Top Mistakes Using the Layering System – How to Stay Warmer and Drier

The layering system sounds attractive in theory. But as practiced by most hikers it is seriously flawed. It can be heavy, and expensive. And not used properly it could even make you colder. This article points out the major mistakes hikers make when buying and using a clothing layering system. And of course, it has tips on how to properly select and use a better and lighter layering system!

Lead photo: Hiking in the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind Rivers after a blizzard. I am warm and happy using a very light layering system, weighing less than a pair of hiking boots.

The following is based on materials from, Why You Won’t Freeze or Starve Ultralight Backpacking,  Efficient Backpacking Tips – Easily Increase Mileage and Fun10 Pound Backpack to Hike 100 Miles, and Best Ways to Protect Yourself from Lyme and Zika While Hiking.

Top Mistakes Using the Layering System

  1. People bring too many layers as well as the wrong layers. This costs a lot of money and it’s heavy. Try to find a minimal set of light clothing that will work in a broad range of conditions. It can be done!
  2. A good layering system is NOT about frequently changing layers. Quite the opposite, you should strive to minimize adding or removing layers.  A single set of well-selected clothes should work in a broad range of temperatures (from mid-20s °F to around 50 °F) without adding or removing layers.
  3. Frequent stops to change layers can seriously chill you. And once chilled it can be exceptionally hard to get warm again. (In cold weather, constant but moderate movement is what keeps you warm.)
  4. Overheating and sweating out clothes will get you very cold in the long run. Wet clothing is cold clothing and unhappiness. (And in cold weather it takes a very long time to dry, if ever.)
  5. A windshirt is not all that it’s cracked up to be. An inexpensive, midweight fleece jacket is far more useful cool weather and saves weight. (Among other things, it helps minimize sweating out your clothes!)
  6. Finally, leave your shorts and short sleeved shirts at home. Long pants and long sleeved shirts are far better and more practical at protecting you from brush, sun, and disease carrying insects than sunscreen and insect repellents. [Note: this year will be a bad one for Lyme. See Best Ways to Protect Yourself from Lyme and Zika While Hiking].
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A single set of clothes for the entire day: Here I am in late winter conditions at around 4,000 ft on the Appalachian Trail. It’s windy and about 25 degrees. But I’m warm and comfortable hiking at my own pace wearing just a 6 oz base layer, a 7 oz fleece shirt (mid-layer) , a 2 oz fleece hat, and 2 oz gloves. I can hike in this outfit from the mid-20s °F to around 50 °F – going up and down hill without needing to stop for a clothing change.

Why Use a Layering System?

A layering system is really just a set of good hiking clothes. It is supposed to keep you safe and comfortable in a broad range of temperatures and environmental conditions (wind, rain, sleet and snow). The layering system is most useful for cold weather (in warm weather, a light top and bottom usually suffice). Ideally, this layering system should be simple, light and inexpensive.

In cold weather the challenge for a layering system is to have you:

  • Not freeze when hiking in low temperatures and/or at low physical exertion levels (e.g. walking downhill)
  • But also not overheat and soak your clothing with sweat as temperatures get warmer and/or at high physical exertion levels (e.g. hiking uphill with a pack on)
  • To protect you from wind and precipitation
  • To protect you from bug transmitted diseases such as Lyme and Zika
  • Finally, have a very warm layer ready (usually a down jacket) to keep warm at rest stops and in camp

A Layering System for Hiking and Backpacking

This clothing layering system is designed for 3-season conditions (spring, summer, and fall) and for temperatures from the mid-20s °F and up. It has withstood the test of time and many difficult environments. I’ve used this layering system for the past 5 years hiking in many places and many seasons in the US and on 3 continents. And with surprisingly little variation it has worked exceptionally well from the high mountains, to the desert and jungles of South America. (Note: to be very clear, this system is not for full-on winter hiking.)

The following layering system is slightly tuned towards cooler temperatures of the high mountains, or early spring and late fall at lower elevations (e.g. March on the Appalachian trail). But I’ve also added a few options in a subsequent table for warmer, more humid conditions (e.g. the Appalachian Trial mid-summer, or the tropical jungle).

Layering System for Cold to Temperate Weather

(Excerpted from my top ranked 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List).

