How to Layer for Cold Weather

three people wearing layer and sitting around outside in the winter

No matter your climate, cold weather can hit at any time. If you get caught in it, your instinct is probably to grab for all the layers in sight. This might work in a pinch, but there is method to the madness when it comes to layering—in fact, layering properly and planning ahead are key to keeping yourself safe, comfortable, and warm in extreme weather. Our layering guide breaks down everything you need to know about the three steps of layering for cold weather.

1. Start With a Base Layer

woman wearing smartwool baselayers

If you live in a colder climate, you may be familiar with base layers but it’s not as simple as throwing on a t-shirt under your clothing. A cold weather baselayer serves three functions—to keep you warm, dry, and comfortable. Choosing the right fit and fabric will help your baselayer hit all its marks. Upper-body base layers and long underwear should provide a next-to-skin fit to prevent bunching and leave you completely free to move. The tight fit will also help keep sweat away from your skin.

A smooth, stretchy fabric made with moisture-wicking materials is necessary for keeping your skin dry. Wet skin has a high level of thermal conductivity which brings your body temperature down to that of the surrounding air. Because of this, you should avoid absorbent fabrics like cotton and instead choose moisture-wicking fabrics like polyester, merino wool, and other synthetics. Learn from our Experts how to choose a base layer like a pro.

2. Add a Mid-Layer Next

woman pulling on smartwool midlayer

A mid-layer goes between your next-to-skin base layer and your waterproof outer layer to provide insulation in your layering system. In extremely cold climates, many people even choose to wear multiple mid-layers to trap in the maximum amount of body heat. There are a variety of mid-layer styles to choose from that are made with either synthetic or natural fabrics and insulators. 

Fleece jackets and pullovers are popular options as you can typically find them at varying weights and thickness. Packable puffer jackets are also popular for easy travel and storage. In general, the thicker the fleece or puffier the jacket, the more body heat you will retain. If you live in a mildly cold climate or don’t know what weather to expect, it’s best to take along multiple mid-layer options to add or remove insulation as you need. 

Expert Tip: If you’re traveling or spending time outside in variable weather, always carry a packable down or synthetic jacket in your bag in case the weather takes a turn. It’s the easiest layer to add to your system without adding weight to your pack.

3. Top It off With an Outer Layer

woman pulling on an outerlayer

The role of an outer layer is to provide protection from water and wind—two factors that can make cold climates even more dangerous and cold. When choosing your outer layer, you’ll have to decide if you want a waterproof shell or a water-resistant shell. A waterproof shell can handle the worst weather conditions and keep you completely dry. A water-resistant shell will keep you dry and comfortable in light rain and snow and it typically comes with a lower price tag.

You’ll want to also look for an outer layer that’s durable and breathable. While you need to trap in body heat to stay warm, not having a breathable winter shell jacket can cause you to sweat which can actually make you colder. The best outerlayer will be made with premium materials like woven nylon or polyester to keep you dry and comfortable while also resisting wear and tear.

Expert Tip: In extremely cold environments, choosing a long outer layer can add even more protection and warmth by protecting your lower body from wind and cold.

Once you’ve found your ideal layering system, it’s important to remember that you can always take off layers if you get warm, but you can only add layers you have on-hand. If you’re spending extended periods of time outside in the cold, always pack plenty of options to make safety your top priority.