4 Key Reasons to Layer Clothing When Hiking

Trying to second guess the weather before heading out on a day’s walk or camping trip can be extremely difficult because the British weather is just so unpredictable! One minute the sun is shining and you’re rockin’ the shades and loving life – the next you’re in a heavy downpour getting soaked to the skin, wondering where on earth it all went wrong.

However, at Camping Secrets, we believe that horrendous weather can actually allow you to experience some of the greatest outdoor moments on offer as long as you are dressed appropriately.

In this article we discuss 5 Killer Reasons to Layer Clothing – we don’t want you to leave it to chance to keep warm and dry like the lads we saw climbing Snowdon in jeans and a t-shirt in a winter storm.

Be layer smart and learn to love the bad weather.

So what is the Layering System?

Layering clothes involves using multiple layers of thin items of clothing to achieve a big effect. This could be as few as two layers (e.g. base layer and fleece) to four or five layers (e.g. base layer, mid-layer, fleece, down jacket and waterproof shell).

Layering can apply to any part of your body – from using thermal leggings under your walking trousers, to multiple layers of head coverings (e.g. balaclava and Thinsulate hat). The technique works everywhere and has numerous advantages.

Reason 1 – Temperature Control

Clever layering of clothing is the key to keeping your body at the optimum temperature when out walking, and to keep you in control no matter what the weather throws at you.

Using layers means you can pile the layers on or strip the layers off to maintain the right temperature for the current situation. There is nothing worse than dressing for arctic conditions but then starting to roast when you are halfway up a hill because the sun has come out. If you are wearing a thick coat and not much else then you may not have room to store it in your rucksack, or you may feel too cold once it has come off – layering solves this issue, making temperature control much easier.

layer clothingAir trapped between the layers acts as insulation and stops heat escaping from your body, thus keeping you warm.

Several thin layers is better than one thick layer because you can remove one bit of insulation at a time to give more control. Imagine going from 5 layers to 4 – it’s a smaller percentage change than 2 to 1 (taking the big coat off) and so it’s easier to remove or add a small slice of warmth rather than a large chunk in one go. 

It definitely pays to make sure your layers are well fitted and contoured to your body in order to stop air currents and cold draughts but not so tight that no air remains between the clothing layers and you lose that insulation benefit.

Reason 2 – Packability

Owning lots of thin layers for camping or hiking trips makes packing a lot more simple. Thin layers can be squished, rolled, folded or screwed up (which ever takes your fancy) and packed away in bag, rucksack, packing cube or carrier bag far more easily than a huge thick coat or fleece. Thick bulky items tend to get in the way more, are hard to carry and difficult to pack away.

Out on the trail a thin outer waterproof shell is easier to slip on and off as the weather changes during the day. The same with a thin fleece compared to a thicker one. With thin layers you are less likely to squash those sarnies in your ruck sack. No more carting around your heavy triple insulated winter coat that is only usable for 3 months of the year and weighs a ton. Say goodbye to bulging cupboards and wardrobes back at home too with no more bulky items.

layer clothing snow

Reason 3 – Flexibility

By owning a full wardrobe of “layerable” clothes (is that a word?), you will be prepared for all 4 seasons of the year without needing to apply much extra thought or effort. You will not need to spend time deciding what clothes to bring with you as it becomes more of a habit to know what to pack or take and removes a lot of the thought process.

For instance, a thin outer waterproof windproof jacket can be used all year round. In a summer downpour throw it on over your shorts and t-shirt just to keep your clothes dry as your legs have a natural waterproof layer already. It is easy to pack away again once the sun comes back out.

In the wintertime layer up thin base and mid layers underneath a the same waterproof windproof jacket to keep snug and warm. The main thing is to have a set of clothes that can be used any time of year by simply adding in an item or two or removing an item or two to get the correct outfit for the activity.

Out on the trail, it is much easier to stuff an excess thin layer into your backpack than it is to manhandle a thick coat into the same space. Stick with the layers!

Reason 4 – Cost

How many coats do you own and how many do you need?

I am just using coats here as an example, but this can equally apply to any item of clothing (including shoes and boots, but that’s another story!).

When using the layering technique, you can whittle your coat ownership down to just a bare minimum. I won’t put a number on this as everyone has a preference on clothing items and some people just like having the flexibility of more items to choose from but are they all essential?

