Learning the Art of Layering to Better Enjoy the Outdoors

A backpacker in a T-shirt and shorts stands on a cliff above a valley with her arms outstretched.

Regardless of what you wear, weather should never be a nuisance or cause discomfort.
Photo © Mikhail Dudarev.

The most important element for enjoying the outdoor experience in any condition is to stay dry and warm. There is no substitute. You must stay dry and you must stay warm. Thus comes the theory behind layering, which suggests that as your body temperature fluctuates or the weather shifts, you simply peel off or add available layers as needed— and have a waterproof shell available in case of rain.

The introduction of a new era of outdoor clothing has made it possible for campers to turn choosing clothes into an art form. Like art, it’s much more expensive than throwing on a pair of blue jeans, a T-shirt, and some flannel, but, for many, it is worth the price. In putting together your ideal layering system, there are some general considerations. What you need to do is create a system that effectively combines elements of breathability, durability, insulation, rapid drying, water repellence, wicking, and wind resistance, while still being lightweight and offering the necessary freedom of movement, all with just a few garments.

The fact is that you must be ready for anything when you venture into the outdoors. The new era of outdoor clothing works, and it works better than anything that has come before.The basic intent of a base layer is to manage moisture. Your base layer will be the first article of clothing you put on and the last to come off. Since your own skin will be churning out the perspiration, the goal of this second skin is to manage the moisture and move it away from you. The best base layers are made of bicomponent knits, that is, blends of polyester and cotton, which provide wicking and insulating properties in one layer.

The way it works is that the side facing your skin is water-hating, while the side away from your skin is water-loving; thus, it pulls or “wicks” moisture through the material. You’ll stay dry and happy, even with only one layer on, something not possible with old singlefunction weaves. The best include Capilene, Driclime, Lifa, Polartec 100, and Thermax. The only time that cotton should become a part of your base layer is if you wish to keep cool, not warm, such as in a hot desert climate where evaporative cooling becomes your friend, not your enemy.

Stretch fleece and microdenier pile also provide a good base layer, though they can be used as a second layer as well. Microdenier pile can be worn alone or layered under or over other pieces; it has excellent wicking capability as well as more windproof potential.

The next layer should be a light cotton shirt or a long-sleeved cotton/wool shirt, or both, depending on the coolness of the day. For pants, many just wear blue jeans when camping, but blue jeans can be hot and tight, and once wet, they tend to stay that way. Putting on wet blue jeans on a cold morning is a torturous way to start the day. A better choice is pants made from nylon with detachable leggings; these are light, have a lot of give, and dry quickly. If the weather is quite warm, nylon shorts that have some room to them can be the best choice. My preference is for The North Face dark-green expedition hiking shorts.

Finally, you should top the entire ensemble off with a thin, windproof, water-resistant layer. You want this layer to breathe, yet not be so porous that rain runs through it. Patagonia’s Velocity shell is one of the best; its outer fabric is treated with DWR (Durable Water Repellent finish) and the coating is by Goretex. Patagonia, Marmot, and The North Face and others all offer their own versions. Though condensation will still build up inside, it manages to get rid of enough moisture.

Note: It is critical to know the difference between “water-resistant” and “waterproof.”

The most important thing to realize is that waterproof and water-resistant are completely different things. In addition, there is no such thing as rain gear that is both waterproof and breathable. The more waterproof a jacket is, the less it breathes. Conversely, the more breathable a jacket is, the less waterproof it becomes.

If you wear water-resistant rain gear in a sustained downpour, you’ll get soaked. Water- resistant rain gear is appealing because it breathes and will keep you dry in the light stuff, such as mist, fog, even a little splash from a canoe paddle. But in rain? Forget it. —p.32, Rain Gear

But hey, why does anybody need all this fancy stuff just to go camping? Fair question. You don’t have to opt for this aerobic-function fashion statement. It is unnecessary on many camping trips. The fact is that you must be ready for anything when you venture into the outdoors. The new era of outdoor clothing works, and it works better than anything that has come before. Regardless of what you choose, weather should never be a nuisance or cause discomfort. There is no such thing as bad weather, so the saying goes, only bad gear.

Leave a Reply