THEY SAY IT’S WHAT’S INSIDE THAT COUNTS. WE SAY, IT’S MORE LIKE WHAT’S UNDERNEATH.
When you’re up the mountain, we know you’re busy getting rad… ok maybe we’re not all as rad as Fraser McDougall, but the last thing you want to worry about is whether you’ve worn the right clothing.
Having a good layering system is the tried-and-tested way to easily regulate your temperature and protect you from the elements. Ensuring you’ve got this system dialled will provide you with unparalleled comfort and performance on the mountain.
Each layer has a function and the right combination of layers will protect you from both the weather and the moisture you generate yourself. Get it wrong and you’ll spend the day cold and damp. At the ski field that’s unpleasant. In the backcountry, the consequences could be much higher…
There are three critical elements to the system. So let’s peel back the layers and get on with it:
Your base layer is the one in direct contact with your skin. Its main purpose is not just to insulate, but to also manage perspiration, and move it away from your skin. If your base layer doesn’t transport moisture away from your skin, you’ll quickly start to feel cold when you slow down or stop for a rest.
Synthetic base layers transport or “wick” moisture towards the surface of the fabric from where it can evaporate. Merino wool works differently, using a clever natural system. Instead of wicking, the wool absorbs moisture from the skin to create a perceptible amount of heat that stops you chilling when wet.
Traditionally, base layers have always been close fitting. These days there are plenty of options that mean you won’t look like a bag of sausages if you de-layer a little in the café or at après ski.
BASE LAYER FABRICS
Let’s get this one out of the way immediately – cotton makes a terrible base layer. Once it’s wet, it stays that way, so leave your favourite band tee at home!
SYNTHETIC BASE LAYERS
Synthetic fabrics such as polyester and recycled polyester can make great base layers. They move perspiration rapidly and are quick to dry.
However, they can also develop and retain odour if worn for multi-day trips or not washed daily. To combat that, many synthetic base layers have antimicrobial treatments to try to cut down on unwanted odour.
WOOL BASE LAYERS
The best performing base layers are made from Merino wool. It is warmer than synthetic fabrics of the same weight but also highly breathable, making it great for temperature regulation.
Traditionally, wooly undies were scratchy and uncomfortable. Merino wool on the other hand, is super fine and very soft against the skin.
The greatest advantage of merino wool in comparison to synthetic fabrics is the wool’s incredible ability to help you regulate your temperature. The secret is in how merino is able to absorb water into its fibres (up to 35% of its weight in moisture) and yet still remain dry to the touch.
Merino’s capacity to control moisture so effectively comes from a very clever hydrophilic chemical structure. In simple terms, this means the wool can absorb and desorb (remove) moisture to control your humidity, and in turn release or gain heat to maintain a consistent temperature.
As well its unique capability to manage moisture, merino is naturally odour-resistant which makes it a great choice if you’ll be working up a sweat, on a long trip or overnighting.
The mid layer is the key to insulation. Its task is to trap the heat your body generates to keep you warm, whilst continuing to help moisture move outward.
Materials such as fleece, or lightweight down can be a good choice because they insulate without feeling bulky. They’re also air permeable so warm, moist air can pass outward through them.
The other great mid-layer options are lightweight, low-profile insulated pieces in Primaloft or wool. They’re light and will take up less room in your pack while still being warm.
Again, your favourite cotton hoody won’t make a great mid layer. It’ll soak up water and stay wet, leaving you cold, damp and uncomfortable. So don’t do it!
SYNTHETIC MID LAYERS
Polyester fleece is a classic insulating mid-layer. It traps warm air, is durable and absorbs very little moisture, although it can be a little bulky.
Synthetics typically dry out quickly and keep much of their original insulating value even when they’re wet.
WOOL MID LAYERS
Merino wool is a great natural option as a mid-layer, whether in a jersey-type fabric, or used as loft between an outer and inner skin.
The same benefits of merino wool base layers apply to mid layers – it’s light and very warm for its weight, remains warm even when it’s wet, and offers the same odour resistant capabilities. Handy if you’re car sharing…
In our opinion, sometimes the best mid layers are created when natural and synthetic fabrics collide. A blend of merino wool and synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon can improve the performance of merino wool. Producing increased stretch, durability, warmth and moisture management capabilities, whilst still retaining its inherent natural benefits.
The final, outer layer is there to protect you from the elements.
Depending on where you ride and the kind of riding you’re into, you might consider a shell-type layer that blocks wind and sheds precipitation, or an insulated jacket that adds warmth. Either way, it’s important that this layer is still breathable and allows moisture from your inner layers to escape.
Your outer layer needs to fit easily over your base and mid layers and should still allow you to move freely. And of course, it should look bad ass too!
These technical garments are designed to resist rain and snow. They’re lighter weight and pack smaller than other outer layer options, so they’re great for riders who hike and tour.
The breathability of these fabrics is also important as an extension of moisture management but tends to increase with the price.
When you choose a waterproof-breathable layer like this, look for features like durable water repellant (DWR) coatings and seam taping as these increase the shell’s ability to shed water.
Softshell outers can be very versatile.
They offer a little more insulation than a hardshell, are windproof and will shed light precipitation. They also offer great breathability, along with stretch and comfort.
The only negative is that they don’t offer anywhere near the same level of protection from rain or snow as a hardshell.
INSULATING OUTER LAYERS
The classic jacket and pants with built-in insulation are useful for extremely cold conditions or people who need that extra warmth.
However, because they’re insulated, they tend to be heavier and don’t pack down as small, as well as less breathable.
A shell system will be more versatile if you’re touring or expect to encounter wide variations in temperature.
Whilst there’s no silver bullet solution to all conditions comfort, the beauty of a layering system is in its simplicity.
You can easily remove or add layer to allow you to adapt to the conditions and your activity level. If you think conditions might change during the day, always take an extra layer!