How to Layer for the Outdoors. Your Complete Guide to Layering

How to Layer for the Outdoors. Your Complete Guide to Layering

When venturing outdoors, there's one key thing that protects you from the elements- your layering system. Knowing how to layer your clothes in the outdoors is an essential skill to have, and one you should always pay attention to when heading outside.


Layering is the tried and tested method for protecting yourself from the weather in the outdoors. It is applied to almost ALL outdoor activities, so if you do it for one, you are able to do it for the others.

It takes practice to get used to being in the correct layers at the right time, so don’t expect you will get the hang of it straight away when you start out. Always remember to bring all layers, even on those sunny days. You can always put more layers on or off if you need them, but if you didn't bring them, you can be in trouble! We'll get into some examples and tips later but for now let's go through the actual layers themselves.

Your layering system consists of 3 key layers:

1. Base Layer

2. Middle Layer (mid layer)

3. Outer Layer (shell layer)

base layer - layering for the outdoors

1. Base layer

Worn against your skin, this layer has an important job- wick moisture away from your body. Staying dry is important in both hot and cold environments. As soon as you stop moving any sweat on your skin will start cooling you dramatically. So even when it's cold, you want to stay dry. You'll find a variety of thickness base layers on the market. Generally, the most important job is for it to wick moisture, not keep you warm. In warm temperatures, wearing a shirt is your base layer. Your base layer does not need to be tight fitting, it can be loose (especially when it’s hot). The colder the climate however, the tighter against your skin it should be.

Base Layer Materials: Any synthetic fabric like polyester and nylon, or natural fibres like merino wool or silk. NO COTTON.

Example: Mens / Womens

Mid layer- layering for the outdoors

2. Middle layer

Your mid layer is there to retain the heat from your body. It's designed for this one purpose only so is generally not waterproof or water resistant (and also doesn’t need to be). Generally speaking, the puffier the garment, the more warmth it will retain. Your mid layer does not need to be tight fitting, it can be loose. If it’s really cold, you can use 2 mid layers. A fleece jacket covered by a down jacket works perfectly.

Middle Layer Materials:

Polyester Fleece- A popular choice for midlayer is a fleece jumper or jacket. It stays warm when wet, dries fast, and breathes well so you don’t sweat too much. It’s great as an active layer in cold, dry conditions when you are moving.

Wool- Merino wool is also quite popular, and as the best natural insulating fibre, has all the same properties as the polyester fleece.

Down- For cold conditions, down jackets are a great choice. These are mostly made from feathers but can also use synthetic fibres. These are not worn while you are moving as they are generally too warm for that, but rather are there for when you have stopped moving. They pack down to a small size, but when wet (for down feathers) they lose their ability to retain heat so it’s important to keep them dry.

Example: Patagonia R1 Hoody

Outer (shell) layer - layering for the outdoors

3. Outer layer

This layer protects you from 2 things: wind and rain. It is also known as your shell layer (or hard shell) and happens to be the most expensive layer out of them all. Being wet or having significant wind chill (even if weather is dry) is not good. Your outer layer stops this. In very wet or cold conditions, you would even have outer shell pants to protect your lower half. It is important that this layer be breathable however, as you may need to wear your shell layer while being active (for example hiking or climbing) or in warm but wet conditions. Your outer layer needs to fit over your mid layers, so make sure to try it on with mid layers underneath and buy a size or 2 up from your regular. If you plan on climbing, check that the jacket is helmet compatible.

Outer Layer Material: Shell jackets and pants are made out of breathable fabrics with DRW (durable water repellent) finish. The material itself can be identified with names such as Goretex, eVent or Sympatex to name a few, and some of those do differ in how they make their products, but the end goal is the same: it breathes and keeps water and wind out.

Example: Outdoor Research Mens Axiom / Womens Skyward II

Soft shell jackets are not the same as hard shells. Soft shell jackets will have some water resistance, but not enough for rain or snow. They do however, keep the wind out quite well. Some softshells can be used as a good mid layer.


What about your bottom half? What do you wear and when?

leg layers - layering for the outdoors

The same layering system applies as above, but generally this involves thermals (base layer), hiking pants or shorts (mid layer), and hard shell (outer). In practice, you generally hike in either long or short pants that wick moisture and dry quickly, and reserve the thermals for all but the coldest conditions (or for sleeping at night). Shell pants are then worn for snowy or very wet conditions.

For underwear, it is recommended to stick with either a polyester blend or merino wool. Avoiding cotton is still a good practice even for underwear.

And the one key concept to tie all the layers together is this:

Staying Dry = Staying Alive

Cotton kills because it is terrible at trapping heat and dries slow. It can absorb up to 27 times its weight in water. NEVER WEAR COTTON IN THE OUTDOORS. Many deaths and accidents in the outdoors have been attributed to people who wore cotton. But just because you have all the right gear doesn’t mean you are using it properly and avoiding things like hypothermia.

Here’s how to put it all together:


Here are a few tips for layering in the outdoors.

1. Start cold.

Start your hikes or activities with less layers on and add them as needed. You want to avoid sweating. Constantly stopping to remove layers is also time wasting. So start with the minimum and use movement to warm up. When I go ice climbing for example, I hike in to the area in my base layer. Even with single digit or minus temperatures around me, hiking uphill and in the snow is hard work. Then as soon as I arrive (or stop), I throw on my big puffy down jacket over all my layers (if it’s dry or not snowing hard).

2. Reserve your outer (shell) layer for wet or snowy conditions.

Many people wear their shell jacket all the time, even when its not raining or snowing. This often leads to a shorter lifespan of the jacket as it gets damaged quicker from brushing up against vegetation or rocks, as well as the rubbing on the shoulders from your backpack straps. Wear your mid layer instead, and keep the outer shell jacket layer for actual rain or snow days (always keeping it in your backpack of course).

3. Your activity you are doing will influence what layers you will need to be wearing.

This is why we bring all our layers in our backpack. We adjust our layering system as required as we are moving and the weather develops.

There are no set answers as each person runs differently. Some run hot and others cold, so adjust your layers as you need to. The graphic below is for someone in the middle, neither too hot nor too cold. Not shown would be extras such as hats, beanies, gloves, or socks. You can also substitute hiking pants for shorts if that is your preference.

Here are some examples of how it all goes together, keeping in mind this doesn't take into account how active you are at the time:


Once you get the hang of layering and have all the right clothing, even rainy and cold weather can be enjoyable. Layering is the key to not only enjoying yourself outside, but also keeping you safe!

Happy adventures!

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Always remember this...

The environment is under threat from human impact! For your enjoyment and for future generations, please LEAVE NO TRACE! Respect natural places and leave them clean. You can learn more about the leave no trace principles HERE.