GetHiking! Layering

The following originally appeared in January 2010. Though the prices quoted have changed, the sentiment is the same.

Saturday I ran 6 miles in 32 degree weather and broke a slight sweat. Sunday, I mountain biked 15 miles in 23 degree weather and only my Camelbakfroze. The reason I was able to work out despite North Carolina’s ongoing impersonation of Alaska? (Forecast low for Anchorage Tuesday: 26 degrees Forecast low for Raleigh: 19.


OK, I saw that look! You heard “layering” and rolled your eyes and thought “pricey way for diehards to keep working out when it turns bitter cold.” That thought crossed my mind on yesterday’s ride when I realized that, yes, if I didn’t have my $100 bike tights, if I didn’t have my $40 neoprene shoe covers, my $50 insulated wind-breaking gloves, my $30 balaclava, and my four layers of high-tech clothes (I can’t bring myself to speculate) to keep my upper body warm, then no way would I be riding my bike in 23 degree weather. Because that 23 degrees, even poking along at 11 miles an hour on a mountain bike feels like 15 and on the downhills can feel like the temperature is in the single digits.

But, I wondered, what about for walking, which according to the National Sporting Goods Association is the nation’s favorite form of exercise. According to the NSGA, 96.6 million Americans walked for exercise last year (swimming was a distance second, with 63.5 million participants, followed by “exercising with equipment,” with 63 million participants). Is it possible to do an effective layering job without laying out a bundle? I went to the neighborhood Target to find out.

A quick word about layering and why it’s good. You dress in layers in part to keep warm, but more importantly to keep from overheating. Build up a sweat on a winter workout, cold air penetrates to your skin, the cold air finds an ally in the sweat and together they can drop your body temperature to dangerous, life-threatening levels. It may not be quite so severe on a neighborhood hike, but it certainly will make you uncomfortable. And if you’re uncomfortable, you likely won’t be inclined to head out for another walk anytime soon. Which is why the most important layer in your layering system may be the base layer, the layer closest to your skin.

Base layer The most important trait for your base layer: It should not, under any circumstances in winter, be cotton. Sweat sticks to cotton, the sweaty cotton sticks to your skin, your body expends lots of energy trying to warm your cold, sweaty skin, you run the risk of hypothermia. Thus, your base layer should be made of a synthetic or high-tech wool that wicks the moisture away from your body. Dry skin, warm skin. At Target, I found a Champion long-sleeve T utilizing its Powercore technology  (84 percent polyester, 16 percent spandex) for $14.99.

Insulating layer Generally a slightly heavier layer that helps create a pocket of air warmed by your body between it and the base layer. Synthetic is preferable, but not as important here. I found a mid-weight long-sleeve Jerzees T for $4.00 that appeared fit for service, especially at that price.

Outer shell Especially important when the weather gets this cold (30s) and there’s wind. An outer shell is generally a slick fabric that will shed rain and wind. A good outer shell will also have some sort of vent system to keep condensation from building inside. Zippers in the armpits is one popular option as is mesh under the arms and along the side of the torso. The latter is what the Champion wind jacket I found for $22.99 had.

Workout pants Unless you have sweaty thighs and calves, just about any pair of pant sthat doesn’t inhibit movement will do for an exercise walk. Thus, you probably already have something serviceable in your closest. Still, exercise pants are nice; I found a pair of Champions for $14.99, again using the Powercore technology.

Coverings for the extremities Your head, your hands, your feet — they get cold you’re done. Fortunately, they’re cheap to cover. I found a tight-knit hat for $2.99, a three-pack of sturdy walking socks for $6.49 and lightweight knit gloves for $2.99. (If your hands are more susceptible to the cold you may need to opt for the $9.99 windproof fleece gloves.

Total at the register: $69.35. Granted, it’s not an outfit you’d want to climb Mount Mitchell in, but for a good half-hour powerwalk in mid-30s weather, it’s an ensemble that will serve you well.

More importantly, it’ll keep you from thinking about the fact you’d be warmer walking in Alaska.

Explore the outdoors, discover yourself.