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Trailhack#106: Outdoor Adventures - Dressing in Layers for Hiking and Trail Photography

When the cold fronts move in and the earth tilts away from the sun, your strategy for keeping warm becomes important to comfort and enjoy outdoor adventures. If you are not prepared or fail to consider the elements, you could be a little cold, a little damp, or a little of both.

This is where your gear serves to change the trajectory of how you feel about being in the outdoors. We find that when we have a mishap with our planning in the field, it tends to create PTSD about the next trek into the wild. If you underestimate the weather or the wind chill, you could find yourself miserable on your trek.

Some choose to avoid the extremes; others choose to run into the blizzard to embrace all that mother nature has to offer. This past week in Virginia, we’ve had unusually cooler temperatures. And not necessarily cold, but the conditions around weather that cause comfort to drop like wind chills, rain, snow, and overcast skies.

Determining How to Dress for Hiking and Outdoor Photography

One of the easiest ways to combat the change in temperatures is to dress in layers. This is no different than dressing for a business occasion or personal situation. For the outdoors, it’s easy to create layering that addresses the changes in climate and temperature. Many times when you are hiking, you may have elevation change or shift between a canopy and open sky. Each change can cause a temperature change that coupled with physical exertion will change your body temperature.

  • Anticipate roughly a 2-degree temperature change for every 1,000 ft of elevation (e.g. if you hike up a mountain that has 2,000 ft change from base to summit, you can anticipate the temperature changing by roughly 4 to 5-degrees)

  • Elevation change also increases your body temperature with physical exertion causing you to sweat or release moisture that will, in turn, have implications on ‘how you feel’

  • Changes in cloud cover, precipitation, and the season will determine if that temperature shifts are more or less as you travel on your hike. And if you have minimal elevation change, the temperature could minimally change

Layering for Warmth and Change in Temperature

Layers allow you to remove and add garments as your adventure in the outdoors, but it’s not as simple as adding and removing clothing. We have found that there is a science for which clothing is used, which layer it is, and how you piece them together. It sounds complex but it’s really about making sure that you have the right materials in the right place.

  1. Core Layer … T-Shirt, Underwear, Socks: This is the core layer. You wake up, you put on the core elements of your wardrobe, everything else stacks on top of this. Ensure that the fabric that you’re wearing at the base also is designed for activity.

  2. Base Layer: Think of this as the layer may not come off at all during your trek. You want to make sure that you’re wearing materials that wick moisture away from you at this layer

  3. Mid-Layer: The layer that serves as insulation, keeps you warm. And by adding additional mid-layers, you can increase your warmth. Just like the walls of your house are insulated in the middle, you need to bolster the middle when it’s cold

  4. Outer Layer: The shell from the elements. If it’s raining, you may have Gortex as your shell, if the sky is clear, you might just have a ‘puffy jacket’ as the outside layer

If helpful, reference our Gear List Page for a recommendation of brands that we choose to wear. This list is not the end-all, and everyone has their preference, but we hope that this will help with direction. For all of the examples below, for my core layer … I typically wear a t-shirt from Lululemon (5-Year Basic) and underwear from ExOfficio.

Cool and above mid-to-upper 40s.

Basic layers are typically good for temperatures that are above mid-to-upper 40s without any inclement weather. This allows you to remove the jacket if it gets too warm or remove the base layer and keep the mid-layer.

Cool and above mid 40s with inclement weather

Good for those days where it is not cold, but there is inclement weather like rain or wind. The shell will help to break the wind. At certain temperatures, you may choose to add a beanie or gloves.

Below mid 30s, With or without Inclement Weather

With the more substantial mid-layer jacket, you are going to be much warmer and need to see which jacket is best for you. As it gets colder, I add heavier beanies and layer my gloves.

Below 20-25s, With or Without Inclement Weather

Adding a second base layer will increase your warmth significantly and especially if it’s a wicking material that moves the moisture away from your body. Same as before, as it gets colder, I add heavier beanies and layer my gloves. At this point, I might swap the gloves for heavier duty gloves that will accommodate photography, like the Vallerret Markhof Pro V3 Photography Glove.

These recommended configurations are based on the Gear List that we have published. And each of these configurations is also based on the temperature that we feel comfortable with. My wife may be wearing 2 more layers than me at the mid-layer in the form of Icebreakers Merino (she likes Icebreakers over SmartWool, it’s splitting hairs). You may be wearing 2 layers less than me. All preference.

Good, Better, Best: What’s Right for You With Gear

The above recommendations also are heavily based on the Arc’Teryx Brand of apparel for jackets and pants. For conversion to other equal product offerings, it’s safe to compare brands like the REI house brand, Patagonia, Fjallravenm, Mountain Hardware, Mammut, Marmot, and other brands. For comparison purposes, let’s look at the shell jackets and the potential options that you could look at for outerwear. If this were me looking at the good, better, best - I might compare the REI house brand to Patagonia to Arc’Teryx.

Any of these will work. Any of these are great for getting outdoors. Each will have a different level of performance when hiking. If you hike frequently, you may consider getting the more expensive gear. If you are infrequently on the trails, you’ll need to decide if the high-end gear is necessary.

This same comparison will work for all the components of your apparel — I might put an exception with the base layer because it’s extremely important. Things of it this way:

  • Gortex Jackets are made from a material that allows moisture to escape and warmth to be retained. It’s a modern marvel. The North Face has a new technology that’s equal, BUT the point is that if you buy a cheap jacket that does not allow moisture to escape, you will be cold from sweating and you will feel damp. If you run up the trail and exert a lot of energy, all bets are off for ALL fabrics.

  • Merino wool has a wicking capability that is not the same as other fabrics. You may be well-intended to buy something that is performance or cheaper, but you could end up being cold because the moisture has not been wicked from your skin and hasn’t been wicked out of your mid-layer and outer shell.

Each layer aids in the process and when one layer is not performing with the rest, you experience discomfort with your outdoor experience.

I hope that this information helps with providing a little more information for you to make a decision about your layering when out hiking or photographing outdoors.

Happy hiking and photography shooting!


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