How to Create the Best Layering System

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Staying comfortable outside involves a lot more than just having a nice place to sit and good food in your stomach. Ultimately, none of that really matters if you can’t regulate your body temperature.

A lot of people think they’ll be fine if they just throw on a big fluffy coat when it’s cold outside, or stick to a T-shirt and shorts when the weather is mild. But what happens when that coat isn’t keeping you warm enough (or too warm), and you’re starting to get goosebumps in that T-shirt now that the sun is setting? You’re in for a miserable and potentially dangerous time.

This is where the layering system comes in. If you’re planning a trip somewhere cold or with extreme temperature changes, you’ll want to check out the information below.

Layering System Considerations

man walking down the road in snow

Not all layering is created equal, because not all humans are created equal. The kinds of layers you’ll want to have with you depends on a number of factors including how much you’ll be exerting yourself and your metabolism (aka, do you tend to feel hot or cold throughout the day?)

Regardless of how you answer these questions, you’ll want to fill these three categories when you start thinking about your layering system:

Base Layer: This is what will keep you dry.
Middle Layer: This is how you stay insulated.
Outer Layer: This is what will protect you from the wind and rain.

Even if you don’t think it’s necessary for you to have all three of these, it’s good to have them with you just in case the weather decides to take a turn. Better to be safe than sorry!

Managing Moisture: Base Layer

The base layer is what’s going to keep you dry when you start to sweat. You’ll want to find something with wicking properties so that your shirt doesn’t just soak in that moisture and keep you constantly damp. Not only is it uncomfortable, but it can make you feel chilled and possibly lead to hypothermia, defeating the whole purpose of the layering system. 

Wicking vs Breathable

First, it’s good to understand the difference between “wicking” and “breathable” fabrics. Any material that has wicking properties is actively working to move moisture away from your body so that it can evaporate, which keeps you cool. Breathable materials simply allow air to travel freely through it, and may or may not wick moisture from your skin. Typically, the best wicking fabrics are also breathable. Polyester and nylon are good synthetic options, whereas merino wool and silk are natural. What you choose ultimately comes down to personal preference, as there doesn’t tend to be much difference between these materials in how they perform.

Insulation: Middle Layer

What’s the point in making your own body heat if you can’t keep it next to you? That’s where the middle layer comes in. Its sole purpose is to trap heat so that you can stay nice and toasty, even in subzero temperature.

Materials

Generally speaking, the thicker your middle layer is, the better it will insulate you. There are some materials that are better suited to this job than others, and we’ll take a look at a few of the most popular. 

man using layering system in front of matterhorn


Fleece is a great option because it dries fast, and still insulates even when wet. However, it is very breathable, which seems like a bad choice since we’re trying to keep that cold air out. This isn’t a problem, though, if you’re wearing an outer layer. Many cold weather tents follow this “multi-layered” design to help trap heat, as well.

The other popular choice is down. Anyone who’s ever owned a down jacket knows how incredibly warm it is, even if it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of material there. It compresses easily, and it’s already stuffed inside a shell, so it’s mostly wind and waterproof. The only downside is that if it does get wet, it completely loses its ability to insulate. From a camping perspective, this is why people invest in sleeping bag liners, to help trap their body heat inside their sleeping bag.

Precipitation Protection: Outer Layer

While the middle layer is meant to keep the heat in, the outer layer is designed to keep water and wind out. This is great because if either of these things were allowed to penetrate, you’d get very cold very fast. Most outer shells are coated with a waterproof layer so you don’t have to worry about getting soaked in a light rain or heavy downpour.

Most people opt for either water resistant or waterproof shells that are breathable. The breathable aspect of the shell material is important if you’ll be moving around a lot and sweating, otherwise there’s no outlet for your perspiration. This essentially makes your wicking inner layer useless because there’s nowhere for that moisture to escape. If you don’t feel like carrying around an outer layer and mid layer, there are some insulated jackets that bring together the best of both worlds too.

This applies to your camping gear as well. Finding a good waterproof tent involves more than making sure rain stays out – you need to make sure moisture doesn’t stay trapped inside either.

Hands, Feet, and Head

All of this information is well and good for keeping your core warm, but what about your fingers and toes? Thankfully the same principle applies for this layering system as well.

For your head, a single hat should be all you need to prevent heat loss. If you’re going somewhere exceptionally cold, though, consider wearing a skull cap with a thicker fleece or wool hat on top. 

man in snow storm


Glove and sock liners should become your new best friends if you want to keep your fingers and toes warm. This is especially important because these are the places that you’re most susceptible to get frostbite. The liners will help to keep your extremities dry, which is vital for protecting against both hypothermia and frostbite. Make sure you’re not wearing anything too tight fitting either, as adequate blood flow is necessary for staying warm. Cover up with some thick gloves and a good pair of winter boots, and you’ll be good to go.

