What Clothing Do You Really Need For Outdoor Activities

Our 'what do you really need' series of protips is designed to help you get outside & save money. We talk honestly & frankly about the purpose that different items are designed to fulfill, as well as help you evaluate your needs, which there isn't always a good formula for, every body is different! Our goal is that you don't feel like you have to spend $100s before every trip buying all new gear, especially when many existing items may work! On our individual gear guides, we also have specific info on alternatives you can use. If you're looking to buy, check out our calculator first to see if it's a good deal!

Should you use a poncho or rain jacket? What's the difference between a rain jacket & snow jacket? Why are snow jackets sometimes so thin? These are the questions we'll help answer!

Camp clothing

First, to be clear this protip talks about technical clothing. For 'camp clothing', anything you want to change into at the end of a long day to feel comfortable & clean, you can use anything you're willing to carry & bring! A few tips:

  • As long as you're in the backcountry, we still recommend materials that perform well when wet (i.e., save cotton for the car ride home)
  • Your feet will be most tired, so comfy camp shoes (standard sneakers or athletic shoes) are great, but sandals that let your toes breathe can really make a difference
  • It gets cold at night & you don't move around too much; be sure to have some warmer layers (easy to forget if you're on an ultralight trail running trip, for example!)

Now, onto the technical good stuff!


Surprise! You never need special, technical clothing to go outside

Naked skier

But you might want it! Industry develops with activity. In some places, people hike in regular clothes because hiking isn't popular. On the other hand, in the U.S. because of our economy & the fact that there are professional athletes in every outdoor activity, clothing is so fine-tuned for performance, you can have a different outfit for every change of weather & activity. In other words, because a jack-of-all-trades is master of none, and there definitely are masters in every activity, our industry has evolved to produce thousands of options & features in technical clothing. Of course, for most people not performing at the top percentile, it can be overwhelming. Our goal in this guide is to help you understand exactly what the technologies are--what you can optimize for--so you can decide what's worth paying for.

Since special clothing (& gear) optimizes performance (including comfort), the biggest decision factor isn't any technology behind the item, it's what you want. For example, sometimes tourists to San Francisco need a down jacket for the cold summer fog, whereas locals will still be wearing T-shirts. So, read this guide, then carefully consider:

  • Your itinerary (what's the forecasted weather? how is it forecasted to change?)
  • Your experience (are you doing this for the first-time & therefore won't be exerting yourself too much? also, should you have back-up options?)
  • Your skill level (will you hardly break a sweat or be pushing yourself to your limit?)
  • Your preferred experience (would you rather be too warm or too cold?)
  • Your budget (what technical traits should you spend money on?)

Here, our scope is limited to technical clothing that isn't yet 'gear'. If it's not too unthinkable to wear it around a city, we'll talk about it (rain jackets & ski jackets yes; but wetsuits, life jackets, or climbing shoes, no). Additionally, we do not yet carry footwear (except for climbing shoes, which are 'gear'), so it is also out of scope.

What does technical clothing optimize for?

  • Thermoregulation: complements your body's biological processes to regulate temperature
  • Durability: maintains its own efficacy given abrasive outdoor activities while protecting your body (e.g., from branches, rock, ice, etc.)
  • Activity performance: has features or is styled (e.g., the way it fits or is cut) to help you perform better

Thermoregulation

Thermoregulation

While the body does thermoregulate itself, complementary clothing is still very helpful when we...

  • Sprint & stop: Biologically, when we exert ourselves, we sweat to cool down, and then as we gradually stop moving, we gradually stop sweating. But what about someone skiing up & down a mountain, or running sprints? There's a lot of stopping & slowing that our gradual thermoregulation can't keep up with. (This is why runners wrap themselves up in an emergency blanket like item after a marathon: they abruptly stopped running but haven't stopped sweating yet, but they now must conserve body heat)
  • In extreme environments: No matter how good of a thermoregulation system we have, we're just not built for places like Mt. Everest or the depths of the ocean. And even if not in such an extreme place, outdoor weather conditions can change rapidly, and you won't have a building to duck into, so you need to be prepared

In managing thermoregulation, technical clothing is designed with a lot of material science, thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, and physics*. For example, science is why generally dry & warm are linked together and so are wet & cold. When you are wet, you lose heat through evaporation (which is why & how we sweat to cool off) or convection (think feeling cold in the pool).

*We link to some more technical content when necessary, but also distilled & simplified down to the most important points that the majority of people will want to know or will see on the market

Don't under-estimate how cold temperatures can get outdoors! Even in hot days, nights can be cool (e.g., in the desert), and moreover, microclimates outside means temperatures & weather can change rapidly.

These are the 4 states of being...

Warm

Wet

Clothing should never be made to keep you wet! Not only does this generally keep you colder, but it's also uncomfortable (e.g., can lead to chafing) Core focus of most technical clothing

Dry

Not a core focus; any clothing layer will provide insulation & reduce breathability*

Cool

*Assuming you can't just walk around naked, generally you won't need technical clothing. Just stick to the principles of wearing loose fit/ weave fabrics to increase breathability (you want the wind to hit you to evaporate sweat to help you cool off), and lighter colors to reflect heat

Therefore there are 4 traits technical clothing should have...

Body state Clothing traits
Warm or cool Insulation & windproofing
Wet or dry Breathability & waterproofing

Insulating & windproofing is pretty self-explanatory. Did you know though, that making clothing both breathable & waterproof is actually a big technical challenge? You can intuitively imagine running around in the rain wearing a plastic trash bag--you'll stay dry, but soon it'll feel like you're wearing a sauna suit!). Specifically, the challenge becomes: how do we simultaneously...

