Layering 101: How to Stay Warm and Comfortable in Cold Conditions

With the proper use of layers, you can stay outdoors longer, even when the mercury takes a plunge. 

Layering 101: How to Stay Warm and Comfortable in Cold Conditions
Photograph Courtesy of Smartwool

The arrival of cold weather doesn’t mean you have to abandon your favorite outdoor activities and wait until the return of warm weather before venturing outside once again. If you have the right clothing it is possible to create a layering system that will keep you warm and comfortable in just about any weather. Understanding how to effectively use those layers, however, can allow you to embrace the cold and possibly even learn to love it.

Photograph by Kraig Becker
A good base layer, insulating layer, and outer shell are all you need to stay warm.

Every good layering system is made up of three distinct parts, each of which plays a vital role in keeping us warm when the mercury drops. Those parts consist of the base layer, the insulating layer, and the outer shell. When paired with one another properly, these layers can be surprisingly warm and versatile, allowing you to add or remove layers as needed depending on shifting conditions.

Base Layers

Photograph Courtesy of Icebreaker
Base layers should be highly breathable and wick moisture but not so tight that they restrict movement.

Generally, modern base layers are made from merino wool, polyester and, sometimes, silk. Each of these fabrics is lightweight, fairly durable, and quick drying, all of which are important for use in the outdoors. Base layers made from wool also have natural anti-microbial properties too, which aids in odor control. This makes them a very popular choice for longer outdoor adventures when carrying lots of different garments simply isn’t an option.

Maintaining temperature control and staying dry are vital to staying warm and safe in cold weather. That starts with a proper base layer, which is comprised of the articles of clothing that sit closest to the skin. A good base layer is tasked with wicking away moisture, while remaining breathable enough to allow heat to escape as well. In order to do that, these garments need to be fairly form fitting, although they shouldn’t be so tight that they restrict motion in any way.

Quick tip #1:: Avoid base layers that are made from cotton. While they may be comfortable to wear, cotton clothing is slow to dry and absorbs moisture, making them dangerous to wear in cold conditions because they retain moisture, which robs your body of heat.

Insulating Layers

Photograph Courtesy of Sierra Design
The insulating layer keeps cold air out and warm air in.

Down jackets and fleece pullovers are some of the most common types of insulating layers, although synthetic materials –– such as PrimaLoft or Thinsulate –– can be highly effective, too, especially if you’re facing wet-weather conditions. These types of layers come in a variety of weights as well, allowing the wearer to mix and match based on the current conditions. If temperatures aren’t particularly cold, a thinner, lighter jacket can be used. But when the temperature dips into subzero territory, a heavier, warmer option can be worn instead.

The insulating layer is the piece of clothing whose job it is to collect body heat as it escapes from the base layer, creating warm pockets of air that can keep us comfortable in cold weather over extended periods of time. This layer is designed to keep warm air in and cold air out, while still allowing moisture to escape. This means it must have a high level of breathability to go along with its thermal properties. 

Which Layers Should You Buy?

Photograph by Kraig Becker

Selecting the proper products to incorporate into your own layering system can be a challenge, as there are, literally, dozens of options to choose from these days. But we’ve sorted through many different products to come up with some suggestions of items that should be on your short list, whether you’re on a tight budget or have a little extra cash to spare.

Budget Layering Options

Blending performance and savings, these layers offer a lot of bang for your buck. For the price, it is tough to beat any of these products, which won’t put too much of a dent in your wallet, while still managing to keep you warm this winter.

Base Layers: Cabela’s ECWCS Polar Weight Hoodie Top - $69.99
Cabela’s ECWCS Medium Weight Bottom - $59.99

Insulating Layer: Sierra Designs Sierra DriDown Jacket - $159.00

Outer Shell: Eddie Bauer Cloud Cap Rain Jacket - $99.00

Total Cost: $387.98

Premium Performance Layering Options

These layers are among the best that money can buy, providing top-of-the-line performance, durability, and technical fabrics. If your budget allows it, and you need to stay warm in the harshest conditions, these are the garments you’ll want with you.

Base Layers: Icebreaker Bodyfitzone 200 Long Sleeve 1/2 Zip - $120
Icebreaker Bodyfitzone 200 Leggings - $110

Insulating Layer: Arc’Teryx Cerium LT hoody - $379

Outer Shell: Outdoor Research Interstellar Jacket - $299

Total Cost: $908


Outer Shell

Photograph Courtesy of Outdoor Research
An outer shell is the first line of defense against wind, rain, and snow.

Shell jackets are some of the most highly technical garments in the outdoor industry. Typically, they are made of fabrics like Gore-Tex and eVent, which have been designed to keep wind and rain out, while still allowing perspiration to escape. Think of these jackets as your suit of armor, protecting you from the harshest conditions Mother Nature can throw at you. The beauty of the layering system is that each of the individual parts work with one another to keep us warm in harsh conditions. But beyond that, those same parts can also be mixed and matched as the conditions warrant it. For instance, if it is raining but not particularly cold, an outer shell can be paired with base layers, without the need for any type of insulation. Similarly, if it isn’t raining or snowing, the shell layer can be removed altogether. Learning how these individual pieces function with one another takes a little time, but the payoff is a more comfortable outdoor experience.

Finally, the outer shell is a lighter, thinner layer that is focused on providing protection from the elements. These jackets serve as the first line of defense from the weather, keeping wind, snow, and rain at bay. And while they don’t generate a lot of heat on their own, they help us to maintain warmth by keeping our inner layers dry while once again allowing moisture to escape.

Quick tip: A layering system isn’t just useful in cold weather. Lightweight layers are available for use in warm temperatures too, offering the same level of performance, plus protection from skin-damaging UV rays. These types of garments are thinner, lighter, and put even more of an emphasis on breathability and moisture wicking.


About The Author: Kraig Becker is a freelance writer, journalist, and consultant who covers mountaineering expeditions, polar exploration, adventure travel, and other outdoor pursuits. He is the editor of The Adventure Blog, the founder of The Adventure Podcast, and a contributor to online and print outlets like National GeographicPopular MechanicsGear InstituteDigital TrendsOutdoorX4 Magazine and others. He serves as the Adventure and Outdoor Travel Expert for and is currently working on his first book, Reaching Beyond Boundaries with co-author Don Mann.