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Like an Onion – Learning About Layers

It’s hard for me to get motivated to get outside when the weather is cold.  I stand in my nice warm house looking through the window thinking it just looks COLD out there.  Then I look down at my dog and she is so excited to go outside that I know I must go.  I lived in southern Arizona for many years and I was spoiled during winter.  Snow was rare and no shoveling, heaven! Then we moved to Utah and that was a whole new experience.  Months of cold weather.  Lots of snow.  So, we learned how to get outside in the cold and still enjoy ourselves.

For those of you new to exercising outside in the cold, the way to enjoy winter outside is to learn how to layer your clothes properly.  You need to consider three different layers of clothes before going out.  The layers are your base layer, the middle layer and the outer layer.

The base layer is the one closest to your skin.  You will need to find something that is form fitting, wicks sweat well and can dry somewhat quickly.  Most people have worn or seen thermal underwear before and that is an example of a base layer.  The kind I had before really did not work well because they were 100% cotton.  Cotton retains moisture and takes a long time to dry.  Not a great fabric for a base layer.  There are much better fabrics to consider, both natural and synthetic.

The two natural fibers most makers use are merino wool (or a blend of wool and synthetic) or silk.  Merino wool has some great properties.  It wicks moisture pretty well, it can cool you when the temperature warms up because it does retain some moisture, it is fairly durable (I wash mine in the washer and lay flat to dry without any issues) and it is odor free because it is naturally resistant to bacteria.  And if you are thinking it will be itchy, you are wrong.  Merino wool is very soft.  Silk does not wick moisture as well as wool, it is not as durable or odor resistant either but it is lighter than wool so it is a great choice for cooler days when the wool would be way too warm.

Synthetics offer great options too.  These can be polyester, rayon, nylon or some sort of blend.  These fabrics wick moisture better than the natural fibers so you will feel drier. They are more durable than the natural fibers.  They retain odors more than the wool but if you are washing them between wear, they will not smell. Synthetics are usually less expensive than the natural fibers.

When choosing your base layer you need to think about how cold it is outside.  Lightweight fabrics are good for moderate to cool temperatures. Midweight fabrics are better for cold temps.  Heavyweight fabrics are needed for below freezing temperatures.  Depending on the temps, you might want a base layer under your pants too.

So how do you choose what to get?  It all depends on your personal preferences, how long you plan on going out in the cold and what you want to spend.  If you will be outside in cold temperatures a lot, it is worth it to spend a little extra on a base layer that will keep you comfortable and is durable.

Now we are on to the middle layer.  This is the layer that will hold in your body heat.  The better it can trap the heat, the warmer you will be.  As with the base layer you have options of materials for this layer both synthetic and natural.

One option is synthetic fleece.  You can buy this in lightweight, midweight or heavyweight fabrics.  If you see a 100, 200 or 300 on the tag or in the description that is for the weight of the fabric.  Again, you should buy the weight needed for the temperatures you will be exercising in.  Polyester fleece dries quickly and breathes well so you are less likely to get too hot.  The downside to all that wonderful?  If it is windy outside, it goes right through it and steals all your heat.  We will talk about how you overcome that in the outer layer discussion.  I use synthetic fleece as my hiking pants in winter.

Next option is a down insulated jacket.  They are light in weight but great for keeping heat in.  They compress easily into a pack if you get too warm too.  How efficient the down is reflected in the fill number, 450 to 900.  The higher the number the warmer it is.  Down works great until it gets wet, then it does not insulate well at all.  The outer shell on down jackets is not as durable and these usually are the most expensive option.  I have a down “puff” I use for winter hiking that I love but I have to be careful with.

Synthetic insulated coats are the last option to consider.  They do not insulate as well as down, but they have come much closer with the technology since I was a kid.  They are a lot more durable than the down jackets and are more water and wind resistant.  I have an insulated synthetic coat I bought for skiing when we lived in Utah.  I still use it as my everyday winter coat.

The last layer is the outer layer or the shell layer.  This is the layer that provides wind and water protection.  It will also protect that expensive down jacket from snags and tears.  Shells fall mostly into one of four categories.

Waterproof but breathable.  These are going to be the most expensive ones.  They provide the best protection from hard rain and are usually more durable.

Water resistant but breathable.  They are less expensive than the waterproof shells and really are better suited for drizzling rain or breezy days.

Soft shells.  These are made for breathability but can handle light rain or light wind.  Some makers will add insulation to effectively combine two layers.

Waterproof but non-breathable.  These are the least expensive of the group but are not really good if you expect to exercise a lot.  They will keep rain and wind out but will also retain your sweat so your lower layers are more likely to get saturated which will leave you cold when you stop exercising.

So, do you have to wear all three layers every time you go out in the cold?  No, you do not.  Mix the layers as needed.  I typically only wear the base layer and the middle layer on top and only the middle layer on the bottom.  The winters here in southern Pennsylvania are cold but not bitter.  You will also need a good pair of insulated gloves or mittens and a knit hat for your head if you don’t have a hood.  Don’t forget those insulated socks.  If my feet get cold, then I am done for the day.  I will start out a hike with the layers needed for the conditions and as I warm up, I take some of the layers off.  You want to try to regulate your body heat so that you are not sweating profusely. Letting yourself get wet and cold from sweating can lead to hypothermia, which can be life threatening. Removing layers as you warm up and then putting them back on when you stop exercising keeps them dry and keeps you warm and comfortable.

Okay, so now that you’re an expert on how to bundle up for the cold, you have no excuse to stay inside. Get out there and have some fun!



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