Layering for Warmth and Versatility

By Jim Ball

For most of the year, maintaining our body temperature is a matter of personal comfort.  But in the winter months, even in Kentuckiana, it can be a matter of survival.  At the very least, getting too cold may force us to curtail our outdoor activities sooner than we would like.  As outdoor enthusiasts, we will not allow Old Man Winter to keep us indoors.  So we must be properly prepared for cold, wet weather.

Survival and comfort in the cold of winter is as much about staying dry as anything else.  Even the best insulation is less effective, and some are totally useless (or worse) when wet.  Cold water can drain the heat from one’s body several times faster than air of the same temperature.  For example, it has been suggested that passengers of the Titanic would have survived for hours on an iceberg (perhaps with the proper dry clothing), whereas they lived only a few minutes in the water.  Even a totally nude person may survive longer in the cold than a person in wet clothing.

Layering is the key.  In addition to increasing your comfort and safety, proper layering enables you to be warm and dry without looking like the Michelin Man.  Not only is insulation essential, but we must also prevent moisture from saturating our clothing.  Obviously, this requires a waterproof outer layer when there is a likelihood of precipitation.  Less obvious but equally important is the need to allow our own perspiration to escape so as not to soak our clothing from within.

The Basics of Layering

Effective protection from inclement winter weather generally requires the following layers of clothing:

  • A base layer of highly effective wicking fabric, to quickly transport perspiration away from the skin, keeping you dry.  Generally, these fabrics are made of polyester or, better, polypropylene (e.g., Helly Hansen’s Lifa fabric).  However, fine wools such as a superfine Merino garment, are also quite effective.
  • An insulating layer to slow the passage of heat from the body.  This can be one of several materials – wool, synthetic “fleece” usually of a polyester fabric, even down in an outer garment.  The material is largely a matter of personal preference.  However, this insulating layer should also permit the passage of moisture away from your body.  You may have heard that “cotton is rotten.”  This is certainly true in wet weather, as cotton absorbs and holds moisture.  In particularly cold weather, cotton can be a killer.  Some other materials maintain much of their insulating properties even when wet (e.g. wool and some synthetic materials).  Teko brand merino socks are a great example of this quality.
  • A weatherproof outer layer to keep rain, snow and wind at bay.  We have discussed the importance of staying dry.  Windproofing is another critical issue in cold weather.  Wind chill is very real, so don’t trust your thermometer alone.  Cold air can be forced through most fabrics directly to our skin.  A lightweight windshell is often all that is needed as an outer layer, depending on the temperature and your other layers.  In colder weather, however, or in extended stays outdoors, one may need additional insulation within this outer shell.  If there is a chance of precipitation, this outer shell should also be waterproof.  Like your other layers, however, it should also permit the passage of perspiration and humidity away from the body.  For trail runners, shoes using Goretex lining are a great example of a breathable waterproof outer layer.  Also weatherproof jackets from such manufacturers as Helly Hansen, MontBell and Outdoor Research are excellent choices for our wet, coldOhioValleywinters.

In addition to layering, just a quick word here on other inclement weather safety issues.  If you are planning a camping or backpacking trip, keeping your extra clothes dry is absolutely essential.  You should always have quick access to dry clothing in the event of a fall into a creek or similar incident.  For this purpose, waterproof covers for backpacks are a must.  Some backpacks (e.g., lafuma packs) come with their own waterproof covers.  In addition, emergency “space” blankets should be a given on a cold hike; I even occasionally have carried one on long trail runs, just in case.  And all the great insulation in your zero-degree sleeping bag is of little use if it gets wet.  So, in addition to the backpack cover, you should carry a waterproof sleeping bag cover as well if the conditions warrant.

Watch this column in the near future for an article on a new group inLouisvillecalled SCRAM (an acronym for Snow, Cold, Rain And Mud), a small but dedicated group of enthusiasts for running, camping and hiking in extreme conditions.  It’s a great way to test your skills, your equipment and your temperament; the upside (other than the obvious fun of it all) is that we can pretty much have the trails to ourselves in such conditions.  The SCRAM mantra: There is no such thing as bad weather, only unprepared people.

In the meantime, stay dry, stay warm and stay safe but, by all means, don’t stay inside this winter!

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Jim Ball is the president and co-founder of The Trail Store in Westport Village located at 1321 Herr Lane. For more information call 502.423.1545 or



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