Just because it’s snowing or below zero doesn’t mean you can’t have fun outdoors. You just need to learn how to layer for cold weather. Layering correctly allows you to step outdoors without suffering the adverse effects of cold weather and acts as your personal thermostat.

The more active you are, the hotter you will get. With the right layering, you can take off and put on as many layers as you need to remain comfortable.

Layering is about more than just clothing or putting on the latest cold weather gear. If you get it right, you can enjoy the great outdoors all year round.

How to Layer for Winter Weather

Layering is not necessarily about how many clothes you wear during cold weather. It’s about how functional each layer is at helping you maintain an optimal body temperature throughout.

To do this effectively, you need to understand the function of each layer. There are three main layers:

  • The base layer: Also known as the underwear layer, it wicks sweat away from your skin
  • The middle layer: Also known as the insulating layer, retains your body heat and keeps you warm in cold weather
  • The outer layer: This is also the shell layer that keeps you shielded from the elements, such as rain and wind

How to Choose Your Base Layers

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Whenever you are looking to explore the great outdoors, even during the winter, there’s a good chance of engaging in some physical activity. Whether skiing, hiking, grilling, or camping, these activities will probably make you sweat, making your skin wet.

Wet skin is the last thing you want when out in the cold, as it puts you at risk for hypothermia. The primary function of the base layer or inner layer is moisture management. It should be thin and made up of sweat-absorbing material.

The base layer should also be made of quick-drying materials, be reasonably tight, and be snug against your skin to absorb as much of the sweat as possible.

With that in mind, the best base layer clothing items should be made out of the following materials:

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Synthetic Fabric

Clothes made out of synthetic fabric materials such as polyester are some of the best base layer options on the market. Synthetic material is thin, quick-drying, and long-lasting. The biggest issue is that they tend to hold on to smells, making them less than ideal for hiking, backpacking, and running.


Wool is your next best option. It’s warm and soft and absorbs sweat. However, the biggest problem with wool is that it doesn’t dry as quickly as polyester. It retains moisture for longer, making it uncomfortable on very cold days.


Silk is lightweight and feels good against the skin. It’s one of the best base layer options because it’s not bulky. However, silk isn’t as durable as other materials and isn’t necessarily a good option for extreme cold.

You will often come across base layers with different labels, such as:

  • Lightweight for moderate temperatures
  • Midweight for cold weather
  • Heavyweight for subzero conditions

When layering for cold weather, it’s best to go for midweight or heavyweight, even though the base layer isn’t primarily for keeping you warm.

How to Choose Your Mid-Layers

Mid Layer for Men
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The mid layer, or insulating layer, is the most diverse of the three in terms of materials, design, and aesthetics. You will find mid-layer options such as vests, puffy down jackets, and zip-up fleeces. What you choose as your mid-layer will depend on what you intend to do on the day and what kind of extreme weather you expect to face.

The simple rule of thumb is that your mid-layers should be easy to put on and take off as needed. This helps you regulate your body temperature throughout the day and through whatever activity you choose. Additionally, the mid layer keeps the cold air out and tops your body heat from escaping.

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The mid-layers should include the following materials:


Wool makes up the best base as well as mid-layer materials. Not only is it an excellent insulator, but it’s also great at wicking away sweat and absorbing odor. It’s soft and warm too. Some of the best mid-layer clothes are made out of merino wool.


Down material is made out of goose or duck feathers. This is by far one of the warmest insulators for mid-layers. With down mid-layers, the more feathers you have packed into the piece of clothing you choose, the more insulation it will offer you.

Another advantage of using down is that it’s easy to compress, making it ideal for packing in a backpack or hiking bag. But, the biggest disadvantage is that it can be expensive.


Fleece is synthetic wool designed to have all of the strengths and none of the weaknesses. That said, fleece is also a bit more expensive but lasts longer, giving you more value for the money. This Men’s Better Sweater® Fleece Jacket is one of the best and most affordable options today.


You can also get mid-layer clothes made from synthetic materials such as nylon and polyester. These materials have recently become popular because they offer water-resistance capabilities and breathability. They are some of the most affordable mid-layer products on the market.

The problem with mid-layer clothes made of synthetic material is that you will run into a wide range of options for durability. If you go for short-staple synthetics, then you will find that they aren’t quite as durable as the long-staple options. On the other hand, long-staple synthetics are quite heavy and difficult to compress. 

hiker on rock

How to Choose Your Outer Layers

While every layer is important to your protection, you can get away with winging the first two. You can’t get away with getting the outer layer wrong. This is the most critical layer, as it’s designed to be your first line of defense against the elements.

Your outer layer is your protection against rain, wind, and snow. If this layer isn’t well put together, then nothing you do with the other two layers will be useful. Imagine having the best base layer with no waterproof protection from the other layers.

That said, to choose the best outer layer for your specific needs, there are some terms you need to learn. Understanding them will help you choose the best outer layer option for the prevailing weather and activities.


Waterproof material is designed to offer you the ultimate protection from rain during cold weather. Clothes made of waterproof material are stiff and often have an outer laminate or coating that ensures water slides off the material, keeping you dry regardless of how heavy the downpour is.

Water Resistant

Water-resistant materials are generally lightweight and are designed to protect you against light downpours or mist. This gear is great for hiking and jogging when the weather is expected to be frigid but not a heavy downpour. If you expect torrential rain, the outer layers must be made of water-resistant materials.


The breathability of a material describes how easy it is to let water vapor or moisture escape through. Basically, this is how sweat-wicking clothes keep you dry.


This refers to waterproof materials that have a stiff outer shell. They are designed to protect you from the wind, making them thicker than most waterproof garments.


These are a class lower than windproof garments. They are lighter, designed for running, or can be used as casual windbreakers. These garments are often both breathable and compact. They, however, don’t offer you much protection against storms and adverse weather conditions.

Hardshell and Softshell

Hardshell garments are both waterproof and breathable. They are made of stiffer, more rigid outer shells and often don’t have any insulation. On the other hand, softshell garments don’t have a stiff shell, are water-resistant, and come with insulation.

When dealing with outer layers, the best combination would be to get clothing hat is both breathable and waterproof. The best material for this is often Teflon or GORE-TEX. You could also go for clothes made out of Neoprene in conjunction with GORE-TEX.

One of the best options is this Columbia Men’s Watertight II Packable Rain Jacket.

Softshell Rain Jacket for Men
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Bottom Line

When learning how to layer for cold weather, remember that layering is about managing your body temperature while keeping the elements at bay. It’s advisable to have a garment from every layer with you, even when you don’t think you will need the extra layer.

It’s better to have winter layering options and not need them than to need them and not have them. If you choose correctly, then every garment in each of these layers should be easy to remove and put back on as needed.

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Last update on 2024-04-14 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API