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The Importance of Layering Your Clothing in Cold Weather

by nick

Its fall and winter is just around the corner, so it’s time to start thinking about layering.

Layering is the best way to protect you from cold weather and keep you warm. When done correctly, it will protect you from the elements while looking stylish at the same time.

Layering can be divided into three parts – the base layer, the insulation layer and the outer protective layer. This article will explain the logic behind the 3 layer system and how it’ll keep you warm in the winter months.

Understanding Layering

Layering basically means wearing multiple layers of clothing, one on top of the next. By layering your clothing, you create insulation to stay warm. Several lighter layers will keep you warmer than one very thick one because air is trapped between each layer and warmed by your body, encompassing you with a self-generated heat barrier that insulates you from the cold.

Of course, some types of clothing are more suitable than others. You want to be warm, but you also want to be able to move. Finding the right balance isn’t difficult, but it’s very important. Layering regular clothing until it’ll keep you warm will leave you so bulky that you’d find it difficult to move normally. If you can’t put your arms down, you know your attempt at layering has gone completely wrong.

Instead you need to find the correct clothing for each layer and then wear it appropriately for cold weather insulation protection which I will now discuss.

Base Layer

The base layer or foundation layer lies against your skin. It’s the first layer of insulation and its main purpose is to keep your skin dry. Staying warm and active means you may sweat, and sweating is bad if your clothing doesn’t allow it to be drawn away from your body to help keep you dry and comfortable.

The process of eliminating moisture from the skin is often referred to as wicking.  The base layer should provide the key element of wicking to remove moisture away from the skins surface caused by perspiration, and in cold conditions, it also provides thermal properties and helps maintain the body’s core body temperature.

When it comes to a base layer in cold weather, synthetic fabrics made especially for these conditions are best. Often a combination of polyester, nylon, spandex and lycra, these high-tech man made fabrics provide the ideal balance of moisture management and heat retention that no other fabric can achieve. They are thin and lightweight so they add almost no bulk and if fitted properly allow great flexibility.

Wool fabrics also work as a moisture wicker and heat retainer. The problem with wool however is that it’s expensive and a lot of people react negatively to it when it is placed against the skin, causing rashes, itching and irritation. Cotton fabrics are cheap but insulate poorly and when worn as a base layer in cold weather conditions, it retains moisture. Too much retaining moisture is bad, as when exposed to cold air it can cause rapid heat loss. Cotton is only acceptable as a base layer when you’re going to be outside but relatively inactive, for example, watching a sport event or standing outside for less than a few hours. In this instance, it can retain warm air, but not much else.

So, if you’re planning a long outdoor excursion or you’re going to partake in activities that require heavy physical exertion, consider wearing a synthetic base layer. For less strenuous activities, a cotton undershirt or a collared shirt will suffice.

Your hands and feet require layers as well. Liner socks should be worn under thicker socks to keep your feet dry. Fingerless liner gloves or thin wool gloves are a useful base layer for the hands that’ll add warmth by trapping air.

Insulating Layer

The main job of the insulating layer is to trap in heat. Wool and goose-down fabrics provide excellent insulation while being reasonably light in weight – handy for more active cold weather situations.

Wools such as cashmere, merino wool and lambswool are essential fabrics that will keep you warm during the cooler months. Wool sweaters and knits are some of the smarter options available that still provides winter warmth. A decent wool sweater paired with a cotton dress shirt will create a suitable insulating layer for cold days around town.

When selecting a sweater or knit to wear, it is important to know the function it’ll play throughout the day. If you’re planning on wearing a suit, opt for a lightweight thin knit such as crew necks, v-necks or cardigans as they won’t bulge or fold under your suit jacket. Bulkiness will become most obvious at the waist, being the last place that you want it.

Heavy knits and thick sweaters are best worn as a top layer or with a trim piece of outerwear. Due to its bulkiness, you’ll want to avoid wearing a lot of layering underneath or with a bulky outer layer on top.

Another option is a performance fleece that is lightweight and a proven insulator. One main advantage is that it continues to insulate when wet, but provides little protection from the wind unless layered with a wind resistant fabric.

For leg insulation, thick wool or fleece trousers are fit for purpose. Over base layers they’re very warm. Jeans can also provide light protection, but they offer very little insulating properties.

Outer Protective Layer

The outer layer or shell layer protects the inner layers against the elements. It’s usually a single layer and should ideally trap air and stop wind or rain from penetrating. It should also be breathable to allow moisture from your body to pass out.  Therefore most outer layers tend to be water-resistant but not fully water-proofed.

Most cold weather outer layers are designed as outdoor gear and therefore don’t tend to be very stylish. If you’re only interested in dressing smart or for business, there are treated wool overcoats that have a wind proofed layer or treatment with GOR-TEX and similar materials. Alternatively, buy a parka jacket in the simplest, darkest design you can find. Once the temperature drops below zero, men will start to make allowances for less stylish outer layers to keep them warm.

The outer layer also includes protection for your head, hands and feet. Weather proofed gloves and a wool stocking cap are the bare minimum of protection. A scarf and good winter boots also help.

The Importance of Fit

As mentioned above, fit is important as when layering clothes, you still need to be able to move freely. I will now explain how each layer should fit.

Base layer – Should be as closely fitted as possible. Its purpose is to absorb moisture away from the skin, so it needs to be touching the skin to do this effectively.

Insulating layer – A thin wool sweater doesn’t provide efficient insulation if it’s baggy and loose.  Therefore thin insulating layers need to be tight fitting. Wear multiple layers when you buy a thick heavy knit to make sure they fit over all the other layers that you’ll be wearing in cold conditions.

Outer protective layers – Should have a little slackness between them and the insulating layers. This helps with the airflow and also with wetness. A water-resistant outer layer is likely to leak through when it presses against the clothes underneath it.

Cold Weather Layering – Conclusion

Layering is something that will take time to get right. Combining functionality with style should always be at the root of your clothing decisions. By following the above guidelines, you’ll definitely be keeping warm this winter.

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