For those who need to watch the pennies, layering is the ideal solution. The same set of clothes can be worn all year round (obviously with a wash now and again) but the differing seasons with their forever changing weather patterns won’t make a difference to your key core clothing items.

Thin clothes take a lot less time to dry than thicker ones. This means that you can wear the same clothes day after day assuming you have some place to hang them when you return to base after your hike. Ok yes, you can end up becoming a little whiffy and you may notice people keeping their distance but that’s not always a bad thing (especially during the Covid pandemic recently!). Joking aside, the point is, if you have the right clothes and treat them correctly you can save some pennies overall.

layer clothing outside

Layering Clothes - the Essential Items for Any Outdoors Enthusiast

Waterproof Jacket

If you are just starting out and have good intentions to continue in outdoor pursuits, I would suggest the first main purchase is a good quality waterproof, windproof, breathable shell. This is the key item to keeping you warm (with layers underneath) and dry.

We recommend Gore-Tex as the technical fabric of the shell – this works very well – make sure you choose a size which can be used with thin layers underneath to add in the warm layers when required. You only need a thin shell to keep the wind and water out. The other layers will do the rest.

Do you specifically need Gore-Tex? Well, no there are cheaper options, but they tend to be less breathable which can lead to damp clothing from sweat. They also tend to be less windproof and so can be less warm on those hill tops. And yes, you guessed it, less waterproof so can start letting water in around the high wear areas such as shoulders where rucksacks have been rubbing or elbow area where arm movement has deteriorated the fabric.

A good quality jacket can cost anywhere between £80 to £500 or thereabouts. How much to spend is up to you but if you are not about to climb the north face of the Eiger then anything under £150 is probably fine. Yes, this is a lot of money, but a good quality jacket can last for years and is a great investment and a key item in your outdoor wardrobe.

Build up the rest of your layer wardrobe slowly over time.

Replace your cotton T shirts with man-made fibre equivalents which can wick away sweat to keep you dry and also dry alot quicker than cotton.

Walking Trousers

Proper walking trousers can replace jeans or trousers made from less stretchy or highly absorbent materials. Walking trousers will dry faster and be far more comfortable. Keep to thin layering. If you want waterproof trousers I would recommend a thin outer trouser that goes over normal walking trousers rather than the all in one thick winter waterproof trousers. This is partly because they are expensive and partly because they can be uncomfortable. Also if the sun comes out you will get too hot. With a thin waterproof overtrouser you can just peel it off and pop it in your rucksack.

Base layers

Thermal undies can help keep you warm. A lovely soft inner layer to keep you warm during those colder days out and about. This is the hardest layer to decide on wearing as it is not so easy to strip off once you have left camp. In my mind this is also the least essential item for a newbie. If you’re going to be out for hours in a freezing environment then ok yes, get yourself some thermal undies but otherwise save your money.

Check out our complete roundup of the best thermal base layers currently on the market.

Mid layers

Highly recommended is a wick away quick dry fabric. Man made fabrics are less absorbent than natural fibres so remain dryer during activities and dry quicker once removed. Cotton T shirts are fine to begin with, but you can find that you may get a sweaty back for example which will cool quickly when you stop for a break. Putting a rucksack back on top of this cold patch is not a nice experience even in summertime.

Man-made fabrics will not absorb the sweat and will stay dryer for longer. They also have a better chance of drying out on that lunch break.

(Micro) Fleece layer

There are all sorts of fleeces to on the market, but you cannot beat a good half zip thin microfleece for flexibility. It is less bulky than some options, particularly the full zips which tend to be slightly heavier fabrics. You can always put multiple T shirts on underneath if you need that extra warmth. A full zip fleece tends to have pockets though whereas a half zip does not so there is always a trade-off to consider.

Luxury layer

For the ultimate luxury while out and about get a down jacket such as the Rab Prosar. They are super warm and if you get the right sort, super packable. These jackets easily go on top of T-shirts and fleeces and under a waterproof shell.

A top tip is do not go too thick. Get one that is described as packable. These are not cheap items but are worth the money. Extra layers of T shirts and fleeces can replace this if it is a bit out of reach in terms of funds so I class this as a luxury item and not essential for enjoying the UK countryside.

As mentioned above, the layering system can be applied to area of clothing you are considering. Multiple layers of thin clothing is just way more flexible and packable than big chunky items.

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