A Beginner's Guide to Layering

Tips for staying warm, dry and comfortable in the outdoors

Nothing can ruin a camping trip faster than being unprepared for the conditions—especially cold, windy or wet weather. When it comes to staying warm while in the outdoors, layering is key. But this is a wilderness skill that must be learned. Luckily, we know an expert on the topic:  Suellen Sack, a Program Director at Outward Bound. Sack, an 18-year veteran with the company, helps run programs at Voyageur School in Ely, Minnesota and provided her best tips for layering.

Think three
To stay warm, you have the following three layers:

A wicking layer: This is the layer closest to the skin and should be synthetic or wool—fabrics that wick moisture away from your skin so your body can stay dry and warm. Never use cotton, Sack cautioned, as it holds moisture and therefore loses its ability to keep you warm when it gets wet.

An insulating layer: Although synthetic fleeces are popular and last a long time, a wool sweater purchased from Goodwill (or any other store) will also do the trick.

An outer layer: This should be a waterproof or windproof jacket, depending on the conditions, although it’s best to carry both, Sack said. Waterproof GORE-TEX is not as breathable as fabrics used for windbreakers and can therefore trap too much heat, causing a buildup in moisture that makes your insulating layers less effective.

Remove a layer before you start moving
The most common error I see is that people wear too many layers,” Sack said. “You should remove a layer right before you start exercise. There will be a few minutes when you’re a little chilly, but as you start moving, you’ll warm up.”

To stay warm, swap out your wicking layer
“A great trick that I use in camp—particularly in colder temperatures—is to change out my damp inner layer,” Sack said. “This will make you so much warmer in the evening. People do not think to do that. They’re cold, so they add another layer.”

Take a short trip to learn about layering
Before a wilderness expedition, try a few overnight trips to refine your layering system. This way, you’ll be more prepared for longer excursions.