Don’t Overlayer: Two Tips for Cold-Weather Clothing Systems

December 10, 2018

Dress in layers. It’s a mantra repeated ad nauseam whenever the temperature plunges. In general, it’s good advice. But it’s also easy to take it too far and cause yourself more sweat and irritation than fun. Here are two key recommendations to keep your layering under control.

Three Long-sleeve Layers, Max

First, don’t try and put on too many long-sleeve layers. My standard system for the upper body is one form-fitting base layer; one warm mid-layer, usually a thick fleece; and one outer layer, either a windproof shell or down jacket, depending on temperature. If it’s extremely cold, or if I’m going to be sitting around and inactive in the cold for long stretches, I may add a warm vest between my base and mid-layer.

The key point here is that I don’t wear more than three layers with long sleeves. Why? I’ve found that four layers of long sleeves almost always create unpleasant bunching along the arms and especially in the armpits. This not only creates discomfort, it can also begin to impede your range of motion. It may be possible to find four long-sleeve layers that work well together, but it’s a challenge I don’t think is worth the effort—especially since an additional vest layer provides the extra key insulation you need around your core for extreme cold.

The only caveat I’d make here is that you can add a comfortable fourth sleeve layer by donning an oversized “super puff” jacket (either down or synthetic) that easily fits over your base layer, midlayer, and shell—a good thing to throw on when you’re pausing from activity to rest in the cold.

Don’t Overheat: Drop a Layer if You’re Active in the Cold

It’s remarkable how much warmth you generate when you’re active, even in extreme cold. Any sort of physical exertion—whether it’s hiking uphill, cycling, or just stomping through the snow—will create significant body heat. If you’re wearing too many layers, that can quickly turn you into a sweaty, overheated mess. And filling your layers with sweat is a recipe for a substantial chill-down once you stop moving. (Indeed, a key goal for cold-weather activity is to minimize how much you sweat.)

For high-exertion activities in the cold—even extreme cold—I usually drop my mid-layer, keeping just my base layer and shell on. You can either do this before you start, or pause a few minutes into your activity once you sense your body heating up. The former option means that you may be briefly cold, the latter means that you’ll have to take extra time for a de-layering stop shortly after you’ve started (not the best option if you’re in a large group).

Stay comfortable out there!

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.