„There is no bad weather, only bad clothing“

Swedish proverb

Winter is here. Usually, hikers are not crazy about cold or snowy weather. But that needs not to be the case. If you can fully understand, and apply layering techniques, you can hike almost anywhere, anytime.

So what's it all about? In essence, by dressing in layers, which are carefully chosen, you will be much more adaptive to the conditions on your hike. Layers will keep you dry when it is wet, warm when it is cold, and cool when it is hot.

Keep in mind, the weather is not the only thing to consider when deciding which layers to wear. You also need to be considerate about your metabolism and exertion level. E.g. if you are a person who sweats a lot, you should only consider breathable materials. If your hike is going to be physically very demanding, with a lot of ascent and short breaks, your body temperature will be much higher than on an easygoing hike, so you need not choose layers that give you greater freedom of movement, and which will not make you overheat.

Stay tuned, and learn a thing or two about layers.

We can divide layers into three distinctive categories:

  • Base layers
  • Middle layers
  • Shell (outer) layers
  • Bonus: Multi-functional gear

  1. Base layers: Moisture management
Photo: Predrag Vučković

MATERIALS. Let me start with this: DO NOT USE COTTON. It isn't a good option as cotton doesn't insulate that well and takes a long time to dry.

Instead, as we always preach, Merino wool should be your material of choice. I am perfectly aware that Merino base layers can be costly, but synthetic alternatives are an almost equally good option, and you will not go bankrupt if you buy them. Merino wool or silk represent natural fibers, while synthetics options are made of polyester, nylon, polypropylene.  

WEIGHT. Logically, you can choose between light-weight, midweight, and heavy-weight base layers. Lighter ones tend to be more suited for hot conditions, while heavier ones tend to be more suited for colder conditions, although, the primary purpose of a base layer may not be to keep you warm, but rather – to keep you dry. When hiking in extremely hot and sunny conditions, opting for a long-sleeve base layer can be a great choice, as it can cool your skin(depending on the material), while at the same time protect from the sun.  

Note: Merino Wool base layers have anti-bacterial properties. This is a great tool to fight nasty odors during a prolonged stay on the mountain. During this year's HIGHLANDER Velebit I wore mine for 3 days non-stop, and still reached the finish line smelling like a flower ϑ

2. Middle layers: Insulation

Photo: TrickyPics

While base layers wick away moisture from your body, middle layers absorb that moisture and provide insulation. Excessive moisture escapes through the fibers of a middle layer. Insulation will help you retain the heat provided by your own body.

MATERIALS. Again you have a broad range of options, both synthetic and natural. In my mind, whenever you can – go lightweight.

Down offers the best warmth-to-wight ratio. For this reason down insulated jackets are a great option as they are highly compressive (easy packing), very light, and have great insulating properties. The efficiency of down is measured in fill power, and it usually ranges from 450 to 900. Although down jackets tend to be water and wind-resistant, they are not suited for heavy rain and overtly wet conditions as down will lose its insulating efficiency when damp.

Another great option is polyester fleece. The upside of fleece is that it stays warm even when it gets damp. It also dries pretty fast, and breathes well, so you shouldn't overheat while wearing it. Breathability can be regarded as a downside as well, as fleece jackets are not windproof - the wind will blow right through them, and possibly take away their insulating properties.

Synthetic insulated jackets are an option as well. Although though they do not compress as well as down jackets, they are much more weather-proof and retain heat even when damp. Sometimes I had an issue with synthetic jackets in regards to sweating and bad smell. If they are not washed regularly, or you go for a long-distance hike for more than 10 days, my experience is that they tend to get a specific kind of odor, and I just hated it so much that I decided to revert to using down insulated jackets which never gave me similar problems.

3. Shell layers: Wind/Rain/Snow protection

Photo: TrickyPics

Shell layers are exactly that – shell. They will protect you from the wind, rain, and snow. They are treated with durable water repellent finish, so water beads up and rolls of the fabric. Shell layers keep the integrity of all that you are wearing underneath it, and alow base layers and middle layers to keep their properties intact.

Waterproof and breathable shell jackets are the most expensive choice, but they will take care of you impeccably. Usually, spending more means that the jacket is much more durable than the cheaper option, keep that in mind and try to calculate your cost per wear ratio. If you are a frequent hiker, and spend a lot of time on the mountain or in nature, investing in a great shell layer could be a wise decision.

Water-resistant and breathable shell jackets represent a little bit cheaper option and are suited for drizzly conditions, with light wind. Usually made of woven nylon or polyester fabrics, they will get the job done quite well.

Softshells are an option as well. The upside is breathability. The downside is that you would need to have in your backpack at least some kind of additional shell that can be described as water-resistant so you could wear it on top of the softshell to keep its integrity.

Note: Irrespective of what certain brands, and companies may claim, there is no material ,that I’m aware of, that will keep you completely dry if it rains hard enough for an extended period.

That's it. By mastering the art of layering, you can be ready for a hike in a way that you will have a much greater opportunity to enjoy it, no matter what kind of weather conditions you encounter. Nothing will surprise you. By slipping layers on and off as your activity level or the weather changes, you can constantly remain inside of your comfort zone during the hike. Knowing that you are well prepared for every possible scenario will give you certain satisfaction, confidence, and assurance that you became one with everything that surrounds you.

Aljoša Vojnović