How the Clothes Layering System Keeps You Comfortable on a Hike

How the Clothes Layering System Keeps You Comfortable on a Hike

In a previous article, we’ve gone into detail about footwear; in this article, we are looking at clothing, which is another vital component of hiking. To ensure you remain comfortable on a hike, many experts recommend a layering system of clothing, and in this piece, we’ll explain what this is.

Everyone’s body reacts differently when some form of physical exertion is involved. Some people will find themselves getting too hot and then too cold; others will look as fresh as a daisy whilst on a long hike. People often think this is down to physical fitness, which could be why. However, wearing the wrong clothing can leave even the fittest of people with a ruddy face, sweat covered body and an uncomfortable feeling.

I am a massive fan of the layering system, whilst Natasha is less so. This is because Natasha tends to feel the cold far more than I do. She will feel the slightest drop in temperature while it needs to drop at least 5C for me to notice. Another reason I have adopted the layering system is Natasha is far fitter than I am; in fact, her life seems to revolve around fitness, which is a far cry from mine.

The layering system allows me to keep up with my wife on long hikes, and without it, I would have probably thrown in the towel a long time ago. Being married to and going on hikes with a woman who, at her gym, competes with and invariably beats even the fittest of men in physical and aerobic challenges is rather daunting. Therefore, I need to use every advantage available to me.

Trekking through the snow in the boots

One of the fantastic things about Hiking is that it can be undertaken by all in almost any weather condition, mainly due to the expertly designed clothing that many specialist outdoor companies constantly introduce into the market.

One of the big mistakes most newer hikers make is thinking that when it is cold, pop on as much thick clothing as possible, or when it is hot, wear as little clothing as possible. Alas, it’s not as simple as that, as the materials and fabrics you put on have a huge role in how you’ll feel on a hike.

Conditions can change very quickly on a hike, and with every 100 metres climbed, the temperature drops. The ideal solution is to wear a set of clothing that minimises wasting time to add and remove items.

The layers
Hiking clothing is divided into base layers, mid-layers, and outer layers. All of these are incredibly important to ensure a comfortable hike, and as you would expect, it is advisable to wear them in their obvious order.

Male and female base layers which can be purchased from websites such as Wiggle

What is a Base Layer?
A base layer is clothing that sits immediately adjacent to the skin. The purpose of this layer is to help regulate one’s body temperature. It does this by wicking away moisture whilst retaining body heat.

There are two trains of thought regarding what is the best material/fabric for a base layer. Many advanced and expert hikers are huge fans of base layers made with Merino wool. The advantage of a base layer made from this is it has fantastic antimicrobial properties that result in less odour and washing. Merino wool is also excellent when it comes to moisture-wicking and heat retention. However, in my experience, I have found that synthetic base layers are equally adept at the job.

My personal preference is to wear two synthetic base layers when it’s not hot and sunny, made from polyester and polypropylene. I have found that even cycling base layers do the required job for me, and the significant advantage that most synthetic base layers have over a Merino wool base layer is the price. Merino base layers in the main carry a far heftier price tag.

Two high-quality fleeces for women and men

What is a Mid-Layer?
The mid-layer is the layer that keeps you warm. One of the most recognisable types of mid-layer is a fleece. However, some jackets can also fall into this category. In addition, to keep you warm, mid-layers should also have breathable properties.

Over many years, cotton has been drilled into us as the material to wear; however, with hiking, this is far from the case. Cotton is far from a champion when it comes to moisture-wicking, and the retained moisture in its fibres can quickly make you feel cold when outdoors.

It’s not only with mid-layers that cotton should be avoided; it’s also a no-no when it comes to base layers. Although fleeces aren’t the only thing you can use as a mid-layer, I’ll focus on the fleece as most people will generally have one, and if not, they are easy to purchase.

Getting the right fleece can be a bit of a minefield and deserves a standalone piece in its own right which we will probably run later in the year. The most common fleeces used for hiking are made with synthetic materials; however, some manufacturers are now experimenting with Alpaca and Merino wool blends due to their breathability and odour-resistant properties. Again, most things involving these materials will be frequently more expensive than their synthetic material counterparts.

By now, you’ll see that the breathability of clothing is extremely important. Any item of clothing that retains moisture can rapidly change a warm feeling body into a shivering wreck in a short period of time. If you’re out and about on a hike and the wind picks up, it will invariably find a way to get into your clothing, turning the damp areas cold reducing your body temperature.

Fleeces come in an assortment of thicknesses and patterns, and again, thicker does not equate to better as thickness often results in extra weight, which you don’t want. The best rule of thumb to follow is to purchase a mid-layer from a known and respected outdoor clothing brand. Make sure to read all the details of what it is designed to do, and once you’ve decided that it meets your needs, you’ll be two-thirds into the ideal hiking clothing setup.

Paul Godbold wearing a Helly Hansen jacket at the top of a snow covered mountain

The outer layer
The outer layer, which sounds somewhat akin to a science-fiction movie, is the clothing that protects you from the weather. As with the previous two layers, the outer layer needs to be breathable. Wearing what is proclaimed to be the most waterproof or windproof jacket, without any mention of breathability, will ofter result in beads of running water on the inside, which will start to soak into the other layers.

A good jacket will allow the moisture produced to escape whilst protecting you from wind and rain. One thing I always look out for with an outer layer is Gore-tex. Gore-tex is a breathable, windproof and waterproof fabric that stops liquid water from getting in while letting water vapour out.

The best jackets can cost a quite staggering amount of money, then again, in most cases, “You get what you pay for”. However, a search on auction or local selling sites will frequently throw up some excellent bargains, and if you feel the need to add some extra waterproofing, companies such as Grangers offer liquid solutions that will clean and waterproof clothing by simply popping the item(s) in a washing machine on a low cycle with some of the liquid.

When it comes to the type of clothing you should be wearing to stay comfortable on a hike; this guide should point you in the right direction. As I mentioned above, if you are happy to forgo purchasing brand new items, you can buy good quality, branded items of clothing used, and thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can make them look and work like they are new and now no one will know any different.