Sometimes, adventure travel takes you to extreme environments, from scorching deserts to icy tundras. When mother nature throws all she has at you, it’s important to know how to keep comfortable, and more importantly, safe. When it comes to freezing temperatures, blizzards, and ice, ensuring you keep warm is essential.
That’s where the layer system comes in. In this guide, we’ll show you real-life tips and tricks that will ensure you layer up and stay safe no matter the climate. But first, let’s take a look at the basics.
What is the Layer System?
The layer system, or the 3 layer system, is a method of maintaining a healthy body temperature regardless of how cold it is outside. It’s nothing new per se, and has been used for hundreds of years by inhabitants of icy areas. Nowadays, modern materials and efficient clothing means it’s easier than ever to stay safe in even the most frigid weather.
However, there’s more to it than simply putting on as many layers of clothes as you can in a bid to stay toasty. The wrong choice of materials can do more harm than good, while over-doing it can even cause you to overheat.
How the Layer System Works
The layer system is actually pretty simple, and amazingly versatile. It works on two major principles: first keeping your body and clothes dry, and second trapping heat close to your skin.
It’s important to stay dry, as what will really make you cold is getting wet. But, you need to stay dry from external sources such as rain, snow, and river water, as well as internal sources such as sweat. Sweating can be extremely dangerous in cold weather, because although your body is obviously warm enough to produce sweat while you’re active, as soon as you stop and rest, the sweat will soon cool down.
Wet clothes will make you extremely cold really quickly, with cases of hypothermia striking in as little as 5 minutes on cold, windy days. To prevent this, the first layer you wear should be designed to wick moisture away from your skin. This layer shouldn’t be made from an absorbent material, as it will simply soak up any moisture, rather than encouraging the sweat away from your skin.
To avoid external sources of moisture, a waterproof outer layer should be worn.
Keeping moisture away from your skin is essential, but the layering system does more than that. It also traps your body heat between the various layers, rather than letting it escape. In this way, warm air is always close to your body, allowing you to trek, ski, or even camp in the coldest environments.
In fact, with the right choice of materials, you can easily break a sweat hiking in -20℃. As we know, sweating can be dangerous, but the other advantage of the layer system is that you can remove layers if you feel yourself getting too hot. This way, you can lose a layer before you start sweating, or add one if you’re getting a bit chilly, until you find the right balance.
How to Use the Layer System Properly
Making sure you’re wearing the right type of clothes for each layer is really important. Mostly, you need to be sure that the materials you’re using are adequate for the role each layer plays. There are 3 major layers, however, you can add or remove certain layers depending on how you cope with cold weather.
1 — The Base Layer
This layer is essential and the most important to get right. The base layer is the one that will touch your skin. Its primary function is moisture wicking, aka taking the sweat away from your skin to the second layer.
Merino wool is the best material for base layer under garments such as tops, pants, and underwear. It’s not itchy like standard wool, and is amazingly good at wicking sweat away from your skin. Merino wool is fast-drying and not very absorbent, unlike cotton, which will soon soak and is a bad choice for the base layer. Additionally, Merino wool is antimicrobial which means it won’t harbor bad odors, allowing you to wear it for several days at a time.
Ideally, your base layer should be fairly thin, with long sleeves and legs. Look for shirts with long sleeves and thumb holes, as these will prevent cold air finding a way in the gap between your gloves and sleeves.
1.5 — The In Between Layer
This is an optional layer that you might or might not feel the need to wear. It’s advisable in really cold weather though, especially if you won’t be very active. The in between layer acts as a layer of insulation aside from the main insulating mid layer. However, it differs in that it’s generally thinner, allowing you to shed the thicker layer before breaking a sweat if needs be.
Typically, a fairly thin, long-sleeved pullover is recommended, preferably with a collar to keep the wind off your neck. Like the base layer, it’s best if it has moisture wicking properties and is fast-drying, with Merino wool being another top choice, although certain polyester blends are also good.
2 — The Mid Layer
The main function of the mid layer is insulation. This second layer traps your body heat, maintaining a steady, warm temperature close to your body, regardless of the external temperature. Again, it doesn’t need to be overly thick, and a fleece style vest or jacket is ideal.
