How to Layer Clothes for the Outdoors: Base Layers, Mid-Layers, and More

That doesn’t alleviate the problem of microplastics shedding, though. These plastic fabrics release tiny particles in the laundry that aren’t captured by filters or wastewater facilities before they wash back into waterways. 

What About Plant-Based Fabrics?

Avoid cotton. It’s fine for day-hiking in the city park or camping, but it’s horrible for most outdoor activities. It gets wet and takes forever to dry, and unlike wool it doesn’t keep you warm when wet. Even if it’s not what you consider very cold outside, being wet for long periods of time can chill you to the point of hypothermia. There’s an old saying that’s still popular: “Cotton kills.” Whether you’re hiking in a warm desert or a cold forest, choose merino wool, goose down, or synthetic fabric.

Plant-based plastics, most notably in shell jackets and pants, are relatively new, and we at WIRED are testing more and more of them. I’ll update this guide after I get a few backpacking trips with them under my belt this season.

You’ll rarely wear all these layers, especially while moving, as you’d work up quite a sweat. Even on glaciers, most of the time I’m wearing a thin base layer, a soft-shell jacket, boxer briefs, and a pair of soft-shell pants. I don the mid-layer and puffy outer jacket during rest breaks and low-intensity activities, such as tightening tent guy lines and cooking breakfast.

When you start moving, start out a bit cold. You’ll heat up quickly, and it’s easier if you don’t have to stop 15 minutes into your hike to strip off layers.

Don’t get sweaty. Your clothes get wet and, with the exception of wool, lose their ability to insulate you and keep you warm. It’s not just uncomfortable, it’s dangerous. Wind moving over your wet clothes can strip an awful lot of heat from your body quickly, and if you’re wet you can get hypothermia in temperatures warmer than you think.

Take a look at our favorite cheap cold-weather gear guide for recommendations on various layers, gloves, socks, and more. Stay safe and dry out there!


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