How to Layer Clothing for Each Season

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Article By:
McKenzie Long & RJ Spurrier

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Layering Systems

In Part Three of this article we will get down to brass tacks on how to layer clothes for winter and different outdoor conditions. Below you'll see some typical layer combinations for different types of activities. These systems are influenced by a bias to travel fast and light, yet keeping in mind that being prepared for changing conditions is a critical safety concern. For more specific lists of our recommended layers, check out our complimentary "Editors' Gear List" articles which elaborates on our favorite clothing as well as other items for various outdoor activities.

Here's an overview of the three articles in this series:
  • Why You Get Cold in the Mountains - Provides background information on exactly how and why you lose (and gain) heat during outdoor activities, and how a layered system addresses those thermodynamics.
  • How to Layer Clothing for Winter and All Seasons (current article) - This article is where the rubber meets the road, and we provide recommended layered clothing combinations for practical situations ranging from an all-day hike in the mountains to extreme mountaineering.

Summer Half-Day-Activities

(Two-Layer System)
For a half-day hike in the summer, or a short multi-pitch rock climb, we prefer a two-layer system. Since it's warm, and you're never too far from civilization, there is no need to overdo it with insulated layers. But keep in mind that if it gets windy or stormy, you will need some protection until you can retreat or find cover.

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An example of a two-layer system that works well while climbing. Ideally the wind layer can pack into a pocket so it can be easily brought along.

  1. Base Start with a performance shirt or long underwear base layer. It could be long-sleeved or short-sleeved depending on the amount of sun exposure you expect and how hot the temps are, and you could select either wool or synthetic materials. That said, you'll generally see us heading out in a long-sleeved, zip-necked wool shirt as a base layer.
  1. Outer For your second layer, if you are concerned about space and weight (which pretty much pegs us), choose a lightweight, compressible wind jacket such as the North Face Triumph. Alternatively, you could select a windproof fleece such as the Patagonia R4, the North Face Windwall, or the Mountain Hardwear Mistral. Lastly, if there is a chance you might see some moisture throughout the day, a windproof soft shell like the Marmot Reyna or the Arc'teryx Venta SV that is also mostly water resistant will do the trick.

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McKenzie Long hiking in the Torre Valley wearing a 2 layer system: a wool baselayer and a fleece layer with soft shell pants and a Buff for wind and sun protection.

Summer Full-Day Activities

(Three-layer system)
A full-day in the mountains can bring surprises. Afternoon thunder storms are common in many mountain areas, especially in July-Sept, and can arrive with little warning. Being caught in the back country in such a storm, and facing a hike out without adequate protection, is not just uncomfortable, it can be dangerous. Whether it's a day hike, or a serious alpine rock climb, we're going to tuck a bit more in our rucksack just in case something goes wrong. While your "three-hour tour" may go better than the one in Gilligan's Island, we advocate being prepared for the combination of a twisted ankle and an unexpected storm in the back country.

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An example of an alpine 3 layer system, using a synthetic base layer, a mid-weight fleece as a mid-layer, and a breathable soft shell as an outer-layer. This system would be best for aerobic activities such as hiking, nordic skiing, or climbing in cold.
  1. Base For the same reasons as our half-day hike system, start with a wicking performance shirt of your choosing. We'll generally choose a light merino wool long-sleeve base layer with a zip neck.
  1. Mid For your mid-layer, add warmth with a mid-weight fleece such as the Patagonia R2. If the temperatures are cooler, such as Spring or Fall, we'll swap out the fleece for the hoody version of a light insulated jacket such as the Patagonia Down Sweater, Mountain Hardwear Zonal or Montbell Thermawrap.
  1. Outer Top it off with a shell that is appropriate for the conditions. If you plan on doing more aerobic activity in good weather, a water-resistant soft shell and/or ultralight rain jacket will do the trick. If there is a chance of significant rain (and there almost always is in the mountains), toss a hardshell or light rain jacket in your pack along with some rain pants.

Keep in mind that a day hike or climb gone wrong may mean bivouacking overnight. In addition to the above, we'll bring a warm hat, a headlamp, a whistle, athletic tape (in case of a twisted ankle), extra food, and water.

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Wearing the Patagonia Capilene 2 as a baselayer and the MontBell Thermawrap as a mid-layer. The third shell layer is packed away while approaching, but can be added to the system when it gets windy or stormy.

