How To - Winter Clothing & Layering Systems

Some believe layering systems are an invention of the big outdoor brands and retailers who are in cahoots to get as much of your £££ as possible!

As a mountain professional I can attest to the versatility of having a robust system of layering to accommodate different types of conditions and activities. My personal choice is to go as fast and light as I can, without compromising safety.

So, read on for my two most used combinations…

General Winter Conditions

No matter the activity I am doing, I'm always likely to sweat at various points throughout the day. Utilising a four-layer system allows me to stay cool when the going gets tough, and toasty warm when moving slowly or at pit stops. The beauty in all layering systems is that you can add and remove them as required throughout the day.

1. Base layer

This will usually consist of one piece for my lower half and one for my top half. If it is bitingly cold, I may add a wicking T-shirt under my top layer. For the colder side of winter, I will generally wear merino blend garments.

Bottom - Rab Flux Pant

Top Half - Rab Pulse Long Sleeved Top

Optional Extra – Rab Power Stretch Pro Pull-On (worn on its own as a heavyweight base layer or extra insulating mid layer)

2. Mid Layer

For me this will always be a fleece of some variety – and this is usually the area where people get it wrong. In a three-layer system, you can get away with a thicker fleece, but in a four-piece, it will be overkill so it needs to be fairly lightweight. I swear by Patagonia for fleeces but there are plenty of great cheaper options available, just remember if it resembles a rug then it’s probably too heavy.

Top Half – Patagonia R1 Air Full-Zip Hoody (best lightweight fleece I’ve owned)

Optional Extra – Rab Power Stretch Pro Pull-On (extra insulating mid layer)

3. Insulating Layer

Because we are in a four-layer system, a puffer jacket akin to the Michelin man is excessive and for layering we want it to be lightweight. The filling material will be either down or synthetic and my personal preference is a synthetic-filled jacket. With all the rain, sleet and snow, your insulating layer can become damp and synthetic fill garments will continue working when wet while their down equivalents will not. One of my favourite jackets is the Arc'teryx Atom SV but again cheaper alternatives can be found.

Bottom Half – Paramo Enduro Trek Trousers (not 100% waterproof but very resistant)

Top Half – Patagonia Micro Puff Jacket

Optional Extra – Paramo Torres Medio Gilet (can be worn over a base layer or an outer layer to warm you quickly – my best purchase this year)

4. Outer Shell

The final layer is your hard shell which primarily keeps all your lower layers nice and dry.

It also needs to be breathable, which will allow the sweat you have accumulated a means of escape.

This will undoubtedly be the most costly of all the layers and scrimping in this area can undermine the rest of your system. Many suppliers use Gore-Tex material for its hardwearing, waterproof properties.

Bottom Half – Rab Downpour Eco Waterproof Pant

Top Half – Rab Kangri GORE-TEX Jacket


Extreme Winter Conditions

My extreme winter layering system is similar to my general winter system but each layer is generally more robust and provides a bit more protection. It does sometimes involve the fifth layer as well (keep reading to see why).

So why not go for the sturdiest gear for all winter conditions? One word, sweat!

The extra protection afforded by the added thickness brings extra warmth which means you have to keep on top of the layering a lot more than for general conditions. It is crucial to regulate your heat by removing / venting layers as required because if you stop what you were doing, you will get incredibly cold, incredibly quickly which can lead to hypothermia.

1. Base Layer

Bottom Half - Rab Forge Legging (Merino Wool Blend) or heavyweight synthetic base layer

Top Half - Rab Forge Long Sleeved Tee (Merino Wool Blend) or Rab Power Stretch Pro Pull-On

2. Mid Layer

Top Half – Patagonia R2 TechFace Hoody (best technical fleece I’ve owned) or a thicker technical fleece

Optional Extra – Rab Power Stretch Pro Pull-On (extra insulating mid layer)

3. Outer Shell

Top Half - Rab Kangri GORE-TEX Jacket (desperate for an Arc’Teryx Alpha AR!)

Bottom HalfParamo Enduro Tour Trousers or an insulated waterproof trouser

4. Insulating Layer

Herein lies the difference between the two systems. The insulating layer can be worn either under the outer shell or over the top during breaks when you aren’t moving. This means the jacket should be high quality and have a hood with a water-resistant outer shell. Often referred to as belay jackets or parkas.

Top Half – Arc’teryx Nuclei SV Parka or belay jacket

Optional Extra - Patagonia Micro Puff Jacket (I may still layer this over my mid layer and under my outer layer using the Parka or Belay Jacket to go over the top of everything if its super cold or I'm belaying).

In Summary

The items I have listed are serious pieces of kit with a serious price tag, but this doesn’t mean you can’t replicate these systems on a smaller budget.

I work in the outdoors weekly and need clothing that will last and perform day in day out. If you aren’t in the same position don’t sweat it, you simply don’t need the same level of robustness.

Simply look at less expensive ranges and apply the logic from here to them. Don't discount second hand or nearly new clothing either. Facebook marketplace can be a treasure trove of finds if you are patient enough! With all that in mind, you can put together a flexible layering system for a reasonable amount of money.