Layer Up For Outdoor Winter Activities

Afraid that the winter months will put an end to your outdoor activities? Here's how to properly layer up for the season.

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Do you dread the arrival of winter? Does cold weather make you want to stay inside, binge watching Netflix while curled up in a blanket on the couch? Have you already started counting down the days until spring? If you answered yes to any of these questions, chances are you simply don’t have the right outdoor gear to keep you warm during the winter months. But with the proper clothing, you can actually stay outside for hours on end, enjoying all of the activities the season has to offer while remaining comfortable the entire time.

Staying warm during the winter starts with a proper layering system. That doesn’t mean throw a thick sweater over a flannel shirt and cover yourself in a big, bulky coat, however. Instead, you want to wear layers that are designed to work efficiently with one another to keep you warm, dry, and comfortable. Each of those layers has a specific role to play, and when they are correctly paired with one another they can keep you surprisingly warm.

Better still, a good layering system can add a level of versatility that you simply don’t get when wearing heavy sweaters and coats. For instance, if you find yourself getting too warm, you can shed an article of clothing to help cool things off. On the other hand, if you’re not warm enough, adding another layer is simple too. This mix-and-match philosophy is part of what makes a layering system work so well, and why it is the preferred method for staying comfortable outside in the colder conditions.

A true winter layering system is made up of three components: base layer, mid-layer, and an outer layer. How they interact with each other is crucial to their performance, and while each can provide a measure of warmth on its own, their true value doesn’t show itself until they are combined. Here’s what you need to know.

Base Layers

The base layer sits closest to the skin and performs the important task of moisture control. Generally made from merino wool, silk, or specially designed synthetic fabrics, base layers help to wick sweat and other moisture away from the body and have the ability to dry quickly too. This helps you stay warmer during winter activities, particularly after you’ve worked up a sweat. Oftentimes you won’t notice the cold at all while you’re active, but stop for a short time and the perspiration on your body can soon bring on a chill. Good base layers can help prevent that, however, and fend off potential threats of hypothermia in the process.


The purpose of a mid-layer is to provide insulation and trap pockets of warm air close to the body. They work in conjunction with your base layers by allowing moisture to evaporate and escape while retaining heat in an efficient way. Mid-layers are generally made of wool, fleece, or down, with some synthetic options, such as Thinsulate, as well. They come in a variety of weights too, which allows you to alter your wardrobe based on weather conditions and activities. If it’s very cold outside, you’ll want to opt for a thicker mid-layer. But if you’re going for a vigorous run, something lighter makes more sense. This is where a good layering system starts to show its versatility, giving you options that more closely fit your needs.

Outer Layer

The final layer in the system consists of a shell jacket, which provides protection not just from the cold temperatures, but other weather conditions too. A good outer layer will repel rain and snow, block the wind, and also keep you warm. Once again, you’ll have a lot of options to choose from depending on the conditions, with outer layers ranging from lightweight windproof jackets to full-blown mountaineering shells built to keep you warm in the harshest conditions on the planet. Most of us won’t need something that dramatic (or expensive!) however, as a good weather-resistant, insulated, and breathable jacket can fulfill all of our needs quite nicely. On the other hand, if you partake in a number of different winter activities or face widely varying weather conditions, you may find that you’ll need several jackets that can perform different roles.

With a layering system, the base layer will be the one constant. The mid- and outer layers can be mixed and matched or added and dropped depending on your needs, but the unique properties of the base layers will always remain. That means on some days you may not need extra insulation, but you’ll still need a shell to keep out the rain. On other days, conditions might be so good that a jacket may not be required at all. But underneath it all, you’ll still want to wear those all-important base layers.

Learning which pieces of gear work best with one another takes a bit of time and experience, although ultimately personal preference plays a big role. But with these articles of clothing in your wardrobe, you’ll soon discover that even Old Man Winter won’t be able to keep you locked inside for weeks on end.

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