Layering systems: To sweat or not to sweat

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Layering is something we’ve all heard of at some point or another and probably even something we’ve done in our daily lives, be it consciously or not.

However, despite our previous experience, many important aspects and even benefits of layering may not be known to many of us. For this reason, we’re going to discuss not only how to layer your clothing, but why it’s so important and who actually benefits the most from using ‘the layering system’. For example, is it just as beneficial for the autumn hill walker as it is for a dog walker? And what about winter boulderers?

Well, we’ve looked into it and found an enormous amount of information!

On the dangers of sweating

Layering systems: To sweat or not to sweat
How to layer correctly…

The Inuit supposedly believe that one should only move so fast as to not work up a sweat. And with good reason, too: the Inuit’s traditional garb consists of animal skin and fur, which may be extremely warm and perfect in terms of insulation, but it lacks one important thing: breathability. If they were to start sweating, they would literally be stewing in their own juices.

Obviously, sweating itself isn’t a bad thing. After all, it helps to regulate our body temperature when we’re hot. However, as soon as we stop being active and our bodies stop producing an excessive amount of heat, or the cold from the outside exceeds our own production of warmth, the moisture on our bodies begins to cool them down. What this means is that moisture essentially robs our bodies of warmth and energy. So, in the worst-case scenario, sweating at an outside temperature of -30°C could have life-threatening consequences.

Preventing yourself from sweating

The goal of a layering system is always to prevent you from having too much moisture near the body and cooling down too quickly. This can be done in two ways: either you don’t sweat at all, like the Inuit, or you make sure any moisture that has accumulated over the course of an activity is quickly wicked away from your skin. We’ll get to why you need multiple layers to do this in a moment.

Adding and Subtracting

Wearing multiple layers allows you to regulate the amount of warmth trapped in your clothing much more easily, since it allows you to make tiny adjustments on the go. If you get too hot, you can just take off a thin layer to give yourself some relief but still retain some warmth.

By adding or removing layers of clothing, you can “adjust” the temperature to keep yourself warm without causing excessive sweating.

This kind of layering works with non-synthetic fabrics such as cotton and merino wool as well. However, it does require you to know your own body and how it reacts in different situations. Otherwise, you’ll end up having way too much on. In rainy conditions, this can be complicated or even nearly impossible.

Advantages: Works with conventional fabrics such as cotton and wool. They don’t start to smell as quickly and provide better thermal insulation during breaks without physical activity (applies only to wool and down).

Disadvantages: It requires some past experience. The less experience you have, the more often you’ll likely need to change.

Breathable synthetic fabrics

Layering systems: To sweat or not to sweat
Now it’d be nice to have a cosy wool jumper

If you hear somebody talking about layering today, this is usually what they mean. It’s based on the wonderfully efficient moisture-wicking abilities of modern outdoor apparel.

Similar to the method described above, this system requires you to wear multiple layers of clothing, with the only difference being that their moisture-wicking ability renders the removal of clothing completely unnecessary. If you work up a sweat, any moisture accumulating on the interior can be wicked away quickly and efficiently to the outside.

In order for this system to work, there are a few things you need to keep in mind: all of your layers must be made from functional materials. Otherwise, the moisture can’t be wicked away, which would lead to a build up of said moisture and an overall ineffective layering system! In this system, the first layer should be worn close to your skin so that the fabric is best able to draw moisture away from your body.

The good thing about this system is that, if you sweat – the fabric will take care of it. This kind of layering system is particularly convenient in bad weather, when you’re carrying a lot of gear or you’re engaged in aerobic activity.

Advantages: Sweating is allowed (in moderation)! You don’t need any prior knowledge as to when and how much you sweat. Synthetic products are usually lightweight and quick-drying. Here, too, you can regulate your temperature by removing or adding different layers.

Disadvantages: Functional clothing made from synthetic fabrics develop unpleasant odours rather quickly. And they provide little thermal insulation in the situations where you don’t produce a lot of warmth (such as when you’re taking a break). The only exception here is merino wool. Not only is this fabric relatively light as compared to other kinds of wool, but it is also quite breathable. However, it does soak up much more moisture than synthetic fabrics. But, on the bright side, it hardly smells at all!

So what’ll it be?

Layering systems: To sweat or not to sweat
No time or space to constantly change your clothes.

Whether you opt for synthetic fabrics or not depends – as it always does – on what you’re planning to do (and on what kind of clothing you’ve already got in your wardrobe): fastpacking, multi-pitch climbs, winter bouldering, winter or summer, etc.

As for the individuals layers of a layering system, this is something we’re going to address in part two of our post on ‘the layering system’.

Edit from 10/03/2015: We’ve been wanting to add a second part to this post for a while now, but have decided not to. The reason for this was simple: the most important facts for the first post were easy to compile, whereas those for the second either went way beyond the scope of the article or were just so numerous that we couldn’t possibly include them all.

In other words, in order to do the topic justice, we would need to write an article for each discipline. And, since the boundaries between the various disciplines are often blurred, we would just run into the same problem as before. On the bright side, we do have heaps of helpful buyer’s guides that could give you some more insight and answer any questions that may have gone unanswered here.

As such, there will not be a part two on the topic of layering anytime in the near future.

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Alpinetrek-Expert Wiebke

Alpinetrek-Expert Wiebke

A sunny day (not too hot, not too cold), at a nice climbing rock that’s not too crowded, yet not too empty, with awesome friends and my dog. There’s nothing better than that (except maybe Kaiserschmarrn).

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