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What is a Layering System?

It’s important to make sure you’re fully prepared before any trip outdoors; especially here in the UK where the weather can be very changeable, you might leave the house in sunshine only to be caught in a sudden downpour halfway through your trip.

The best way to make sure you’re ready for any situation is to make sure you’ve got a good layering system, but what is a good layering system?

In the simplest terms, a layering system is using multiple items of clothing to keep you warm and dry, rather than one thick layer. A standard layering system is made up of a base layer, mid layer and outer layer; although you can add additional layers or take them away as needed.

Why Are Multiple Layers Better Than One?

The way your clothing keeps you warm is by trapping a layer of warm air between you and it, which then acts as insulation.

When you have more than one layer on this creates multiple air layers which trap the warm air, this provides efficient insulation as when the air escapes from your innermost air layer it then gets trapped at the next one instead of escaping straight out.
If you were to just wear one layer (even if this was your biggest, thickest jacket) that one air gap can’t hold as much warm air, and doesn’t provide as much of a barrier to stop the warm air escaping.

Having multiple layers also means you have more control over your temperature. If you’ve only got one layer to wear, you’re more likely to find that you’re either too hot or too cold.
While if you have multiple layers, you can add or remove layers as needed to provide more or less warmth, wind proofing or waterproofing as needed.

For example you may be planning a half days walk up a hill on a cool day, you’re wearing your wicking t-shirt and thermal jacket, your bag is packed and you’ve got your water bottle at the ready. You start your walk, but after a few hours the weather turns and suddenly it’s raining; if you’re following the rules of layering, you’ll have a waterproof jacket you can throw on to help keep dry, which you can take off again once it stops raining.

What Is A Base Layer?

A base layer is the layer closest to your skin, commonly something like a t-shirt and long johns. The main job of a base layer is to move sweat away from your body (this is called wicking), if sweat is not wicked away from your skin you will very quickly become cold as soon as you stop moving or your level of exertion decreases. While rapid cooling may sound great when you’re imagining how hot you are after a run, not only can cooling so quickly cause illness, but imagine losing all that heat if you were up at the top of a mountain in the snow!

The most common fabrics for base layers are wool and synthetics (such as polyester or polypropylene). Which one you should choose will be down to personal preference, as each has its own benefits and drawbacks. Synthetics tend to be cheaper, are more durable and dry much faster, but are prone to retaining smell. Wool is more expensive and can be itchy, however it does not hold smell like synthetics and some people feel it insulates better.

Your decision could also be down to what you are using it for, wool base layers are not ideal for activities such as rock climbing or other rough activities as they abrade more easily than synthetic layers, but they could work well for hiking.

The only set rule for base layers is to avoid cotton at all costs. The problem with cotton is that it absorbs moisture and holds it, and when this happens it loses its ability to hold warmth. This will lead to you becoming cold and wet inside your jacket, regardless of the conditions you are out in.

What Is A Mid Layer?

The mid layer’s main job is to make sure you stay warm (it’s also known as the insulating layer), and is commonly a fleece or a thermal jacket (which can be filled with down or a synthetic down such as Primaloft).

Depending on the weather, you may find just wearing a base and mid layer is comfortable, with a waterproof stashed in your bag in case of sudden downpour.

A good mid layer will be able to keep you warm, but also be breathable to allow moisture to escape. Usually it wouldn’t be waterproof (you use your outer for that) but it is useful if they are water and wind resistant, to allow some protection when you aren’t wearing your full outer layer.

In cold weather you’ll need a thicker mid layer, and a thermal jacket may be the better option. While if the weather is warmer or you’re going to be doing some high-intensity activity, you should consider a thinner mid layer (like a micro fleece) that is likely to be more breathable.

What Is An Outer Layer?

The outer layer is your ultimate protection, and can be anything from a super-thin and lightweight windproof layer to a heavy and durable weather-proof tank-like jacket.
There can be a lot of differences, and the right one for you will depend on where you are going and what you will be doing. Here is a quick overview of some of the most common terms used.

Water/wind resistant

This means that the jacket will allow for some protection from water or wind, but if the weather is severe and/or prolonged you may find that you will still get wet and cold.

This means that the jacket offers complete protection up to a certain level. The level can vary depending on the jacket, but this can normally be found in the jacket description or from the manufacturer.

This means that it has some ability to move water away from the user. Depending on the jacket and fabric system this can be done in a variety of ways, but the basic idea is that it allows water vapour to move from the inside of the jacket to another area away from the skin, so you don’t feel damp or cold.

A softshell usually has a soft and stretchy outer fabric, for example a fleece or a pair of stretchy trousers or leggings. Just how soft and stretchy it is depends on the fabric.

This usually means the fabric has a smooth or plastic-y feel; and offers some degree of water protection.

Using Outer Layers

A softshell can come in a variety of weights, it generally has a soft/stretchy outer and more focus on breathability which make them ideal for active use with lots of mobility.

These can be considered your classic outer layer, offering a variety of water and wind protection; and with the number of different fabrics available now, you can find the perfect one for you.

Water/wind Resistant Jackets
Lightweight and offering minimum protection from water and wind, these tend to be cheap and can be breathable. Although they don’t offer much protection they are ideal for keeping hidden in a bag in case you need a bit of quick coverage, or their breathability may make them ideal for activities such as running.

Water/windproof Non-breathable Jackets
More protection from wind and rain, but without the breathability. They are ideal for keeping in your bag for an emergency or for activities with limited movement (e.g. fishing, festivals, or outdoor events).

Water/windproof Breathable Jackets
These give the ultimate protection and can deal with a range of elements, but tend to be heavier and more expensive than other options. If you’re planning a trip up a snowy mountain, you don’t want to be without one!

An insulated jacket can provide a lot of warmth, but is usually only water/wind resistant. If you’re out on a chilly, dry day they are ideal; and are also great for layering underneath a waterproof shell.

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