How to Layer Clothes for Your Next Outdoor Adventure

In the great outdoors, sweat is the enemy. Sweat too much and you'll dampen your clothes, and wet fabric will chill and rub your skin raw. That's why each day on the trail or in camp is a balancing act of putting on and taking off just the right combination of clothes to stay warm, but not enough to sweat.

It's a golden age of outdoor gear, but it can be confusing. Is a mid-layer alone enough? What about fleece? Our guide can help you make sense of it all.

Table of Contents
  • How to Layer Your Clothes
  • Base Layers
  • Mid-Layers
  • Soft-Shell vs. Hard-Shells
  • Belay Jackets
  • Socks and Sleep Clothes
  • Gloves, Mittens, and Hats
  • Environmental and Ethical Concerns
  • What About Plant-Based Fabrics?
  • Extra Tips

If you buy something using links in our stories, we may earn a commission. This helps support our journalism. Learn more .

How to Layer Your Clothes

From skin to your outermost top layer, here's the order in which you should wear your clothes.

  1. Base layer
  2. Mid-layer
  3. Shell jacket
  4. Belay jacket

Bottom layers are a bit simpler, and rarely will you need an insulating layer on your legs. Just put on your underwear and a shell pant over it.

I've omitted outlier situations, such as mountaineering 8,000-meter peaks or traveling in polar regions. You'll be looking at very expensive, specialized equipment that you'll rarely use elsewhere.

Base Layers

Photograph: Backcountry

Long johns, tights, or whatever you want to call 'em, base layers are always going to be on your body, so they need to be thin and snug. Your best choices are merino wool and synthetic fabric. Wool keeps you warm even when it's wet, but it takes longer to dry out. Having once been a wool devotee in my early years of hiking, I've switched to synthetics because they dry out easier.

Despite the preconceptions, thin merino wool base layers are fine and popular for warm-weather use. For high-intensity activities, such as climbing or backpacking, choose very thin base layers and short underwear. For low-intensity activities in cold conditions, such as camping or birdwatching, you can choose heavier baselayers and long underwear, but it's nice to bring a spare pair of boxers, briefs, or boxer briefs. They don't take up much room.