Clothing Item Oz Comments
Shirt* $40 REI 1/4-Zip Tech Shirt 6.5 
Smartwool PhD Light 1/4-Zip 8.8
8.0 Neck zipper key to warmth management
Mid-layer top* REI 1/4-Zip Fleece Pullover  or
Amazon 100wt fleece w zipper
7.9 For use as a mid-layer (and as a “windshirt”)
RainJacket Outdoor Research Helium II or
REI Rain Jacket only $35-$70!
 6.4 Light rain-jacket is just as dry as a heavy one
Use as “windshirt” only when very cold
Pants* REI Sahara Pants  14 Ex Officio and many others make similar pants
Underwear Patagonia briefs Mens or W’s 2.0 Dry fast, will rinse/wash most days
Shoes Altra Superior Trail-Running or
Brooks Cascadia Trail-Runners
 18.0 Altra: Light, huge toe room, super comfortable!
Brooks: tried and tru trail favorite.
Socks SmartWool PhD Light Mini or
Darn Tough 1/4 UL w cushion
1.8 Key to keeping feet warm is to keep moving.
Warm hat Warm watch cap/beanie (REI)
or OR Option Balaclava (1.8)
1.8 Warmer than a hat
Gloves Defeet DuraGloves (2.5) 2.5 Great liner glove. Light, warm, durable! (or similar)
Rain Mitts REI Minimalist Mitts or
MLD eVENT Rain Mitts (1.2)
1.2 Wind protection and warmth
Warm jacket  A high quality down jacket (REI)
or Feathered Friends Eos Jacket
10.5 For occasional rest stops. Moderate/consistent movement is key to keeping warm when it’s cold

* Note: You only need one! Extra shirts, pants (and base-layers) are a poor choice to stay warm. And you only need single 6-12 oz fleece/wool mid layer garment.

Layering System for Warm Weather (also Lyme & Zika Protection)

Note: Many of these layers are also perfectly appropriate for cold and temperate weather. As such, they bear serious consideration if you only want to buy one set of clothing for 3 seasons (Spring, Summer and Fall). And as stated earlier, long pants and long sleeved shirts are far better and more practical at protecting you from brush, sun, and disease carrying insects. Chemical sunscreens and insect repellent lotions take a lot of time to correctly apply to large areas of skin. And they don’t last nearly as long as the near-lifetime* effectiveness of long pants and long sleeve shirts against bugs and sun.

Note it’s going to be the worst year yet for Lyme Disease. For more detailed information on how to protect yourself see: Best Ways to Protect Yourself from Lyme and Zika While Hiking.

Item Description Comments
Hat (repellent) Exofficio Bugsaway Hat Bug repellent for upper head. And sun protection
Shirt hiking* RailRiders Men’s Journeyman Shirt w Insect Shield & Women’s Oasis Cool fabric, mesh side vents, sun protection, Clothing bug repellent lasts 70 washes (vs. sprays 8-14 hrs)
Shirt (alt) Exofficio Bugs Away Halo Long Sleeve Shirt Men’s and Women’s Also good, widely available via Amazon and other retailers like REI. 70 wash insect repellent.
Pants hiking* ExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants Men’s and Women’s Available in both Men’s and Women’s. Light, cool, sun protection. 70 wash insect repellent.
Pants (alt) RailRiders Men’s Eco-Mesh Pant with Insect Shield RailRiders pants have huge side vent on legs for cooling. 70 wash insect repellent.
Gaiters Dirty Girl gaiters (fun colors!) or
REI Co-op Activator Gaiters
Seals pants against tick entry. No ankle gaps. Can be treated with permethrin spray.
Gaiter trap shoe
(optional)
Altra Lone Peak shoes or
Altra Superior shoes
Velcro “gaiter trap” permanently attached to heel of shoe. (adhesive ones that come with gaiters only work for a while)

* You can treat your own clothing with Permethrin spray (REI) or (Amazon). This lasts for up to 6 weeks or 6 washings. (For comparison: factory treated clothing is good for up to 70 washings, essentially “life-time” use). Both clothing treatments far exceed the 8-14 hours of skin applied repellents like Picaridin and DEET. And they don’t require the time/attention needed to properly apply repellents to large areas of skin each day

layering system

A light layering system while summiting in Scotland’s Highlands. I was ribbed by the Scots as “the Yank in trainers [running shoes] and yellow pants” for wearing virtually nothing given the winter conditions. Nonetheless, I summited just fine in my light running shoes and 4 oz shell pants—wearing the same clothing system without changes to the summit and back down.

