Layering Clothing for Comfort on the Trail
Photo: Mark in his base layer (Under Armor sweat-wicking shirt & rain jacket) at Isle Royale National Park on a cold, rainy day. Layering properly helps you stay warm and comfortable on the train, while avoiding hypothermia.
We are three days away from our next trip: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We will be doing a 30-mile, 4-day hike with two friends. For those of you familiar with the Smokies, you know that the saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes.” really applies in this region. That can make clothing selection a real challenge, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be prepared and comfortable.
In areas where the weather is going to be unpredictable, we find that it is best to use a classic layering system. There are three main layers to consider: the base layer, the mid layer, and the top layer. The base layer is your moisture-wicking layer, the mid layer is your insulating layer, and the top layer is your shell or protection layer. Let’s take a look at these in more detail.
Key idea: Gets the moisture away from your skin to help regulate body temperature.
What to wear: Never cotton. Cotton retains moisture and will not keep you warm. Synthetic materials and/or Marino wool are the best options for base layer. Mark and Katie generally wear Under Armor fitted shirts and compression pants, or something similar, as their base layer. These types of clothing help wick moisture away from your skin and allow it to evaporate from your mid layer. By staying dry with your base layer, you will stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, and you wont get that wet, sticky feeling when it’s raining.
Key idea: Keeps air close to your body thereby insulating you.
What to wear: Depending on the expected temperature, goose down or wool can be excellent choices for a mid layer. Synthetic materials can get the job done too, but we find them to be almost always inferior to the natural fibers of wool and/or down. Make sure to try the new hydrophobic (water-resistant) down for your mid layer and also for your sleeping bag. Fleece is a great mid-layer selection as well. Katie and Mark are planning on wearing some lightweight hiking pants and fleeces for their mid layers, and they will be putting goose down jackets over their fleeces, and insulated pants over their hiking pants, if that proves to be needed.
Top Layer (Shell)
Key idea: Protects you (and your other layers) from the elements (wind, rain, snow).
What to wear: You may choose to have something completely waterproof or just treated with a durable water repellant finish. Either way, your top layer needs to function as a shell - protecting you from whatever weather comes your way. Mark and Katie generally carry lightweight, breathable rain jackets and rain pants for anything from a light mist to a downpour. Mark also brings a heavy-duty shell jacket to protect against the worst weather including rain, snow, and high winds. This layer should be very breathable, so your perspiration doesn’t make your other layers damp and in turn make you cold and clammy.
Bottom line: The clothes you wear backpacking should be selected with the layering system in mind. There are plenty of ways to adapt this system to your preferences and the specific conditions you expect to encounter. Let us know in the comments what kinds of layering you use when going on your outdoor adventures.