Chapter 47: How to Layer Clothing to Stay Warm or Cool

Layering your clothing for warmth and comfort can make your backpacking trip safer and more enjoyable. Let’s cover not just the basics of layering, but how to do it with ultralight clothing.

Your base layer should be lightweight synthetic or silk, and should be snug to your body so it can wick moisture away from your skin. Never use cotton for any layer because it retains moisture.

Silk can be as light as 3 ounces for a long-sleeve shirt, and another 3 ounces if you need silk bottoms, too. For colder conditions you might need a medium or heavier weight first layer of silk or polypropylene. Even your underwear can be lightweight silk. Briefs are just over an ounce and can double as your stylish Speedo/European swim trunks.

Your second layer, or mid layer, should be thought of as your warmth or insulating layer. You can use a synthetic, or down, or merino wool. This layer can be kept extremely light. For instance, a Montbell ExLight down jacket weighs less than 6 ounces. You can use down bottoms to insulate your legs.

Your high performance nylon shirt and pants can be part of your layering system. Shirts weigh about 9 ounces and pants weigh about 10 ounces.

This mid layer is the one that needs to adapt to changing conditions to regulate your body temperature. It should be versatile enough to work in any condition you might encounter. For colder conditions, err on the side of too many layers. But remember, you can keep all these layers very light.

Your last layer, the outside or shell layer, should be windproof, waterproof, and breathable. This layer can be as light as 10 ounces in mild weather. In colder conditions, your rain gear can still be in the one-pound range.

You can layer your socks with an extra pair for wicking and warmth.

Polypropylene gloves work well in mild weather and weight only an ounce, but you should have a waterproof pair if you might encounter harsh conditions.

A lightweight skull cap can keep you warmer at night and be layered under another hat or your rain hood during the day. The lightest ones weigh less than an ounce.

A full-brimmed storm hat made from silicone-coated nylon can weigh just over an ounce.

Even with good clothing, you need to stay hydrated so your body can function well. Be sure not to overheat. Peel those layers as soon as you start getting too warm.

See more clothing information in chapter 9. With ultralight clothing options you’ll stay comfortable, and your clothing will be light and compact.