Dress smart. Hike easy.
A layering system that will keep you comfortable and dry in all weather.
It was 8AM already but still bitterly cold. MG was wearing a down jacket over a hooded fleece top and thermal longs, and I a softshell over a thinner fleece top with thermal longs. We had just broke camp and set off on the second day of the Num-Num trail.
Once we started moving we quickly warmed up and began shedding layers, first MG then me. Twenty minutes later and we had made no progress, had stopped four times and were still in line of site of the camp. In winter hiking can feel like it's an endless cycle of taking off or putting on clothing. If you layer your clothing correctly (and start hiking cold, unlike we did) you can minimise this and stay comfortable.
The layering system is made up of three separate task-specific layers. A water/wind protection layer over an insulation layer, over a moisture control layer. Having more layers gives you more control. It is designed so you never have to take a layer off from underneath another layer – it saves time and preserves body heat. Similarly, when you stop for a break you can easily throw on another layer and keep warm.
The outer layer or hardshell is usually a lightweight jacket or poncho. It stops wind, keeps you dry in mist and rain while allowing for excess moisture to escape through the breathable fabric.
These waterproof garments can get really hot when you exert yourself. Even though the fabrics used are designed to be breathable, moisture transmission is hugely reduced when it’s raining. One often ends up soaking wet not from the rain, but from sweat. When opting for a jacket instead of a poncho, consider getting one with a horizontal slit running across the shoulder blades and pit zips. Some have pockets that are mesh lined to serve as extra ventilation when unzipped. Ponchos allow for a bit more air circulation but aren’t as effective at keeping water and wind out.
At the risk of getting technical: there are two types of fabrics used – coatings and membranes. Each of these can be either microporous, with small enough holes to let water vapour molecules through but not water droplets, or hydrophyllic, a totally impervious material that breathes via osmosis.
HyVent®, Goretex®, Event®, Microtex®, Ventex®, Helly Tech®, Breathe® Sympatex®, Porvair®, Pebatex®, to mention a just a few®. Every manufacturer has their own name as well as their own standard of measuring effectiveness. It’s like comparing apples with two-way radios. Luckily all the above are from respected outdoor brands and are waterproof enough to keep you dry from the outside.
A garment will fail at the seams long before it loses it’s waterproofing. Check for taped seams when selecting a garment and read reviews on durability specifically, then base your final decision on breathability.
Fabrics that are microporous can get blocked with skin oils, sun block, sweat and detergent and lose their breathability quicker than hydrophilic ones. Also consider that coatings can separate from the fabric, so opt for a membrane if possible.
The mid layer or soft shell is your primary insulation and is used to regulate your core temperature. Both fleece and duck down jackets are lightweight and warm options.
Fleece is effective, durable and affordable. The thicker the fleece the more heat it traps. Get a thinner fleece for milder temperatures as it folds smaller. Fleece doesn’t compress well and takes up a lot of space in a pack, however this only becomes a problem on longer hikes. A big plus is that fleece retains its insulation qualities when wet.
When it comes to warmth-to-weight ratios, the duck wins hands down. Down is surprisingly warm and weighs almost nothing. It also compresses really well. Most down jackets come with a small stuffsack, often no bigger than a sock – great for packing as an emergency jacket. Washing your down jacket with special down wash will help retain this compressibility. Normal detergent will strip the down of its oils and its insulation efficacy. As an added bonus, down jackets will make you feel like a marshmallow, which is, as always, great.
The downside is that when it gets wet the down collapses and loses its insulation abilities. It’s possible to keep your jacket dry most of the time, except for in extreme or emergency situations, which is when you need your insulation most. Some manufacturers have started introducing hydrophobic duck down which absorbs less water and dries quicker. We don’t know where the manufacturers find ducks that don't like water.
The base layer is another layer of insulation, worn against the skin. Both wool and synthetic thermals are warm, lightweight and have very important wicking qualities – drawing water away from your body to keep you warm and dry.
Base layers come in different thicknesses. Again, each manufacturer has a different rating system here – temperature, weight, etc. Consider getting a thinner base layer for hiking – one can overheat easily and the base layer is the last layer you can shed, so make sure it’s not too warm.
Avoid cotton here. It takes a long time to dry and evaporative cooling from wet cotton draws heat away from your body.
With wool what you gain in odour control you lose in abrasion resistance. If you’re going rock climbing consider the synthetic options and keep your distance after a long day.
You can apply the layering system to your legs as well. Storm trousers on the outside, followed by soft shell pants or technical hiking pants and the good ole’ long johns as a base layer. Personally I’ve never been cold enough to warrant this. Usually technical hiking pants during the day and thermal longs as a second layer for around camp work fine.
You will seldomly need more than this. If it gets so cold that the three layers still don't keep you warm, just climb into your sleeping bag and wait out the worst of the weather.