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How to Layer Clothing for the Outdoors

April 04, 2016
How to Layer Clothing for the Outdoors

If you are planning a camping trip, going on a hike, or going out fishing, leave your bespoke fur coat at home. It might look fabulous, but it’s only going to weigh you down, leaving you feeling sweaty and uncomfortable.

Outdoor adventurers know that the best way to stay warm and dry in the outdoors is by wearing multiple layers of clothing. Layering protects you from the wind and the rain, ensures maximum insulation, and wicks moisture away from your skin, retaining breathability – essential when you are in the outdoors where sweat drying on your skin will soon leave you freezing.

Layering for Outdoor Activities

Layering is a simple process:

  • Start with a thermal base layer

  • Wrap that with one or two mid-layer garments

  • Finish things off with a water / wind-proof shell, and you’re ready for adventure.

Base Layer

Designed to wick (draw) moisture away from the surface of your skin, thermal base-layers (or simply thermals as we often refer to them in Australia) are made from a range of natural and synthetic materials.

Merino wool is popular for its warmth and natural ability to wick moisture. While it takes longer to dry than synthetic materials, merino is better at insulating even when it gets wet.

Base layers – whether they are on your torso or your legs – should be lightweight and thin. If they are too bulky, they won’t work effectively as part of the layering system.

Mid Layer(s) - 1 or 2

A mid layer garment is usually a jumper or lightweight fleece made from natural or synthetic materials. Sometimes an additional soft shell or wind breaker can be added under your hard outer shell in cold conditions: we’ll go into some different combos in more detail in a minute. It’s a good idea to look out for garments that have a zip at the front as this allows you to quickly cool down when the weather changes.

The mid layer's main purpose is insulation. Fleece is great at keeping you warm, and also has wicking properties to help draw moisture away from your base-layer.

In summer, a good mid-layer should work fine as an outer layer, so long as it's not raining.

how to layer clothing for the outdoors option 2

Outer Layer

Your first line of defence against cold wind, rain and snow. Your outer layer garment repels water and cuts through the wind, helping to keep your mid and base layers drier for longer.

Many manufacturers refer to outer layer clothing as ‘water-proof’, but this can be misleading. Outer layer garments are designed to repel as much moisture as possible, while still allowing the transfer of heat away from your body. This means that no outer layer should be completely water proof: if it was, you'd end up sweating profusely, getting wet from the inside, out.

Outer layer garments are made from modern synthetic compounds like Goretex and Polartec that are effective at repelling water, while also allowing the garment to breathe. Some are hard shells only, others feature insulation and are used in extreme / alpine conditions.

Learn more about waterproof breathable fabrics in our buyer's guide.

Layering Combinations

Depending on the weather and your planned activity you may need to adjust your layer combinations to keep yourself warm and dry. We’ll suggest some possible combinations suited to different weather conditions and activities.

Two-Layer System

In Australia, you can pretty much bank on it being warm in summer, but it also gets pretty humid, so there is also a good chance of rain even when it starts out as a clear day. A two-layer system is (in most cases) a safe bet for summer half day trips.

Maybe you are going on a short hike in the morning, or perhaps you are heading out rock climbing. Conditions can still change in the course of half a day, so it’s important to always pack an outer layer to help combat wind and rain.

If it’s warm and dry you’re probably going to spend most of your day in your baselayer and a pair of shorts, but keep a light, hard, outer shell jacket in your pack to throw on if the clouds roll in.

two layer outdoor clothing system

Three Layer System for Day Trips

That old saying, ‘four seasons in one day’, has never been truer than it is in Australia. On a full day trip you'll be carrying a decent sized day pack, so it's easy to save some space for two additional layers.

If it’s hot and dry, start out with your base layer, keeping a lightweight fleece jumper in your pack alongside your outer shell that you can throw on and mix and match if conditions change.

three layer outdoor clothing system

Three Layer System - Multi-Day Trips

Whether you are hiking the Overland Track, climbing at Mt Arapiles, or going on a multi-day fly fishing trip along one of Australia’s many great rivers, you'll need to pack enough clothing to to be able to switch it up on the fly.

This scenario should be treated in pretty much the same way as a full-day trip. The main thing is to ensure that you have additional sets of thermals (both top and bottom) to change into, and it’s a good idea to take a pair of water-proof hiking pants as well. Make sure you bring a dry bag or stuff sack for your change of clothes so you always have a fresh, dry set to cheer you up when the rain really comes down.

Don't Forget to Accessorise

Be sure to take all of the usual accessories with you as well: hat, gloves, balaclava, snow goggles etc.

Accessories for layering clothing for the outdoors

Four Layer System - Winter Day Trips

Australia is a big place, and the weather can vary hugely from one State to the next. It’s important to treat location and destination in the same way that you would treat the seasons. Summer in Tasmania can be as cold as winter on the Gold Coast.

But wherever you are, if it’s winter, you are going to need to pack more gear in case the weather deteriorates during your trip.

A four layer system is optimal for wind and rain, and icy, alpine conditions. It’s the same as a three layer system, but you are going to add a soft shell jacket between your fleece and your outer hard shell. This layer should have a hood so that you have extra protection for your head.

This system is great for skiing and snowboarding as you can always ditch layers on the go to cool off when the sun comes out. Opting for lightweight products saves you weight and space in your pack.

You can always change the order of your layers as well. If the weather is generally dry, you might want to keep your fleece layer over your soft shell so you can remove it and cool down easier. Try mixing it up to see what works best for you.

four layer outdoor clothing system winter

Four Layer - Winter Expedition System

Mountaineering, ice climbing, ski and snowboarding multi-day trips – any kind of extreme activity in winter demands that you wear gear designed specifically for the job. As a general rule, four layers are effective at protecting you from extreme cold. In this case you want to go for a base layer, a fleece layer, a hard wind and water proof shell, all wrapped up in an insulated jacket designed for the mountains.

You can also opt for a one piece outer suit which eliminates heat loss between your top and bottom layers.

Switch up Your Layers

The best part about layering is that you have the ability to swap layers and optimise your protection from rain and cold quickly. As you explore you will learn what systems suit your activity and body type the best. Experiment with different combinations and stay warm and dry out there.

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