Is dressing for winter a mystery for you? Are you either over-heating or freezing when you go outdoors during the cold time of the year? Then this Dressing Guide will help you to create a warm, safe, comfortable and effective layering system for your winter outdoor activities.
Dressing in layers is not difficult. The most important thing with is that you need to learn to take off or put on a layer depending on how warm or cold you feel - it’s something one really needs to take care of, as often one does not want to stop to dress up/ down. But by doing so you either get very cold or very hot & sweaty, both situations you can avoid by being determined to keep this simple guideline in mind: When you’re running hot, take a layer off. When you’re running cold, put on a layer. I actually like to be a tad on the cool side, this way I’m not over-heating. And once you’re familiar with this, you can slowly start to dress up/ down before you’re too hot/ cold.
Hover over the photos to see a discriptions of the items in the photos!
Task: To wick away sweat and keep you warm & dry.
My baselayer choice for skiing, hiking & ice climbing is Merino wool. I value its qualities - non-smelly, warm when moist, comfortable on the skin - over other choices. The Aclima Woolnet baselayers I have are superb and really some of the warmest & lightest baselayers I have used. The two pieces - the long john and crew neck - work very well together. The top has a long back and reliably keeps the cold away - nothing is more annoying than tops with a short back, as just when you bent over to close your ski’s binding the wind will blow snow on your exposed back. These two garments are also durable, and six months of constant use - often being worn a week at a time - had thus far no effect on them.
Task: Transport sweat further away form the skin, add insulation and protect to some degree from the elements.
As simple as the base layer is, so versatile are the choices for the midlayer. This layer is by far the most depending on your own physique, metabolism, and what you’re doing outdoors. Lets start with the simple choices: A pants and midlayer top.
I have been using the Outdoor Research Lodestar Pants now for the second winter and really like them. Before that I wore shell pants, but in strong winds these were way too cold - the shell material would push directly against my thighs and thanks to the wonders of thermal conduction I would get very cold legs. The Lodestar Pants on the other hand has a wonderfully warm Powershield High Loft lining, that’s that fluffy fleece material which traps warmth and feels great on the skin. It’s a top-notch pants that I have been using for skiing, hiking, cycling and snow-shoeing, with ventilation zippers at the top, accessible pockets and removable suspenders. Most of all, the Polartec Powershield Pro shell keeps wind and to some extent moisture at bay, so those windy days of the past are no problem anymore. The second easy pick is the Rab Baseline Hoody (Review here). It’s warm, light and wicks sweat fantastically away.
The above two are excellent choices for your average (-10°C air temperature) winter day, but when you’re the cold type then an additional garment is nice for extra warmth. Enter the Woolpower 400 Vest: A Merino wool vest of the same great material of the Woolpower baselayers. A vest, because that way your torso - the important area to keep warm, with all them organs there - stays nicely warm, while the usually not that warmth-needing arms aren’t over-insulated. Plus, it saves weight and you can cool down over the arms.
However, if it’s really cold (anything lower than -20°C air temperature) or you’re just the freezing type, a synthetic insulation layer like the Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody over the Rab Baseline Hoody can add a tremendous amount of warmth. This is for me more of a belay/ short break jacket, but if it has been freezing cold it’s nice to wear a synthetic puffy as an additional midlayer to stay warm.
The other side of the coin are people that run so warm, they often hike even in -15°C only in their baselayer top. I’m certainly not that type, but when for example trailrunning in winter I wear the ORTOVOX Andermatt Vest. It’s a softshell/ merino-lined vest that keeps the wind away and the Merino wool lining helps to wick sweat further away from my skin. It is an ideal piece for XC skiing, too.
Task: To keep the elements at bay.
The shell layer is nowadays also not as straight-forward anymore as it has been in the past - you have three choices for it: Windjacket, Softshell or Hardshell. For fast-paced activities - trailrunning and XC skiing, for example - a windjacket is a superb choice if it isn’t snowing. I have used the Norrona bitihorn aero100 Jacket for the last half year, and before that the Rab Cirrus and Arc’teryx Squamish. All three are great pieces for keeping the wind away and as you should already have a windjacket, you can further extend its usage and don’t need to buy an extra garment.
If you’re more of the cold type, or quickly-running hot type, then you might want to try out a softshell. I have used a handful of softshell jackets for all sorts of outdoor shenanigans, and really like the fit & functions of the Mountain Equipment Trojan Jacket. This Windstopper softshell has a wonderful athletic cut and is extremely durable, and keeps snow and rain outside while being pretty breathable. I just wish it would not have Pitzips!
And then the wind picks up, it starts to snow, and you’re bushwacking through the forest. Time for a hardshell. I have used the Westcomb Switch LT Hoody now for the second year, and do like this NeoShell jacket. It breathes well, keeps all the nasty weather away and lets you arrive dry at camp. A good hood, excellent Napoleon pockets and nice elastic Velcro cuffs make this a very good hardshell for your layering system. But again, it’d be perfect without Pitzips!
Alternatives: The Haglöfs OZO still features the best hood, ever. The Rab Demand Pull-On and Rab Momentum Jacket are excellent eVent garments, while the GoLite Tumalo Storm Jacket, made of Pertex Shield, is also an alternative.
Task: To add a lot of warmth when moving little & being stationary.
You make a long break, have arrived at camp or the belay, and now will be moving very little and hence generate very little warmth. Time to put on the insulation layer. You can not beat down for the weight-to-warmth ratio, and as this piece will likely sit most of the time in your backpack while you’re skiing, hiking or snow-shoeing, a lightweight jacket is in my opinion preferable. The Rab Infinity Down Jacket has been with me for three seasons and has done a very good job. It’s light, warm, has a good hood and pockets, and thanks to the water-resistant and windproof shell material snow and wind are no problem for it. It also packs reasonably small, so is a great option for the weight- and space conscious.
That’s it. As you saw (and see underneath again), dressing warm for winter is easy. To repeat:
- Base layer - To wick away sweat and keep you warm & dry.
- Mid layer - Transport sweat further away form the skin, add insulation and protect to some degree from the elements.
- Shell layer - To keep the elements at bay.
- Insulation layer - To add a lot of warmth when moving little & being stationary.
If you dress this way your next winter adventure should be warm, comfortable and safe. If you start from scratch with your layering system, a good baselayer and midlayer are the best 1st investments, while you can make use of the same shell layer you use in the warm seasons. A warm insulation layer is only really necessary if you’re doing long day trips where you will have breaks outside or spend the night outdoors - although in the mountains it is a recommended safety piece to have in case of sudden weather changes. You also can use a not that thick puffy jacket for starters, and see if it fulfils the role.
And remember: When you’re running hot, take a layer off. When you’re running cold, put on a layer.