Multi-Day Backpack Layers

(Three-layer system)
There's frankly not a huge difference between our Full-Day layer system and what we bring on a multi-day backpack trip. Mostly, we'll just assume that bad weather will occur, and the time to get out if things go wrong will be longer. In short, we're a bit more conservative.
  1. Base We'll generally choose a light merino wool long-sleeve base layer with a zip neck. But, we might toss in a light short sleeved performance shirt as a luxury.
  1. Mid We'll generally forgo the fleece for the hooded version of light insulated jacket such as the Patagonia Down Sweater, Patagonia Nano Puff, or North Face Catalyst. While a fleece jacket is comfy, a light insulated jacket is more robust, and will keep you warmer in a broader range of circumstances.
  1. Outer Shell Top it off with a shell that is appropriate for the conditions. For a multi-day backpack we'll generally assume significant rain and bring a hardshell or quality rain jacket along with some rain pants.

In addition to the above, we'll bring a warm hat, a headlamp (and extra batteries), a whistle, athletic tape (in case of a twisted ankle), along with our usual assortment of backpacking gear.

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Austin Palmer and Veronica Long wearing water-proof, wind-resistant layers, a beanie, and a Buff on a windy mountain ridge.

Winter Wanderings

(Four-Layer System)
For even colder and wetter activities, such as skiing, snowboarding, ice climbing, or moderate mountaineering, 4 layers work best to allow you to cool off during the hard aerobic parts of your day and stay warm during the slow or stormy periods. Layers can be removed and added as needed throughout the day.

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A 4 layer system for multi-day trips in the mountains. The hard shell leaves you prepared for any kind of weather, the insulation and mid-weight fleece combine to keep you warm, and a Merino wool base layer provides the optimum wicking + insulation ratio.
  1. Base Start with a long underwear layer, shirt and bottoms. Thinner usually works best so that you don't overheat while charging uphill. As always, we'll generally choose a light merino wool long-sleeve base layer with a zip neck.
  1. Mid Select a fleece that you like best. It should be light to mid-weight such as the Patagonia R1 and R2, or the Arc'teryx Caliber Hoody. It can be thinner than the fleece you would choose for a three piece layering system, because in this system you will also have an insulated layer.
  1. Insulating For an insulated layer, pick something relatively lightweight, and it can be either down or synthetic insulation. It should be able to fit over your fleece and under your shell layer. While we generally prefer a light down sweater style jacket with a hood, in winter conditions where your jacket may get wet, a synthetic insulated jacket is wise. Synthetics weigh a bit more and are more bulky than down alternatives, but they retain their insulating properties when wet. If we're in the back country on a multi-day ski trip, the additional weight and bulk of synthetic is well worth it. Our favorite insulating layer jackets for winter include the Arc'Teryx Atom SV, Montbell UL Thermawrap, or Mountain Hardwear Zonal.
  1. Outer Shell A protective hard shell layer is where it's at. If you are playing in snow, whether it is shredding, back country skiing, or snowshoeing, you are bound to get wet, which is something you don't want. A Gore-Tex or EVent jacket such as the RAB Latok Alpine jacket will keep you dry while still providing some level of breatheability.

In addition, a warm hat that completely covers your ears, a balaclava and a neck gaiter (buff) are recommended.

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Luke Lydiard on a Patagonian glacier with Poincenot in the back. He currently has his synthetic insulation layer over his hard shell layer for convenience, but when it begins to precipitate, he switches to have his insulation layer underneath his shell.

Extreme Expeditions

(Four-Layer System)
The expedition layering system is very similar to the winter four-layer system, except that the layers should be thicker and more protective. In very extreme high altitude expeditions a full body down suit is common, but generally used only above 24,000 feet. Keep in mind not to wear too many layers at once. If you are getting too hot, remove layers to regulate your temperature well so that you aren't drenched in sweat, which will only make you colder when you stop.

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A four layer system with a thick belay jacket layer which can be worn under a shell. Preferably for an expedition, an insulated layer could also be worn under a shell.

  1. Base Start with a long underwear layer, shirt and bottoms. Even on high altitude expeditions, a thinner base layer shirt usually works best so that you don't overheat while approaching, but a thicker bottom layer is preferred. A one-piece suit such as the Mountain Hardwear Power stretch suit or Outdoor Research Saturn suit is frequently used in high-altitude expeditions as an alternative to a bottom layer and serves to augment the top layer with additional insulation for the core.
  1. Mid A typical expedition system will rely on a mid-weight fleece layer such as the Patagonia R2 and R3, or the Mountain HardWear Monkey Man. Some mountaineers prefer to use an insulated down or synthetic sweater, or vest, in addition to a mid-weight fleece.
  1. Insulating For an insulated layer, a very warm high quality jacket with a hood is essential. Generally down is preferred, but it can be either down or synthetic insulation. It should have a water resistant outer material such as Gore-tex and baffled construction. Many high altitude mountaineers will opt for a high-loft down jacket with premium 800-fill (or 850) goose down that incorporates a breathable, water-resistant shell such as the Mountain Hardwear Sub-Zero, or Absolute Zero parka. In any case, your insulating layer should be sized to over your mid-weight fleece layer and under your shell layer.
  1. Outer Shell Some high altitude mountaineers will forgo the traditional hard shell, for an insulating down jacket that incorporates a technical Gore-tex shell material, and then switch to a down suit for the camps above 24,000 ft. In general, a waterproof, breatheable shell with full front zipper, underarm zips, and no insulation is used to protect against wind and rain. At lower altitudes, the hard shell may be used instead of an insulating layer when establishing camps or humping loads between camps. In addition, hard shell pants or climbing bib with full length zippers are typical.

