How to layer for success for hiking, climbing, skiing and everything else

The key to dressing right for outdoor adventures is being able to adapt quickly to changes in the weather. Those changes can come externally, from temperature shifts and precipitation, and also internally, as your body heats up according to how hard you are working. The key to achieving the versatility to deal with the elements? Proper layering. Dress with the right combination of layers and you can react quickly to any situation.

Using skiing as an example, Outdoor Research design consultant and ski legend Mike Hattrup thinks about how and where he will be skiing before choosing his layers.

“I have two basic layering techniques, one for the resort skiing and another for the backcountry skiing,” says Hattrup, who tests Outdoor Research apparel and gives feedback about how our layering systems can work best in concert. “At the resort, you pick your layers at home, and that’s what you have all day. When I pack for sidecountry and backcountry skiing, I bring three basic layers. I look at the weather and choose a base layer according to how cold it is—the colder the temperatures, the thicker the layer. In the backcountry, you will be changing layers often and I carry more in my pack.”

According to Hattrup, each layer should provide successively more protection from wind and precipitation. That base layer is your first line of protection and, as Hattrup points out, can be the only layer you wear when you are, say, pounding out laps spring skiing. The next layer, the mid layer, should provide some wind protection but mostly works to keep you warm. Insulators like the Outdoor Research Neoplume Jacket™—built with 60-gram PrimaLoft® insulation—are ideal here, since their synthetic fill will still be effective even if it gets damp.

But in the backcountry, Hattrup also carries what he calls an “X” layer, a super-warm insulating layer. The Outdoor Research 650+ down-filled Transcendent collection for men and Aria collection for women work well here. They can also serve as mid-layers at the ski resort on a cold day or alpine climbing when conditions are cold and dry.

The last layer, the shell, won’t provide the warmth of an insulating layer, but it is the essential protective outer layer to shield against wind and precipitation. Outer shells can be hard shells or soft shells, and many times people will choose to bring one of each for backcountry adventures, since they both offer distinct advantages.

Choose a shell based on the conditions you will be facing. The Outdoor Research Mentor Jacket™ is built with GORE-TEX® Pro Shell, the highest level of waterproof/breathable protection we offer. Plus, it’s durable, having been developed with input from the guides at Canada’s Yamnuska Mountain Adventures.

Our shells built with Pertex® Shield, such as the Paladin Jacket™, which was developed with input from our International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) test team, are ideal for backcountry laps or alpine ascents.

Hybrid shells that combine hard and soft shell technology, like the Alibi Jacket™, are built with physical exertion in mind—they provide more protection in exposed areas and more breathability in others.

Soft shells like the Cirque Jacket™ only repel wind and light precipitation but are far more breathable than a hard shell.

When you want to combine layers, say at the ski resort, Outdoor Research offers insulated shells like the StormBound Jacket™, which combines a Pertex®  Shield outer with 650+ power fill down insulation inside.

Here’s one last piece of layering advice from Hattrup. When you are moving fast or in the midst of an activity, one effective way to change your layering system is to open (or close) zippers that offer quick ventilation. It’s something you can do on the fly that does not require stopping and digging around in your pack.

Outdoor Research designers have given a lot of thought to zipper venting systems and tested them in the field to come up with two innovative solutions.

TorsoFlo™ venting, in a jacket like the 3-layer GORE-TEX® Maximus Jacket™, allows you to open your shell from the armpit all the way down through the hip area. This allows for serious air flow without having to shed the entire shell. Think of it as a pit zip on steroids.

CrossFlo™ venting, in a shell like the GORE-TEX® Axcess Jacket™, allows you to vent from chest to hip across the front of the jacket. This is ventilation system Outdoor Research uses on its Sidecountry shells, because it works while you’re wearing a pack. It also has several other advantages.

So how to choose between a hard shell jacket or a soft shell jacket, or some combination of the two? Match the materials and design to the activity you want to do and the typical weather you’ll be encountering.

“The easiest way to look at it is, a hard shell is for when you need the most protection from heavy precipitation, or when you won’t be moving as much,” says ski legend and Outdoor Research design consultant Mike Hattrup. “Any time the aerobic level increases, I look to the soft shell, even if it is precipitating, and especially if it’s somewhere cold. When it comes down to it, I want a shell that allows me to keep working at a comfortable temperature.”