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Cold Weather Skills: Clothing layers for Cold Weather

It’s wintertime again and that means warm clothing becomes a priority anytime I’m outside. While many clothes are warm, not all clothes are appropriate for use when we are in the bush. By virtue of the fact that I’ve lived and worked in cold weather for most of my life I’ve had the chance to experiment and learn a great deal about dressing effectively for it.

There’s a few factors I consider now when it comes to selecting my clothing (not in any order):

  • Cost
  • Durability
  • Moisture wicking priorities of the material
  • Thermal insulating properties of the material
  • How wind proof is the material
  • How waterproof is the material
  • Weight of the item
  • Packability of the item
  • Venting abilities of the item
  • Ease of donning/ doffing the item
  • Ease of maintenance of the item

So that’s quite a few factors to consider, but luckily most high quality gear will be designed with most of them in mind.

When it comes to cold weather moisture is the enemy, whether it is from our own sweat or from precipitation or moisture from the environment we’re in. For my system I use different layers with varying properties to help me manage moisture and manage my body heat. That’s right, not only do we have to manage moisture, we also need to manage the heat we create.

Excess heat, caused by exertion will cause us to sweat, creating excess moisture. This will typically happen as we are hiking or doing other physical activity. The problem here is that our layers will get wet from the sweat, then after we have stopped the activity and have stopped making excess heat our insulation will be wet, therefore cooling us too much. This is why we want to only wear the bare minimum for layers if we are doing activity; this helps us keep from over heating and sweating but it also protects our precious insulation layers from getting wet.

Inevitably we will sweat though, so we need our clothes to be able to wick this moisture. Moisture wicking is a function of two things. The first is that the material the garment is made from does not absorb water. This is where the old saying cotton kills comes from. A cotton garment will soak up water just like a dish towel, and if left against your skin will conduct heat away from you very quickly (which is great in the heat though!).

The second caveat to wicking is that hot moist air will always move towards cold dry air. That means the hot and humid air next to our skin wants to get outside our clothing. If we wear clothing that ideally traps the heat but allows the water vapor out then we have a good wicking material.

This means our layers need to be permeable enough for the water to get through. The problem with a permeable material is that it usually will allow precipitation from the environment in also.

The system

I break down my layering system similarly to the militaries ECWCS system, although I’ve streamlined mine a bit.

  • Level 1 – silk weight base layers and under garments.
  • Level 2 – mid weight thermal base layer
  • Level 3 – heavy weight thermal outer layer
  • Breathable shell layer and boots
  • Waterproof shell layer
  • Gloves and hats

For my level 1 layer I keep it simple and use USGI ECWCS Gen III level 1 tops and bottoms. Basically once the weather forecast is for “hypothermia weather“ (50 degrees or colder) as I call it, these babies go on. They are silk weight synthetic material, so they are thin and dry fast. They offer a minimal amount of thermal insulation and are primarily a wicking layer. I think for the cost of these (generally pretty cheap compared to merino wool or other “high end” materials) you can’t go wrong having a couple sets. For a multi day trip I will pack a spare set in a dry bag, both for hygiene purposes but also so that I can maintain a dry set to sleep in or change into should I get soaked. For my undergarments I wear a synthetic pair of boxer briefs and a pair of wool blend socks.

ECWCS Gen III label
ECWCS Gen III level 1 silk weight material

The next level is level 2, which is meant to be added to level 1, creating a two layer system. This layer is a heavier weight layer, meant to give more thermal insulation but still be wicking. For the top I still defer to the ECWCS system, this time using the vaunted level 2 “waffle top”, named so because of its grid fleece texture. It’s lightweight but warm and includes a nice half zip to help vent excess heat. While the ECWCS level 2 bottoms are good, I like to use a pair of Kuiu zip off merino pants. These aren’t any warmer than the ECWCS level 2 pants, but the addition of the side zipper makes them awesome for getting on and off easy without removing your boots. Simply “drop trou”, unzip the side zips and off they come. This is great for quickly removing before high exertion and replacing them easily once you’re done.

Level 1 and 2 bottoms. USGI ECWCS on the left and Kuiu zip off on the right.
Level 1 and 2 tops. Both are ECWCS GEN III

Level three is a heavier thermal layer, meant to be worn over the other two layers. This layer can be more versatile, being worn either underneath or on top of the breathable shell layer. Usually the way I wear these items is when I’m stationary. I’ll wear the top under my Anorak and the bottoms on the outside of my breathable shell pants. These, in conjunction with the other two layers, are just too much thermal insulation to wear while active in all but the most extreme cold (I’d say at least -15 F). For my top I use the Helikon Wolfhound jacket, it’s made from the same type (Climashield Apex) and weight of insulation as the Swagman roll that I like so much. It’s basically a jacket made from a Swagman roll, and this layer, because of the weight of insulation, by itself has a 40 degree temperature rating just like the Swagman roll. For my pants I’m still using the USGI field pants liners, which are like pants made from a poncho liner. I like them for the side buttons that make them easy to don and doff just like my level 2 pants.

Level 2 top and bottom. Helikon-Tex Wolfhound jacket and USGI field pants liner.

Working outward, the next layer is the breathable shell layer. This layer provides minimal thermal insulation, and it’s primary functions are to block wind and be durable. We still want it made from material that dries quickly and breaths so that the moisture being wicked out can get out fully. For my top I like the Helikon-Tex Pilgrim Anorak and for my pants I like the Tru-Spec 24-7 pants. The Anorak is set up well for thermal and moisture management with multiple zipper vents. My boots are also part of this layer, and the best ones I’ve ever used are the Lowa Z8’s with Goretex.

