The Three Layer System: How To Stay Light And Warm

Base layer, soft shell pants, liner gloves, hat
Base layer, soft shell pants, liner gloves, hat

With today’s arctic blast that is covering most of the United States, staying warm and dry is absolutely crucial. Minimizing the amount of moisture and sweat on the body and eliminating potential threats that can bring down the core body temperature is essential. For outdoor enthusiasts and high altitude adventurers, the three layer clothing system is as important as building a fire or staying hydrated. In sub-chill temperatures, the body can lose heat faster and increase the risk of hypothermia. In today’s article, I’d like to offer a refresher on the proven way to remain warm and comfortable even in the harshest of environments.

Outdoor Research Echo Tee Base Layer
Outdoor Research Echo Tee Base Layer

Base Layer

The base layer is the first line of protection between the skin and the temperature. The base layer serves two purposes: The first is it is breathable enough to let moisture escape, keeping the body dry and avoiding excess sweat. The second is wicking which means any excess water will fall away and avoid absorption which makes cotton a very bad idea to wear as a first layer. Cotton is slow to dry and absorbs like a sponge which in turn will keep the skin wet and susceptible to lower core temperature. The base layer should be body tight and extremely close to the skin. Many manufacturers supply base layers in a variety of weights: light, medium, and heavy, which should be chosen by activity and by expected temperature. Base layers come in synthetic and natural fibers, both with their pros and cons. Synthetic base layers have excellent wicking properties but natural fibers such as Merino wool tends to be warmer yet costlier. Don’t judge all base layers the same way and choose the one that fits your individual style, activity, and need for warmth.

Marmot Variant Jacket Mid Layer
Marmot Variant Jacket Mid Layer

Mid Layer

The mid layer is the proxy between retaining thermal properties and allowing excess heat to escape. As the warm air from the body escapes from the base layer, the mid layer will create small pockets of warm air and be breathable enough so that moisture is transported to the front for quick and easy evaporation. Like the base layer, the mid layer should be moisture wicking and allow water and sweat to roll off and minimize the buildup of condensation. The mid layer does not have to be tight like base but it should incorporate materials such as fleece, which adds a layer of breathable thermal trapping material, or synthetic padding. Padded vests are more than acceptable for keeping a toasty midsection however a light padded jacket is optimal.

First Ascent Peak Down Jacket
First Ascent Peak Down Jacket

Top Layer

The top layer involves the down and puffy jackets that are worn at times when the body isn’t moving and generating heat on its own. The idea is to get all of that inner heat trapped in those pockets between the down but retaining waterproof and breathable properties. Generally, the bigger puffier coat isn’t always the best and puffy jackets should be well formed to the body rather than being baggy where air can come up from underneath. The down jacket, which can be made of synthetic or natural fibers, should also be able to protect against wind and rain which stops strong gusts in conjunction with the mid layer. The top layer is the one that takes the most abuse against the elements so it has to be tough and rugged. Although puffy jackets can be expensive, they are the most important line of protection against the cold.

Showers Pass Rain Jacket
North Face Beanie

Optional: Hard Shell

The hard shell is a tough windbreaker, non breathable jacket or poncho whose only job is to effectively block cold gusts, rain, and snow. The hard shell is generally not insulated as it gets worn over the top layer and has the least breathable properties of any of the  for maximum repelling of wind and water. The hard shell is the most durable and should be built with the membranes and fabrics to be able to withstand a lot of abuse.


Another part of the body that shouldn’t be overlooked are the extremities. The head can lose a significant amount of heat and the importance of covering it up can’t be stressed enough. Wearing a synthetic beanie or a covering such as an insulated bandana or headband can trap the escaping heat coming off the top. Wearing gloves to protect hands is just as important and although the cotton or leather gloves may look better aesthetically, leather can become very cold and cotton will absorb any excess moisture. The best way to go is to wear a light pair of synthetic liners under a pair of durable and tough outer gloves. Think of it the same way as the three layer system: a base close to the skin, a close base layer, an insulating layer, and if things get really hairy, a tough mitten to block all the wind on top. For feet, wearing a thick layer of wool, whether natural or synthetic will keep snow out and warmth in.

So that’s the basic primer to a three layer system that will keep warmth in even in the toughest and coldest of conditions. The best thing to do in these temperatures is to stay inside, but nothing beats curling up in a nice base layer or fleece. In short, cotton in cold weather is not a good idea. Picking the right fabrics, the right weights, and the right materials can make all the difference between freezing and comfort.

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