How to Layer Clothes for Cold Weather Camping

Layering is of the utmost importance if you want to stay warm and dry while adventuring in the cold

For many RVers, camping is a three-season activity. They enjoy the mild weather that comes with spring and fall and bask in the warmth of summer. But when winter arrives they hole up indoors for three or four months to avoid the snow and cold temperatures.

While it is true that chilly conditions can make it hard to get motivated to go outdoors, using a proper layering system can make all the difference. Armed with the right outdoor apparel and knowing how to best utilize your gear, it is possible to embrace the winter weather and learn to love the cold. After all, who wants to spend three or more months inside when there is so much to see and do?

To ensure that your winter camping adventures are as warm and cozy as possible, I’ve put together this guide to effective wintertime layering, complete with everything you need to know to get started. Here is how to use a layering system to stay warm on your winter outdoor adventures.

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Why layer your clothing?

A clothing layering system is important to any camping trip and winter camping adventures.  Here are three key reasons why you should layer during your next wintertime expedition:

Enhanced warmth: When winter camping staying warm is essential. By layering your clothing you can trap in as much warmth as possible from your body heat to help you stay cozy in the cold.

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Improved comfort: Layering also helps you stay more comfortable while outside by giving you more control over your body temperature. Since layering allows you to easily remove clothing items, you can quickly adjust your clothing if you feel too hot or too cold.

More on winter camping: Winter RV Camping: What You Need to Know

Better adaptability to variable weather: A quality clothing layering system also sets you up for success in variable weather conditions. With your various layers, you can quickly adapt to unseasonably warm and rainy weather or particularly frigid and snowy temperatures in just a few minutes.

Winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clothing layering basics

Wearing additional layers of clothing to stay warm in the winter isn’t a new idea. For centuries, people have been using everything from thick animal furs and heavy blankets to dense flannels and cozy sweaters to fend off the chill of winter. That approach isn’t without its merits, particularly if you’re staying inside a warm shelter.

But if you want to venture outdoors and be active during the colder months of the year, there is a better approach. The idea behind a layering system is to wear articles of clothing that create and trap heat close to the body while protecting you from wind and moisture. Using layers that work together, it is possible to go outside and enjoy your favorite activities even when the mercury takes a plunge and snow is falling from the sky.

Winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Modern outdoor apparel is designed to work as part of a layering system with each garment playing an essential role in the process. Wearing layers brings increased versatility, too, allowing you to remove or add items as weather conditions and activity levels change. This flexibility is the key to staying comfortable as it is just as important to avoid overheating as staying warm. With the right clothes, you’ll be ready to take on anything that Mother Nature throws at you.

In the next section, I’ll discuss the three different layers that make up a quality wintertime layering system.

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Base layers

Aptly named, base layers are the bottom or inner layers in your clothing system such as your t-shirt, long underwear, and even your hiking socks.

Every good layering system starts with the base layer. These are articles of clothing that sit closest to the skin playing a vital role in regulating temperature. Base layers keep your arms, legs, and core warm in cold conditions but are also highly breathable, quick-drying, and adept at wicking moisture away from the body. That means they allow hot air and perspiration to escape preventing the fabrics from becoming damp and potentially creating a dangerous situation such as an increased risk of hypothermia.

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Modern base layers are made from synthetic performance fabrics or natural merino wool. Those materials keep the wearer warm, dry, and comfortable even in extreme conditions. These tops and bottoms are available in various weights—or thicknesses—with thinner base layers used in cold but not frigid temperatures while thicker layers perform better as temperatures drop. The fabrics also tend to be antimicrobial which means they won’t collect a foul order after they’ve been worn a few times.

More on winter camping: Winter RV Camping Must-Have: Heated Water Hose

It is essential to avoid wearing clothes made of cotton on any outdoor excursion. While cotton is lightweight and comfortable it isn’t very breathable, absorbs moisture, and takes a long time to dry. When cotton gets wet it becomes a liability, potentially leading to hypothermia and frostbite. Because of this, you should leave your cotton apparel at home when setting out on an adventure.