Tips on Using This Layering System

Keep Hiking When It’s Cold

In colder weather, you can spend far too much time stopping to adjust layers. This is especially true on hilly trails where you are consistently getting sweaty and hot going uphill, and freezing while on ridges and going downhill. Moderate but consistent movement, not stopping for layer changes, is the key to keeping warm when it’s cold.

  • Hiking to keep warm needn’t be at all tiring or strenuous.
  • Even walking 1 to 1.5 miles per hour should keep your internal, metabolic heater going, and keep your hands and feet warm. If you are getting tired you are going too fast!
  • Minimize stops to essential needs, and don’t make them longer than necessary. When you stop, you get cold quickly and it takes a long time to warm up again. If you’re starting to chill it’s time to move.
  • If you really need to stop for a longer time (over 5 minutes), try to do it in a warmer, more protected area and put on warm clothing (e.g. a high quality down jacket) as soon as you stop. Take your warm clothing off just before you start hiking again. Or after you have been walking for a few minutes. (note: I store the jacket as the topmost item in the main bag of my backpack so I can quickly retrieve it and put it back.)

Clothing Adjustments

  • When starting to hike, I put on just enough clothing to keep me warm when moving. (It might take 5-10 minutes at a brisk pace to get fully warm. Then I can back-off to my normal hiking pace.)
  • Overdressing, getting hot and then sweating out is a great way to get wet and then really cold. It’s very easy to get clothing wet, but it takes a long time to dry it out in cold and damp weather. Wet clothing is cold clothing and unhappiness. [Note this is where the better venting fleece jacket outshines a windshirt, allowing sweat to pass through your clothing and evaporate!]
  • Temperature adjustments are made without stopping or changing a top or bottom layer. Too hot? take off hat and gloves (put in pants pockets). To further cool unzip fleece jacket and/or your base layer, and possibly push sleeves up. Too cold? reverse the procedure.
  • I only add warmer clothing when I can no longer stay warm walking at a comfortable pace (and with a good clothing system, this is a rare).
  • If you do need to change layers do it quickly. What most people don’t realize is how much time it takes to stop, take your pack off, put-on or take-off a layer, put your pack back on and start hiking again. It’s plenty long enough seriously to chill!
  • If it’s extremely cold and windy, I will use my rain jacket as a windshell (note: unzipping your rain jacket all the way is a major cooling force when needed).

A Fleece Jacket is Better than a Windshirt

I find that in cool weather (where a layering system is most useful) a fleece shirt is better. For almost the same weight of a windshirt, a light fleece shirt (like the North Face TKA 100 Glacier 1/4-Ziphas far greater temperature range for comfort, which means fewer clothing changes. And a thin fleece doesn’t trap moisture in the same way as windshirt. Yes, against common perception, windshirts are not all that “breathable!” Try running on a warm day in a T-shirt and then in a T-shirt with a windshirt over it if you don’t believe this. (Note: many cheap fleece jackets in the $20 range may work fine. I’ve been using one that was a giveaway at triathlon I did. It works great!)

  • A light 100 or 200 weight fleece shirt or jacket is far warmer than a windshirt and more versatile. It is an excellent insulating mid-layer, and it does a surprisingly good job of slowing down the wind.
  • Inexpensive 100 or 200 weight fleece is denser and has a tighter weave than expensive air-permeable fleece. As such, the fleece does an a decent job keeping wind from penetrating your clothing. BUT it is far less clammy and more breathable than a windshirt, allowing sweat to pass through your clothing and evaporate.
  • By the time it’s cold enough and windy enough to warrant a fully windproof shell like a windshirt, my rain jacket does fine. By then it’s cold enough that condensation from the rain jacket is not a huge issue.
  • Finally, it’s lighter. Since you’d bring a fleece layer anyway, you save the weight of a windshirt and simplify your layering system.

Keep your Clothing Dry

  • At the risk of pointing out the obvious, put on your rainwear before you get wet. Have your rainwear readily available on the outside of your pack so you can put it on quickly and without opening your main pack bag and exposing your pack contents to rain. (I like to keep it in the large rear pocket.)
  • When wearing your rain jacket pay special attention to not sweating out your clothing.  Adjust and ventilate your clothing and/or slow your hiking pace as necessary. As above, it’s very easy to get clothing wet, but it takes a long time to dry it out in cold and damp weather.
  • And if it’s going to rain for a long time you are going to get wet—it’s inevitable one way or the other. Just try to do your best to keep warm and minimize it. [A discussion on how to deal with long periods of rain (like days), is another whole topic and beyond the scope of this post.]

