Hiking Tips: Proper Layering – What to Wear When Climbing Mountains
In my first year of climbing mountains, I remember telling my mentor that one of my goal is to summit Mt. Pulag, the highest peak in Luzon. Her reply was quick: “Mt. Pulag? That’s easy! Tamang layering lang katapat nyan. Hanap ka ng good base layer, insulation, and shell.”
I did not ask her to further elaborate what the heck “good base layer, insulation, and shell” were. I learned what she meant the hardest way – when I almost died of hypothermia during our Mt. Pulag Akiki-Ambangeg climb.
Before the hypothermia incident in Mt. Pulag, whenever I climb mountains, I just simply stack clothes inside my backpack. I do not care what kinds of fabric they’re made of. When the weather gets chilly, what I used to do was to keep on adding layer until I achieved the warmth I needed — regardless of comfort. Now, after more than a decade of climbing mountains, I know better. I learned how to dress smartly for my chosen passion.
May this article helps everyone in the mountaineering industry to maximize their comfort in the great outdoors. When we know how to dress smartly out there, we can quickly and easily do adjustments based on the activity level and changes in the weather.
THE BASE LAYER (FOR MOISTURE MANAGEMENT)
This is the layer next to your skin. It must be something that can help your body in regulating temperature by moving your sweat away from your skin. Having a good base layer is very important to stay cool during summer and avoid hypothermia come wintry weather.
Cotton is NOT a good base layer as it gets wet and clammy when hiking or trekking. Cotton absorbs liquid and thus it retains perspiration within your body which can make you chill when the temperature drops.
There are four best base layer fabrics that you can try instead – merino wool (said to be one of the best base layers because of its moisture-wicking and fast-drying qualities), synthetic fabric, polyester, and silk. A long-sleeved, zip-necked shirt as a base layer is very ideal.
THE INSULATING LAYER (FOR KEEPING WARMTH)
For this layer, use a fabric that helps to retain heat by trapping air close to your body. Wool and fleece are excellent insulators, so I made sure I have them when I climbed Kota Kinabalu (climb guide here). They insulate even when wet. There are high-performance fleece that provide additional wind and weather protection for harsh conditions. You can find a lot of these products in various outdoor stores. The main drawbacks of these layers however are wind permeability and bulk as they are less compressible than other insulating fabrics.
THE SHELL/OUTER LAYER (FOR WEATHER PROTECTION)
The shell or outer layer provides protection from the rain and wind. It is the most important piece of the layering equation. Outer layer can be those pricey mountaineering jackets you see in many outdoor shops (waterproof and breathable shells). This is an important layer that will keep you dry by preventing wind and water to penetrate to your inner layers.
Note: Your shell layer should be roomy enough so you can easily fit other layers and not restrict your movement.
Here are some tips from other Filipino mountaineers on how they do smart layering smartly:
Base Layer – Uniqlo Airism by far, is the best stuff I’ve ever tried. Mid Layer – fleece or down depending on the dynamics of activity packing method and expected environmental conditions. Lots of rain, I’ll take the fleece. Cold and dry, the down goes into the bag. My lightest down mid makes it to the bag when weight is a major consideration. Shell – waterproof breathable outer shell. No material ever made is really breathable for the tropics, so get a shell with pit vents. A big plus is having zip up layers so you can manually regulate your temperature by opening and closing the layers as you need to. I like the flexibility of just throwing on a hard shell if it was hot AND wet. Or pairing up with a mid for colder times. Then there’s the issue of weight. Carrying a softshell and a hard shell seemed excessive. — Wacky Gochoco
Hard Shell vs. Soft Shell
Hard shells can be noisy and restricting while soft shells are made using a stretchy, water-repellent material that provides more breathability and flexibility than a hard shell, along with less noise. Soft shells typically have a smooth, water-resistant exterior and a soft, moisture-wicking interior. They emphasize breathability.
For layering I use fleece + triclimate jacket + triclimate gloves. So far tested in Mt. Everest Basecamp and Snow Mountain in Taiwan. – Edgar Ian Tesaluna
My Pulag layering – 1st layer, dry fit wicking long sleeve. 2nd layer, wicking shirt. 3rd layer, micro fleece turtleneck sweater. 4th layer, semi breathable wind breaker tongue emoticon. 5th / optional layer, rain coat! My rule is, add or minus one layer whenever it feels colder or warmer. – Seth Masocol
For affordable options: 1) dri-fit/polyester 2) 1 or 2 windbreaker 3) poncho – Joseph C. Sanchez
I am a sweaty John so I am always looking for materials with excellent wicking and stink-resistant properties. Depending on the temperature, my base layer can either be a light merino wool blend (cool weather with the added benefit of not stinking) or a Uniqlo Airism / New Balance ice shirt (warm weather & ultralight). – Johnson Lim
Also, DON’T FORGET YOUR EXTREMITIES.
As for the legs, of course you also have to wear more than one layer. It’s absurd to wear five layers on your torso, and only wear a leggings or pants isn’t it? At minimum, you must also have a base layer and an outer layer for your legs. Take note to also bring a warm hat, gloves, and socks. They can always come in handy.
I wear thermal lowers when at camp. A beanie, wool socks, and fleece gloves. — Wacky Gochoco
Wind breaker pants for my legs and knee-high synthetic socks then gore-tex shoes. On my arms, I already I use a long-sleeved top for the first layer then another long-sleeved micro fleece sweater. I wear my usual hiking gloves for my hands. When raining, I wear rubber gloves underneath it. For the head, I use a wicking bandana during the hike. When it rains, I have my rain coat. – Seth Masocol
It is important to note that using many thin, warm layers is better than using few thick layers. It will insulate better and allow you to strip off layers if the temperature climbs.
In moderate conditions, you may only need your base layer, mid layer, and shell. For hiking and backpacking in cool, dry conditions you might wear your base layer and mid layer, keeping your shell in a backpack. If you start to get too hot, you can simply remove your mid layer and store it in your backpack or tie it around your waist.
Please note that the above layering tips may not be appropriate for winter wanderings and extreme expeditions.
Additional readings / sources:
Do you have some more information you want to share? Leave your proper layering tips/practices by commenting below and help other mountaineers!
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