The science of dressing for winter

Heading to the Northern hemispheres for a White Christmas this winter? Start planning your travel wardrobe now so you remain nice and snug no matter what the weather throws at you!

Follow this easy step-by-step guide on how to regulate your body temperature in a variety of settings, whether you’re indoors at the local boulangerie or outdoors doing some last-minute shopping at a Christkindlmarkt. The layered clothing system will keep you comfortable and sheltered from the elements.

What is the layered clothing system?

The layered clothing system consist of base, mid and shell layers.
The layered clothing system consist of base, mid and shell layers.

It is a clothing strategy to neutralise weather phenomena that may otherwise impact on your enjoyment of a place or activity. In other words, it gives you the freedom to do what you want, when you want and still feeling comfortable in your clothes! It is the difference between being cooped up in a cold hotel room, teeth chattering, nose dripping; or gazing in awe at the magical Christmas decorations glittering on Nuremberg’s main market square!

 How does it work?

The system acknowledges that temperature or weather conditions vary as you move through the day and from site to site. From a rain shower early in the morning, to a sheltered and air-conditioned restaurant for lunch, to a stroll along the freezing Seine at dusk, the layered system allows you to peel or add layers as your body temperature rises or falls. This empowers you to control the way you experience weather conditions.

What are the layers?

Generally speaking, the layered system contains three categories, each one uniquely designed to achieve very specific outcomes. This is what they do:

The Base (or Inner) Layer

The base layer is the next-to-skin layer. The most important function of this layer is to move sweat away from your skin and deliver it outward to non-absorbent clothing where it can evaporate quickly. This is called wicking, a capillary action that allows moisture to flow in narrow spaces despite, or without the assistance of, external forces such as gravity. At the same time, base layers should feel comfortable against the skin – even luxurious – and provide a level of insulation. Look for flat seams to maximise comfort.

The best base layers are synthetic, wool or silk. Even though they are classified as ‘underwear’, select items appropriate as stand-alone garments so you can strip down should the need arise. Depending on your travel itinerary, choose between microweight (for mild to cool conditions), lightweight (cool to moderately cold), midweight (moderately cold to cold) and heavyweight (cold, frosty or windy conditions) garments.

Leading synthetic brands, such as Ex Officio, CoolMax, Capilene, Marmot and others, principally use polyester or blended options with nylon, spandex or elastin. This fabric is very good at moisture wicking and dries faster than either wool or silk. While it lags behind wool and silk in temperature regulation and odour resistance, it retails at a good price point. Mamut combines micropolyester filament threat and Merino wool in its Symbitech underwear.

Wool, represented by brands such as Patagonia, SmartWool, Ibex and Icebreaker, also has an excellent moisture wicking facility and is top of its class in temperature regulation and odour resistance, but it is more expensive. The natural Merino wool fibre is soft on the skin and wrinkle-resistant. Aficionados of these garments believe wool is a better insulator than synthetics when the weather is cold and also more comfortable over a larger temperature range when it’s hot.

REI’s silk fabric has the most luxurious feel and is more compact than the other materials. Its wicking capacity (often chemically enhanced) is not quite as good as synthetics or wool, but silk is a very good insulator in cold conditions.

TIP: Temperature-control is very important when performing demanding aerobic activities. If this is on the agenda, it might be preferable to wear a thinner base layer to maximise moisture wicking and prevent overheating. Let the outer layers, discussed next, take control of insulation.

The Mid (or Insulating) Layer

The mid layer’s most important job is to keep you warm by trapping air close to the body. This is the insulation layer. They should be slightly roomier than the base layer, but not baggy.

INSERT: In mild climates, the mid layer may consist of nothing more than a favourite cotton t-shirt. This guide is geared towards maximum comfort in deep winter.

The best insulation is typically a choice between down, synthetic or fleece that breathes well (to allow for moisture wicking), is lightweight and compact when stored.

Goose down provides the best warmth-to-weight ratio, the natural loftiness of the fluffy filaments trapping air and preserving warmth. The quality of the down’s ability to capture air is measured by its fill power. A higher fill power means less weight and superior warmth. A fill power ranging from 400-550 is considered medium to good quality and is harvested from immature geese raised for human consumption.  Garments with a fill power of 600-900 is considered excellent, but is more expensive as the down comes from mature geese bred specifically for this purpose, which raises supply costs.

Goose down is the best choice for very cold but dry conditions. A significant downfall is that down loses its insulating ability when wet. It is also very slow to dry and an 800 fill down jacket is expensive!

NEWS: Great strides are being made in developing treatments to retain down’s loftiness when wet. astonishedXpression will keep you posted.

Synthetic fibres, predominantly polyester, might be a better insulation choice in wet conditions. With advancements in weight, compressibility and breathability, they are drawing ever closer to down. PrimaLoft leads the pack in producing top quality synthetic products while respected clothing manufacturers such as Patagonia, Arc’Teryx and Marmot market polyester under trade names such as Thermogreen, ThermaTek or Thermal R. Cheaper than goose down, they still cannot match it in minimising volume and weight.

Fleece is a good choice when concerned about overheating during aerobic activities. Polartec provides a choice between light (100), mid (200) and heavy (300) weights. However, fleece is probably not suitable for extended exposure in very cold conditions. Try fleece layers made from 100% wool, which is very comfortable over a larger temperature range in milder conditions. Supporters also love the odour-free nature of natural wool.

Technical advances in clothing are driven by a desire for comfort, temperature control and protection.
Technical advances in clothing are driven by a desire for comfort, temperature control and protection.

The Outer (or Shell) Layer

This is the buffer between you and what Mother Nature throws at you. It provides protection against rain, wind and snow. Major considerations when deciding on an outer shell should be fit, it must be roomy enough to allow for the layers underneath; breathability, to facilitate moisture wicking onto the outside surface from where it can evaporate; and how efficiently it resists water and wind.

The best technical shells for sedentary comfort, such as Gore-Tex, will offer both wind resistance and water-proofing with taped seams and waterproof zippers. These are called hard-shells and while excellent in keeping the rain out, vary in breathability. Pliable soft-shell jackets are usually water-repelling but not waterproof. They are typically used during more strenuous activities where breathability – to prevent overheating – and freedom of movement is desirable.

The beauty of the layered clothing system is that the traveller can adapt the number of layers to existing temperatures and weather conditions – and do so in real-time. Getting warm, peel off layers; cooling down, add layers!

Stay tuned to astonishedXpression for news on rapid advancements is technical clothing and reviews of brands, fabrics and retailers.

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