The long established layering method is the best known way to dress functionally and appropriately for activities in the outdoors. For those new to hiking, this guide will establish the pros and cons of this method, some of the available choices and the commonly made mistakes when choosing clothing for the outdoors.
The layering approach focuses on three main layers – Base, Mid (Insulating) and Shell (Waterproof). Each layer provides its own element of warmth and protection. Making the appropriate choices in each category can make the difference between a comfortable trip and a miserable one. This article explores each layer and the options available.
the base layer
The base layers are the items of clothing which are the closest to the skin. This might include a vest / t shirt and a pair of briefs or shorts. Usually made from synthetic polyester or natural merino wool, this layer should have the following qualities:
- Close fitting for heat retention and to minimise chafing
- Good wicking qualities (moving sweat away from the body)
- Odour resistant (optional, but beneficial)
Polyester and Merino wool are most frequently used for these garments because these fabrics transport moisture away from the body quickly (known as wicking) rather than retaining the sweat. This is why cotton is best avoided for base layers, as cotton holds sweat which both adds weight and can significantly reduce body heat when activity drops and the sweat cools.
In upper body base layers look for a tight, but not restrictive fit and flat seams to minimise rubbing and chafing. For lower body baselayers such as shorts or briefs, ensure sufficient leg length to avoid thigh rubbing. Legs tend to swell while hiking due to the bloodflow to the working muscles, in some individuals the upper thighs can rub, causing chafing during longer walks.
Merino wool has a much higher odour resistance than polyester, due to the natural irregularly shaped fibres in its structure. This can be an excellent benefit to campers on multi-day trips. Merino wool is much more expensive however. Pay attention to the percentage of Merino wool being used in blended products as some manufacturers use lower amounts of pure merino to keep costs down. High quality manufacturers such as IceBreaker and Devold have several 100% merino products in their range if your budget permits. Alternatively, multiple polyester base layers can be bought quite cheaply, allowing you to get started with some spares.
Some hikers also use a “base layer” liner sock underneath their regular socks. A liner is a lightweight, smooth fabric sock intended to wick sweat away from the feet and provide a low-friction layer of contact with the feet to minimise blisters and rubbing. These are worth considering as they add little weight or cost and greatly reduce the chances of uncomfortable blisters.
Base layers provide: Sweat wicking and protection from rubbing / chafing
The insulation / mid layer
When hiking in colder environments, or during periods of lower activity a warm mid layer is needed to help retain body heat. The most frequently used garment for this layer is the fleece. Fleeces range in weight from ultra-light microfleeces such as the Craghoppers Corey to much heavier, warmer options like the Rab Double-Pile. The weight needed should be determined by two considerations:
- How cold will it be? Colder environments will require heavier insulation to help retain more body heat.
- How active will you be? The body produces more heat when active than sedentary, a microfleece may be sufficient while hiking or scrambling in colder weather, while a heavier option might be required when sitting at camp.
One fact worth remembering is that your fleece never warms you, it merely traps the heat your body produces. With this in mind, fit is of paramount importance. As with all clothing in the outdoors, don’t assume because you wear a Medium t shirt that a medium fleece will meet your needs. Try for size before you buy and ensure a good, snug (but not restrictive) fit to ensure bodyheat is trapped effectively. Wear the base layers you will be wearing on your hike to ensure you choose the appropriate size. Call into your nearest Cotswold store for this and don’t be shy about trying everything on, it is important to ensure the right fit.
In much colder environments, specialised insulation such as Down or Primaloft are used. Down / Primaloft jackets are frequently worn in place of a waterproof shell rather than underneath them, but are rarely required in the UK. If you are considering hiking in Scotland in winter, a Primaloft jacket such as the Mountain Equipment Fitzroy may be worth considering, as it will provide warmth but will not fail when exposed to rain.
Of equal importance is the type of sock to be worn. Like fleeces, different weights of sock are available depending on the conditions they are to be used in. Worn over the liner sock, this will provide both insulation and cushioning. Ensure you choose an appropriate weight for the conditions and activity. Too lightweight a sock will result in cold feet while an excessively heavy sock will cause excessive sweating or breathability problems. Resist the urge to see socks as an area to save money, hiking is hard on the feet and choosing a market leader such as Bridgedale will pay dividends in both comfort and performance.
Mid-layers provide: Warmth by trapping body-heat. Choose appropriately to avoid overheating.
The Shell / waterproof layer
The outer layer of clothing provides protection from the rain and wind, keeping your insulating layer dry and warm. This usually consists of a waterproof coat / jacket, hiking trousers and also waterproof over-trousers.
Jackets usually feature a form of membrane technology such as Gore-Tex or eVent, which allows the sweat produced to be released through the jacket while the rain and wind are kept outside, keeping the wearer dry. As a general rule Gore-Tex jackets have in the past been warmer, yet less breathable than eVent, while eVent jackets have let more sweat escape while feeling cooler. This has changed with the introduction of Gore-Tex pro which is direct venting like eVent, resulting in a cooler feeling jacket. Local UK manufacturer Aclimatise also produce their own waterproof system featuring a reflective aluminium layer to reduce the coldness of a direct venting fabric.
Which membrane technology is suitable for you depends on your personal preference and activities. Try to buy the best you can afford in this area as a good quality jacket will provide you with a lifetime of excellent protection from the elements.
For the lower body a pair of hiking trousers are usually worn. Hiking trousers are made from lightweight fabrics which dry quickly and hold a minimum of moisture and usually feature additional pockets for storing essentials during your hike. During periods of heavier rain, a pair of over-trousers are usually worn. Normally made from Gore-Tex or eVent, over-trousers prevent your hiking trousers from getting soaked during a deluge. As they are not as breathable as regular hiking trousers, overtrousers usually feature a two-way zip to be put on quickly while wearing boots at the onset of heavy rain. These are normally taken off when rain subsides to prevent sweat buildup, however many overtrousers can be partially unzipped to boost ventilation. Overtrousers range in price from the cheaper, less breathable options such as the Berghaus Deluge to more expensive, breathable options made from full GoreTex such as the Berghaus Helvellyn. Your choice will depend on your preferences and activities.
Shell (Outer) layer provides: Protection from rain and wind, protecting the other non-waterproof layers.
The layering approach to outdoor clothing focuses on the wicking of moisture, insulation and protection from wind and rain. Available options vary, but with the right consideration to your activities and budget, you can build a robust layering system which will meet your needs in all outdoor conditions.
Fit is important, especially for the insulating layer, so be sure to call into an outdoor store, such as Cotswold Outdoor, try clothing for size and discuss your needs with a professional.
If you have any questions feel free to ask in the comments!