Three Easy Pieces

By Paul R. Huard

February 1, 2008 5 min read


Basic layers to keep you dry, warm and protected

By Paul R. Huard

Copley News Service

If you enjoy outdoor adventures, the question of what to wear is more than a fashion dilemma.

If you cycle, hike, walk or paddle, the answer to all-around comfort is dressing in clothing that you can doff or don depending on your level of activity and the weather you are experiencing.

The key is to avoid excessive sweating. When you increase your activity and begin to sweat, you lose heat in three ways: through evaporation, through conduction (wet clothing conducts heat away from you nearly eight times faster than dry clothing), and through respiration (the hot air you exhale carries heat away).

The biggest mistake most people make is wearing one heavy coat when they venture outside, says A.J. Curran, a product-line manager for sporting goods maker L.L. Bean and an outdoorsman. That leaves the wearer with few options when they break into a sweat because of increased activity or if conditions change, he says.

"If you don't layer when engaging in an active outdoor endeavor, you don't take into account how you're going to heat up when you walk, paddle, or camp," says Curran. "Layering allows you to fine-tune for different conditions. The versatility you get from layering is really important when you go outdoors."

Under normal conditions, moisture helps draw heat from the body, a good thing when it is hot but a miserable (or even potentially dangerous) factor when the conditions are windy and cold. Wet clothing and a chilled body exposed to even modestly cold temperatures can lead to hypothermia.

When dressing for an outdoor activity, remember the Three Ws - wicking, warmth and weather. The wicking or base layer helps move perspiration away from your skin and provides the first layer of protection against the elements; the warmth layers are added or removed to help you stay just warm enough without overheating; the weather layer is a shell such as a parka and wind pants that keeps out heat-robbing wind and rain.

What is the best fiber to use for clothing? Opinions vary, but remember the one not to use in cold or wet weather - cotton. When wet, cotton clothing loses its insulating ability.

There are definitely materials that lead the pack when it comes to their insulating properties.

- Wool. Wool can absorb a fair amount of moisture without conducting heat away. Wool can also be woven into very tight weaves that are quite wind resistant. Another advantage of wool is that it is relatively inexpensive.

- Pile or fleece. These are spun synthetic fabrics with similar insulating ability as wool. The advantages are that they hold much less water and dry much more quickly. One disadvantage of pile and fleece is that they have very poor wind resistance, so a wind shell on top is almost always required. However, 200-weight fleece is an excellent all-around choice because it has good loft (the fluffiness that traps air and holds it next to your body for insulation) and helps wick moisture away from the body.

- Polypropylene. This is a synthetic, plastic-based fiber often used for the layer of clothing which is directly next to the skin. Polypropylene and other similar products actually use body heat to move moisture away from the skin.

Curran has some recommendations from L.L. Bean ( for basic layering pieces that will keep the wearer warm and dry from early spring through early fall:

- Base layer: A Polartec Power Dry silk weight Zip-T ($29.50).

- Warmth layer: A Super 200 Fleece Jacket ($59).

- Outer shell: The Stowaway Rainwear Jacket made of waterproof, breathable Gore-Tex fabric ($149).

In addition, gloves and a hat will help keep you warm and reduce exposure the wind or sun.

Just remember - active outdoor sports require a constant process of adjusting your clothing layers to regulate your body temperature. Add or reduce the layers you are wearing so you don't soak your clothing through with sweat, which increasing your chances of getting chilled no matter what you are wearing.

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