How To Layer Clothes For Hiking

Mountaineer in winter clothes with hiking equipment against snowy landscape

Whether you’re new to hiking or even a seasoned trekker, you’ve probably heard that you need to layer your clothes for maximum comfort and even safety.

But why?

In this post, I discuss everything you need to know about layering.

What is layering?

Layering is a way of combing clothes with different properties to get the maximum benefit between three main things:

  • Heat Regulation (Does it keep you warm/cool?)
  • Water Regulation (Does it stop you from getting wet from the outside and inside – rain and sweat)
  • Comfort (How does it feel against the skin, is it light enough and does it move well?)

As the hiking environment is usually unpredictable, the clothes you wear are often required to do many different things. The problem is that we’re not yet at a stage with technology where we have one super material that can do everything.

The solution is to layer clothing so that you’re able to have all the properties you need at the right time as well as being able to remove them when needed.

hikers with backpacks walking on sandy beach together

What Parts of the Body Should You Layer Clothes On?

Most of what I refer to in this article will be torso layering (tops), but it equally applies to the hands (gloves) and legs (underwear, legging, trousers), feet (socks) as well!

Different types of layering

There are two types of layering you will get with hiking clothes:

  1. Removable Layers
  2. Fabric Layers

Removable layers are more what this article is referring to. For example, a Merino Wool base layer with insulating and waterproof layers over the top.

However, fabric technology also incorporates layers as well within the material. For example, Gore-Tex, a popular clothing material is made up of several layers itself. These are part of the material and can’t be separated.

You will also see the same with hiking gloves. The materials will be made up of several layers, but you can also manually layer gloves as well – a lining and outer glove.

winter hiker

The 3 Common Clothing Layers

Starting from the inside out, these are the 3 common hiking layers you will see.

Layer 1: The Base Layer

This is the clothing layer closest to your skin.

It’s important to feel soft for comfort, but also have a good fit for moisture transfer.

The first layer of contact with your skin must have good breathability and moisture-wicking properties as we don’t want sweat build up here. Water aids heat transfer, so when the objective is to keep your body warm, we want to wick it away as quickly as possible.

I’m sure you’ve been in a situation where you’ve got your clothes or skin wet before – you become cold much more quickly. In fact, that’s the whole point of sweat – to exchange the heat from our bodies into the air as quickly as possible. When we are wearing clothes, we don’t want to impede that process. 

The base layer doesn’t necessarily need to be very warm, but that’s the great thing – you choose the layer depending on the season. In the summer you should choose a lighter base layer, whereas, in the winter, you would choose a ticker base layer.

Base layers can be layered too!

Let’s say that your base layer is quite thin, but it’s a cold day, you can add a second base layer over the top of it to add some insulating properties.

This might include something like a hoodie or a fleece. Remember that base layers don’t usually don’t have good water-resistant properties, but add extra warmth without too much weight where a thicker insulating jacket (layer 2) may be too much.

You often see this layer in the summer when it’s dry and not cold enough to bring an insulating jacket (layer 2).

You can also wear your outer layer (layer 3) directly over your mid layer if temperatures are not too cold.

Common Materials: Merino Wool, Polyester

Common Clothes: T-Shirt, Long Sleeve Top, Bra, Legging, Boxers, Briefs

Function: Moisture management, mild warmth

Layer 2: The Mid Layer / Insulation Layer

This is where we pack in the warmth. Light “puffy” jackets filled with insulation do this very well. You’ll often see down or synthetic polyester fillings which give these jackets a bulky but light feel. They will usually have a light water repellant coating (DWR) on the outside for a small level of water resistance if you are caught in the rain. 

It’s important not to get the insulation layer too wet as their materials often absorb a lot of water. Synthetic materials like polyester maintain their insulating properties better than natural ones like down when wet.

Common Materials: Down, Polyester

Common Clothes: Puffer Jacket/Coat, Fleece, Hoodie

Function: Insulation

Layer 3: The Water Resistance/Proofing Layer

The final layer in the layering system is to protect you from the elements – principally rain (and anything wet like snow).

You’ll probably see these layers referred to as shell jackets. Their water-resistant properties are usually measured with the IP rating system. This system uses numbers to rate solids, liquids and pressure passing through a material.

Layer 3 will also protect against wind and it’s important as well to have durability as it will be in direct contact with abrasion and everyday wear.

To help with breathability, shell jackets are often coated with a durable water repellent (DWR) which helps water run off the surface. You’ve probably seen it where “beads” of water form and just roll off without saturating the material.

Hikers on mountain, Coniston, Cumbria, United Kingdom

You’ll often see outer layers split into two types:

  • Softshell
  • Hardshell

Softshell jackets are a compromise between various properties.

