Layering For Warmth

The Basics of Layering for Warmth

If you are new to performance fabrics, you may wonder what all this talk on layering for warmth and comfort is all about and why it’s important. Here it is broken down and with fabric suggestions for each layer thrown in for good measure!

The Basics

When being active outdoors, one of the biggest decisions is “What to Wear”?  The layering system consists of 3 layers:  Base Layer, Middle (Insulating) Layer, and Outer Layer.  The theory being that with these 3 layers, you can adjust your clothing as exertion and weather dictates, keeping you comfortable in just about any condition.

The Base Layer (Moisture Wicking)

The purpose of the base layer is to pull moisture off your skin (wick) and through the base layer toward the outermost layer where it can evaporate.  This is important as skin that is damp chills more easily and in cool and cold conditions, this can lead to discomfort or hypothermia if not managed well.  The best moisture-wicking fabrics are ones that wick well and dry quickly.  Fabrics best for base layers are synthetics (polyester or nylon for example) or natural fibers (like merino wool or silk) or a blend of both with merino/polyester blends becoming increasingly popular. Avoid cotton as it absorbs moisture and is very slow to dry.

Long sleeved base layer shirt made with moisture wicking polartec power wool lightweight fabric

Within the base layer category, choice can be made for lightweight through to heavy/expedition-weight fabrics.  What you choose depends on the conditions you expect to encounter and personal preference.  Generally, the colder the conditions, the heavier your base layer can be keeping in mind that the primary purpose of the layer is to wick moisture away from your skin.

We carry a variety of fabrics that are suitable for base layers such as Polartec Power Dry, Polartec Power Grid, Polartec Power Wool, Quick Wick, and more! Search these fabrics by typing Base Layers into the search bar or click here.

The Middle (Insulating) Layer

As the name suggests, this is the layer(s) for pieces that will keep you warm.  Fabrics accomplish this task by trapping your body heat within the fabric.  In general, thicker fabrics = warmer layers, but the more efficient the fabric is, the more heat can be retained in a thinner layer so quality of fabric can be an important consideration.  When considering a middle layer, you can have a range of options from lighter weight pieces for warmer conditions to thick and beefy layers for extreme cold, keeping in mind that as you move, you will warm up and will likely adjust your layers as the conditions and your activity level change. 

Quarter zip fleece pullover mid layer made with polartec high loft fleece fabric in pink

As with base layers, there is a huge variety of materials that are suitable for the middle layer.  We carry a wide selection of Polartec Fleeces (100 and 200 weight Classic and Microfleece, Power Stretch, Power Wool, Wind Pro Stretch, Wind Pro and Wind Bloc) as well as Polartec’s Alpha and Alpha Direct insulation.  Alpha and Alpha Direct are intended to be used to line a jacket not for making a stand-along garment however, they have gained popularity with the ultralight backpacking crowd and these fabrics are now used to make both tops and bottoms.  Due to the flexibility of the layering system, heavyweight/expedition-weight base layers can also serve as middle layers over a lightweight base layer. You can search our insulating fabrics by typing Insulation is the search bar or click here.

The Outer Layer / Shells  (Protection from Rain, Wind and Snow)

The outer layer is your final shield against what nature is throwing at you.  It should protect you from rain, wind and snow.  Often, the outer layer is made from an uninsulated shell fabric as your insulation is taken care of with the middle layer(s).  In days of old, this is where the layering system could break down due to shell jackets that didn’t allow moisture and warm air to escape.  Thanks to the innovation of fabric technology, we now have a range of waterproof/water repellent breathable fabrics that can breathe, block wind and rain keeping the wearer far more comfortable than ever before, even during high output activities. 

A yellow water repellent and breathable hooded shell jacket  to protect the wearer from wind and rain

In most cases, these ‘shell’ fabrics are laminates with an outer polyester or nylon fabric that is treated with a durable water repellent (DWR) finish bonded to a sub-micron membrane layer that ‘breathes’.  It’s possible to have a shell without DWR and these make excellent wind breakers for days when the wind is cold but the skies are clear. 

Jackets made from shell fabrics are very versatile and can be worn over a light layer in the warm months and over base and middle layers during the winter.

We carry both Polartec NeoShell and Polartec Power Shield in a wide variety of styles (shells and soft shells) and colours as well as other shell fabrics such as GoreTex, HyVent, and Tek Crystal to name a few.  You can search our outer/shell layer fabrics, as well as our soft shell fabrics, by typing Shells into the search bar or click here.

But what about Soft Shells?

While layering does provide the most flexibility when dressing for the weather/activity, there are times when a garment that 'does it all' fits the bill (like when you are out and about in the city).  This is where soft shells shine.  Garments made from soft shells offer some insulation and weather protection.  A soft shell is the marriage of an insulating fabric bonded to a ‘softer’ shell fabric to create one ‘super fabric’.  These fabrics provide insulation while also offering breathability, abrasion resistance, and protection from the elements.  Polartec pioneered this technology and called it Power Shield.  Depending on your activity and the weather, your Outer Layer could be a jacket made from any of the styles of Power Shield rather than a straight shell fabric.  We carry several styles and colours of Power Shield that are searchable using the term Soft Shells (or clicking the link in the paragraph above).

The Final Word

With the myriad of options available for each layer, there is no right or wrong way to go about it as long as you pick appropriate fabrics and stay away from cotton!