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Thriving in Layers this Winter

One of the things I learned about myself during the winter season is that I experienced an increased sense of urgency when I was cold. Maybe this was from my time in the army. “There’s no cold like army cold,” the saying went. Years of working outside as a carpenter in the winter probably contributed to this anxious feeling, as well. But I also wanted to be outside, especially in the woods, as much as possible. Backpacking in the winter has taught me how to embrace, not so much the cold itself but, everything else that comes with it.

Today, winters are a completely different story for me. I look forward to winter with a new attitude, and lots of layers. My perception of winter has changed dramatically as I’ve grown to embrace the solace of it. I seek out quiet spots in the wilderness during the winter season and, if I’ve timed it right, wait for the snow fall, covering the forest floor in a soft blanket of fresh snow. I feel especially alive by a fire when the moon is out, illuminating the wilderness around me. Inevitably, the morning light reveals a multitude of tiny tracks that tell a tale of the night before.

It goes without saying that being warm is a key part of the pleasure factor. Knowing that I can be warm and dry because I have shelter, a fire and, most important, the right clothes, puts me at ease in a place where I love to be. When I started backpacking, wool was pretty much all I had to layer-up with in winter. Today, however, my problem isn’t what to bring, but what not to bring. There are so many choices. Whether you’re heading to the wilderness or to a local park, let’s take a basic look at the best insulation for winter clothes, the vital concept of layering and different types of clothing.

I use three types of insulation: down, synthetic and fleece. Down is typically the lightest, but if it gets wet it loses its insulating properties…fast. And it takes a long time to dry. Synthetic fill materials, like Holofil ll® and Capilene®, are usually a bit heavier than down, but retain their loft when wet and can therefore maintain effective body heat circulation. Another type of synthetic fiber I use is fleece, like Polartec®. It’s bulky, but as a base and mid-layer I’m usually wearing it, not packing it, so I don’t worry about lost room in my pack. These materials form a combination of layers I wear throughout the winter.

So how does layering work? The general principle is that if you get too hot, you can take off a layer. If you just wear one heavy coat, and begin to overheat, taking it off exposes your sweat to cold air and lowers your core temperature quickly. This takes time to recover from and can lead to exposure. Layers also add levels of air circulation around your body. As layers trap air, that air stays warm(er) and circulates freely between your insulated layers; it’s the warm air from your body, not just the insulating properties of the garment, that keeps you warm.

The base layer:

This is the first layer and like your second skin; it needs to regulate your body heat. It also needs to insulate, but not restrict your movement. Base layers are made of synthetic materials like Capilene® and other proprietary polyesters, or Merino wool/wool blends. They come in warmth levels from light to mid and heavy for all cold seasons. Rather than upgrade in very cold weather to a single, heavier base layer, however, I like to add a heavier, up-sized base layer like a Polartec®, or other fleece blend quarter zip, over lighter levels. This creates more layers for air space and makes my layers more versatile. I usually pack an extra base layer as my only spare clothes.

A point all its own is socks. I use merino wool socks by Smartwool®. Merino wool is an excellent insulator and seriously wicks moister. Your feet sweat a lot, especially when hiking, and this will cause feet get cold in the winter. Smartwool® hiking and trekking socks keep their loft while wicking moisture and, therefore, maintain their insulating properties. Any time you go out overnight, but especially in the winter, bring a change of socks. Switch into dry socks before you get into your sleeping bag, and put the day’s socks at the bottom of your bag (along with hot water in a tightly sealed water bottle).

Mid layer:

The mid layer is the second layer. This might be fleece pants, snow pants, wool field pants or a poly/cotton blend like Fjallraven® pants. Cotton, like jeans or carpenters’ pants are typically not a good idea for extended trips because wet cotton wicks away body heat at a rapid clip. Ideally, the bottom half of your mid layer should be loose, breathable, and weather resistant. A down or synthetic puffy jacket completes your mid layer. It’s kind of like your staple piece of cold weather clothing.

Outer layer:

The outer layer keeps out rain while keeping in body heat. This shell can be insulated or not, but at a minimum should be waterproof and breathable. It should have a Gortex® or a similar membrane and taped seams. Your shell should be up-sized to fit comfortably over your other layers, and allow for plenty of flexibility.


The accessories to your kit are really important and a conversation in themselves, but here is a list of some of the stuff that that you’d like to be breathable, weather resistant and comfortable: add boots (and sometimes gaiters), knit caps, beanies, neck gaiters, or scarves and gloves. These items keep vital areas warm, particularly from windchill. And if you’re not familiar with disposable handwarmers, this is the winter to discover them!

Your layers should be light, breathable, insulated, moisture wicking and, sometimes, water proof. The layer next to your skin needs to be soft. Comfort makes a difference. If you’ve figured out the right material, weight and fit, your layers should feel like a part of you. I’ve found that the stuff that works costs more, but that it generally works and lasts. As a rule, I think of my winter clothes – my backpacking clothes in general - as an investment. The return in comfort speaks volumes.

There is so much substance in being out in nature, in a yard, a local park or the wilderness, in the winter. It is replete with meaning, resilience and beauty. So, if you’re inclined to consider winter from a different perspective, layer up and go outside.

Here are some sources for more information:

“Stay calm and go outside”

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