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February 2nd 2023

Layering Made Easy

In winter, you might be reluctant to go out because of the cold, snow and damp. The solution: dressing in layers. You may well already own all the clothes you need for good winter layering.

Layering, sometimes called the onion layering system, is a system of three layers of clothing, each with a specific purpose: a base layer, a middle layer and a shell. As a rule of thumb, remember that cotton is not a good choice for the outdoors.

Meet the layers

The purpose of the base layer is to keep you as dry as possible by wicking sweat and moisture away from your body. Opt for clothes that are long, thin, well-fitting and comfortable. To keep moisture from building up, look for synthetic fabrics (polyester, polypropylene, etc.) or merino wool rather than cotton.

The middle layer is the insulation, to conserve as much body heat as possible while letting moisture through. Polar fleece and padded, insulated synthetic garments are ideal for high intensity physical activity. In very cold temperatures, increase the number or quality of middle layer garments, and then do the opposite in warmer weather. This helps keep you from sweating too heavily inside your clothing, which is uncomfortable and makes you lose heat faster.

Down clothing is best for rest periods or low-intensity activities, because down is less effective at insulating you once it gets wet. Choose your middle layer depending on the outside temperature and the intensity of the activity you have planned.

The outer layer, or shell, protects you from the elements (wind, precipitation). In winter, this is primarily a windbreaker, since the chances of rain are minimal. It’s important that your outer layer lets some moisture escape, however, either with a “breathable” fabric or with zipper openings (in front, under the arms, pockets, back). Some clothes have both options, so you can adjust the ventilation depending on what you’re doing. Here again, choose your shell based on what you’ll be doing and the conditions you’ll be doing it in.

A few rules of thumb for layering like a pro

  1. Check the weather before you head out and plan around it.
  2. Gather information about the route you’re taking so you can assess the level of effort to expect (level of difficulty, distance, elevation changes, state of the trail, etc.).
  3. Layer up your extremities, too (for example, an ear band as well as a breathable tuque).
  4. Wear leg gaiters to keep your feet dry.
  5. Make sure all your skin is covered. Don’t leave anything exposed to the elements!
  6. Bring along a change of clothes and use them as an additional layer if needed.
  7. Leave cotton at home!

Why not cotton?

Cotton gets saturated with moisture and can rapidly absorb up to a third of its weight in water. This means that when you wear cotton clothing to do any significant amount of physical activity in winter, it will keep moisture against your skin instead of wicking it away. You will feel less comfortable, and you’ll expend much more energy if you’re trying to stay warm. The amount of energy it takes to dry out cotton is analogous to putting a pair of jeans through the dryer.

Why synthetic fabrics?

Synthetic fibres like polyester are highly hydrophobic, meaning they expel water. This keeps you more comfortable and your skin dry. However, synthetic clothing can start to smell, so it needs to be washed regularly. Because they wick away moisture very well, they’ll cool you off quickly after breaking a sweat.

Why wool?

Wool is a natural fibre containing tiny air pockets, so it stays warm even when wet. Wool can absorb up to 35% of its weight in water before it starts to feel damp or stick to your skin. It gives off heat when it’s absorbing moisture, so it helps warm your body and keep your skin dry in cold, damp conditions. Merino wool is particularly good, as it’s not scratchy and has an antibacterial effect, so it can be worn directly against the skin without starting to smell.

Check out Rando Québec for further details and more tips on layering.



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