For the head, a warm hat that fully covers your ears, a neck gaiter (buff), thick balaclava, very thin balaclava, and face mask are typical.

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Jason Kuo exhibiting proper alpine layering while on a water break in Patagonia. He is getting his synthetic insulation layer out to keep warm while not moving. McKenzie is wearing the Mountain HardWear Sub-Zero, a water-resistant down layer.

If you haven't read them already, don't miss the first two parts of this article: Introduction to Layered Clothing Systems and Why You Get Cold in the Mountains.

McKenzie Long & RJ Spurrier
About the Author
McKenzie grew up in the Midwest with a winter layering system consisting of wearing two pairs of jeans and going inside for hot chocolate if she got wet. After she discovered her passion for the mountains, she educated herself on this topic through careful mimicry of more savvy individuals. Now she lives in Mammoth Lakes, California and runs her own freelance design business, where she is constantly trying to perfect the work-and-play balance.

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Comment on this article
martincho8002 · Backpacker · Sofia  Dec 30, 2014
12:42pm PT

I am interested in the order of layers for cold (to very cold) conditions when using a soft shell and not a hard shell.

When you use a hard shell it is straightforward you put the hardshell on top of all.

But after watching videos and reading forums I see that people suggest using the soft shell as layer number 3 and wear it below the insulation layer. Why using a soft shell instead of a hard shell changes the order?

It's like the soft shell is no longer a shell so much as it is no the outermost layer.

All detailed explanations are most welcome !
McKenzie Long · Senior Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab  Mar 29, 2015
03:36pm PT
Hi martincho8002,

I think that a softshell can be worn as an outer layer, but usually what level layer it is changes throughout the day based on activity level and the conditions.

In answer to your question I will explain how I wear a softshell when ice climbing. I use it as an outer layer to protect against wind and moderate wetness while I am approaching and climbing. However when I stop moving, either to belay or take a break, I add an insulation layer like a big down belay parka, on top of it. This helps keep me warm when I am not working up a sweat. Then when I start moving again I take this big layer off and the softshell becomes an outer layer again.

For very cold conditions you can also use a two puffy system where you wear a thin synthetic puffy, such as the Patagonia Nano Puff or Rab Xenon, underneath your softshell while you are climbing and moving, but then add a thicker, warmer puffy on the outside when you are standing still.

I hope this helps clarify things for you!
GWUDude · Hiker · San Francisco, CA  Jun 17, 2015
02:59pm PT

I am going to be in the Alps next year at the tail end of Winter 2015. My possible combinations are: 1) Grid Desna Jacket under my Nilas jacket with the Qausar jacket as the outer shell 2) I bring along my Absolute Zero Parka and Desna Grid jacket and forego the hardshell since I am assuming that I will be more likely to encounter cold wet snow rather than rain or 3) my Kelvinater jacket with Monkey Man Grid jacket fleese and my Quasar insulated jacket for outer most protection.

Any suggestions or do you think one of these combinations would work best?

Thanks and great article!
Paleoman1 · Rural NE California  Nov 10, 2015
10:30am PT
Deeply grateful for the excellent info and reviews you folks provide at Outdoor Gearlab. This is the sort of information that not only increases comfort and facilitates healthful recreation, but which saves lives, lives you will generally never know that you have saved.

For several decades I have been blessed to live and hike in the mountains, but finding really suitable gear and outerwear has always been a challenge, especially in brick and mortar outdoor shops. Thanks to your astute reviews and info, I have been able to identify, locate and purchase systems that have added greatly to my comfort and safety. In the long run, though not cheap, this saves money because I am not having to cycle through inadequate gear.
David Swank · Backpacker · Rapid City  Nov 29, 2015
06:34pm PT
Great info on layering for upper body. Any suggestions for lower body, in particular for winter or colder weather?
PoppaJohn · Hiker  Jan 15, 2016
11:51pm PT
I enjoyed reading all three articles on layering. Would you please comment on the best layering for legs?

Thank you.

Cosmos Gu · Backpacker · Los Angeles  Mar 7, 2016
10:02pm PT
@David Swank @PoppaJohn
Have a look at the comment section of the second article in this series. Someone asked a similar question and was answered.
Sudhir Kothari   Mar 23, 2016
12:48am PT
excellent article.

But I could not find the answer to what to do about legs, socks, etc.
Please guide.

Dr Kothari.
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