Layer Up For The Cold

Layer Up For The Cold


Layer up for the cold

“Cotton kills fellas, cotton kills” my Third phase BUD/S instructor yelled at us as the snow began to fall on our cold sweaty bodies. The rest of the night proved to be pure misery as various levels of hypothermia swept the class.

Though the experience was miserable it taught me to appreciate nice outdoor gear and the concept of layering.

This topic can get fairly technical and I’ve seen it broken down into many detailed layers. For our purposes I’m going to keep it straight forward and simple by covering the three core layers: The Base, Insulation and Shell layers.

Base Layer

The base layer is worn close to or directly on the skin serving to collect and move sweat away from your glistening body as well as provide a barrier between your human essence and the rest of your clothes.

Typically these layers are made from either synthetic materials or natural wool, merino being my favorite.

Synthetics can be cheap, durable and high performing, but can smell like Hobo’s crotch after a day of use. Wool, especially merino wool, can be more expensive and less durable, but does better in a wider range of temperatures and doesn’t tend to get funky smelling.

Since the base layer is basically your body’s chonies I’ve found having multiple pairs to be a huge asset allowing you to change them out before body funk or sweat do their thing.

There are a ton of options out there, but I’d recommend something with a button or zip neck style to allow you to open it up when warmer. Find one you like and buy three in different colors. You’ll thank me for this later.

Insulation Layer

This layer is meant to put some space between your body and the elements. This “dead space” is what traps the warm air, but it also pulls your sweat from your base layer and captures any moisture sneaking in from your shell. It’s like the “Catch all” of your layering system.

You want this to be a windproof shell that easily fits over your base layer and comfortably fits under your shell. This layer should not be water resistant so that it readily breathes and should look good as a stand alone jacket.

It’s common that people use down for this layer, but I don’t like to. Down sucks when it’s wet and even if it’s not raining out I’ve seen my down get matted from the humidity steaming off my body.


The shell is meant to keep the rain off of you as well as serve as the final piece of a robust warmy system.

There are soft shell options available, but they will fall short when it comes to water resistance. I rock a hard shell so that I can count on it to shed the rain as well as hold up against wear and tear.

I keep my shells as thin as possible so that they can easily get pulled on and off as the sweat or rain pours accordingly.

Okay – So you want to buy three variations of a nice merino wool base layer with a zipper or button system, a nice windproof insulation jacket that fits into a bombproof shell.

There are so many options of each it can be mind boggling. What do you use for each layer and why?


About Eric Davis

Eric Davis served our country as a U.S. Navy SEAL and decorated veteran of the Global War on Terror. Eric has been recognized as one of the premier sniper instructors in the U.S. military and has served as a Master Training Specialist at the SEAL sniper school. Davis is also the host of The Loadout Room, author at SOFREP, a GovX "Insider" and founder of the human performance company Average Frog. Follow him, and all his exploits, on Twitter @EricDavis215

Leave a comment:

William F.

2/7/2014 6:54 AM

Where's the rest of the article.....??

Eric D.

2/7/2014 2:25 PM

Ha.. Now reading the end with your comment in mind it does feel like it kind of cut off a bit. Maybe we do a part II with some gear featured?

Steve W.

2/7/2014 7:01 AM

Great article! I've never really studied or understood layering. Living in the northwest layering is a must. Now I have a much better idea of what to look for and why.

Eric D.

2/7/2014 2:26 PM

Thank you. I was always in the same boat until I dug in a bit.

Stephen W.

2/7/2014 3:46 PM

So true Eric! Thanks for breaking down the layers and their purposes. As a USCG helicopter rescue swimmer layering is essential under my dry suit. The tricky part is finding gear that keeps you warm without sacrificing mobility. A follow up article featuring some gear would be right on! Thanks for sharing your expertise, you guys are the best!

Eric D.

2/11/2014 1:23 PM

Oh man... A rescue swimmer for sure knows how to layer up. I'm always digging around with layering and clothing so for sure more to follow.

Michael K.

2/8/2014 9:19 PM

Besides wool what do you recommend for each layer. I use cold gear, then a t-shirt, then a bullet proff vest. On top of that I will wear a turtle neck and then a poly shirt. Any other suggestions?

Eric D.

2/11/2014 1:24 PM

It sounds like you have a pretty good "Stack" going there. I'm going to dig into some specifics and make some product recommends as a folllow up to this. More to follow. Eric

Geoffrey K.

