How to Layer for Winter: Staying Warm to Stay Alive

Learning how to layer for winter is more than just a matter of comfort. Proper layering can actually save your life. If you’re preparing to deal with harsh winter conditions, you’ll need more than a parka and some gloves to survive.

Mother Nature can be dangerous when she’s in a frosty mood, so it’s imperative that you prepare your winter wardrobe carefully. Taking a layered approach helps ensure you’ll have everything you need to stay safe.

There’s more to layering than just putting on lots of clothes, and it’s your job to develop the right strategy for withstanding winter conditions. When you learn what items and fabrics you need for each layer, you increase your chances of survival dramatically.

Prepare Yourself: Layering Basics

What does it mean to dress in layers? You may know that it’s a good idea to wear a t-shirt under a sweater when you head outside on a mild spring day, but harsh blizzard conditions call for an entirely different approach. You need to wear multiple pieces of clothing not only to trap in body heat but also to stay dry and protected from hypothermia.

The basics of how to layer for winter focus on these four categories:

  • Base layer: your underwear layer and should work to keep your skin dry
  • Middle layer: consists of lightweight insulating fabrics
  • Top layer: provides additional insulation and warmth
  • Outer layer: provides protection from weather, including wind, snow and rain

As you build up your winter survival wardrobe, think about the different regions of your body that you need to protect. If you’re planning for a worst-case scenario, you need to consider everything, even your eyes. Approach each layer with a methodical mindset to make sure you don’t forget anything.

There is some room for personal preference when it comes to the specific clothing items you choose for winter survival wardrobe, but ultimately, it’s best to give yourself the most body coverage you can. If you think your feet tend to get hot pretty easily now, you may end up regretting that assumption in the cold wilderness.

So if it seems like overkill to have three layers of socks on your feet, remember that more clothing means more warmth in extreme temperature conditions. The brilliant thing about layers is that you can always remove a layer when you find you don’t need it. Having the option to remove a layer is better than finding you need more clothing than you have.

Choosing the Right Materials

While individual clothing items are very important for survival, you shouldn’t just pick out the first pair of gloves you find and consider the job done. When it comes to layering, choosing the right materials is just as important as picking out the right clothes.

What to Avoid

First things first: cotton has no place in a winter survival wardrobe. None of the clothing on your body, from your base to your outer shell, should include cotton. While it’s comfortable and cool for casual wear, cotton is a dangerous fabric to use in a survival scenario. Cotton provides no insulation whatsoever when it gets wet, and it can also get quite heavy when it’s damp. That’s a recipe for disaster when you’re trying to stay alive in extreme conditions.

Don’t make compromises with this. Even a cotton blend can reduce your chances of staying warm when you’re in a crisis situation. That’s why it’s important to do thorough research as you pick out each item for each layer. The more careful you are about how to layer clothes for winter, the greater your chances of survival.

The Best Materials for Winter Survival

With cotton crossed off your list, you have a wealth of other material options to consider. In general, you should be looking at animal-derived materials and synthetic fabrics, including:

  • Wool: Modern performance wool blends retain all the benefits of old-school wool without the scratchiness and bulk. From socks and long underwear to sweaters and hats, wool is a smart material to include in your survival wardrobe.
  • Fur: Though not as efficient as modern synthetic materials for big items such as coats, fur trim or lining on hoods, boots and gloves adds extra protection and warmth. If you opt to use fur, make sure it’s real; faux fur typically doesn’t have any of the weatherproofing benefits of real fur. If you prefer to avoid fur, there are plenty of alternatives to consider.
  • Down/feather fill: Naturally waterproof and insulating, down or feather fill is your best bet for outer-layer winter warmth. If you’re allergic to feathers, there are some good synthetic down alternatives, though they aren’t as widely available.
  • Silk: In a winter survival context, silk isn’t actually about luxury. This natural moisture-wicking fabric makes excellent lightweight long underwear, though it may not be suitable for vigorous activity or extreme weather conditions. It’s light and thin enough that you may want to include it if you plan to experience a range of different temperature conditions.
  • Polypropylene: This is a thin, hydrophobic synthetic material makes a fantastic base layer. Long underwear made from polypropylene provides warmth and superior moisture wicking that doesn’t retain as much moisture as fabrics like polyester.
  • Synthetic fleece: Sometimes known as polar fleece, this polyester material is also hydrophobic, and it’s a great choice for your mid and top layers. It’s a flexible, lightweight option for staying warm.
  • Gore-Tex: With both insulating and breathable properties, Gore-Tex helps keep you dry by allowing sweat to evaporate out while keeping rain and snow from getting in. It’s used in footwear, outerwear, hats and gloves and is best suited for top- and outer-layer clothing.

