Fashion, comfort and warmth in the outdoors are difficult to find. Mix this in with lightweight and the correct fabric and you have got me standing in the REI clothing aisle overwhelmed thinking “where do I even begin”? “Do I actually need this stuff just for a day hike”? “Lightweight, mid-weight, base layers, mid-layers and outer layers?” Understanding what all these terms mean and the importance of materials and layers, can really save you on a day hike and a long backpacking trip out in the wild. TRUST ME I once got stuck at 10,000 feet on Mt. Whitney and came face to face with hypothermia. The main reason for insulation is preventing hypothermia. Over 1,500 people in the United States die from hypothermia each year and even when you only plan on being on the trail for an afternoon, many scenarios can arise such as an injury, inclement weather conditions, or losing your sense of direction and getting lost. Therefore it is important to always carry at least one extra layer of insulation for unexpected scenarios and many extra layers if you plan on backpacking or going out in colder temperatures.
Let’s start with material: The importance of moisture wicking fabric in the outdoors
Growing up my mama used to say, “wear cotton, it breathes”. Well sure, cotton may be breath-able but once this natural fiber is wet, it stays wet which can be a deadly scenario in the outdoors and here’s why: Cotton garments can absorb up to 27 times their weight in water, meaning they take forever to dry out and actively work to cool your body in even the most moderate temperatures. You can get cotton wet without even exposing it to rain, snow or falling in a lake. Sweat heavily in cotton and it will soak up that sweat, hang onto the moisture and will lower your body temperature very fast. Once your core becomes cold you risk hypothermia, which does not only occur in cold temperatures but can take place in surprisingly warm conditions. It is important to always wear moisture wicking material. This holds true for sports bras, underwear, socks, shirts, jackets and bottoms. Wicking material refers to the ability of that fabric to move moisture away from your body and the fabric itself. This can help keep your body dry and cool even when you are drenched in sweat from exertion. Wicking fabric, means that the fabric has tiny capillaries or tubes in it, which are large enough to let moisture, like sweat, be pulled away from your skin and onto an outer layer or into the air. Therefore you want the highest grade of moisture wicking material closest to your skin. So keep your cotton sports bras, panties, long underwear and base layers at home. Cotton kills!
The following are examples of moisture wicking materiasl that you should wear close to your skin as a base layer.
- Polyester blends (nylon, polypropylene, spandex or rayon)
- Merino wool
The following are moisture wicking fabrics that should be worn as mid layers
- Polyester fleece
- Merino wool
- Goose down (can be worn as an outer later in dry conditions)
- Synthetic fill jacket (can be worn as an outer layer in dry conditions)
What are base layers?
A base layer is the layer closest to your skin that goes over your undergarments. With that said, it is important to wear undergarments (We will have an entire blog post dedicated to under garments) that are moisture wicking in order to keep you warm and dry. Base layers come in three different weights depending on the climate and your activity. Choose the weight that best matches your activity and the temperature and make sure they fit you snugly if you want to keep dry.
- Lightweight for aerobic activity or mild climates.
- Mid-weight for moderate activity or moderate climates.
- Expedition-weight for low activity or cold climates
Below are my favorite base layers that I wear near and dear to my…skin
Nike Dri-Fit Miller Tank Top (Great for warm weather)
The North Face Women’s Motus Short Tights (Great for warm weather)
The North Face Women’s Motus Tights III (Great for all weather conditions)
Let’s talk about thermals
A thermal top is essentially the same as a base layer but they are designed more for winter sports and activity. The thermal properties mean they are better at keeping your body warm, as well as wicking away sweat so that you don’t overheat.
The term “mid-layer” (also referred to as the insulation layer) is often confusing for those who are new to hiking as it can apply to various garments. Fleece jackets, woolen sweaters, down jackets and jackets with synthetic insulation are all considered mid-layers. A mid-layer is basically any garment that provides insulation and is worn between a base layer (for example a Merino wool t-shirt) and a shell/outer layer (for example a rain jacket). However, in dry and wind-free conditions the shell is usually not worn and thus the mid-layer clothing is basically used as the outer layer too. Confusing right!? In very cold conditions you might wear more than one mid-layer garment in order to increase insulation and performance. Make sure your mid layer is loose enough to fit over your base layers. I typically will wear a polyester blend long sleeve shirt (base layer), a lightweight fleece jacket (mid-layer), a mid-weight fleece jacket (mid-layer), jacket with synthetic or down insulation (mid-layer) and a rain jacket (shell/outer layer) if I am in very cold winter temperatures. The rule of thumb is that the closer the mid-layer is to the skin, the better moisture-wicking properties it has to offer for providing and maintaining good warmth. Below are my favorite mid-layers that I often wear in the wild.
Patagonia Women’s Nano Puff Jacket (can be used as outer later in dry conditions)
The shell or outer layer protects you from wind, rain or snow. Shells range from pricey mountaineering jackets to simple windproof jackets. Most allow at least some sweat to escape; virtually all are treated with a durable water repellent (DWR) finish to make water bead up and roll off the fabric. Rain pants are also a necessary investment if you plan on hiking in cold weather, windy weather, rain or snow.
An outer shell is an important piece in bad weather, because if wind and water are allowed to penetrate to your inner layers, you begin to feel cold. Furthermore, without proper ventilation, sweat can't evaporate but instead condenses on the inside of your shell. Your shell should be loose enough to fit over all of your base layers and mid layers. This may require going up a size or trying all of your layers on under your shell before you spend your hard earned money purchasing a high quality outer layer. ( you may find me in REI trying five to seven layers on at a time).
Waterproof versus water-resistant (Yes, there is a difference and yes, it matters)
- Waterproof/breathable shells: The most functional (and expensive) choices, these are best for wet, cool conditions and alpine activities. Shells using laminated membranes such as Gore-Tex and eVent offer top performance; those using fabric coatings are a more economical alternative.
- Water-resistant/breathable shells: These are best for light precipitation and high activity levels. Less expensive than waterproof/breathable shells, they're usually made of tightly woven fabrics (such as mini-ripstop nylon) to block wind and light rain.
Don’t forget about socks, gloves, hats and buffs
Rule of thumb: Always carry an extra pair of socks and a pair of gloves because you never know what can happen.
How to shop smart and save money without compromising quality
These items are crazy expensive however you get what you pay for, especially in terms of outdoor gear. So although it is so important to stick with the highest quality gear, there are always ways to find deals.
- Find your favorite brands that work for you, stay loyal to the brand and figure out when they go on sale
- Shop sales and clearance items.
- Check out REI online garage.
- Dig through the members-only REI garage sales.
- Shop discontinued/close out gear.
- Be open to purchasing bright colors and patterns (they are usually less expensive)
Tip: always wear a bright color of some sort on the trail so you do not blend into the trees, rocks, waterfalls or the rest of nature’s elements in case you need to contact search and rescue.
Take home message: Even if you are day hiking on a hot day, you should always have a mid layer or an outer layer in your pack just in case the weather changes or you stay out longer than expected due to an injury, an emergency or getting lost.