2/10/2014 3:13 PM

I agree with your take on all the layers. Sometimes with the base layer you want to smell like "Hobo Crotch" i.e. over seas where you don't want to stand out amongst the locals who smell that way.

Eric D.

2/11/2014 1:26 PM

I hear ya, but sometimes "blending" just isn't worth it! It's true though because overseas I've on many occasions let me "Scent" layer grow. I like to think about it not as a "bad" sent but as a very "different" sent. Eric

Geoffrey K.

2/12/2014 1:45 PM

I hear you brother, I wasn't saying literally like hobo crotch, I just meant that sometimes you have to go away from "comfortable" to you scent to blend in.

George P.

2/11/2014 7:03 AM

Great article Eric. As a year-round motorcyclist I know first hand how important layering is to riding comfort! Thanks for the tips!

Eric D.

2/11/2014 1:27 PM

You're welcome. I remember commuting on a motorcycle and trying to lean into and get close to the engine to keep warm. Oh the things you try when your 20. It never worked that well - layering up right is much better.

Jerry B.

2/11/2014 3:09 PM

If it's not made in the US, I don't want it.

Monte O.

2/12/2014 12:03 AM

Thanks for the article. It is amazing how far things have come since the late 1960s and early 70s. As kids, we used Kapok sleeping bags and canvas tents. We wore a wool shirt (logger style) under a jacket or a shirt and wool sweater under a jacket. In Vietnam in the army, it was amazing how cold it seemed to get at night when the temps dipped into the 70s. A flak jacket didn't keep us real warm, but a poncho or poncho liner could hold in the heat. Thanks again for a great article,

Eric D.

2/14/2014 6:50 AM

Sometimes the farther forward we go the farther back we arrive. I think the Wool "logger" style shirt is still probably one of the best. I've spent my fair share of nights in the old poncho with poncho liner "Ranger Roll". Not too shabby. Thank you for your service in Vietnam. You guys are my heros and that's where the tactics that kept me and others safe came from.

Michael G.

2/12/2014 11:47 AM

Eric, Great article! I grew up in Tahoe, CA where every winter I had 6-7 feet of snow off my front porch; I LOVED IT! I absolutely love cold weather and this article is great. If you feature another article I would make a few key notes as to headgear, feet, and hands as I have found in my adventures those are the most crucial layers and the hardest to maintain properly. I will be transferring to Support Activity Two in June and I am eager to work with the SEALS and see how they prepare for cold weather environments. - Mike

Eric D.

2/14/2014 6:51 AM

Mike - Tahoe is beautiful. Grew up skiing Heavenly and just went back with my 9 year old daughter. Agreed on the foot and head bit. Have a great time at SA-2. I was a plank owner at SA-1. Awesome commands.

Foster C.

2/12/2014 4:15 PM

Eric, Thanks for the tips! As a Retired Senior Chief Boatswain's Mate, I found that my feet are the hardest thing to keep warm, especially on the deck of an amphibious transport dock, launching seals at o'my god it's early! Any advice on sock / shoe combinations?? thanks in advance

Eric D.

2/14/2014 6:54 AM

Here's 1/2 an answer. When we started teaching Sniper school in Indiana I found my self on a shooting range filled with snow. Much like sleeping on the ground it's all about insulation. I found that if I stood on something insulated my feet wouldn't get nearly as cold. When ever I'm moving my feet stay pretty warm, but changing out the socks often is key.

James B.

2/13/2014 10:04 AM

Just helped me with my shopping to go to Grayling so I wont freeze my ass off thanks mate!

Eric D.

2/14/2014 6:54 AM

Your welcome!

Shawn F.

2/20/2014 8:33 AM

As a Paratrooper, mobility was a must, so we always used a polartec silkweight "spears gear" against the body and then it was usually poly pro or the lovely "smoke" jacket. The outer shell was just a gortex top or poncho if we even cared to use it. We always used our neck gaitor and polartec fleece caps. Wool gloves with Blackhawk hellstorm outer gloves were favored usually. Anyone use Sealskinz socks/gloves? I wish I had these years ago-check em out if you haven't! -looking forward to follow up article;)

Eric D.

2/20/2014 3:34 PM

Oh yes... The neck gaitor is a favorite of mine also.

Sean E.

3/11/2014 5:59 AM

Its hard to find good base layer wear so if anyone has a good source please post. Good article!