Why Is Layering Important to Keep Warm?

Girl In Layered ClothesWhy is layering important to keep warm? Because it keeps the warm air close to your body.  Layers also wick away moisture and protect you from wind, rain and snow.  When done right, layers work together to keep your body at the perfect temperature no matter how cold it is outside. It’s 25 degrees outside and there’s three feet of fresh powder on the ground.  It’s a bluebird day- the sun is shining without a cloud in the sky.

This is the kind of day skiers and snowboarders dream about.  It’s cold though and it with a slight wind in the air, you know it’s going to be really chilly while riding chair three to the top of your favorite mountain. To stay warm in cold weather, it’s important you learn and master the art of layering. For more information on layering please see our article entitled “How To Dress For Winter Survival“.

Layering is important because it keeps you warm and dry all at the same time.  The fabrics you choose also play an important role in how warm you’ll be too. For this blog, I’ll take a closer look at the three main layers you should be wearing and how to wear them! Also, I’ll dive into fabric. What your layers are made of is just as important as the layers themselves! Every layer works in unison with the next layer to keep you comfortable- not too hot and not too cold.  Layering will keep you alive if you’re ever in an emergency situation. Layering also prevents hypothermia and frostbite! See also our article entitled “41 Ideas For Staying Warm In Cold Weather“.

Base Layer

Base Layers

The base layer is critical to keeping a thin layer of warm air close to your body. This layer of warm air will come in handy when you are riding the chair lift in a blizzard or making fresh tracks down a powder run.  The first layer should always fit snug against your body- not too tight and not too loose. Base layer is often referred to as long johns or long underwear. The base layer should not only fit snug against your body, but it should also wick away moisture at all times.

You want a base layer that will take moisture, like sweat, away from your body. Why is this so important? IF you’re wearing clothes, like a cotton shirt, that holds onto moisture, that shirt will actually draw body heat away from you.  When this happens your core, temperature starts to drop fairly rapidly, and you begin to enter the beginning stages of hypothermia. Yikes! We don’t want to go there. This is why outdoor survival experts will tell you to never wear cotton in the wilderness.

Really, you shouldn’t even wear cotton while working out.  Cotton kills, as they say, and you don’t want to die from the wrong choice in fabric.  I know this sounds dramatic, but it happens every year.  In fact, hundreds of people die from hypothermia across the country every year, and in many cases wearing the wrong clothes play a role or contribute to those deaths.

Now that you know to stay far away from cotton, let’s look at what you should be wearing.  Merino wool and synthetic materials are your best bet at staying dry and warm when having fun in a winter wonderland.  Merino wool is nothing like that scratchy wool blanket you used to sleep with at camp when you were in junior high.  Merino wool is soft, cozy, durable and wicks away moisture all at the same time.

Merino wool also has a high insulation value, which means it does a really good job of keeping that warm layer of air close to your body.  Merino wool also lasts a really long time too, so if you invest in a quality pair of long johns you can wear them for years.  In fact, I still have pair of Patagonia long johns I purchased 17 years ago. I wear them skiing to this day and there isn’t a single hole or loose thread.  When it comes to the base layer, I suggest you choose quality over quantity.

A base layer made with synthetic material also works wonders when it comes to wicking away moisture and keeping you nice and toasty. When looking at the label of a garment, you’ll recognize synthetic material by the names of polyester, nylon, spandex and lycra. If you’re hiking for days at time and no access to a washing machine, synthetic base layers do a better job at keeping the odors at bay.  You’re hiking friends will thank you if you choose synthetic materials over merino wool!

Base layers also come in a variety of weights- basically the thickness of the long johns. When choosing the weight of your base layer, consider what your activity level. Will you be climbing Mt. Hood or are your teaching your nephew how to ski on the bunny hill? Will you be going to Alaska for the Iditarod or are you taking a late fall hike in the Cascade Mountains? Base layers typically come in three different weights: lightweight, medium weight and heavyweight. Lightweight is great for cool temps.

Medium Weight is a good choice for cold temperatures, typically anything above freezing.  A heavyweight base layer is a good choice is your heading out into below freezing or subzero temperatures. While the weight of the base layer is important, remember the main purpose of this layer is moisture management!

Middle Layer

Mid Layers

This layer goes over your base layer and is designed to keep you insulated.  The main purpose of the middle layer it to keep your body heat at a comfortable temperature.  When choosing a middle layer, you have lots of options! Fleece, wool, down and synthetic materials are all really good choices.  Not only do you want to retain heat, you also want the middle layer to be breathable. All that moisture from your base layer needs somewhere to go.

How heavy your middle layer will be depending a lot on what you’ll be doing.  If you’re looking a down coat, the thicker or puffier the coat, the warmer it will be.  However, some companies, like Patagonia make a really nice middle layer down coat that’s thin but provides incredible insulation!