If you’re worried you might be getting frostbite anyway, get inside immediately or move to a warmer area. Sometimes this isn’t possible, though, especially if you’re out camping for several days. That’s why it’s vital to make sure you have the proper gear, like a tent heater, to stay warm and safe. Take the time to review the things you’ll be bringing with you, and always have spare layers in case you get cold or wet. 

Warm Weather Layering

a pair of sunglasses resting on a pile of sand on the beach

Keep in mind that the layering system isn’t just for cold weather – it can be useful when it’s hot outside too! While you might not feel like wearing long johns in the summer, there are plenty of other options for more airy inner layers. Even though it might feel a little warmer initially, the wicking feature will help to keep you cool and dry.

The Dangers of Cold Temperatures

Layering is one of the best things you can do to keep your body at an optimal temperature, whether it’s 60 degrees or 10 degrees outside. But sometimes, despite your best efforts, this isn’t enough to prevent dangerous conditions like frostbite from taking over. Especially if you’re camping, even a 4 season tent and sleeping bag liner might not be enough – and you certainly won’t want to stay stuck in there the entire time! So what symptoms should you look out for, and how do you know when to call it a day?

Frostbite

close up of frost layering system

Frostbite is arguably the most well known cold weather danger. Generally speaking, it will only show itself in your extremities, like fingers, toes, and ears, though it is possible to get a frostbitten chin and cheeks. Depending on how bad it gets, though, frostbite can affect deeper tissue layers, like your muscles, nerves, and joints.

There are 3 stages to frostbite: frostnip, superficial frostbite, and severe frostbite. Here are the symptoms of each, and guidelines on how to proceed if you think you fall into one of these categories:

Frostnip

The early stages of frostbite, frostnip isn’t dangerous if you take action right away. Your skin will look red or pale, and likely feel numb, itchy, or cold – this is your body’s way of telling you that damage is starting to settle in. As soon as you start to notice symptoms, it’s important to get inside (or to a warmer location) and begin treating the affected area with warm water.

Superficial Frostbite

If you let frostnip progress into superficial frostbite, it’s a good idea to seek medical attention. At this point, your skin has started to freeze into ice crystals, but contrary to what you might expect, it will probably feel warm. Reheat the affected area as soon as you can, and don’t be surprised if it starts to look swollen, or mottled with discoloration. These areas look like bruises, and they’ll hurt, burn, and potentially start to peel after a few hours.

Severe Frostbite

If the frostbite is allowed to continue, it will eventually reach the subcutaneous layer of your skin. Your skin will turn black because the cells are dying, and a hard carapace may form over the affected area. Medical attention is required immediately, if possible, otherwise an amputation may be necessary.

Raynaud’s Disease

two hands reaching out into the snow

While not caused by the cold, people who suffer from Raynaud’s disease do have more extreme reactions to colder temperatures. The primary trait of this syndrome (cold and numb fingers/toes) is caused by decreased blood flow to these parts of the body, giving them a distinctive “bloodless” and pale color.

Raynaud’s most frequently develops in women between the ages of 15-30, especially if they live in colder climates and have a relative who suffers from the same disease. However, it is possible for anyone to experience an onset of Rayaud’s at any point in their life.

As you might have guessed, folks who suffer from this disease are more likely to get frostbitten, and develop other complications from the cold. If you have Raynaud’s, you’ll want to take extra precaution when spending time outside in chilly weather.

Cold Urticaria (Cold Allergy)

man in a coat wearing a backpack walking through the snow

Didn’t think cold temperatures were something you could be allergic to? Well, unfortunately they are.

Cold urticaria is the medical term for hives that develop on the skin when exposed to cold temperatures. It can be a scary condition, due to the possibility of a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, which can be fatal if left untreated. Wheezing, tongue swelling, and fainting are also possible in severe cases, whereas fatigue, joint pain, headache, and fever are more common.

Cold allergies tend to develop early in life, and often fade away after a few years. If you think you might have a cold allergy, try to avoid spending much time in temperatures below 39 degrees Fahrenheit, as this is the cutoff where most people start having issues.


Looking for more info to help you prepare for your next trip? Check out these guides for useful tips!

How to Go Camping: A Guide for your Next Adventure
10 Essentials for Safety in the Wilderness

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Spencer Yeomans

Spencer Yeomans

A lover of the outdoors, and especially the mountains, Spencer has always enjoyed pushing people to step outside their comfort zones. His mission is to help others get out of their homes to have fun and stay active in nature.

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