What Is Layered Clothing? – Stay Warm & Dry Outdoors

Layered clothing can help you stay warm, dry and safe when you are exploring the wild. Most people believe that layering your clothing for the outdoors is super straight forward – If you’re warm, you add more layers. If you’re cold, you take some off. But in reality there is a little more to it than that.

In this article we are going to explore how to layer your clothing properly so you remain at a comfortable temperature; allowing you to enjoy the outdoors.


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Layered Clothing: What is it?

Layered clothing is a process by which regulate your body temperature by using different layers of clothing. You do this depending on the external conditions.

It’s common to think that we should only layer our clothing when it’s cold outside to keep warm. But it’s equally important to layer your clothing properly when the weather is warmer as it gives us the ability to adapt when out hiking, climbing etc. 

Layers are usually categorised into three sections: base layers, mid-layers and outer layers.

How Layered Clothing Works

Air is trapped in between each individual layer, this is why it’s more effective to wear many thin layers as opposed to one thicker layer. It’s important that each layer is breathable. This prevents moisture build up which can lead to you becoming damp and cold. 

To truly understand how layering works we’ll explain each layer and its purpose in more detail.

layered clothing

Base Layer: Moisture Management

Base layers are often referred to as your ‘second skin’. It has the ability to keep you both warm and cool depending on the climate you are in. Baselayers are thin, and can often be referred to as hiking underwear.

Base layers provide a layer of warmth via the air trapped between the fabric and your skin, whilst at the same time, absorbing any excess moisture and sweat away from your skin. This is referred to as ‘wicking’.

When choosing which base layer is perfect for your adventure, consider what kind of activities you’ll be doing and what climate you will be in as there are many different fabrics and kinds of base layer to choose from.

Middle Layer: Key Insulation 

As the name suggests, the middle layer is worn over your base layer and underneath the outer layer. The mid-layer is where you should focus all of the main insulating duties. It’s also the piece of clothing you’re most likely to take on and off depending on the weather conditions. 

In cold weather, most people will opt for a thicker mid layer like a down or synthetic filled jacket. In moderate and warmer weather, you could opt for a thinner synthetic or lightweight fleece.

Outer Layer: Protection From Wind, Rain & Snow 

The outer layer’s main purpose is to protect you from the elements, whether it be high speed winds or a torrential downpour. It’s always worth packing an outer layer that can handle the most extreme weather as you never know what you might encounter! 

It’s also worth noting that a high quality outer layer will still allow excessive moisture and heat to escape your body so you don’t overheat. 

Outer layers can be categorized into two different groups: Hard shell & soft shell.

Hard Shell Outer Layer

Hard shells are the most common outer layer you will come across. They are a waterproof jacket, usually with a hood or waterproof pants. Sometimes they are insulated. They are designed to provide waterproof breathable protection in rain or snow. It’s referred to as a “hard shell” because the fabric doesn’t stretch very much and has a ‘crinkly’ feel to it.

Soft Shell Outer Layer

A soft shell jacket is stretchy, breathable and water resistant. You can immediately identify a soft shell by touch, most will have a very smooth fabric feel to them. They are predominantly designed to be worn in light rain and snow. Due to the breathability of a soft shell, they are often preferred over a hard shell for high energy activities, so you avoid overheating. Most soft shells also contain an internal lining or fleece for added warmth.

Choosing The Right Layers

Choosing the right layers for your trip can be the difference between a great time in the outdoors or a potential nightmare – And this is serious. Poor choices could lead to heat exhaustion or hypothermia. 

So below, we’ll go over some of the most common weather types and the different layers you choose for each. 

(B) = Base Layer (M) = Mid Layer (O) = Outer Layer

Weather Conditions 

Recommended Layers

Additional Items 

Windy, extreme cold, rain/snow

(B)Thermal top & bottoms
(M)Thick fleece or insulated jacket

(O)Waterproof hard shell jacket and pants

In extreme cold conditions it’s also very important that you protect your hands, feet and ears from the cold to avoid frostbite. You will need a thick pair of thermal socks, warm gloves and a hat. In the snow you may also benefit from wearing some gaiters to keep your boots dry. 

Windy, cold, wet

(B)Thermal top (bottoms if needed) 

(M)Fleece or soft shell jacket 

(O)Waterproof hard shell 

In cold conditions, you may not be worrying about frostbite but it is still good practice to carry some gloves, warm socks and a hat with you. 

Warm, wet 

(B)Tight top (thermal or lightweight material e.g. merino wool) 

(O)Waterproof breathable jacket (soft shell)

If the weather is warm and wet you may still sweat a lot underneath your breathable outer shell depending on the activity. It’s a good option to take an extra base layer along with you so you can swap it out if you start to become overly damp/cold. 

Sunny, calm, lower temps

(B)Thermal top or lightweight base layer

(M)Fleece or soft shell jacket 

Although in sunny, calm and low temperatures you can get away with just wearing your base layer and mid layer. It’s wise to always pack a hard shell outer layer. They can roll up small in your backpack and be used in an emergency. 

Dry, sunny, calm 

(B)Lightweight base layer

(M)Mid layer is optional

The weather can be difficult to predict, especially if you are hiking at higher altitudes. Although you may only be wearing a base layer for the majority of the day, it’s good practice to always take a hard shell outer layer in case you get caught in the rain or high winds. 


Trying to plan your layered clothing choices for your adventure in the outdoors can sometimes get confusing when you consider all of the different materials, design options and the pros and cons of each. You can simplify the process by just considering your base layer, mid layer and then your outer layer, and always remember that more thin layers is better than one really thick layer.

Also remember to pack your other essentials. Some common items are:

  • Hiking backpack
  • Hiking boots or shoes
  • Plenty of food
  • Plenty of water
  • Knife or multi-tool
  • Navigation tools such as a map and compass
  • First-aid kit

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Growing up in the Lake District, UK I've always been surrounded by nature, whether it's snowy mountains, lakes, or the sea. Throughout school, I gained qualifications in Outdoor Education, and mainly focus my time camping, hiking & kayaking.

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