Layering is an art form, it can take a long time to perfect. Too much layering and you’ll overheat, too little and you’ll spend the day freezing. Different body types, activity levels and weather conditions require a different amount of insulation. Finding your perfect layering system is half trial and error and half know-how. Luckily, we are going to share with you the know-how, meaning all you need to do now is go and try it out.
The mid-layer is the lynchpin of layering, it can make or break your layering system. The mid-layer should be the most versatile piece of clothing you wear, easy to take off and re-add as the temperatures and aerobic output change. Yet, no matter how good your mid-layer system is, it can still be rendered useless if it is layered over a low-quality baselayer.
Baselayers come in a range of weights and materials that all have their different benefits and drawbacks. Essentially, a base layer is the layer that sits next to the skin, it helps to keep the body warm and wicks away sweat which passes through to the mid layers. It is vital that you select the correct base layer for your chosen activity. See our Baselayer Buying Guide make sure you have the right foundations to make your layer system perfect.
The 80’s saw the rise of the synthetic fibre fleece as the top mid-layer choice for skiers, snowboarder, mountaineers. It was superior to the traditional water absorbing wool, down or cotton layers that were available beforehand. Soon after the first mass-produced fleece went on sale, brands such as The North Face heavily invested in the product and were selling millions worldwide.
THE ADVANTAGES OF THE FLEECE
A fleece is a soft napped insulated fabric, usually made of a polyester fibre called polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET. The fibre is known to be lightweight, warm and soft. Being hydrophobic, the fibre repels water, meaning fleece holds less than 1% of its weight in water and retains much of its insulating properties when wet. Additional benefits of it being hydrophobic are that it is highly breathable, machine washable and quick drying. Fleeces come in a range of colours, patterns and designs with a full zip, ¼ zip and pull over options, making them the perfect choice for any outfit.
Read more about fleeces in our buying guide.
SYNTHETIC VS NATURAL
Although fleece has many benefits, it also has a few drawbacks. Due to being hydrophobic, fleece repels soaps and washing substances, making it prone to odours. It also has a tendency of pilling over time, especially after washing. Pilling is the process of fibres clumping together which reduces its insulating properties.
Natural fibres like merino wool can offer a far more sustainable mid-layer, for both the planet and yourself. Unlike the PET synthetic material found in fleeces, merino wool is produced on the back of one of the toughest breeds of sheep, found in the rugged New Zealand southern Alps Range.
Merino garments, such as Icebreaker mid-layers are soft and non-itch. They are warm in the cold and cool in the heat, they breathe to prevent clamminess, and have a miraculous ability to ward off odour. Although merino wool garments are not true fleeces, they have eliminated some of the disadvantages of the traditional fleece.
A softshell is a versatile jacket that is suitable for many outdoor activities, but can it replace your hardshell in heavy rain or snowfall altogether? No. What a softshell can do is keep you warm and dry under your hardshell.
THE ADVANTAGES OF A SOFTSHELL
A softshell is a woven material made from polyester and nylon, that bridges the gap between waterproof hardshell and fleeces. Softshell jackets are designed to maintain a comfortable temperature during high output activates, and where the weather conditions are varied. Although less water and wind resistant, they are more breathable, flexible and generally more durable than hardshell and more protective than a fleece.
SOFTSHELL VS HARDSHELL AND FLEECE
Bridging the gap between hardshell and fleece, softshell jackets commonly get mistaken for one or the other.
Hardshell material features a woven fabric face laminated to a breathable waterproof membrane. This allows the jacket to protect us from water, whilst letting some perspiration breathe away from the jacket. However, during high output activities, there will still be some moisture left within the hardshell, this can lead to a clammy, damp feeling. Softshell jackets rely on a DWR coating to keep the moisture out. As a result, water a wind resistance is sacrificed in favour of breathability.
When incorporated into a layering system, a softshell will keep the moisture left within the hard shell away from the body, delivering a less clammy feeling. Thanks to its fleecy inside, a softshell is soft to touch and comfortable to wear over a short sleeve top. The downside is that softshell jackets are less compressible than hardshell jackets.
Although softshell may be made of a woven faced fleece material, it is not a fleece. A fleece, although highly breathable is neither water or wind resistant, unlike a softshell. Softshell jackets are usually treated to be somewhat water and wind resistant and have significant advantages over fleeces as they do not pill and maintains its insulating properties for longer.
For extremely cold conditions, a lightweight insulation jacket could be the perfect choice for a mid-layer. Insulation jackets are used in a range of outdoor activities for their warmth, compatibility and weight.
HOW DOES AN INSULATION JACKET WORK?
All insulation works the same way, whether it is down or synthetic, a jacket or sleeping bag. It traps and retains air in the small space between the down filaments or polyester strands, these air pockets then warm, warming the jacket. But not all insulated jackets are made of the same insulation, and not all insulation is created equal. Choosing the right insulation will have a major effect on how warm your insulated jacket is.
THE ADVANTAGES OF AN INSULATION JACKET
An insulation jacket that is being used as a mid-layer, will usually be a lightweight, low bulk jacket, like a micro baffle. Insulation jackets offer superior heat over any other type of mid-layer, with the best weight to warmth ratio. Due to the amount of loft, these jackets will be far more compressible meaning it can be stowed away in a pack or even a jacket pocket when it is not needed. Depending on whether you choose a down and synthetic insulation jacket as a mid-layer, there will be further benefits such as better wet conditions performance.
Read More about Down and Insulation Jackets here.
Now you have the know how about your mid-layers, it’s time to go and find what is best for you, remember a great mid-layering system can only be built upon a great baselayer. The final piece of your layering system is your outerwear, see our Ski Jacket Buying Guide and Ski Pant Buying Guide to get the perfect layering system for this winter.