If you’re visiting the mountains for the first time, or even if you’re just planning a visit to Canada, learning a little about layering is extremely helpful.
What is layering?
Everyone loves to talk about layering here, and “layering” is really just what it sounds like. It’s wearing multiple layers of clothes to protect you from the elements and big swings in external/body temperature.
Layering is important in the Rockies for a number of reasons, but it really comes in to play if you’re planning to do any sort of winter activity. It’s also important if your day is likely to experience big swings in temperature/weather. One example of this is if you’re planning a summer hike up a mountain; typically there’s a large temperature differential as you gain altitude, so being able to adapt to this quickly is critical.
Layering vs thick parkas
Typically there are two ways you can dress for cold or extreme temperatures, and there are benefits to both.
Parka Pros and Cons:
Thick parkas are certainly the more stylish of the two, and are designed for keeping you warm in extremely low temperatures; think Canada Goose (click for women’s and men’s) or Parajumpers (click for women’s and men’s. They’re practical because they’re only a single layer and you can easily throw them on or off as you change environments. They’re also extremely thick and often filled with thick layers of down that are great in freezing weather. You also don’t have to worry about your various layers fitting over one another as you’ll only be wearing one main layer.
There are also a few downsides, as they’re far from practical if you’re planning to be active. First, they’re usually very large and heavy, and in terms of portability (unless you’re physically wearing them) they take up a great deal of space and don’t compact well. Also, unless it’s specifically stated that it’s highly waterproof, they’re usually not as waterproof as gore-tex shells, and therefore they don’t tend to cope as well in wet weather. They also tend not to be as breathable as some other layers, meaning that if you’re doing any strenuous activities you’re likely to get pretty sweaty.
With that being said, if you’re out hiking and the weather suddenly changes, it’s nice to be able to throw on a single jacket fast, rather than having to worry about putting on lots of layers.
Finally, if you already own some layers at home, buying a new jacket rather than just adding a couple of layers is going to be a far larger investment.
Canada Goose and Parajumper make extremely high quality down parkas that are perfect for persistent cold weather and low activity. We own both of these and use them regularly. These are the higher end companies, but they’re likely to last you for many, many years and won’t need replacing regularly like some cheaper brands.
Layering Pros and Cons:
Layering, while arguably the less stylish option is by far the most practical. The versatility you’ll have by owning a few interchangeable layers will make adapting to any weather conditions easy. Gaining or losing body temperature as you move into different conditions is also easy to combat by simply adding or removing a single layer. With a parka you’ll have to make the tough choice of either wearing all your layers or none.
Having different layers that are designed for specific functions is also likely to give you the highest quality protection. For example, buying a triple layered Gore-tex shell specifically designed for rain/wind protection is always going to be superior to a generalist parka.
Similarly, different brands are great for different things, and mixing and matching could give you better comfort than one company could by itself. For example, I find North Face products to be quite boxy and not form fitted, whereas Arc’teryx is highly fitted. This means that for me, North Face layers make fantastic outer layers, but Arc’teryx makes fantastic inner layers.
By virtue of the fact that you’re wearing so many more layers, the extra trapped air and added insulation can also help add to the heat you can store.
Layers are also far more practical than parkas for any kind of activity. For example, if you’re skiing and only wear one layer, it’s almost impossible to cool down if you get too hot. With multiple light layers you can whip off a layer and stuff them in your backpack to quickly adjust your body temperature. In Europe, wearing more fashion forward ski jackets like Moncler is extremely popular, but in Canada the general style is for functionality and layering.
Typically any products designed with layering in mind these days are also designed with portability in mind. It’s common now for synthetic materials to be stuffable; meaning they can squish down into a small bag which then packs away very easily (like the Arc’teryx Women’s Cerium Jacket). That isn’t possible with large parkas that use traditional down and heavy materials.
Typically layering is far better for breathability, as the clothing is designed with more active lifestyles in mind. The great thing about many shells and jackets is that they come with zipped vents that allow the external air into the layer below. Typically these vents are under the arm pit, where the body tends to produce a lot of heat. Parkas tend not to have this option, as they’re designed to be worn in less active situations.
When would I use a parka?
Personally, I like to use parkas in extreme cold conditions where I know I won’t be too active and I also need to guarantee that I’ll be warm. For example, a cold winter walk around town, or a jacket to get from A to B.
When would I use layering?
Typically I like to use layering in any other conditions. Whether it’s a summer hike or a winter hike, having layers makes any weather system a breeze. This is especially important in the mountains, where you might be hiking in shorts and a t-shirt at lower altitudes, but where you might need 3 layers and some pants at the top. Having the ability to adapt is what makes any condition bearable.
The 3 layered approach:
When I’m layering for most weather I tend to go for a 3 layered approach. This usually allows you to adapt to any weather and the thickness of each layer can still be varied dependent on the forecast.
The layer closest to your skin would ideally be made of a breathable material. This could be either a tshirt or a thermal vest depending on the severity of the outside conditions. In general I like to wear Icebreaker Merino, as it’s breathable and not too heavy. It insulates when cold but also keeps you cool in warmer weather.
This is the layer that I usually change the most dependent on the weather. For colder weather I might wear a thick insulated puffer jacket, like the Patagonia Hyper Puff Jacket (which I sometimes use as an outer layer when there’s no precipitation), or I might wear a dense fleece layer, like a Houdini Power Houdi, or an insulated down jacket like the Arc’teryx Cerium. This layer is likely to be the layer that you remove or add as your body temperature changes, so being lightweight and stuffable is a definite quality to look for.
Having some weather proofing is critical because this is the layer that is exposed to all the elements. Gore-Tex is usually a sign that the layer is weatherproof, and the more layers it has the better the seal will be. Each layer adds significant expense, price generally determines quality with Gore-Tex. I’m currently using the Norrona Lofoten shell, which is fantastic for wind and rain. I wouldn’t ever wear it by itself though as it doesn’t have any insulation at all. If the weather is terribly cold, I would probably opt for an insulated shell; perhaps something like an Arcteryx Alpha Jacket.
Depending on the weather, you may opt to bring more or less layers. Obviously your decision will affect the weight you have to carry if you’re hiking.
What about my legs?
I would usually recommend wearing a thermal underlayer, followed by a regular hiking pant on top. Ideally, the trousers will have some kind of weather proofing to protect from the wind/elements. I’m currently using the Norrona Falketind Flex1 Pants. For summer hiking, it’s not uncommon to wear hiking pants with zip off shorts, but for some people it can be one fashion faux pas too far.
So now you know how to protect yourself properly when you visit! We hope you have a fantastic adventure!
This post was sponsored by Sporting Life, but all of the opinions and recommendations were our own. If you’d like to purchase any of the above mentioned products, you can find them at sportinglife.ca or visit them in-store.
Should I layer my underwear too?
Hi Bob! Depends what you mean by “underwear”. I like to use thermal underwear (long johns and thermal vests) on really cold days, and if they’re warm enough you probably don’t need to go any further than that!