Rain Shell Jackets

Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket (Waterproof)

(I used the Helium II on the PCT and was very impressed. The Helium is a very popular Rain Shell amongst Long Distance Hikers)

Marmot Minimalist Waterproof Jacket

Arc’Teryx Men’s Beta SL Waterproof Jacket

AntiGravityGear Ultralight Rain Jacket w/ Pit Zips

(My current Rain Shell Jacket)

Rain/Wind Shell Pants

AntiGravityGear Ultralight Rain Pants

(My current Rain/Wind Shell pants that I’m in love with)

Marmot Wind/Rain Pants

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1 Comment

  1. Great info here. I really like that you have links to products. Since it has been about 20 below zero every morning for the last few weeks,layering is literally the most important thing you can do before heading outside. The dog still needs to go for a walk/hike so I layer her up as well. Fun times:)

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