A Softshell jacket is designed to be lighter and more comfortable with good waterproof properties whereas a hardshell jacket is designed to have the ultimate protection against rain and snow, however, they tend to be less flexible.

Softshells often allow you to move better with their stretch material however they lack the membrane which gives a hardshell its excellent waterproof properties.

Common Materials: Nylon

Common Clothes: Soft Shell Jacket, Hard Shell Jacket, Rain Jacket

Function: Water Resistance

Properties To Look For In Hiking Layer Materials

Hike in Turkey
Base LayerInsulating LayerOuter Layer
Moisture-WickingWarmWater Resistant

Moisture Absorbing vs. Moisture Wicking

How does the fabric you choose interact with moisture?

A moisture-absorbing material like cotton allows water to enter between the fibres and it holds it there. This is not a good thing when in cold wet climates as you’re gonna get very cold very quickly. This includes moisture from sweat as well as the rain!

A moisture-wicking material like wool moves water through its structure – imagine little roadways.

The advantage of this is that moisture can be moved to the fabric’s surface which aids evaporation. This allows it to dry more quickly, cool quicker in hot climates, and keep you warmer in colder ones. Isn’t that cool?

Which Materials Work Best For My Hiking Layers?

It can be confusing to choose which materials are best for which layers of clothing. Typically if you are buying specialist gear you shouldn’t have to worry too much about this, but it depends on the quality you go for. For example, if you buy a cheap jacket/coat, then the material used may not be as good as a more expensive brand.

Below are the 4 most common types of material used in hiking clothing. As you can see, they all excel in some areas but are poor in others. Overall Polyester tends to have the best properties and we see that reflected in a wide range of clothing made from it – especially base and insulating layers.

Cotton tends to fair on the other end of the scale. Although it’s cheap and breathable, it performs terribly when wet which is a big no for hiking. As soon as you get wet you don’t want to risk losing body heat. The moral here is don’t wear cotton base layers.

Below is a table comparing each material and its properties.

Hiking Materials & Their Properties Rated

Water Absorption⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Odour Resistance⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Time to Dry⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Moisture Wicking⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

A quick note from above…Water absorption needs to be low in hiking fabrics. A lower rating means that the material absorbs more water which is bad.

You may also see a lot of strange fabric names like Polartec and eVent. These are in-house blends of different fabrics to maximise their properties. You can layer and blend the materials in different ways to get them to act in different ways.

You may also see GoreTex listed as a material. GoreTex is a material made from Teflon (PTFE) and is excellent for outer layers because it repels water but allows vapour through. This means it can be waterproof but breathable at the same time.

Other materials that you may find include Alpaca (yes the animal), Viscose (made from wood) and Acrylic (made from plastic).

Austria, Alps, couple on a hiking trip

How Should I Dress For My Hike?

What you take on your hike entirely depends on the weather and environment.

  • Is the weather changeable? 
  • Will you heat up and you move and cool down when you rest?
  • Is there a chance of rain?
  • Will the temperature drop over the day?

Let’s just consider the different combinations of layering we have:

  1. Layer just 1 item – The Base layer (or two)
  2. Layer all 3 items – Base layer, Mid layer and Outer layer.
  3. Layer the Base and Outer layer
  4. Layer the Base and Mid layer only.

Clothing For Layer #1

Typically you would always wear a base layer – go for Polyester or Merino Wool as good options.

You can strip down to this on warm sunny days.

You then need to layer correctly to not get too hot or too cold.

Clothing For Layer #2

The options we have are something like a fleece jacket (which is made from Polyester) or a padded puffer jacket which is usually filled with down or Polyester fibres.

You want to consider how much warmth you need when thinking about your mid layer.

Padded puffer jackets are much more suited to colder temperatures whereas a nice close-fitting fleece jacket would do better when you’re just a little bit cold.

Clothing For Layer #3

Layer 3 can be either a soft or hardshell jacket. You are more likely to see a softshell jacket as a general “do-it-all” everyday coat. They have good rain resistance and are comfortable without a mid-layer. 

A hard shell is more suited to storms and has better protection against the rain, but tend to be thinner and have a more crinkly feel to them. 

Considerations when Layering

It’s really important not to get too hot, then too cold when hiking. This is the importance of layering correctly.

If you’re walking in the rain on a moderately cold and wet day and are wearing your base layer + hardshell jacket, you might be warm and dry enough to start. But what happens if it stops raining and you get a little warm? You remove the outer jacket, and then end up cold. It’s too big a jump in warmth, plus the properties of the external layer are now not as efficient as before.

Let’s say you’re wearing a hardshell jacket which is less breathable. You may allow sweat to build up inside your layers which can make you feel cold from the inside.

Hikers in Forest

Final Words

There we have it…a simple guide to layering. Choose your layers wisely and you’ll be a happy hiker. Choose badly and hopefully, you’ll not suffer too much and learn for next time!

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