Fleece is also another really good breathable fabric to choose for a middle layer. It has great insulating capabilities, however if you’re in a windy environment you’re going to need a top layer to keep the cold away.

Middle layers are available in all styles, from vests to coats with half zippers, so you’ll most certainly find something that will work with your activity! Remember, you don’t want to get too hot.  If you get overheated you’re more likely to strip layers and expose your body to the unforgiving temperatures of winter.

It’s more difficult to get warm than to stay warm. So, choose a middle layer that works well with your base layer and your level of activity.  You may opt for a fleece vest If you know you’re going to be gaining a thousand feet in altitude in a couple hours. That’s an impressive hike and one sure to produce a whole lot of sweat!

Outer Layer

Fortress Jacket Outer Shell

Once you have your middle layer selected, it’s time to protect your body from the wind, rain and whatever Mother Nature throws your way. The main function of an outer layer is to repel weather and keep moisture and wind from seeping into your middle and base layer.  Getting wet is a recipe for disaster when enjoying the great outdoors in cold temperatures.

There are so many outer layer options, it will make your head spin! Let’s get familiar with some of the lingo.  Waterproof means, well, it’s coated with a special material to keep the water from penetrating the coat. Waterproof is typically more expensive, but it’s worth it if you’re going to be fishing in Alaska or hiking through a blizzard.  When you’re anticipating a lot of rain or snow, a waterproof coat is the way to go.

Water-resistant is not the same as waterproof. Water-resistant means the coat will repel moisture, but when exposed to extreme conditions, you may get soaked. Water-resistant is a great choice for lighter rain/snow conditions.  Breathable is another description you’ll see a lot of when shopping for an outer layer.  Breathable means the it allows your sweat to be released from inside to the outside of the coat, however it won’t allow any wind or other weather inside.

With a breathable outer layer, you won’t be overheated! All these coats also do a great job of keeping the wind at bay. Wind will steal your body heat quicker than the winning car at the Indy 500. Yep. That quick.  That’s why it’s so important to layer your clothing when you’re heading out into the backcountry.

Hypothermia

Layering is so important to keep warm because it protects your body against the cold.  Our body works best at 98.6 degrees. At this temperature all our vital organs function they way they’re supposed to. At 98.6 degrees our heart pumps blood, our lungs take deep breathes and our mind is sharp! However, when our body temperature drops, our body isn’t so forgiving. In fact, all it takes is a few degrees variation and our organs start to shut down. Medical experts say your body will start to show the beginning stages of hypothermia once the body drops below 95 degrees. At this temperature, you’ll first notice shivering. This is the body’s way of generating heat.  How many times have you shivered while sitting on a chair lift? Too many times to count! I’ve been there too! Other signs of hypothermia include, weak pulse, confusion, lack of coordination, slow breathing, sleepy and bright red skin in children.  According to medical experts, people who start to suffer from hypothermia don’t know they are because the signs are so gradual.

If left untreated, hypothermia can slowly cause all your vital organs to shut down one by one.  The best way to prevent your body temperature from dropping, is staying warm and dry. The best way to stay warm is to wear layers! Layers will literally save your life!

Frostbite

FrostbiteLayering will also protect you from suffering from frost bite. It’s important to apply the layering techniques to your hands, feet and head. Sock liners, hat liners and glove liners are all good choices for a base layer. Like the base layer for your body, these liners should be made out of moisture wicking material such as merino wool or a synthetic material.  The base layer will also keep a nice layer of warm arm close to your body.

Keeping your feet, hands and head warm play an important role in maintaining a comfortable body temperature.  When choosing gloves, look for waterproof materials.  Mittens also tend to keep fingers warmer, if you suffer from poor circulation. When choosing socks, look for wool! And thicker, doesn’t always mean better.  If your socks are too snug for your boots, you’ll lose circulation and that means less warm blood to your toes!

Frost bite happens when your skin and tissues underneath the skin freeze. This happens when you’re not wearing the appropriate layers, or your extremities are exposed to the cold. According to medical experts, frost bite typically affects the nose, ears, hands, finger, feet and toes.  This is why covering those areas with the right layers and the right material is so important!

Symptoms and signs of frost bite include: red or blue waxy looking skin, numbness, muscle stiffness and blistering after you’ve tried to warm up the affected areas.  If left untreated, amputation may be your only option! Staying warm and dry, from head to toe is your best defense against hypothermia and frost bite! I know I keep repeating myself, but remember layers save lives! Layers will also save your feet, toes and ears from the grip of frost bite.

Enjoying the mountains in the middle of winter is a great way to stay active and have fun! As long as you dress properly for winter survival. However, if you’re not wearing the proper clothing, you may not live to tell about it! Layering keeps you warm, dry and alive!

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