Winter Layering for Dummies

Most people live in the tropical countries have difficulty choosing proper clothes when traveling to four-season countries for the first time, especially in fall/winter. The most asked questions are “How am I supposed to dress in winter?”, “Is this jacket warm enough?”, “I wear 6 layers of clothing but still cold, how is this possible?”

Luckily for me I have never asked those questions because I usually spend my spare time hiking on the mountains. Although located in the equator, here the temperature on the mountains could drop below freezing, especially in the dry season. Indonesia has the most volcanoes on earth, so hiking options are almost endless.

Basic knowledge in layering and experience taught me how to dress effectively in extreme exposures, because in the mountains, poor knowledge in layering can result in hypothermia and death.

So when traveling to West Europe in fall/winter for the first time, I didn’t have to buy any cold weather clothing because I already have it in my closet. I just making rough guess what items I should bring based on the weather forecast on any cities I want to visit.

Don’t worry my tropical friends, I’ll share some tips and guide you to the path of warmness in winter wonderland.

Winter is coming...
Winter is coming…

The Basic: Layering

This is the fundamental knowledge any person live in the 4-season countries master since they were little kids.

1st layer: Baselayer, or what people in the last centuries called long johns. Wear next to skin, it has to be snug to regulate your body temperature. Cotton blend is the common choice other than synthetics baselayer such as polyester. But if you’re doing winter sports, avoid cotton because it takes forever to dry when wet.

My recommendation? Get a merino wool baselayer because it has the best warmth-to-weight ratio. It’s also naturally antibacterial so you don’t have to worry about any unpleasant odor after multiple-day use.

2nd layer: Insulation or mid-layer. It has the job to trap your body heat. Fleece jacket and wool sweater are the cheapest options and praised for their breathability, another option you should consider is a lightweight down jacket.

3rd layer: Outer shell. It protects you from the element (wind, rain, snow) and should be windproof/waterproof. The third layer also adds extra insulation. People usually wear thick wool coats/jackets in town, but on the outdoor I usually wear a thick soft shell or a hard shell.

I divide the layering options into 3 categories: “Mild”, “Cold”, and “On the plane”. These options have the same clothes I wore when I traveled to West Europe from Jakarta at the end of November this year.

I mixed-and-matched the list with some “urban” clothing to appear not too outdoorsy.

On the plane

Wear whatever you think comfortable enough to wear on air travel. I usually wear cotton t-shirt under a longsleeve shirt to maintain body temperature on the plane. If it gets cold, there’s always a blanket available on long distance flight. Don’t forget to wear long socks.

  • Longsleeve shirt: Jack Wolfskin Brightwater Chill
  • Pants: Uniqlo jogger jeans
  • Cotton t-shirt: Rider
  • Underwear: Uniqlo Airism
  • Socks: Eiger Rhino Coolmax
  • Shoes: Adidas Supernova 7
  • Hat: Eiger Commando

Mild (50C to 100C)

I wore 2-layer clothing most of my time in West Europe: Merino wool baselayer under a down jacket. The jacket has two functions as a second layer (insulation) and a third layer (weatherproof). It was warm enough but I occasionally wear a longsleeve shirt over the baselayer for the sake of not looking monotonous.

I replaced scarf with Buff and use it as a neck gaiter. It has the same function, only lighter and practical. The insulated versions are available, they’re warmer and offer more protection to the cold.

As long as there’s no heavy snow, there’s no need to wear winter boots, wear light running shoes with extra cushion for comfort. You can wear sock liner under the wool socks for additional warmth.

Don’t forget to buy touchscreen compatible gloves with great fit since it’s crucial to be able to operate your gadget especially your smartphones with the gloves on. You don’t wanna miss a good selfie, do you?

If you plan to spend most of the time walking and highly mobile, the clothing must be simple, light, and functional. No fashion accent or gimmicks, only the essentials. It will make your life easier.

  • Down jacket: Rab Microlight Alpine
  • Pants: Uniqlo jogger jeans
  • Shirt (optional): Jack Wolfskin Brightwater Chill
  • Thermal baselayer: Berghaus merino wool
  • Wool socks
  • Warm hat: Arc’teryx Bird Head Toque
  • Underwear: Uniqlo Airism
  • Shoes: Adidas Supernova 7
  • Touchscreen-compatible gloves: Arc’teryx Rivet Glove
  • Multi-functional headwear/neck gaiter: Buff

Cold (-50C to 40C)

When I met ball-shrinking wind in Switzerland, I switched to another clothing option. The baselayer is thicker, designed for winter running. I put my lightweight fleece as a mid-layer and wear the down jacket as an outer layer to double the warmth.

Actually, I didn’t wear the thick gloves because when my hands felt cold, I just put it inside the pockets on my jacket. But I brought them anyway, just in case.

Don’t forget to wear waterproof boots when you’re planning to walk on the snow.

  • Down jacket: Rab Microlight Alpine
  • Pants: Fjällräven Barents Pro
  • Fleece jacket: Arc’teryx Delta LT
  • Thick thermal baselayer: Paradox (polyester & spandex blend)
  • Touchscreen-compatible gloves: Salomon Genesis
  • Warm hat: Arc’teryx Bird Head Toque
  • Underwear: Uniqlo Airism
  • Waterproof Boots: Hi-Tec Altitude Lite i-WP
  • Wool socks
  • Multi-functional headwear: Nepalese scarf

As you can see, a lightweight down jacket (300-400 grams) is the most versatile piece of gear in the list because its multi-functionality. In mild weather I can wear it as a second layer without any need to wear the third layer even in the windiest situation. In cold weather, I wear the down jacket as an outer shell above the fleece to add extra insulation and weather protection, especially ball-shrinking wind.

Down-fill jacket is a good investment since they retain their loft and warmth for a very long time (up to 10-15 years), very light, practical, and compressible compared to synthetics insulation jacket or a heavy wool coat

If you don’t have a down jacket, wear a wool sweater or fleece jacket as a mid-layer but if it’s not windproof, then you should add another layer of outer shell or winter coat.

The key in layering is product knowledge and creativity. Having a deep understanding of the materials in each layer and their functions helps you explore the best option to dress effectively warm in cold weather.

Be cool, stay warm.

Layering with style: Two lovely ladies at Champs-Élysées avenue
Layering with style: Two lovely ladies at Champs-Élysées avenue

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