Heated water hose for winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mid layers (the insulating layer)

While your base layers are all about wicking moisture, your mid-layers are designed to keep you warm. Indeed, mid-layers are your insulating layers so they’re your first line of defense against frigid temperatures.

The mid layers generate heat for the wearer. It does this in two ways; first, it is a thicker and heavier garment which means it is naturally warmer than the base layers found underneath. Secondly, it also can trap warm air as it escapes the breathable/wicking base fabrics creating pockets of warmth as a result.

The insulating layer can take several forms such as a fleece pullover, a hoodie, or a warm puffer jacket. Which one you choose to wear depends on the conditions. On a milder winter day, a lightweight fleece may provide all the warmth you need but a down jacket may be necessary when temperatures drop below freezing. For added versatility, you may even bring both.

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These days, mid-layers are manufactured with one of three primary materials, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages:

  • Fleece: Crafted out of polyester and other synthetic fibers, fleece is a type of manufactured insulation that can keep you warm when wet. Fleece is highly affordable and super durable, too, so it’s a popular choice in the mountains. But, it’s not very lightweight or packable which can be a concern for some hikers.
  • Down: Down is a type of natural insulation that’s made with the down plumes of geese and ducks. It’s considered to be the gold standard in insulation because of its superb warmth-to-weight ratio. However, it can’t keep you warm when wet and it’s quite expensive.
  • Synthetic: Designed to mimic down for a fraction of the price, synthetic insulation is made from spun polyester fibers. These fibers are highly affordable and can keep you warm when wet. But, they’re not as packable as down.

Buying a mid-layer is always a trade-off between warmth, packability, breathability, and price. As a result, no one mid-layer will work in all environments. If you’re winter camping in a dry locale, down might be ideal. Meanwhile, winter camping in damp places often requires synthetic mid-layers.

Winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The outer layer

The last part of the layering system is your outer layer. Sometimes called your shell layer, the outer layer of any winter camping clothing system is normally a rain jacket and a set of rain pants.

More on winter camping: The Ultimate Guide for Winter Camping

As the outermost layer in your clothing system, outer layers are specifically designed to protect you from rain and snow. These layers need to be completely waterproof particularly when camping in snowy environments.

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The vast majority of outer layers are made from similar materials. This includes nylon or polyester shell fabric and then a high-tech waterproof-breathable membrane. These membranes which often go by brand names like Gore-Tex or eVent are designed to allow sweat to escape while keeping rain and snow off your skin.

When shopping for outer layers for winter camping, the important thing to remember is that your rain pants and jackets need to fit over all of your warm layers. Otherwise, you won’t be able to stay warm and dry at the same time. So, you may need to get a jacket and a set of rain pants that are bigger than you’d normally buy for them to fit over your other layers.

Winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mix and match layers

Now that I’ve defined each of the different layers and what they do, you’re ready to mix and match apparel as needed. Your base layers are the anchor for the system but you can add an insulating layer for additional warmth when needed and a shell jacket when the weather calls for it. A shell can even be used without an insulator if temperatures are warm but precipitation is falling.

The layering system also comes in handy for adjusting to changing activity levels. For example, when you first start a hike you may feel cold but once you get moving you begin to warm up. This allows you to shed a layer or two and remain dry and comfortable. Later, when you stop for a break pull on a fleece or down jacket for some added warmth until you get going again.

Winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Your layering system is all about temperature and moisture management which can fluctuate wildly throughout the day. But by wearing the proper clothing, you can quickly adapt to those changes while remaining safe and comfortable.

More on winter camping: Winter RV Camping Must-Have: Portable Space Heater

There you have it, the perfect layering system to keep you warm this winter. With these garments in your closet you can head outside confidently knowing that you’re ready to enjoy winter to its fullest.

Worth Pondering…

And finally winter with its bitin’, whinin’ wind, and all the land will be mantled with snow.

—Roy Bean