All of these fabrics and materials maintain their insulating powers even when they’re soaking wet. Of course, it’s best to avoid getting wet in the first place, but that’s not always possible in a survival scenario. Better to be prepared than to be vulnerable.

Building Your Base Layer

Just as you need a solid foundation to build a sturdy house, you need an effective base layer to build a strong winter layering wardrobe. The base layer is your first line of defense against the cold. Though this layer likely won’t come into direct contact with snow, rain or ice, it’s still imperative that you make the right choices when it comes to material, fit and thickness.

Because your base layer is right next to your skin, comfort is important too, though that shouldn’t take precedence over each item’s survival fitness.

Essential Base Layer Clothing Items

With your base layer, you’re literally trying to cover yourself with a thin barrier of moisture-wicking fabric from head to toe. You may not actually use all of these items every day you’re in the wild, but it’s still important to have them available in case you need them. Plus, these lightweight clothes can be imperative if temperatures bump up unexpectedly.

See also: What is Gore Tex and Why Do You Need It

If all you have is heavy outer layers, you could end up overheating and becoming dehydrated. That’s why layering is such a good idea – you have the versatility to handle a wide range of conditions.

Base layer basics include:

  • Thin wool or synthetic fleece hat (head)
  • Long underwear shirt (chest, arms)
  • Long underwear trousers (legs)
  • Glove liners (hands)
  • Sock liners (feet)

All of these items should fit tight and close to the body. They should also be thin, lightweight and low profile. You’ll add bulkier, warmer items in your top-tier layers.

As you pick out your base layer items, be sure to actually try them on and see how they feel when you move. You shouldn’t feel constricted when you walk, bend and reach. You can also look out for different performance grades as you look at base layer items. Some long underwear is designed for extreme conditions, and you may want to focus specifically on this variety to maximize survival potential.

One thing to note: many performance-focused long underwear styles are designed so you don’t need to wear briefs or a bra underneath, but if you want to include those items for your comfort, you can do so. Just make sure you pick out styles that are made from the right kinds of fabric. Remember: no cotton.

Adding a Middle Layer

With your base layer in place, it’s time to move on to the next level. The middle layer should focus on insulating and trapping your body heat in, so be sure to focus on items that provide adequate coverage. No short sleeves or shorts; you’re dressing for winter, and you need to pick out clothes that cover as much of your body as possible. Insulating fabrics such as polar fleece and wool are the name of the game at this level.

The middle layer should be flexible and comfortable like your base layer, and it’s important that the two provide adequate comfort and flexibility when worn together. That means you should try on your middle layer clothes with your base layer on. In fact, you should do this with each successive clothing layer. A parka that fits you perfectly while you’re wearing your everyday street clothes will probably be too snug when you add three additional layers of clothing underneath.

What Does a Good Middle Layer Look Like?

Your middle layer can fit a bit more loosely than your tight-fitting base layer, but it should still be fairly low profile to avoid adding too much bulk at a low level. It is important, however, that your middle layer garment openings fit tight and aren’t baggy. For example, you’ll want to focus on pants with some sort of elastic around the ankle and shirts or sweaters with banding at the waist and wrist.

Any gaps or openings in your middle layer lets heat out, which is exactly the opposite of what you need.

The ideal middle layer includes these clothing items:

  • Turtleneck shirt or sweater (chest, arms)
  • Leggings or tight-fitting trousers (legs)
  • Lightweight gloves (hands)
  • Lightweight socks (feet)

It’s best to focus on middle layer clothes without a lot of pockets, zippers and other extra features. In other words, don’t repurpose warmer-weather outerwear as your middle layer if you can avoid it. All those extra features just add unnecessary bulk and provide points of escape for your body heat to leak from.

Getting Tough With a Top Layer

Now that you’ve got your moisture-wicking and insulating layers in place, it’s time to get serious about protecting yourself from the cold. Top-layer clothing can have a looser fit than your previous layers, but you should avoid any loose openings or ends just like your middle layer. This time, the goal is to avoid letting cold air in. The top layer should also provide some protection from external moisture. It’s not your outermost layer, but you’ll want it to perform a similar function so you have an additional barrier between your body and the harsh weather outside your clothing.

Because it’s not the very last layer, your top layer should still be lightweight and flexible. Think about materials such as thick wool, lined nylon and even some thin down-fill options. Essentially, your top layer should consist of what you would wear to go on a short late-winter hike, plus a few added pieces. On its own, this kind of clothing isn’t enough to protect you from the coldest weather, but when you add the other three layers in, it performs beautifully.

