What does the term ‘layering’ actually mean and why can layering be so important? This guide outlines the “layering” process, how the layers work together and how it can make your outdoor experience that much more enjoyable.
The layering system refers to the wearing multiple layers of clothing to protect and/or insulate our bodies from the elements. It’s not only for the serious outdoor enthusiast…. whether you’re on a week-long hike or a walk around the block, there’s a layering option to suit every activity. Layering your clothing is the best way to go if you’re heading into the outdoors.
The great thing about layering is the versatility it offers. As the weather or the intensity of activity change, so do your layers. It’s as easy as adding or removing an item. It will maximize your enjoyment in your given activity and keep you comfortable regardless of what nature throws at you.
There are 4 key layers – the Base Layer (worn next to your skin) is about managing moisture and regulating your body temperature; the Mid and Insulation Layers are all about heat retention and the Outer Layer (or shell layer) is all about protecting you from the external elements and keeping the conditions out.
The purpose of a base-layer can be to provide warmth and insulation to the wearer or wick moisture away from the body to keep you comfortable, or both! A Base Layer that provides warmth in addition to comfort is often referred to as a thermal. Generally Base Layers are made from Merino Wool or synthetic fabrics with each offering different benefits to the wearer.
Merino wool is naturally anti-bacterial, odour resistant and breathable. It is a temperature regulating fibre that works with your body to maintain comfort in warm or cold conditions, it even maintains warmth when wet making it a popular choice for travellers and adventurers alike.
Synthetic Base Layer fabrics are often more affordable, lightweight and quick drying with very efficient moisture wicking proprieties. Polypropylene is used widely for Base Layers as it has very high heat retention, making it ideal for cool to cold conditions.
The one fabric to avoid for your base layer is cotton. A cotton t-shirt or singlet under a jacket or fleece will retain a lot of perspiration and the outer layer will then trap this moisture against your skin causing you to feel wet, cold or stuffy.
Base Layers are not just effective in cold climates, they are also ideal for active use in warmer climates. Consider a summer hike through a wet, humid, tropical rain-forest – a lightweight, moisture wicking Base Layer is an ideal choice as it will draw moisture away from your body and they are also very quick drying.
The Mid Layer
The Mid Layer is your first insulation layer and is worn on top of your Base Layer; it’s designed to keep you warm by trapping air close to your body. For this reason your Mid Layer should be worn quite fitted to your body reducing air movement. It also means that you won’t feel as big and bulky when wearing multiple layers.
Brushed Fleece fabrics are designed especially to trap your body heat and provide warmth in a variety of conditions, so when choosing your fleece you should consider the climate and your activity level. As a general guide, the heavier the weight of the fleece, the warmer it will be. For cold and windy conditions a bonded fleece that provides some wind resistance would be beneficial, in wet conditions a water repellent fleece is a great choice.
The Insulation Layer
This layer adds a secondary layer of insulation for cold to extreme temperature destinations. It works in a similar way to your Mid Layer by trapping air and retaining your body heat. Depending on your activity and the climate, you may require multiple layers to maintain warmth and comfort. In very cold climates, an Insulation Layer worn over a lightweight Mid Layer fleece would provide ample warmth and versatility.
There are some great options available for your Insulation Layer and the right item for you depends on your chosen activity, the weather conditions, your pack-ability and versatility requirements, and your personal preference. You can choose from a variety of Down or synthetic fills.
Down is the perfect option for very cold conditions; it’s great whilst traveling or when engaged in outdoor activities as it provides exceptional warmth with minimal weight. When choosing your Down garment check out the ‘Loft’ or ‘Fill Power’ rating; this rating basically determines the fluffiness of the Down in the garment. A higher loft rating indicates that fluffier Down has been used to fill the garment; this fluffier Down will create more air pockets to trap body heat, thus providing more insulation for the wearer.
Garments with a high loft rating are often less bulky which is extremely beneficial when pack-ability is important, as a high loft jacket will compress down easily and take up less space in your bag. They will also provide a more flattering fit over your Base Layer and beneath your Outer Layer. There is also the option of either a duck Down or goose Down filling – goose Down is considered the more premium filling as it achieves a higher loft rating.
When choosing your Down Insulation Layer always consider your climate – if you are going to experience both wet and cold conditions a Down garment with water resistant fill would be a wise choice as when down fill becomes wet it loses much of its insulating benefits due to the Down clumping together and providing less coverage. A wet Down jacket in your bag is also not ideal.
Synthetic insulation is engineered to mimic the pack-ability and heat retention properties of Down fill, with a lower moisture absorbency than down so can withstand the wet better than a Down filled jacket if you leave your Outer Layer behind. Synthetic fill garments are available in a range of different qualities and weights that can be paired back with your intended use and are also a suitable option for those with feather allergies.
Find Your Layers
The Outer Layer
The Outer Layer or ‘shell’ is designed to protect you from the elements – wind, rain, sleet or snow. Many Outer Layers are coated with a durable water repellent treatment (DWR) or a laminate membrane to provide protection from the rain and keep the layers underneath dry allowing for optimum performance.
Important aspects to consider are: is the fabric waterproof or water resistant, is it windproof, how breathable is it and what will be your activity level. When selecting your garment remember that it needs to be roomy enough to fit over your other layers and not restrict movement.
This layer can be split into sub-categories:
- Soft Shell – Offering protection from the wind chill, with breathability and stretch for enhanced comfort and movement. Most Soft Shells have a water resistant finish for protection on the snow fields or in a very light shower of rain. Generally they are not fully waterproof.
- Water Resistant & Breathable – Designed to shield against light rain while allowing moisture vapour to escape to the surface and evaporate. This kind of Outer Layer is ideal for active use when there may be a light shower of rain.
- Waterproof & Non-Breathable – This option is a more basic, traditional style raincoat. Great for rainy days in low humidity with minimal activity, for example a day at the footy. This kind of rain jacket is generally made from sturdy materials that are great for keeping the rain out but can leave your skin feeling clammy if you perspire.
- Waterproof & Breathable – Designed for maximum performance for high levels of activity in varied climates. Generally the most expensive option due to the fabric technology required to completely block the rain and snow whilst managing the body’s perspiration to provide comfort for the wearer.