Enjoy Your Hike!

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By | 2017-08-22T14:40:47+00:00 April 4th, 2017|Clothing, Skills|15 Comments

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15 Comments

  1. Carl Nelson April 4, 2017 at 7:25 pm - Reply

    Great article, thanks! The trick with layering is that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and your building block approach is ideal.

    • Alan Dixon April 4, 2017 at 7:31 pm - Reply

      Indeed. Thanks for the kind words. Best to a great (and warm) hiking season. -alan

  2. Philip Werner April 5, 2017 at 12:39 am - Reply

    Nice post. The Insect Shield treatment applied to RailRiders pants doesn’t last a lifetime but 70 washes max. Bug killing efficacy also drops to 50% after 35 washes. I send out my old RailRiders each year to Insect Shield to have their treatment refreshed because I wash them about once a week. The same holds for all factory clothing treated with Insect Shield, which is just an industrial process for Permethrin Treatment that lasts significantly longer than if you apply it at home

    • Alan Dixon April 5, 2017 at 12:50 am - Reply

      Thanks Phillip. Yes, you are correct it is 70 washings for the factory treatment. And I say so in a note at the bottom of the table. For me that IS a life time 🙂 But to be clear, I’ve amended each table line to read 70 washings. Best, -alan

  3. Scott Wilkinson April 5, 2017 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    Great article. And it can’t be emphasized enough that with proper layering, you should start cold in cold weather! That is, you shouldn’t dress to be warm when you’re standing still at the beginning of a hike (lots of people make this mistake). You need to learn how to deal with being cold for anywhere from 20-40 minutes of activity before your body kicks into “high heating mode.” It’s never fun, but you get used to it—and it pays off in the long run.

  4. Steve Elder April 7, 2017 at 1:14 pm - Reply

    Nice work, Alan. Thanks.

    • Alan Dixon April 7, 2017 at 2:55 pm - Reply

      🙂

  5. Donna April 8, 2017 at 2:50 am - Reply

    Thanks Alan I enjoyed this. I share your liking for fleece. It went out of fashion for a while but I always carry a 100wt fleece on backpacking trips, so versatile!

    • Alan Dixon April 8, 2017 at 9:47 pm - Reply

      Yup, wonderful utility Donna. Best, -a

  6. Richard July 5, 2017 at 12:26 am - Reply

    Alan, thanks for the time you put into this site. Would you discuss the footwear you use when you expect colder temps with rain or snow? I’m usually in the Sierras in late September to early October and often see some precipitation. Can your feet stay warm walking in all day rain when it’s 35-45? And what do you recommend when you arrive in camp with wet feet and aren’t planning to jump right into the bag/quilt?

    • Alan Dixon July 6, 2017 at 2:18 pm - Reply

      In the field right now Richard so a brief response. Short answer is that if you keep moving you feet should stay warm (even in snow). If it’s consistently cold enough you can switch to GTX trail runners (which I wouldn’t rec. for warm to moderate temps). In camp when it’s cold you’ll likely want dry socks and light down booties. Best -alan

  7. Blake Wolfskill August 25, 2017 at 4:59 am - Reply

    I always hear to try and avoid sweating in the cold, but have yet to understand how. I can be in a t shirt in mid 30’s, as soon as I start going uphill I’m soaked. Always a big sweater

    • Alan Dixon August 26, 2017 at 10:14 pm - Reply

      Hi Blake,
      If you are only sweating out your T-shirt then you are doing it right! On of the first principals while exercising hard is to sweat out the least amount of clothing (only T-shirt is good!). If you do sweat this much and can’t lower your pace to reduce it… then you are likely someone that may need to doff and don layers when going up and down in cold weather. Such is life. Warmest , -alan

  8. Scott September 14, 2017 at 2:50 am - Reply

    Should the layers be more “form fitting” than baggy? I’m between a M and S for the fleece layer, both fit under my rain jacket. The S is fairly form fitting but not too tight while the medium “fits” but is a bit looser. Should I choose one or the other? Or does it not matter that much? Thanks for the help

    • Alan Dixon September 14, 2017 at 3:03 pm - Reply

      Scott, ideally they should fit but not be not snug (with the execution of your base-layer that should be snug but not too tight). For a fleece layer, looser is better than tight, otherwise it’s hard to get over layer under it as it tends to bind and bunch things up, especially in the sleeves. And you might want to put it on over a thin vest so a bit of extra room is welcome. Enjoy your hike. Warmest, -alan

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