Three Piece Layering

  • Posted on
  • By Bill Brandow

Winter Layering Guide

Winter in West Virginia is unpredictable. Mild days give way to bitterly cold and windy evenings. Pleasant flurries on the ridge turn to rain and mist in the valley below. Dressing properly for the weather is critical to winter recreation, however, such a dynamic season presents a challenge to the outdoor enthusiast. The perfect jacket does not exist, no single piece of apparel can provide comfort in all conditions. The key to comfort is adaptability achieved through a well thought-out layering system. A typical approach consists of three parts, the base layer, the mid layer, and the shell. Each plays its own role in the system and layers can be added or removed to adapt to changing weather and levels of activity.

Base Layer

Moisture management is the main purpose of a base layer. A good base layer must wick sweat away from the skin and maintain a dry feel. While a base layer does not need to fit tightly, a close-to-skin fit is best. There are many fabrics to choose from when selecting a base layer, three of the most commonly available include synthetics (i.e. polyester), merino wool, and cotton. Each has certain advantages and disadvantages relating to performance, durability, and price.

Polyester is hydrophobic, meaning it will not absorb moisture. This makes for an excellent wicking material that will allow moisture to evaporate and leave you feeling dry. It also means that the garment itself will dry very quickly. Stellar durability is another advantage of synthetic fabrics. Polyester can be prone to odors when worn repeatedly on multi-day trips. The use of a synthetic-specific wash, such as Nikwax BaseWash, can help remove and prevent odors while further improving breathability. Polyester’s great performance, durability, and its middle-of-the-road price make it one of the best values available as a base layer fabric.

Patagonia Capilene is a high-performance synthetic base layer.

Wool tends to be the warmest option among base layer fabrics making it great for cold days or lower output activities. It wicks moisture reasonably well although it does not dry quite as fast as polyester. Naturally antimicrobial, it resists odors making it an excellent choice for multi-day trips. Merino wool is desirable for its soft, non-scratchy feel. Wool can cost more than other fabrics and lacks the toughness of polyester but its overall performance makes it difficult to beat as a cold weather base layer.

[caption id="attachment_1619" align="alignnone" width="500"] Wool tends to be warmer than a similar weight synthetic base layer.[/caption]

Cotton absorbs water. For this reason, it is not recommended as a cold-weather base layer. A slight sweat can saturate a cotton undershirt and leave it feeling cold and damp. To make matters worse, once cotton gets wet it’s unlikely to dry whilst being worn. Cotton’s affordable price, good durability, and soft feel make it a tempting choice but it is best left to the realm of casual clothing. It’s great for telling tales of adventure at the bar or as an undershirt at the office but it’s ill-suited to provide warmth in an Appalachian winter.

Mid Layer

The mid layer traps air warmed by the body creating a microclimate around your body and providing insulation from the cold. When choosing an insulating layer performance in key factors such as warmth, breathability, packability, and ease-of-care all must be considered. Fleece, goose down, and synthetic down can all perform admirably as mid layers depending on the expected conditions.

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Patagonia Down Sweater Pullover



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Patagonia Down Sweater Vest



Fleece is an affordable option that insulates fairly well and is extremely easy to care for. The limited amount of air trapped by fleece means it is not as warm as down. It can also be bulky to carry should you need to remove it. Because fleece is manufactured from polyester it will continue to provide insulation even in wet conditions. There are different weights of fleece available depending on the temperature and amount of activity expected.

Goose down is the ultimate in warmth. Its incredible loft can trap a large layer of insulating air with very little material. This means that the warmest option available also happens to be the lightest and most packable. Down also breathes well, ensuring moisture wicked away by your base layer continues to evaporate away from your body. The cost of goose down can be daunting to the budget adventurer and theses pieces require a bit more thought to maintain. Down feathers can clump together in the presence of excess moisture causing the garment to lose much of its insulating properties. Wear down on the coldest days and be sure to bring a good shell layer if wet conditions are expected.

[caption id="attachment_1618" align="alignnone" width="500"] Pound for pound, down is the warmest and most compressible insulation.[/caption]

Synthetic down is a great balance of performance and price. Made to mimic the great insulating capabilities of goose or duck down, synthetic materials have come a long way in recent years. Key benefits of synthetic insulation include: excellent breathability, respectable warmth and packability, and ease-of-care. The ability to insulate when the conditions get damp makes them a commonly included piece in a West Virginian’s layering system.

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The North Face Ventrix is an extremely breathable synthetic mid layer. Perfect for high-output activities.



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Men's Ventrix from The North Face.




A shell creates a windproof and waterproof barrier while compromising overall breathability as little as possible. This is no easy task, allowing water vapor to escape the jacket while keeping wind and liquid water out is a challenge that has no perfect answer. The problem has lead to many different construction methods. Some shells will use synthetic insulations in an attempt to combine the mid and shell layers into a single garment. While this can help to save money it reduces adaptability and creates problems with changes in the weather or activity level. This article will focus primarily on non-insulated shells for maximum versatility. Even within non-insulated shells there remains a great deal of variability in manufacturing techniques. The two main categories are soft shells and hard shells.

[caption id="attachment_1620" align="alignnone" width="500"] Patagonia Torrent Shell Pullover[/caption]

Soft shells have become more popular in recent years as materials and manufacturing technology has advanced. Excellent breathability and stretchiness make these a perfect option for high-output activities such as skiing, hiking, or snowshoeing. Many modern soft shells include Gore-Tex membranes for added weatherproofing. These jackets tend to have a great next to skin feel although they lack the packability of hard shells.

[caption id="attachment_1609" align="alignnone" width="500"] The Apex Flex from The North Face uses a Gore-Tex membrane to add unparalleled weatherproofing.[/caption]

Hard shells are what most people would recognize as a rain jacket. These garments shine when the weather turns nasty. A stiff, durable nylon or polyester face material creates a windproof barrier with a waterproof laminate or membrane providing rain protection. The waterproof laminate/membrane will generally be protected in one of three ways:

    • In a 2L shell there will mesh or a synthetic fabric hanging loosely inside the jacket. This can provide good durability but makes the shell less packable and less breathable.
    • A 2.5L shell utilizes a raised “half-layer” often visible as a pattern welded to the interior of many rain shells. This raises the laminate off the skin ever so slightly to help with breathability and provide some protection against wear. 2.5L jackets tend to be the least durable but they remain popular for their good performance and superior packability.
[caption id="attachment_1613" align="alignnone" width="500"] The "half-layer" in a 2.5L shell is often visible as a raised pattern on the interior of the jacket.[/caption]
  • A 3L shell sandwiches a waterproof membrane in between a nylon or polyester face fabric and a finely-woven polyester liner. All three materials are joined together into a single layer. These are the highest performance hard shells available with excellent next-to-skin feel, breathability, durability, admirable packability, and uncompromised weatherproofing.

Wearing different combinations of the above garments in a three-layer system allows comfort in any weather. The expected conditions dictate which materials will perform best. For example, the down mid layer and soft shell that was so perfect on a zero degree hike at Cooper’s Rock is not the best choice for a 40 degree, rainy commute. Stop by the shop and let a sales associate help outfit you with the best gear to suit your needs.