When dressing before I head out, I like to ask myself, “can I reasonably change a tire, dressed as I am, with the full range of weather and temperatures for today?”
From time to time, we must all deal with weather-effects outside of our norm, while still taking on tasks and problems. This may happen with a sudden and unexpected change of the weather, from deficiencies in packing or preparation, or as relates to modern travel options: it is extremely easy for the individual to move across a broad geographic area very quickly; whether by planes, tranes, or automobiles; and thus to encounter quite the variety of conditions. For example: I recently went from a week spent in temperate North Africa, to a few hours in a wintry East Coast city, before I spent a week and a half in northern New England as several snowstorms worked their way through; the net transition time between these three locations was about 12 hours. When unexpected circumstances displaced me without notice, what I had on-hand for contingency positively influenced the outcome. Layering strategies apply at all times of year, and this must include having provision to up-layer.
For best effects, we must all adjust our layering posture(s) as directed by our activities and exertion levels; to do this, we must leave ourselves the ability to scale up and down. Running all-in-one or combined layers as our defaults can interfere with this, whether as lined shells or some of the sturdier modern fleece garments. With those, one cannot separate one function from the other, and is therefore stuck with either or neither. Day-to-day, my overall clothing ensemble is oriented on how warm I get while walking with a light pack; a baseline that suits me for a broad range of activities. I’d rather handle any deficit with that baseline when still or inactive; with beanies, neck gaiters or scarves, gloves, and the like; then add whole layers except when circumstances dictate. I strip layers when able due to heavy exertion, but equipment realities may make venting the only option, depending on the time of year. I wear merino wool undershirts near every day, and have not found detriment to that.
I perceive there to be advantage to most individuals possessing a distinct mid-layer, softshell jacket, and hardshell jacket; if there is a reasonable possibility that they will encounter any of the weather each garment addresses. If I had to pare everything down to that level, I’d keep the OR Centrifuge Hoody or Superlayer Jacket, the OR Ferrosi Hoody, and the Patagonia Torrentshell (only because of its’ increased ability vs the OR Helium II – it’s a ridiculously bring-able piece of gear). Layering strategies benefit everyone, and contributes positive nuances to any day of the year (even in the hot and humid – ie. compression fit synthetics vs. loose fit naturals). With a distinct item of each category, one can doff whole layers as necessary, have different layers at different degrees of zipped, and dynamically adjust for changing activity levels without rough transitions.
Good accessories can defray the accumulation of layers – dedicated winter utility gloves, a good beanie and possibly neck gaiter, good high-gaiters will upgrade plenty of shoes and pants, and of course good underwear (t-shirts, tights\long-johns, briefs, panties, bras, etc). When the cold gets going, covering exposed skin has priority over the depth of coverage, for me.
Packable hardshells have come a long ways, but being a loosely used term within the industry, may cover quite a bit of ability or lackthereof. The Patagonia Torrentshell, while a packable design, is extremely functional and has a broad feature-set for what it costs: handwarmer pockets, pitzips, fullzip, and reasonably thick\durable fabric. It’s my go-to hardshell for winter months, because it represents a good meeting-point of different qualities. The Outdoor Research Furio is my winter-apocalypse hardshell; over a mid-fill synth layer, and with a good lower-ensemble, standing pretty in snow-fall is pretty comfortable. As a full-featured and non-“packable” shell, it’s more then a bit bigger then the preceding. The Outdoor Research Helium II and Patagonia Houdini are at the leading edge of the packable shell concept. The former is my with-me-anywhere shell, and is paradoxically comfortable and breathable against bare skin for how small it gets; it’s also very good at making long-sleeve base layers or cover-garments more efficient, and is even better with a light midlayer. The latter is a bit of a plastic bag, but has done well for me over long t-shirts during snowy runs; it also packs even smaller then the Heliums. The constant shrinking of hardshell weights and volumes leaves few arguments for them going unpacked for the individual who can expect freezing winds, significant rainfall, or related forms of misery.
As far as the fit(s) of softshell and hardshell jackets go: what we do may strongly influence what fits to consider first. The shell as part of a concealment ensemble need to be able to physically accommodate the discrete LBE, as well as providing for access – to me, this usually means a more generous fit around the waist paired with a tighter fit around the shoulders, stretch fabric becomes more desirable but not essential, and the manufacturer’s fit description is usually “regular” and at most “trim” with a size-up (“athletic” is effectively out of bounds). Overt ensembles usually are “trim” or “athletic” in fit (unless wearing the jacket over everything), so as to reduce the potential for fabric to billow and interfere with equipment access; and may benefit from having a durable face fabric, to ensure a reasonable life-span for the garment. Equipment belts are negotiated by many with: tucking a very-trim-fitting jacket into their pants (shell and traditional both), wearing a short-cut coat to ride over the belt itself, wearing the belt over a longer-hemmed jacket, or wearing a jacket with slits cut to accomodate the essential equipment on the belt.
On mid-layers, I must lead with my bias towards less insulation and greater breathability, given being rather warm-bodied. That said, I’ll go to a light or hybrid fleece first, due to the reduced depth while worn (until the synth-fill stuff becomes sufficiently advantageous) and the “pack it and leave it” advantage over synth-fill options. The Outdoor Research Centrifuge Jacket is the first I grab when the days get cold enough; I have a mid-weight Patagonia fleece hoody pullover, but the Centrifuge’s lighter weight and fabric complexity give me a broader temp range of comfortable use. There are some fantastic synth-fill options out there, many of which straddle the abilities of a good mid-layer and softshell; I haven’t required down yet, and must confine my remarks accordingly. Modern synth-fill is good enough that even latter-season offerings are very capable, from a good brand. The Outdoor Research Superlayer Jacket has been great to me during high-exertion labor, first solo and then layered beneath a sturdy hardshell; paradoxically breathable over a fleece but obstructing to blow-through from the wind. A previous-season Patagonia Nano Puff Hooded Jacket is my snowmageddon\bunker-down layer, and has the capabilities that one might expect for such, but without the volume in the pack that one might expect.
Each layer described above, needs to be able to work with other layers, and in the desired order. Depending on what must be done, it is entirely feasible for my softshell or fleece to be layered beneath a synth-fill jacket, beneath a hardshell jacket; and that is an order that needs to be validated before the moment of need. Tool-access realities must also be considered and validated with each and all of the garments, prior to field use.
For those with working concerns and restrictions, many of the premier outdoor clothing companies make technical clothing in subdued colors: Outdoor Research makes about everything in black, and many pieces in coyote brown as well; Patagonia usually has mainline pieces in fieldworthy colors, and has really embraced greys these last few years; Arc’Teryx has a separate line that brings highly-capable and technically astute garments to the duty audience.
We as individuals can reasonably prepare ourselves for much of the climate and weather that we will face; at modest cost, with minimal weight and bulk to carry, and to great effectiveness. To do that, we must understand how the layers interrelate with each other and our bodies, and we must prepare in advance of the weather’s arrival. A surprisingly number of synth-fill coats will squeeze into a Nalgene 1L, fleece tops pack well for the duration, packable hardshells fit in a fist, and softshell jackets are comfortable to wear in many a season; but all of these need to be sized and sourced beforehand. Each individually contributes to the less-miserable user-state, and together they support user comfort.”