Technical Layering: An Explanation on Why Sheep are the Coolest Mammals on the Planet

2010 was the first time in 53 years that the Charlotte area had snow on Christmas, and like everyone else, I made the most of it. I walked around taking pictures, had snowball fights, made pitiful snowmen, and through all of it stayed warm and dry. This wasn’t by accident, and only practice made sure I wasn’t cold, soggy, and miserable during my simple 2 hour frolic in the snow (I’m engaged to be married; I’m allowed to use words like frolic now).

First on my checklist is the obvious: How cold is it outside? After finding it was in the mid 20’s, I started thinking about what clothing would keep me warm but wouldn’t be so hot I would sweat. Not sweating is very important because if you sweat while moving, the moment you stop the water begins the cooling process like sweating cools you off in the summer. The Inuit (Eskimo) have a saying: “Walk faster than the ice is cracking, but not so fast you sweat”. How much clothing that takes varies from person to person, and you shouldn’t believe the temperature ratings you see on clothing.

20 degrees is fairly cold for around here, and assuming a person is of the average warmth and doesn’t wear shorts when it’s below freezing like I do, let’s start with what material you should wear.  Cotton, should NEVER be worn if you’re actually planning on being out in the cold for more than 15 minutes.  Cotton traps water and does not allow it to evaporate, which only increases the heat loss from your body. The only benefit to cotton is that it’s cheap and everyone has tons of it in their closets.

Wool is a personal favorite of mine, and it has experienced quite resurgence with new Merino blends that are soft and smooth, unlike the older itchy wool that grandpa used to wear. That said, I’ve got multiple wool shirts from back in the 60’s that I’m wearing because they last forever and still keep me warm. Wool is great because it’s warm when wet and is a thermoregulating material: when you’re cold it bunches together to trap warmth and when you get hot it opens up to breath and let the excess heat out.  Think about it; you’ve never seen a sweaty sheep have you?  Base layers, midlayers, and outer layers can all be found in wool. Wool is more expensive than some other options, but if you shop smart you can find some good deals; I’ve gotten multiple Pendleton shirts that retail for over $100 for only $5-$10 apiece and will probably last 20 years.

Silk is a great option as a base layer because it’s cheaper than wool, breathes well, and is fairly warm. It’s also smooth and, um, silky, so it’s not uncomfortable to wear at all. It’s not the warmest option, but if you’re going to be very active, it’s a great choice to wear next to your skin.

Down is the warmest per weight of all insulators, but to get a jacket that doesn’t make you look like the Michelin man costs about the same as a well-functioning kidney. Down is measured in “fill” which is how much space does 1 oz. of feathers from a goose fill? A young duck may only fill 550ccs with 1 oz., while the top rated down you can get is around 1000ccs. All that these numbers mean is that you can get the same amount of warmth, with only half the bulk…but at twice the price. Funny how that works isn’t it.

All other options basically boil down to synthetic materials: polyester, fleece, Under-Armor, etc. These are great options because they dry faster, stay warm when wet, are fairly inexpensive, and easy to find.

Now in the clothing pyramid, there are 3 layers which I have mentioned above: base layers, midlayers, and outer layers. Each layer has a specific job, and your job is to pick what clothes you have that do the job the best. The base layer is there to wick away moisture from your body and to add some warmth. Mid layers job is just to insulate and not protect you from the elements. Perfect examples of this are those cheap fleece jackets that are warm in the store, but the wind cuts through them like you’re not wearing anything at all. Outerlayers are mostly there to protect you from wind and rain, but if they add some warmth that’s not a bad thing. Some fleece jackets have a wind proof layer such as Gore-Tex Wind stopper which is great if you want one jacket to serve multiple purposes. If you don’t want to go out and buy anything though, a rain jacket is the perfect outer layer because it blocks both wind and rain.

All of the advice above holds true for your extremities. Feet need liners, warm fuzzy socks, and water proof shoes. Hands need gloves that are warm and waterproof so that you can unzip your jacket when you get home. Wear a hat and a scarf too; you lose a lot of heat from your head and neck so if you can trap the warmth so much the better.

So for me, in that 20 degree, snowy weather, I got away with a set of wool baselayers, two ¼ zip jackets, and a rain jacket on the outside. I wore a beanie, Wind Stopper fleece gloves, and a scarf too.  I wasn’t burdened down with a ton of clothes, but I stayed warm the entire time and never got chilled. Hopefully this year will see more cold weather so you can work on the most important part of technical layering which is practice in finding the combination of clothes that work for you.


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