Layering Tips Blog and Photos by Nick Ohlrich
Tips on Layering Properly
The saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear,” really hits home in Alaska, where the ability to stay warm and dry on an outing can make or break the experience and even save your life. As a fishing guide on the Kenai Peninsula in the summer and avid backcountry enthusiast in the winter, I’ve had plenty of time to experiment with layering systems and other tricks to staying warm and comfortable while the elements try to beat you down. Being a person with Raynaud’s Syndrome, keeping my core warm and dry greatly reduces the onset of Raynaud’s as warm blood is easily pumped into my extremities. In my line of work, use and dexterity of my fingers in cold and wet situations is paramount.
Whether I’m preparing for a 40-degree and rainy September day on the Middle Kenai or backcountry skiing in the Chugach I have a formula for comfort. One of the most important aspects of putting together a system to be comfortable in the outdoors is knowing your body as we are all different. I’ll lay out my comfort formula which has taken much trial and error but is now my go-to for anything outdoors.
My Layering System
For starters, a merino-wool base layer is key. Wool keeps you warm when it is wet, is excellent at wicking moisture from your body, and dries quickly. I like the Icebreaker Merino 200 lightweight top and bottoms. I’m generally a warm person so keeping my base layer lightweight prevents my core from overheating and causing me to sweat. I’m not a huge fan of Capilene as it doesn’t seem to wick moisture as well, is harder for your body heat to dry out, and gets “ripe” quickly no matter how often you wash it.
For my mid-layer I swear by the Simms Mid-weight Core top and bottom—the performance and price point are amazing. The material is soft and comfortable with incredible wicking power, breathability, and dries quickly. The combination of the Simms mid-weight and Icebreaker merino lightweight base layer has proven itself many times on the Kasilof River when having to row a drift boat in cold, rainy, and windy weather.
Days like this require a GORE-TEX rain shell to keep the elements out, but inside the jacket can get just as wet as the outside since GORE-TEX really doesn’t breath all that well, in my opinion. The wicking combo of these two layers keeps my core dry and base layer dry while pushing the moisture to the outside of the mid-weight. I think having moisture build up on the inside of GORE-TEX shells is just part of the game.
I really appreciate this system once I am done rowing for a while and stage on anchor, fishing the tide. If my base and mid-layers were wet, I would get very cold quickly and probably have to put on dry layers, which absolutely sucks when it is cold and raining with no shelter.
My next layer is generally a soft shell, like Patagonia’s Nano Puff jacket. A “puffy” jacket does a great job of being lightweight while generating warmth. These jackets can come in down or synthetic fibers; I prefer the synthetic as they dry much faster and stay warm even when wet. This layer is often put on and taken off several times a day as temperature and conditions change. The “compactability” of a puffy jacket is also great for not taking up much space or adding weight to a backcountry kit.
Always in the backcountry and at certain times of the guide season, I bring Patagonia’s DAS parka with me. This jacket is like walking into a boiler room and packs fairly small. Basically, it’s like the Nano Puff on steroids. A wonderful addition to the puffy party is Patagonia’s Nano Puff pant. They are lightweight, warm, and comfortable. These pants are amazing!
The final layer is a GORE-TEX shell. Do not skimp on your outer layer as without it your whole system will fail you. If your shell is not made of GORE-TEX, you will most likely get rewarded for your frugality at the wettest time, and not in a positive way. I like getting a size larger than my normal size so when I add a puffy jacket or other layers there is still room for air to move and my movements are not restricted. For what I do, I prefer an uninsulated shell. This allows me more temperature ranges in which I can use the jacket and pants and greater layering customization.
Diet and Hydration
Properly eating and hydrating the day before you go into inclement weather increases the effectiveness of your layering system. Your circulation increases when you are hydrated, keeping blood flow moving to your extremities. Inclement weather requires your body to burn calories at a high rate to stay warm so consuming the proper amount of food the night before and staying hydrated and fueled up on calories during your excursion is just as important as having the right layering system.
Tying it together
Warm, dry, and comfortable is the reward for figuring out a layering system that works for you. With a huge spectrum of companies offering clothing, it is important to do your research and physically try on and inspect the clothing. Do not let the convenience of online shopping play a factor in your decision making. When selecting your shell, do not skimp on quality—If it is not GORE-TEX, you will regret it. GORE-TEX is not cheap, but I ascribe to the motto: “Buy once, cry once.”
Rolling with the punches of trial and error will help you gain a better understanding of your body and the type of clothing required to keep you comfortable. Just because outside your layering system is cold, wet, and miserable does not mean inside can’t feel like a day on the beach in Hawaii. Remember, buy good gear, and eat and drink properly to fuel your body.