A great base layer keeps you dry, a great mid layer keeps you warm, and a great jacket protects both from the elements. Once you understand the purpose of each layer, you can layer more strategically and not just pile clothes on when you get cold, then peel them off when you get hot. When I first started hiking, that was sort of my approach, and it’s taken a little bit of research and a little bit of trial and error to get my jacket game dialed in, so I’m hoping to offer a shortcut to you getting yours dialed in. First, it helped me to understand that I wasn’t just adding clothes in any order, I was going for this sort of structure:
- Sports Bra: support
- Base Layer Top: stay dry (from your own perspiration; the base layer wicks away sweat)
- Midlayer Top: stay warm
- Soft Shell Jacket: stay even warmer
- Hard Shell Jacket: stay warm and dry; fend off rain/snow
- Parka: stay warm in harsh conditions
In this article we’ll talk about the last/outermost three of those layers:
Soft Shell Jacket
This key piece of insulation will hold in your body heat while protecting you and your base and mid layers from whatever elements nature is throwing at you that day depending on what kind you get. A non-treated, non-waterproof soft shell will defend you from cold and wind and perhaps even very light dry snow, but would get soaked in rain or moderate snowfall. Nowadays most soft shell jackets are treated with DWR (durable weather repellent, the stuff that makes rain bead up on the surface of the jacket) and have a GoreTex or similar lining, creating almost a soft/hard shell hybrid. But taken at its most elementary level, here are some of the types of soft shells on the market today:
- Ultra thin, non-treated down or synthetic puffy (good for wind, cold)
- Non-waterproof soft jacket with DWR (good for wind, cold, snow, light rain)
- Non-waterproof jacket without DWR (good for wind, cold, maybe a light dry snow)
- Waterproof jacket with DWR (good for wind, cold, heavy snow, heavy rain)
Most of these will have hoods, multiple pockets, and zip completely up the front (as opposed to pullover quarter- or half- zip mid layers), and sit anywhere from a couple inches below the waist to nearly the top of the leg. Personally, I like a longer jacket so less air gets up in there from the bottom; my favorite Outdoor Research soft shell has a drawstring bottom to cinch it up even better.
You’ll want this layer oversized enough to fit comfortably over your base and mid layers. Not so big that cold air gets in, but enough that you still have full range of motion and don’t feel constricted (see: A Christmas Story and the kid who couldn’t put his arms down).
If you usually hike in a dry climate but like altitude and winter (thinking Santa Fe), you can probably skip the waterproofing and go for the breathability of a non-GoreTex soft shell. Here in western Washington, everything should be GoreTex at all times; breathability be damned, we need the waterproofing. But if you tend to overheat and don’t hike in the rain much, skip it.
Hard Shell Jacket
Once upon a time this was the loud, hard, almost plasticky rain jacket (picture Paddington Bear) loved by fishermen, coaches, and crossing guards, something you’d wear only if you were going to be fairly inactive because they were so greenhousey. As soon as you’d start moving around, you’d get hot, the sweat would get trapped and overwhelm your base and mid layers soaking them. The hard shell jackets these days are a bit more breathable overall, but basically you’re looking at two types:
- GoreTex and DWR jackets: water will bead up on the outside of these (good for wind, cold, heavy rain, heavy snow, rough terrain like thick brush or sharp rocks where the fabric of a soft shell could snag or tear). Breathable enough to let sweat out but not let rain in, has a soft lining inside giving you comfort and warmth. Good for when it’s cold out but you’re moving at a moderate pace.
- Nylon, GoreTex, eVent, fully waterproof but thin raincoat: Not breathable at all, no lining, but one hundred percent will not let any water get in. Being so thin it won’t do anything to protect you from the cold, so make sure you have cozies under if it’s super chilly out. Good for when it’s raining and you’re not moving too fast or too much. Very good over a down parka, for breaks or summits on rainy days, so make sure you go a size or two up.
Parkas are the big down puffy coat that you may only need a few times a year but when you do need it, there’s no substitute. With up to 900-fill down, this is the kind of coat you get if you are going on a mountaineering expedition, hike at altitude often, travel over glaciers, or hike in places where the temps consistently drop into the thirties and below.
Typical fashiony “down jackets” are usually never more than about 400-fill down, but they also don’t need to perform in the outdoors much. We need a coat that might have to keep us warm for hours in single digit temps or for the length of a relaxed summit break and all its photo ops, so we need to look for a higher fill number. My Rab Neutrino Pro is 800-fill; I run cold but have never once been uncomfortable due to temps while wearing it. The synthetic options are so similar in performance to down that if you’re vegan, have allergies, or otherwise don’t use animal products, you don’t need to sacrifice any warmth by going featherless.
However, down does terrible with water, so even with a DWR-treated parka, if there’s any precipitation in the forecast whatsoever I will being a rain jacket with me as a parka protector. Most are treated with a DWR finish, which helps water bead up on the outside and be brushed off before it has a chance to soak in, but I don’t want to take any chance with this jacket. All the horror stories of people putting a down coat in the washer and dryer or leaving one in a damp backpack overnight have made me very protective of my parka when it comes to rain.
The Top Ten most important things you need to know about temperature management:
- It’s easier to stay warm than it is to get warm (don’t wait until you’re freezing to add a layer
- You will always be warmer while moving and cool down when you stop for breaks
- Moisture = cold
- GoreTex = less breathability but more waterproofness
- DWR without GoreTex = more breathability but only water resistant to a point
- Keep the next layer easy to get to in your pack
- If you run cold, splurge on an amazing parka
- If you run hot, splurge on an amazing parka of less down fill count but still have one with you for glaciers, winter, high altitude, just in case (think unexpected night on the mountain)
- Trial and error, adjust, learn how to read your body and anticipate its needs, know that it changes, be adaptable and patient
- When in doubt, bring that extra layer just in case. Mere ounces is a small price to pay for peace of mind, comfort, and safety
Wendy Harrington is a California native who has lived in a small town at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state since 2001. Her love of trail running and peakbagging has led her to summit all five Washington volcanoes, climb to the high points of three states, and put nearly a thousand miles a year on her boots. Her loves include ridgelines, saddles, granite, one-day pushes on big mountains, anything volcanic, long solo days, and objectives that push limits and test endurance.