Written by Clark Richardes
Whether it's teaching backpacking clinics at Ox Bow Park, chatting with customers in the store, or even back to my days as a gear consultant in Boulder, one of my biggest takeaways is that people actually want to spend more time outdoors, but they aren't sure where to start.
Going outside in frigid temperatures with snow, ice, & wind seems so intimidating. One might ask how could you ever venture into this frozen landscape and have any fun? I sincerely believe by dressing properly & having the right attitude, you can in fact enjoy winter.
I once visited the Inuitaluit town of Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories above the Arctic Circle. I always had embraced winter in Michiana, but after visiting an actual arctic town in Canada, I vowed to never not appreciate our mild winters here. Despite how much our local meteorologists shame winter here, I try to enjoy all four seasons.
(Our van, The Beast, at the end of the Dempster Highway in the Canadian Arctic)
In this guide, I'll try to strip away all the outdoor buzzwords, cut the fluff and just share the common layering principles I've used for years of winter recreation.
This is a localized guide for the Michiana area, so I will focus on what to wear for low to medium intensity winter activities like hiking, jogging, xc skiing (cross county skiing), ice skating, & sledding.
I'll also touch on everyday layering principles for going to work or heading out for dinner as well.
Before I discuss specifics, I have three key points to address.
(XC skiing at St. Patrick's County Park in South Bend, IN)
1. Why Layering Is Worth the Effort
Why not just wear one BIG warm winter jacket & snow pants?
Why do you need versatility? In the winter, you want to stay warm and dry. You want to try to avoid excessive perspiration during winter activities.
By actively removing or adding layers, you'll aim to regulate your body temperature to match the intensity of the activity.
You want to be warm enough to enjoy your activity, but not overdressed & overheated. You want to be able to take a break from the activity and not be chilled by excessive perspiration.
This dynamic dance depends on many factors, like the outside temperature, the intensity of the activity, & how you personally handle winter temps. This is where the technical aspect or "performance" side of outdoor clothing is suppose to shine.
(A view into our outdoor clothing selection at InRugCo Studio & Gift Shop in Mishawaka, Indiana )
2. Winter & Cotton Clothing
If you've done some prior research to winter layering you've probably discovered there isn't much love for denim blue jeans or cotton hoodies for winter activities.
Cotton is hydrophilic, meaning it attracts water molecules. The goal with winter layering is to stay warm and dry. You want your clothing to "wick" your perspiration away, not attract it like cotton.
Thus, in any winter activity that you expect to perspire, I would avoid cotton clothing.
(Smartwool merino wool baselayers)
3. Clothing Fibers
Ok so you know to avoid clothing made of cotton. So what's a good alternative?
I will be suggesting clothing made from merino wool (natural fibers from sheep) and synthetic material (artificial fibers such as poylester & nylon).
Synthetic clothing as a whole is a better choice than cotton for active winter activities because synthetic fibers do not absorb water.
Merino wool is a natural fiber that is moisture-wicking, insulating, temperature-regulating, odour-resistant, & breathable. Clearly merino wool has numerous benefits, but clothing made from this natural fiber cost more than synthetic.
Due to the natural properties of merino wool, I prefer merino wool base layers over synthetic long sleeves.
(An example for women - a synthetic baselayer from Kari Traa, a fleece midlayer by Kari Traa, & a synthetically insulated jacket by Marmot)
Winter Layering for Outdoor Activities
The general idea is to dress in layers for versatility. Here are some key terms to know.
- Baselayer - Next to skin clothing, usually long sleeve.
- Midlayer - Your middle layer, typically insulated - fleece, synthetic, sweater, vest)
- Outerlayer - The last layer you put on - usually a weather resistant shell in wet conditions or a down jacket or vest in dry conditions. Much like a midlayer, you have many options in this category.
Here a few other key terms to be familiar with. Sorry, it gets a bit technical.
- Breathability refers to how well the clothing "wicks" or allows your perspiration to "escape" the garment.
- Clothing described as Weather Resistant can have varying levels at which it repels moisture. Generally this category is relatively breathable clothing great for light rain or damp snowfall, but not ideal for heavy rain or super wet snowfall.
- Waterproof clothing can indeed be highly water resistant, but if the membrane doesn't allow your skin to "breathe" you will sweat on the inside and become wet.
- Gore-Tex is a fabric technology that is an example of a breathable waterproof membrane, the inside of the material allows you to "breathe" to let sweat escape while the outer fabric repels water and is "waterproof."
- Always wear a hat like a synthetic or wool beanie. No matter how great your hair looks without a hat, I promise you your head will get cold.
- Add a neck gaiter or scarf for more protection.
- Depending on the activity, I like a clear or amber pair of sunglasses.
(As a guy, an example of winter layers I've used - Smartwool merino wool baselayer, Kuhl synthetic insulated midlayer, & a Fjallraven down jacket as an outerlayer)
- Baselayer: Start with a synthetic long sleeve baselayer or a merino wool baselayer.
- Midlayer: Plan on sweating? Try a fleece or a technical insulated jacket. Not worried about sweating? I like a wool or synthetic sweater.
- Outer layer: In wet weather, you'll want a weather resistant outer shell. In dry conditions, I prefer a down jacket which has an incredible warmth to weight ratio.