Picking Your Top-Layer Pieces

With just one more layer to go between you and the elements, the top layer gets a bit more specialized than the previous two. Here’s what you need:

  • Thick waterproof hat with ear protection (head)
  • Windproof balaclava (face)
  • Gaiter or short, thick scarf (neck)
  • Water-resistant jacket with hood (chest, arms)
  • Lined, water-resistant trousers (legs)
  • Midweight mittens or gloves (hands)
  • Thick socks (feet)

Focus on both wind and moisture protection with each of these items. This is the layer where the difference between “waterproof” and “water-resistant” becomes relevant. Waterproof materials shed water and prevent any absorption, and those labelled as water resistant prevent some, but not all, water absorption. You’re focusing on water resistant fabrics at this point because they’re generally more flexible and breathable than waterproof materials.

Flexibility and breathability are still a germane concern with your top layer. The one exception here is your hat, which should be large and protective enough to keep you safe if you need to take down the hood on your outer-layer coat.

Protecting Yourself With an Outer-Layer Shell

Last but most certainly not least, it’s time to get your outer layer in order. This layer is like the fence around a fortress; it’s intended to keep unwanted elements from reaching the well-guarded inner sanctum. This is the layer that does direct battle with wind, rain, hail, snow and ice. You can win that fight against winter if you make the right outer layer choices.

At this point, you shouldn’t worry too much about flexibility and breathability, though of course it’s imperative that you’re able to move. Survival isn’t about standing in place, after all. Still, the main goal for your outer layer is to build a protective cold- and moisture-repelling shell around yourself. Always keep that in mind as you consider which outer-layer pieces to choose. For more review of the best in men’s ski jacket, check our our article on this topic.

Must-Have Items For an Effective Top Layer

This is by far the most detailed layer in your wardrobe. You need to give yourself the ability to cover every single bit of skin on your body. Leave nothing out in the cold, not even your eyes. Make sure each item of clothing is fully adjustable so you can cinch things shut and close off as much of your body as possible to the harsh temperatures, wind and precipitation around you.

Here’s what you need:

  • Winter goggles (eyes)
  • Winter mask (nose, mouth)
  • Waterproof coat or parka with large hood (chest, arms)
  • Waterproof trousers (legs)
  • Snow gaiters (legs)
  • Waterproof mittens (hands)
  • Insulated, waterproof boots with traction soles (feet)
  • Crampons (feet)

All of these outer-layer items should be the thickest, warmest you can find. This is where thick layers of down or feather fill comes in handy for everything from your mittens to your parka and trousers. See our tips on how to choose the best women’s base layer for more options.

Some things to look out for as you pick out these items: your coat or parka should extend past your hips to provide maximum protection for your vital organs, and the hood should cinch shut and provide only a small opening for you to see out of.

Additionally, mittens are a better choice than gloves for this layer because you trap in more body heat by bundling all your fingers together than by letting them all hang out individually in gloves.

Yes, you’ll sacrifice some manual dexterity, but that’s why you have three layers of gloves on underneath. If you must, you can quickly remove your mittens, do what you need to do and put them back on to start warming your hands back up.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you may find yourself shedding top-layer items as needed. For example, crampons can actually slow you down and become dull if you wear them on anything but a slick, icy surface. And if wind isn’t driving and the sun isn’t blinding, your goggles might actually do more harm than good by obstructing your vision. Be smart and exercise caution when it comes to wearing or shedding items from your top layer.

Are You Ready to Fight the Frost?

Now that you know how to layer clothes in the most effective way, you’re ready to create a survival wardrobe the coldest weather you can imagine. When you choose the right fabrics and create each layer with careful attention to detail, your winter survival wardrobe may just be enough protection from the worst winter conditions on earth. Do check out our review of the top cold weather clothing to keep you dry and snug.

As you build your wardrobe, stay humble and remember that Mother Nature takes no prisoners.

4 thoughts on “How to Layer for Winter: Staying Warm to Stay Alive”

  1. This is really helpful especially for those who are not that good in layering their clothes during the harsh winter season, just like me. I usually have a hard time assembling the perfect outfit so thank you for your wonderful tips. I will for sure take note of these next time.

  2. For me, when it comes to layering, the most important considerations are the materials/fabric and your personal preference. You can always be stylish and fashionable if you want too. With enough preparation, you will surely be able to pick the best clothes for you. A little creativity can go along way.


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