While it may be easy to throw on a cotton long sleeve t-shirt and a down parka when winter sets in, there is a more nuanced approach that will keep you warmer and more comfortable across a range of conditions: it’s called layering. Whether you’re hitting the slopes, snowshoeing, ice climbing, or just walking to work, learning how to layer properly is crucial to staying warm as temperatures continue to drop across Colorado. Layering allows you to regulate your body temperature by adding or removing specific layers of clothing depending on changes in your activity and weather. With a simple three-layer system, composed of a base layer, a mid-layer, and a shell, you can enjoy all of your favorite winter activities under any conditions. Read on for our guide on how to layer for winter in Colorado, and what to layer with.

Winter Hiking - Photo Credit jonmullen (iStock) - OutThere Colorado
Photo Credit: jonmullen (iStock).

Base layers draw moisture from your body, keeping you warmer.

The base layer is the piece of clothing closest to your skin and is designed to draw moisture from your body as you sweat, spreading it across the fabric and stopping you from feeling wet and soon thereafter cold; the process is called wicking. Try to keep your base layer on the thinner side, it’s not there to insulate. Base layers generally come in synthetic or wool materials, each of which comes with its advantages and disadvantages.

Synthetics, such as polyester or polypropylene, are lightweight, dry faster, and tend to last longer than wool products; it also helps that they are generally cheaper. The one major downside to synthetics is that they pick up body odor much more easily than wool, which can turn an extended winter trip into a stinky one.

Wool, on the other hand, has been gaining in popularity in the outdoors community due its better insulation to weight ratio, its texture, and the fact that it keeps you comfortable over a larger range of temperatures. While wool products can be more expensive than synthetics, that extra money can go a long way. The major downside of wool is its durability; when rubbed against abrasive surfaces it rips much more easily than synthetics, so climbers or mountain bikers may want to avoid it.

For a solid synthetic base layer, we recommend the Power Dry Crew from Leadville’s Melanzana. For a wool base layer, try Voormi’s Thermal II Baselayer Top. Voormi, headquartered in Pagosa Springs, exclusively uses Rocky Mountain Highcountry Merino Wool; this base layer will be right at home in Colorado.

Winter Hiking - Photo Credit Adventure_Photo (iStock) - OutThere Colorado
Photo Credit: Adventure_Photo (iStock).

Mid-layers are for insulation.

Your mid-layer, or middle layer, is for insulation, so depending on conditions it can range from a light fleece up to a heavier puffy jacket. You want to find a balance between proper insulation and breathability, so that you don’t end up a sweaty mess. Make sure that your mid-layer has a half or full zipper function, that way if you do get too hot, you can just unzip instead of fully removing the layer.

You can also consider doing a four-layer system, integrating two mid layers to optimize for the day’s conditions. This comes in handy when you are expecting a large range of temperature fluctuation throughout the day. As it gets warmer or colder, you can add or remove layers piece by piece for maximum comfort. If this is the case, consider adding a vest to your layering arsenal; in tandem with a lighter puffy or fleece, it can maximize your options for dealing with changing temperatures while keeping your arms unrestricted for your winter activity of choice.

Check out Smartwool’s Corbet 120 jacket, which combines wool insulation with a nylon exterior for a functional and lightweight mid layer. For a truly warm, single mid layer, go for a heavy puffy, like Sierra Design’s Whitney Dridown Jacket out of Boulder.

Winter Snow Angel - Photo Credit Phil Lewis (iStock) - OutThere Colorado
Photo Credit: Phil Lewis (iStock).

The Shell layer protects you from the elements.

Your shell layer is exactly what it sounds like. Meant to protect you from wind and water in all forms, your shell is the outermost layer and can be your most important. Keeping you dry when conditions get soggy can be the difference between a fun day out and an emergency situation. Make sure that your shell is breathable and large enough to accommodate your other layers beneath it. A slim fit shell simply won’t get the job done when temperatures are below freezing.

Shells come in a wide array of styles and prices, and not all serve the same purpose. The ultimate, and thus most expensive, shell is both water proof and breathable. Thanks to improvements in fabric technology, these jackets provide complete protection from water while remaining breathable enough that you don’t end up feeling sweaty and clammy inside.

The next best thing is a shell that is water resistant and breathable. Made from tightly woven fabrics instead of laminated membranes like water proof shells, these will still perform well in wind and light precipitation but cannot be relied on in an all-day downpour the way a water proof shell can. The difference is definitely reflected in the price though, and a water-resistant shell might fit your budget better.

Finally, you have soft shells, which generally fall under the water-resistant category, but make up for their permeability in a number of ways. While soft shells won’t keep you dry under heavy precipitation, they are more flexible, durable, and breathable than most hard shells, making them a perfect choice for climbing, mountaineering, ski touring, and more. Where a hard shell might reduce your range of motion, the stretchiness of a soft shell will allow for full movement.

Like we mentioned, a good water proof and breathable shell is expensive, but check out Marmot’s Cerro Torre Jacket, or Black Diamond’s Helio Alpine Shell for a quality product that you will not regret spending the extra buck on. For a step down in price and impermeability, look at The North Face’s Apex Bionic 2 Softshell or the Ferrosi Summit Hooded Softshell by Outdoor Research.

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