Walk into almost any reputable outdoor shop and the salesperson will recommend that you develop a system of clothing layers in order to stay comfortable on the trail. Layering is the process of dressing in a number of lightweight layers instead of 1 or 2 heavier layers. The primary advantage is that multiple layers allow a savvy hiker to mix and match various articles of clothing in order to meet the changing demands of weather conditions and activity level along the trail. Multiple lightweight pieces also occupy less space in your pack.
Hikers typically divide clothing layers into four specific categories.
A. Base or Inner Layers (Example: Long underwear)
B. Mid Layers (Examples: General hiking attire-shorts, t-shirts and lightweight pants).
C. Insulating Layers (Examples: Fleece jackets and sweaters)
D. Outer Layers (Examples: Rain gear and wind shells)
Today we’ll focus on categories one and two.
The primary concerns that you’ll have when looking for clothing are finding pieces that fit well and choosing materials that will do the job that you want them to do. We can’t really help you with the first part but we can certainly offer guidance on the second.
In general, you should be prepared to experience temperatures between 30 and 80 degrees F in the mountains, often in a single day. You may find that your morning climb has you sweating but the temperature at the top of a high pass gives you goose pimples. Our recommendation is that you pick materials that are comfortable and will pull moisture away from your body in order to keep you dry and comfortable. We use the term “wicking” to describe the transfer of moisture away from the skin and into the great beyond.
Here’s a breakdown of the most common materials and their characteristics.
For base layers:
1. Cotton. This is a comfortable material when it’s dry but it absorbs moisture like a sponge and holds it next to the skin creating significant heat loss. Cotton also takes a long time to dry thereby adding discomfort. We don’t recommend cotton for base layers.
2. Wool. If you read our review of the Icebreaker long underwear top then you know that wool is a great material for long underwear. It doesn’t have to be scratchy and it’s a great natural insulator even when it’s soaking wet. Disadvantage: It doesn’t dry quite as fast as synthetic materials. We highly recommend some of the new lightweight wool long underwear on the market.
3. Silk. Silk is an extremely lightweight and comfortable material. It pulls moisture away from the skin and it insulates well. Disadvantage: Silk is not the most durable material and often requires special care when laundering.
4. Polypropylene. This is one of the first synthetic materials designed to effectively pull moisture away from the skin. It dries quickly and is very lightweight. Some polypro garments retain odors though many of the new garments are treated to repel stink.
5. Capilene. This is Patagonia’s proprietary synthetic material. It is also polyester based but treated with a chemical to improve moisture transfer away from the skin. It’s soft, comfortable and available in a variety of weights depending on your activity. We recommend Capilene if you’re looking for a nice long underwear base layer.
6. Proprietary wicking materials. Myriad manufactures are beginning to offer their own version of wicking materials. MTS 2, a Moisture Transfer System available from REI is one example. Like Capilene, MTS is designed to pull moisture away from the skin, keeping you dry and comfortable.
Here’s a breakdown of the most common materials found in mid-layers.
1. Cotton. Some people like to wear cotton t-shirts, pants and shorts especially in very warm climates. The evaporative process of the moisture trapped in the material actually helps to cool the hiker. However, we found that most of our experiences with cotton leave us cold in the mountains. The wet sticky feel between your back and the pack can also be rather undesirable. Therefore we don’t recommend cotton for any garment that you plan to wear on the trail, except maybe your headband or boxer shorts.
2. Nylon. This is a wonderful material for pants, shorts and shirts. It doesn’t absorb moisture and it’s typically very durable. New garments are brushed and feel very soft against the skin.
3. Synthetic wicking materials. Many people wear synthetic base layers for mid layers as well. It is not uncommon to see a hiker with a pair of nylon shorts and a long sleeve Capilene top. It’s a great idea since these layers keep you dry and provide good insulation.
4. Wool. See the description for base layers. This is great insulator even when wet.
A note about fit: Base layers should fit snugly against your skin. You want the wicking material to be in contact with your perspiration. Mid layers can fit more loosely and should provide comfortable freedom of movement.
Putting it all together:
Here’s a sample list of base layers and mid layers that you might use together in order to enjoy yourself along the trail. Mix and match and have some fun.
1. A pair of nylon convertible pants. (The legs zip off below the knees and become shorts when the weather turns hot).
2. A synthetic short-sleeve top. (Great for hot weather).
3. A nylon-based hiking shirt. Fly fishing shirts make great hiking wear. Roll up the sleeves in warm weather, or leave them down if the weather gets cool.
4. A synthetic or lightweight wool long-sleeve top. You can wear this by itself in cool weather, pull it over the short-sleeve top when the weather gets chilly or wear it beneath your long sleeve-hiking shirt in cold weather.
5. A pair of lightweight synthetic long underwear bottoms. Throw these under your pants if you run into cold weather. They don’t occupy a lot of space in your pack. Mmmm, warm. Honestly, we don’t use these very often but sometimes it’s nice to know that you have them.
Join us next time for Part Four of our series: Insulating layers. As always, please contact Ryder-Walker if you have any questions. We look forward to hearing from you.