I know most hunters these days have a good understanding of the key layering elements and their intended purposes. On the other hand, I have also come across quite a few questions and comments that could have only come from misconceptions.
Every piece of a layering system is built for a purpose. If you know that purpose, it makes selecting the right product for your intended use simple. This allows you to get past the “a jacket is a just a jacket” mentality. My dad, who has been a sweatshirt and Carhartt guy forever, being genuinely inquisitive, asked, “What is this jacket for?” when I got him a Guide Jacket for Christmas. Because he has been around my brother and I, he understands that each piece of a layering system has a place and purpose. In addition, a complete layering system will keep you comfortable in any weather condition you should encounter. That is what I want everybody to get out of this.
I know everybody is different and are going to use their gear in different ways, but here are some of my thoughts on the elements of a layering system:
The base layer is a vital piece for any layering scenario. They wick moisture away from the skin helping to keep you cool when it is hot and warm when it is cold. Merino wool breathes well, retains heat even when wet and won’t have the stench of synthetics after a few days in the backcountry. Synthetic tends to wick better and dry quicker but the Merino is still the top choice of most for multiday excursions.
I know it is called a base layer, but this is my only layer up top about 90% of the time. Even on mornings with the temperature is close to freezing, my jacket doesn’t stay on very long if the weather is dry.
My Base Layer of Choice: Ibex and KUIU in various weights and styles
Along with the base layers, a stretch woven pant is always part of my layering system. They are great for highly aerobic activities but don’t offer much in the way of warmth or weather protection. They will require layering up underneath with merino for more warmth or layering over top with a rain shell pant in order to stay dry. This pair of pants paired with some gaiters will offer protection from dewy foliage or stream crossings while still benefiting from the breathability of the pants.
By Basic Pant of Choice: KUIU Attack Pant (hands down)
Mid Layer – Insulation
I consider any insulation layer a mid-layer. I may wear it as outerwear around camp or around town, but while I am hunting, it is going to be under a shell (softshell or hardshell). I tend to only wear my insulation piece if I am going to be still for long periods of time, such as glassing or ambush hunting, in which case I will throw it on under a shell. Plus, the outer material of most insulation layers do not work well as outerwear; they are normally noisy, don’t shed weather very well, are somewhat shiny and are not very durable at all. Since my insulation layer is never exposed to the elements, I prefer down over synthetic insulation as it is superior in terms of warmth to weight ratio and is more compressible. This is the piece I wear least often.
My Insulation of Choice: Montbell U.L. Down Parka at only 9.5 oz. (The Alpine Light would be a great option for even more warmth.)
Shell – Softshell
I would say softshells are a Jack of all trades and a master of none. They offer some water repellency but aren’t waterproof; they are going to block most of the wind but aren’t windproof; they are going to insulate a little but are not warm; they are quiet but not silent; they breath well but not as well as a base layer. However, that versatility is what we need in a softshell. Most of the time when we are hunting, the weather is not poor enough to justify an insulation/hardshell combination, and the breathability advantage over a hardshell is going to be an advantage for the hunter on the move.
My Softshell of Choice: KUIU Guide Jacket
Shell – Hardshell
This layer is reserved when you need protection from the elements; rain, wet snow and wind. It can be worn alone with a baselayer when its wet you but you are still active, worn over a softshell when you are still somewhat active but in cooler conditions or layered up with a base layer and insulation when you are still for long periods of time in cold and/or wet and/or windy conditions. All of this weather protection comes with a tradeoff. When you are moving around the mountains, even in wet, cold conditions, it is easy to work up a sweat and most of that moisture remains trapped inside your hardshell. When you stop, you’re left with that unpleasant clamminess that will chill you when you stop. Although, I have been using the KUIU Chugach rain gear and it has really impressed me at combating this clamminess. It breaths almost as well as a softshell. In fact, if it wasn’t for the increased noise over a softshell, I would almost prefer to wear the Chugach gear more often than my Guide jacket.
My Hardshell of Choice: KUIU Chugach (Toray is Impressive)
Other Key Items
Three other important items in my layering system are gaiters, gloves and headgear. Gaiters are great for keeping water from overtopping your boots during a creek crossing, keeping your pants dry when moving through damp foliage, keeping snow out of your boots while post-holing deep snow, protecting your lower legs when moving through downfall and more. I wear gaiters unless it is just too hot to bear. For gloves, I prefer a similar system to what I use on my body, which is a shell and base. This allows me the versatility of keeping my hands dry and adding insulation value if needed. Headgear I normally take on hunts consists of my luckiest ball cap and a merino brimmed beanie.
My Gaiters of Choice: OR Crocodiles (The KUIU Yukon Gaiter looks promising, but I have not used it yet.)
My Gloves of Choice: Arc’teryx Vertical SV Glove with wool or Polartec Powerdry liners.
My Headgear of Choice: First Lite Brimmed Beanie
Please reply if you have any questions about what I would use in what situations or if you use your layering system differently. That is the beauty of a layering system; it is incredibly adaptable.