(all-in-one weather resistant tights vs a two layer system of base layers + outershell pants)
- Baselayer: Synthetic (fleece tights) or merino wool long sleeve baselayer tights.
- Outerlayer: In wet weather, wear weather resistant shell pants over your baselayer. Look in the product description for words like "soft shell, weather resistant, Gore-Tex" Each fabric technology has varying levels of breathability. In dry weather, I usually skip the outerlayer and just wear my baselayer.
- I'll typically only wear a 2 layer baselayer bottom + outerlayer bottom in sub 20 °F conditions or for activities like ice skating or sledding.
(Smartwool Active Fleece Tight)
- For highly aerobic pursuits, I'll typically wear just a single pair of weather resistant fleece lined tights (all-in-one winter tight). Something like the Smartwool Active Fleece Tight (pictured above)
- Insulated Snowpants work well for low intensity activities like sledding or ice skating, but can cause you to quickly overheat while hiking, jogging, or XC skiing.
- Avoid jeans, khakis, or anything cotton for active pursuits.
(Our vast Smartwool, Darn Tough, & FITS sock selection)
- Merino wool socks from brands like Darn Tough Socks, Smartwool, & FITS are the clear choice for winter because merino wool naturally wicks moisture & regulates temperature.
- Socks are made with different blends of merino wool & synthetic fibers for strategic venting and cushion. Many socks are purpose built so read each description carefully.
- My feet tend to run colder than most, so I usually wear a medium level of cushion sock in the winter like the Fits Medium Crew Hiker or the Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew Midweight Hiking Sock.
- If your feet run warmer, a light level hiking sock works well for most like the Smartwool Hike Light Cushion Crew Socks.
(Our footwear room including brands like BOGS & Oboz)
- For winter activities, you'll generally want a waterproof boot or shoe.
- Your next decision is whether you want an insulated boot or shoe. My feet are always cold even with great socks, so I usually opt for insulated footwear. Typically, insulated footwear has a fleece lining or synthetic insulation such as Thinsulate.
- Winter hiking: I like a waterproof insulated boot like the Bogs Arcata.
- Winter jogging: I like a waterproof trail running shoe like a Salomon Gore-Tex Speedcross.
- Everyday Use: If you work in a warm office or need something for date night, I like a non-insulated waterproof hiking boot like the Oboz Katabatic Mid.
- Avoid vented running shoes or tennis shoes during the winter. All it takes is one step into a puddle or pile of snow to ruin your day even if you are just going from the car into the building.
Real World Examples
Scenario #1 - Winter Hiking at Potato Creek State Park
In this example, let's say it's 34°F and there is minimal snow on the ground. I'm taking my dog for a low intensity walk for about 3 miles on the trails. Here is how I'm layered to start the hike.
Torso: long sleeve baselayer, fleece midlayer, & weather resistant synthetic insulated jacket
Legs: fleece tights as a baselayer and weather resistant soft shell pants as an outer layer
Footwear: medium weight wool socks & waterproof insulated boots
I'm also wearing a wool hat, a neck gaiter, & gloves.
I start the hike. After 15 minutes, I've warmed up and now I need to remove a layer. I zip open my torso outerlayer, but I'm still too warm. I take my outerlayer jacket off and stash it in my backpack.
I'm trying to regulate my body temperature and now I'm more comfortable. I remove my neck gaiter and hike for an hour like this.
Suddenly a rain & snow mix starts to fall. The wind picks up. Now I am getting chilled as my torso midlayer is getting wet. I put my torso outerlayer that is weather resistant back on, along with my neck gaiter back on. I hike the last 15 minutes like this.
I finish my hike. My dog and I walked briskly to get back to the car. I get inside my car and crank the heat. I need to remove layers before I drive home. I remove my outerlayer, gloves, and neck gaiter. I zip open my midlayer fleece jacket to let heat out. Feeling better, now I drive home.
Scenario #2 - XC Skiing at Madeline Bertrand County Park
In this example, let's say it's 20°F and there is a solid base of snow on the ground. I plan to ski for about 1.5 hours, so this will be a high intensity activity.
Torso: long sleeve baselayer & an athletic midlayer jacket
Legs: all-in-one fleece tights that are also weather resistant
Footwear: ski socks & my XC ski boots
I'm also wearing a wool hat, sunglasses, a neck gaiter, & gloves.
I get out of my car and I'm a little chilly, but I know I will warm up once I start moving.
I start skiing and I slowly warm up. After twenty minutes, I stop to drink some water. I'm sweating now, so I unzip my torso midlayer halfway down. My torso baselayer has a 1/4 zip so I also unzip that down a bit. Now a good amount of heat can escape.
Comfortable again, I ski for another 45 minutes. The sun starts to get low in the horizon and now I'm skiing into the wind. A bit chilled, I zip my torso midlayer and baselayer back up for more warmth.
I finish skiing and get back to the car. Despite my best efforts at layering, I'm still a bit sweaty. Luckily, I brought a fresh long sleeve shirt to change into before driving home.
Feel free to come visit us in-person at InRugCo Studio & Gift Shop.
Alternatively, send us an email at email@example.com
Outdoor brands you will find at InRugCo include Darn Tough Socks, Smartwool, Kuhl, Marmot, Howler Bros., Sherpa Adventure Gear, Kari Traa, Chaco, BOGS, Oboz Footwear & more.