How to Layer Clothes

How to dress for the cold? The key is a warm layering strategy, whether you’re dressing for work, the weekend, or exercising.

Photo by Jason Brownrigg

Layering in the summer is simple: basically, a lightweight cardigan you can throw on (or take off) as needed, when the AC blows too vigorously. But depending on the climate where you live, the fall and, especially, winter may call for a more complex strategy, dressing for comfort in settings that can range from an icy driveway to a heat-blasted office building.

To regulate your body temperature all day, dress in soft, thin layers that you can easily add and remove. As a rule, a three-layer system works best, whether you’re dressing for a conference or a 5K run. The base layer wicks, or draws, moisture away from the skin; the second layer traps warm air, insulates, and absorbs perspiration passed through the base layer. And the third, outer, layer of clothing releases moisture into the air while blocking wind and rain. Besides eliminating bulk, multiple thin layers outperform one thick layer in several ways: trapping air (an excellent insulator) between the layers, letting perspiration move through more efficiently, and allowing freedom of movement.

Whatever situation you’re dressing for, if your goal is to keep warm, never wear cotton underwear or socks. Cotton loses much of its insulating ability when wet. Instead, wear underpants made of polypropylene, CoolMax, or Capilene, and socks made from Dri-Fit, wool, or cashmere.

  • For work: Wool and silk are two of nature’s most effective insulators. Wool adds lightweight warmth and draws moisture from the skin. Silk is the strongest, smoothest natural fiber and also wicks moisture. Together they offer luxury and classic style—just right for the office. Look for silk tights (they’re porous, and they trap heat) and light wool sweaters (the thinner they are, the more smoothly they will drape).
  • For the weekend: Casual weekend wear usually means jeans or sweats. But in cold weather, cotton is the kiss of death. It soaks up moisture and stays damp for hours. Instead, wear soft synthetics close to the body and add a sweater and a wind- and rain-resistant coat. A merino wool sweater will keep you cozy; top it with a light, water-resistant quilted jacket.
  • For exercise: When dressing in layers for outdoor exercise, three points are crucial: First, every layer, including the outermost one, must breathe, so sweat doesn’t get trapped. Second, the outer layer has to be wind- and rain-resistant. And, third, don’t overdress. You should feel chilly during the first leg of a run or bike ride, then warm up gradually. Try a long-sleeve shirt and thermal tights that feel soft and dry against the skin, even when you’re perspiring. On mild winter days, protect against the elements with a windbreaker. When the temperature falls between 40 degrees and 55 degrees, wear a fleece vest as a second layer. It draws moisture from the base layer and won't restrict arm movement. If the temperature drops below 40, wear a long-sleeve fleece jacket as a second layer. Look for one with a hood, since a great deal of body heat is lost through the head. The lower the temperature, the thicker the outer layer should be.