Staying comfortable outside is a matter of dressing to outwit Mother Nature. It's a balancing act between the climate, your activity level, exposure time and tolerance to heat and cold. Choosing the right clothing and layering it properly can make the difference between a pleasant outdoor experience and an uncomfortable (or even dangerous) situation.

— Expert Advice, “How to Layer Outerwear”

Why do I need all this fancy stuff just to go running, blading or biking? Fair question. Like the introduction of Gore-Tex years ago, all this fabric and fiber mumbo jumbo has its skeptics, but they are fast falling by the wayside. You don't have to opt for this aerobic function/fashion statement, but why on earth would you not want to? It works and it works leagues better than anything that has come before. With an appropriate layering system of advanced materials, weather is no longer a discomfort or nuisance—it’s just a pleasurable change of pace.

—Michael Hodgson, from unknown website

Central Issues Addressed in This Article

Is there an ideal layering system for most wilderness travelers and, if so, what is it? Is the traditional three-layer system or some other layering system most effective for my needs? Can the principles of layering be applied to the extremities and to sleeping systems? Am I interested in developing layering into a “fine art” or science?


The concept of “layering” is one of the foundational principles of safe and comfortable backcountry travel, especially when traveling in cold, wet and mountainous climates. It has probably been around, in one form or another, as long as humans have traveled the earth. The more demanding the climate, the more incentive there is to have a thorough understanding of various layering schemes and principles. [NOTE: It is interesting to note that Patagonia, in their Winter 2009 catalog, claims to have introduced the concept of layering in the 1970s.]

Stereotypical Approaches to Layering

There are many approaches to layering. Here are five simplified and somewhat stereotypical approaches for your consideration.

—   Quickly shove some extra clothes in a pack without much forethought.

—   Adhere religiously to the traditional “three layer” system: a base layer for wicking moisture, a middle layer for insulation, and a shell layer for blocking wind and keeping out precipitation.

—   Carry the latest and greatest high-tech performance clothing recommended by outdoor retailers, manufacturers and publications. Especially important are “soft shell” clothing layers that it is often claimed can replace the traditional three layers with one or two garments.

—   Follow your author’s lead by adopting a flexible four-layer clothing system.

—   Develop the expertise necessary to make intelligent decisions about layering strategies and how they apply in the climate(s) traveled.

Since the overriding purpose of this website is for you to develop an in-depth understanding of the topics covered and to make your own decisions, the last approach is recommended (even if you reject the author’s recommended four-layer system).

 First Layer: Moisture and Heat Management

[Note: In the complete article, detailed information is provided for all four layers.]


The above paragraphs provide a preview of the complete article (approximately 18 pages) available as a free download.  Click on the following to download in either a Microsoft Word or PDF format.

The Fine Art of Layering – Word Format

The Fine Art of Layering – PDF Format

The sub-topics listed below are developed in this complete article:


Stereotypical Approaches to Layering

Recommended Four Layer Clothing System

First Layer: Moisture and Heat Management

Second Layer: Wind Blocking/First Tier Insulation

Third Layer: Increasing the Insulation Value

Fourth Layer: Full On Storm Protection

Further Refinements to Layering Systems

Layering Principles Applied to the Extremities

Layering Principles Applied to Sleeping

Summary of Layering Article Main Points

Additional Issues For Reflection

The Fine Art of Layering