The final layer is the waterproof shell layer. For it’s versatility I still use the Helikon-Tex USGI poncho. While items like goretex jackets and pants are great, and I’m not against using them, they also take up extra room and aren’t as versatile as the poncho.

As part of this waterproof shell layer I also use a couple other items, a pair of gaiters and a pair of goretex glove shells. Why gaiters aren’t issued in the military makes no sense to me, I think they are a fantastic piece of gear. My gaiters came from a maker on Etsy, HomeGrownByTamara, and my glove shells are military surplus Outdoor Research shells. The combination of these items with my poncho gives me almost complete head to toe coverage from wind and rain.

Gaiters and Glove shells. The glove shells are large enough to fit over my other gloves to give a wind and waterproof layer to protect my hands. These items are usually stored in my daypack until needed.

The final layer is my gloves and hats. For general purpose gloves I like camouflage mechanix gloves. They give some thermal insulation, but their primary purpose is to protect my hands from cuts and scrapes. For us knuckle draggers our hands are our money makers so we have to take care of them. I also always carry thin thermal glove liners to wear inside of these if need be. For heavier thermal insulation I use insulated hunting gloves from Manzella. For hats I’ll usually either wear a ball cap, a light merino wool Kuiu beanie for when it’s cold but I’m active, or a heavier beanie when I’m not as active, either my USGI knit wool or a Carhartt.

Kuiu beanie, OD USGI wool beanie, camo mechanix gloves, thermal glove liners. These items ride in various pockets in my breathable shell layer.
Badlands Fieldcraft ball cap (Rumor has it Santa might be bringing some of these along with some other goodies..) and Manzella insulated gloves

This has become a well proven system for me as I’ve tested each of the items over multiple outings in cold weather. They all work very well together and if necessary can be combined to create a warm enough microclimate rated to at least 30 degrees to preserve my core body temperature. They pack easily and are light weight, making them an easy choice when I plan on carrying everything on my back.


19 thoughts on “Cold Weather Skills: Clothing layers for Cold Weather

  1. Good gouge all around. Timely too!

    I use similar set up. Will have to try the Kuiu pants. Those look a lot more adaptive than the lightweight base layer I’m using.

    A few years back I bought a wiggy’s fishnet shirt. It works as advertised for keeping the damp base layer off your skin. Yeah, I thought it was fake and gay too, but it really works well.

    I’m still going old school with GI field jacket liners for thermal layer. Showing my age, I know. Hard to beat pulling on a woobie jacket over your kit to stay warm at the ORP or a long halt.

    Gaiters are awesome when snow drifts up. As are wool watch caps. Sometimes the old ways are best.

    Hope you get a bug mulie for your freezer. We’ve put up our share of whitetail. The old Marlin still doing the job. Now the boys want to try muzzle loaders to extend the season. Anything to spend time with the youngsters in the woods.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks buddy, I’ll have to check into that fish net shirt. I heard it isn’t gay as long as you don’t get the stockings to match! A buddy of mine put me into the Kuiu pants at a class last spring, I love them. I missed out on any big Mulies, the best one I saw I couldn’t really take the shot because there were houses about a mile away with no good back stop. I’ve been looking into getting setup with a muzzle loader for our late season. You’ll have to give me a few pointers on what works good. Take care and good luck!


  2. No neck gaitor just het? I’ve got one in a pocket and two more within a few steps and a couple more in the truck. Different weights for different conditions.

    My watch cap was issued to my father in 1944, Navy. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Neck gaiters are great, as are face masks. Just the other day at work I was wearing a face mask, it made a big difference. The great part about them is you can pull them down around your neck and use it like a neck gaiter still. There certainly wouldn’t be anything wrong with having either one with for some extra warmth. One of the uses for my Sniper veil is as a scarf wrapped around my neck.


  3. Outstanding. I appreciate the details and the logical thought process on how you got to where you’re at. This process helps me and demonstrates how to think through my own needs and requirements so that I can adjust to meet my local conditions which are somewhat different than yours. This is how you train people.

    One thing I’ve found with merino and with the wool watch caps is they will attract every moth for a mile around. Those vermin will destroy a watch cap in a few days. Learned that the hard way. So now I put all my wool stuff into ziploc bags because I don’t like to use moth balls and the cedar hangers never worked for me. Thanks brother.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great stuff. Not enough people know how good the current surplus baselayers and fleece are. Or how important a fully breathable system is for cold weather comfort and safety.

    I’ve spent the past 30 years working in the outdoor biz and have seen tons of specialty clothing fads come and go. The system you outline nails the essentials. And since there’s so much affordable surplus out there now there’s really no reason not to have proper gear.

    Few people know that the current US Army ECWCS uniform was developed largely by a guy named Mark Twight, who was a brand ambassador for Patagonia. The system is based heavily on Patagonia’s Regulator alpine climbing system from the mid-2000’s. Yes, that Patagonia, the super green environmental activist clothing company.

    Patagonia currently makes uniforms under a secret side business called the Lost Arrow Project. (Don’t tell their REI customers…)

    I did a series on 4-season layering several years ago on my site. The first post goes into the history of Gen III ECWCS. If you’re interested, you’ll find it here:

    Thanks for the great post,


    Liked by 1 person

    1. So I bought mine based off the sizing recommendations on Helikon’s website. I believe they make these large enough so you can wear a warming layer underneath without it being too baggy if you’re not. I wear a size XL T shirt normally yet I wear a size M Anorak and it fits me great.


  5. This the most logical, well thought out post on this subject I have ever read. Thank you for saving others from much frustration over worthless gear! A couple questions: do your TruSpec 24/7s have buttons that line up with your field pants liners? If not, how do you keep them up?

    Liked by 1 person

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