Fleeces are typically fairly lightweight and pack up relatively small, allowing you to remove them and pack them away with ease if you get too hot. Typically made from a blend of polyester and wool, they form a perfect layer that prevents hot air escaping and cold air getting in. Be sure that they’re not too thick, otherwise you may struggle to fit the outer layer over it.
3 — The Outer Layer
This outer layer adds even more insulation, though you may find it unnecessary if you’re hiking, skiing, or partaking in any other physical activity. It’s really useful for resting or camping however. The outer layer is normally a jacket of some sort, with goose down jackets being among the best. These will keep you super warm while you’re not on the move, plus they pack up small and are pretty light.
Alternatively, a puffy jacket filled with synthetic insulation can work pretty well and typically cost less than a goose down jacket. However, the latter is well worth the extra cost, especially if you’ll be doing some cold weather camping.
4 — The Shell Layer
Finally, this shell layer is what keeps you safe from the elements. Ideally, it should be wind and waterproof, with a high collar and sturdy hood. We love the Fjallraven Keb Eco Shell jacket as an outer layer. It’s amazingly waterproof, even in torrential rain, and packs up small when you don’t need it.
It’s also a good idea to purchase a pair of wind and waterproof pants to compliment the shell jacket. Both pants and jackets can be made from polyester blends, and it’s best to look for stretchy materials for superior comfort and ease of use. Both should also be breathable to prevent you from feeling like you’re steaming up!
Keeping Your Extremities Warm
The layer system is great for keeping your core warm, which is essential, however, you also need to take care of your hands, feet, and head. You lose a lot of heat through your extremities, so it’s important to keep them covered and dry, otherwise you’ll find your temperature dropping and may even suffer frostbite.
Gloves and Socks
You can layer your extremities just like your core, with a moisture wicking base layer, preferably made from Merino wool. We always wear glove liners underneath thick, extreme weather mittens. Mittens are typically warmer than gloves, and are great for camping, skiing, and trekking.
Cold, wet feet are uncomfortable at best, and dangerous in extreme conditions, so wear a pair of liners under your regular socks. Over the liners, a good, thick pair of woolen socks are needed. Since your feet are directly in contact with the icy ground, you need that additional layer of insulation. Most importantly, make sure your socks aren’t so tight that they restrict the blood flow, which is essential for keeping your feet warm.
Extreme conditions require awesome footwear. Sorel snow boots are among the best you can find, and have kept our feet warm and dry in the coldest conditions we’ve faced on our travels. It’s important that your boots are waterproof and breathable. Breathable boots allow the heat from your feet to escape, preventing sweaty feet and wet socks, while waterproof boots keep external water out. Boot liners offer a further layer of insulation, though may impact the breathability of your boots.
Keeping Your Head Warm
You lose a lot of heat through your head, so it’s best to keep it covered up. A fleece beanie is a good choice, as it offers good insulation. For wet weather, you can use the hood on your shell jacket to keep the worst of the precipitation off. A fleece neck gaiter or balaclava will also help keep your neck, ears, and nose warm, and hold the worst of the wind off.
Does the Layering System Actually Work?
In a word, yes! But only if you do it properly. During our travels, we’ve worked with layers many times, in increasingly cold conditions. As during our world trip, we cycled 3 months in Iceland, also during the winter. Every night we slept in a tent so we had to stay warm during the freezing nights.
We were blessed to spend 6 months in Scandinavia/ Lapland during wintertime. We did some volunteering on a husky farm and learned so much about the culture in Lapland. We had temperatures between -30 0 – 48 degrees and we survived. Alright, I have to confess once we had frozen fingers, after taking off our gloves while making a photo.
We spent time out in the Arctic in 2015, visiting the stunning Svalbard in March. At this time of the year, temperatures plunge to -40℃ during the night — and yes, we were out in the night searching for the Northern Lights!
Even during the day, temperatures in Svalbard were below -20℃. We spent one-day hiking with snowshoes. Despite how cold it was outside, we were burning hot under all our layers and found ourselves stripping all but the first one and a half layers off! That was until we stopped hiking and stopped for a quick drink. Then we soon chilled right down due to the sweat. That’s why it’s important to lose a layer before you start sweating.