Winter Layering: How to Dress for Winter Activities

I live in Canada where the weather can get cold for months depending on where you live. Living here and being someone that loves the outdoors, it’s important to understand the science of dressing warmly. Your clothing is your first level of defense against the elements – it’s integral to surviving in any environment. In this post, I’ll break down how to stay warm using winter layering and how to recognize the signs of hypothermia and frostbite.

Winter Layering

Layering is important for staying warm in cold weather. It helps you to manage the fluctuations between hot and cold when you are doing physical activity and resting. Often overlooked, overheating is very dangerous in cold weather because it causes your body to produce sweat which can freeze.

In the simplest terms, we can break down winter layering into the base-layer, mid-layer, and shell-layer (hard and soft). The base-layer is long underwear. The mid-layer can include vests, long-sleeved shirts, and sweaters. The shell layer is your jacket.


The base-layer is your first layer of protection. It should fit comfortably against the skin but shouldn’t be so tight as to cut off circulation. You’ll need a base-layer on both your upper and lower body.

It’s crucial that you find a base-layer that is effective at wicking moisture. Part of keeping warm in cold weather is the ability to remove moisture away from the skin.

Another factor for consideration is the weight of fabrics. Fabrics are often classified into lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight. Outdoor clothing companies have different ways of indicating this. Usually, the heavier the weight, the warmer the base-layer. Some companies manage to reduce the weight of their warmer base-layers but this can be costly. Sometimes people wear heavy-weight thermals over lighter layers. It’s worth doing a little research on how each company intends you to wear their base-layers.

The type of fabrics used in the construction of base-layers is important. They all have their advantages and disadvantages:

Wool: Wool is often regarded as the best material for base-layers. It is warm, insulating, and great at wicking moisture. The disadvantage is that it can be expensive.

Synthetic: The cheaper alternative is synthetic fabrics like polyester. These are effective at wicking moisture and keeping you warm. The disadvantage is that they can become smelly. Synthetic fabrics cling to the oils in our sweat which odor-producing bacteria thrive on.

Cotton: Even though it’s often sold and marketed as warm, you should never wear cotton as a base-layer when doing cold weather activities. Cotton does not wick moisture – it actually absorbs it. This will make you cold.

Silk: Silk has moderate wicking capability and provides some warmth. It is best worn when it isn’t too cold and when you are not doing vigorous activity.


The mid-layer is a looser fitting layer that fits over the base-layer. The fit is looser to give some room for air to circulate between the base and mid-layer. Part of what keeps you warm in wintering layering is the warmth of the air that becomes trapped in your clothing.

Wool: Again, wool is great because of its wicking capacity and added warmth. Some people choose to invest in expensive wool pieces. If treated with care, wool garments can last a lifetime.

Synthetic: Great for a mid-layer but, as I mentioned before, they can become smelly. This isn’t a huge problem if you are washing your clothing regularly but people who do winter camping or long treks are often wearing the same clothes for a few days. 

Down: Down is made of the fine feathers of duck and geese. It is very warm but bulky (it can pack down small though). Down makes a great mid-layer but there are a couple disadvantages to be aware of. First, you should take care not to get down wet because it takes a very long time to dry. Second, it can lose a lot of the fluffiness that keeps you warm after multiple washings.

Shell Layer

Shells protect against environmental elements like wind and rain. There are two types – hardshells and softshells. The difference between hard and softshells varies. Generally speaking, hardshells are waterproof, durable, hooded, have sealed seams, and fit a bit stiff. Softshells are water-resistant, usually aren’t hooded, and are generally more comfortable. Soft-shells are better for fair weather and shorter trips and hard-shells are better for bad weather and longer trips.

Hardshell: Gore-tex and eVent are great hard shell materials. They are breathable and water resistant. Even though these are great materials, they still don’t breath as well as a base or mid-layer would. This is why good hardshell jackets have zippers (usually near the armpits) to help release moisture. It’s not recommended that you wear a hardshell layer without base and mid-layers because this can cause them to hold in the cold.

Softshell: Softshells are not what you want to be wearing in a storm. But in fair weather, they are way more comfortable to wear than a hardshell. They are often made out of polyester and nylon. They are versatile because they can act as a mid or outer layer. 

Recognizing the Signs of Hypothermia and Frostbite 

If you are spending a lot of time outside in the cold weather, it’s important that you can recognize the signs of hypothermia and frostbite. These are two of the most common cold-weather injuries.

Hypothermia: Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature falls below 35 degrees Celsius. Signs of mild hypothermia include feeling cold, shivering, impaired coordination, mental confusion, and slurred words. Signs of profound hypothermia are weakness, lethargy, irritability and impaired coordination. During profound hypothermia, shivering stops, pulse and breathing slows and the heartbeat is irregular.

It is rare that someone experiencing hypothermia recognizes it in themselves. So, it is integral that you learn to recognize the signs and educate others about them as well.

Frostbite: Frostbite happens when body tissue freezes. Signs are tingling, stinging, redness, numbness, stiffness, and swelling. The skin might also appear waxy and feel hard. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing the signs of hypothermia or frostbite, it is crucial that you get to a warm location immediately and seek medical care as soon as possible.

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