Backpacking in the cold, especially in the Winter months can be a beautiful experience. After all, there isn’t any foliage and high elevation views can be pretty spectacular. That’s why it’s important to understand the Layering System. We like the 4 layering system and there are many articles out there explaining it.
There are three main components to a layering system.
The first layer is next to skin: The main job of this layer is to wick sweat away from your skin, then dry quickly so you don’t get chilled. Cotton sucks at this because it takes forever to dry. I still am amazed at how many hikers I still see wearing a cotton t-shirt. Big NO NO. Our favorite base layers are wool. They are very efficient, warm when it’s cold, cool when it’s hot, and they don’t stink up like so many synthetics do. The bad news is that wool tends to dry slowly when it gets wet (either from precipitation or sweat). Synthetic materials (polyesters) also make good base layers, and people with very sensitive skin often find wool itchy, so poly is a good wicking, quick-drying option. Perhaps the best of all are wool/synthetic blends which are becoming more and more popular because they have the quick-dry ability of synthetics, with the warmth and ant-stink talents of wool. A note about fit: For cool or cold weather, your base layer should be snug, because if it’s not touching your skin, it can’t wick sweat. That means your sweat sits on your skin until it evaporates, which leaves you shivering.
Second Layer is Insulation: This is the layer that traps your body heat. It can range from lightweight fleeces and wool sweaters to full-on puffy down jackets; it just depends on the season. In all but the coldest of weather, your insulation will remain in your pack while hiking, so your body heat can escape and dissipate. But as soon as you stop moving, put it on so you won’t get cold as your sweat dries.
Third Layer is the Shell: The job of a shell is twofold: it cuts the wind and keeps you dry. In summertime, you can get away with a wispy windshell, but for more challenging weather and extended trips, you want a waterproof/breathable shell (like Gore-Tex or eVent) that keeps water out, but lets sweat vapor escape, so you don’t get wet from perspiration inside your layering system.
The Forth or Optional Layer is the RainJacket: When it’s cold, many people have their second layer as a lightweight pull over. Third Layer is then the lightweight puffy down jacket, THEN the forth layer is your windshell or rain jacket. In our video we like the 4 layering system as you can see.
The main principle of layering is that you are regularly adding and removing layers to keep your body temperature even. An example. We start off on chilly morning hike wearing my base layer and a light fleece. As our body warms up, we stop and take off the fleece. At lunch break, on a breezy ridge, we immediately put the fleece back on, and possibly our outer shell to cut the wind. After lunch, it all comes off (except the base layer) and we start trekking again. If it’s starts raining or a big thunderstorm roll in. We throw on our rainjackets and open up the pit zips (underarm vents) and continue. We always make sure our extra layers are conveniently located in the outer pockets of my pack, so we can always reach them.
What is your Winter Layering system when you go backpacking? We would love to hear from you.