Even though we’re halfway through February, there’s no time like the present to become an expert on choosing your winter layers. When I first moved to Colorado, I layered every long-sleeved item I owned, stuffed fuzzy socks into my Nike trainers, and coated my frozen fingers with three pairs of Wal-Mart mittens. These weren’t the types of items you’d see in Outdoor Magazine, but they did the trick. If I could go back, chances are I’d do it all the same, because let’s be honest: good outdoor gear is expensive and we’re not all made of money.
The main thing I’ve learned over these winters is that when it comes to keeping warm and happy during winter adventures, less is more! With the right layering, you can better regulate your body’s temperature and not have the worst time ever each time you get out of your toasty car. There are three main layers you need when you head outside during the winter: base layer, mid layer, and outer layer, so let’s brr-ing on the winter layering guide!
Choosing Your Base Layers
Your base layer is the sweat-wicking garment that works to keep you dry. Base layers are your first line of defense on a cold day. When looking for any base layer, you should have three things in mind: material, weight, and price!
Material: Base layers should fit snugly against your skin. The most popular base layer for cold days is Merino wool or a combination, since it’s toasty and doesn’t trap odor as much as synthetic. For sports where you sweat more, like hiking or running, synthetic material is better at wicking sweat. Once you start to sweat if the wind picks up or the temperature drops, you’re now sitting in a wet layer that’s about to freeze and pretty soon you look like the Jack Nicholson popsicle at the end of The Shining. So in short: if you’re sweaty, stick with synthetic, but beware of the stink!
Base layer weights: Lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight. Usually—but not always—the thicker your base layer, the warmer it should be. Another good rule of thumb is the more you sweat (or plan on sweating) the thinner your base layer should be. As a relatively sweaty gal, I opt for thinner base layers when running and hiking and only wear my wool for cold days snowboarding. I have 2-3 base layers so I can wash them regularly and swap them out because no one wants to be the stinky one in the ski lodge.
Some of my favorite brands for base layers include: Icebreaker, Patagonia, Smartwool, Kari Traa, and REI. I look for deals on these brands at the end of the winter season. I wouldn’t recommend buying your base layers used because, well, stank.
Picking Your Mid Layers
Once you have the perfect base layer it’s time to figure out a mid layer. The nice thing about mid layers is they come in a wide variety of types based on what the day calls for! Some days my mid layer is a fleece sweatshirt, other days it’s a technical puffy—it all depends on where the wind blows (literally, wind is the fucking worst and I make all my decisions based on it).
Materials: Fleece, cotton, synthetic down, down feather. You have a wide range of options in both synthetic and natural materials when it comes to mid-layers.
The mid layer is likely the one you’ll abandon when temps rise. I always bring a mid-layer along even if I don’t wear it because it’s always better to be overprepared, especially if you live in a place where the weather changes more than your mind! My favorite mid layers include: Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket, Mountain Hardwear Monkey Fleece, Patagonia Fleece, or just a cotton hoodie–all of which you can find much cheaper gently used!
Perfecting your Outerwear
Your outer layer acts as your defense against wind, rain, sleet, or snow. Outer layers include ski jackets, rain jackets, waterproof shells, wind breakers, and pants.
Materials: Most technical outer layers are waterproof and breathable. Because of these more technical features, outerwear will likely be the most expensive layer you buy. With rain, you’ll want a waterproof jacket, which is typically made of coated nylon, which isn’t exactly breathable, but keeps you dry. When hiking or uphill skiing, I’d recommend a hardshell jacket and pants, since you’ll be sweating; with downhill skiing, opt for an insulated ski jacket and pants as you will likely feel cooler throughout the day.
My favorite outer layers are: my Patagonia shell, my North Face windbreaker, anything Holden Outerwear for snowboarding and Volcom Snowpants. Eddie Bauer also makes great outerwear.
Don’t fret if you don’t have all the “right” layers at the beginning—everyone has to start somewhere! Begin with a high-quality base layer, then consider looking for a used mid or outer layer either online or at your local outdoor shop. Some of my favorite places for used gear online are:
- Gear Trade
- REI Used
- The North Face Renewed
- Switchback Gear Exchange
- Poshmark, ThredUp, etc.
One way to reduce your overall consumption is to try and buy used first! From there, be sure to take care of each of your layers using the instructions on the tag—which in my case means not leaving them balled up my backpack!