  • Keep out external rain water
  • Let internal sweat water pass through

The genius is to rely on states of matter. Modern technical clothing keeps out liquid water molecules, while letting gaseous sweat water that has evaporated pass through.

It's important to note that in an outdoor context, breathability means something very different:

Standard context Outdoor context
What breathability refers to Letting air pass in Letting sweat pass out
Purpose of breathability Encourages body heat loss through evaporation & convection by promoting airflow Prevents body heat loss through evaporation by reducing sweat accumulation
How purpose is achieved

Loose weave (and also loose fit)

Less technical

As we'll see later, there are 2 ways this is achieved:

  • In the outer layers, the technology of a breathable waterproof membrane that allows gaseous sweat to pass through (aforementioned)
  • In the inner layers, the technology of moisture wicking that facilitates sweat transforming from liquid to gas

More technical

How traits are measured & marketed

You should never rely solely on one brand's recommendation of what's best, nor just look at ratings because:

  • Ratings are not standardized; each brand may test their products differently in different conditions
  • Marketing language isn't standardized (see table below)
  • Lab tests don't always translate to real world conditions
  • Products don't always simulate individual human bodies, preferences, or activities very well

Waterproofing

This is a great example of the lack of standardization in marketing terminology. It's kind of like saying 'all natural' food, what does that even mean? It's especially easy to see water resistant & water repellant mixed up (waterproof is a little more testable), we've tried to provide you with our logical definition below. Fundamentally, we think it's important to separate clothing treated to be water repellant vs not; any clothing layer is a little water resistant--you won't feel water on your skin until it absorbs enough to break through. But some materials are more water resistant than others (that is more water needs to be absorbed before it breaks through)

Spectrum

Less waterproof

Less expensive

More waterproof

More expensive

Water resistant Water repellant
(aka hydrophobic)
Waterproof
What it means for fabrics Doesn't actively try to absorb water (e.g., synthetics like polyester) or requires significant water to be absorbed before it breaks through (e.g., wool) Actively tries to repel water, using a Durable Water Repellant (DWR) coating that causes water to bead up & roll off
DWR
Doesn't let liquid water pass through
What is the rating or measurement?

For fabrics: MM rating: 0 to 20,000+ MM

How many millimeters (MM) of water can you put over a single square inch (6.5 square centimeters) of fabric before it starts to leak through? This tries to therefore capture both quantity & pressure*. Price generally increases with rating

For electronic devices (just an FYI comparison point): Ingress Protection (IP) rating, more info here

What is considered 'good'?

There are no standards, and each manufacturer's opinion on what MM rating you want for each activity can differ quite widely. We've distilled it to the following rule-of-thumb: for outdoor activity, you want to be between 5,000-15,000MM

*The more water, the more pressure, which is why less commonly you'll see a PSI (pounds per square inch) metric (1 PSI = 700 MM, roughly). Why is pressure important? If wind is blowing rain at you, it may break through more easily than otherwise (like the expression 'stinging rain'). Similarly, this is why for dry snow, you don't need a lot of waterproofing, since snow is lighter & less dense than liquid water

Breathability

Used in the (outdoor context)

What is the rating or measurement? The G rating: 0 to 20,000+ G

How many grams (G) of water can transfer through a square meter of fabric over 24 hours (g/m^2/24hr). Price generally increases with rating. Harder to intuitively understand & also much more rarely used as marketing, therefore definitely there is no standard definition for 'good'. As a rule-of-thumb: you want similar G ratings as MM ratings: for outdoor activity, you want to be between 5,000-15,000G.

Less commonly you may also see brands talking about air permeability. The truth is, even beyond the lack of standardization, there is so much inconsistency in how the industry talks about breathability (already confusing given contextual differences), air permeability, ventilation, and windproofing, and the inter-relationships between these, that we'd rather not discuss it at all in our guide. The best advice we have is to try things out!

One important thing to mention: though a breathable fabric allows sweat vapor to pass through, what force pushes or pulls the sweat vapor out into the atmosphere? Physics: when there is a lower concentration of water in the outside than inside (of your jacket), water moves itself trying to equilibriate. This highlights an important consequence: if water concentration in the outside environment is too high, then no matter the breathability, sweat won't evaporate. This can happen if there is high humidity, or if there is too much water on the outside of the jacket (this is why shells also are treated to be water repellant, because water collecting on the outside may prohibit sweat leaving the inside, still leaving you wet!)

Insulation

Click here for a high level overview of how insulation works, which can be helpful to understand the terminology & concepts used throughout this page.

Rating (and therefore guidelines below) only for lofting filler technology; none available for standalone material technology. More info on difference in section below

What is the rating or measurement? Grams of insulating material per square meter

While with sleeping bags there are temperature ratings for warmth, with insulation in clothing, typically you don't see these. You may see grams, but it's hard to translate that into something more useful (e.g., how many grams are ideal for different conditions), since it depends so much on type of insulation, where those grams are distributed, etc. As a rule-of-thumb: you want at least 50 grams for most outdoor activities, and at least 100 grams for colder weather or snow-based activities. Price generally increases with quantity

Windproofing

What is the rating or measurement? N/A

Just like with waterproofing, there is inconsistency in use of words like wind resistance or windproof. There are no ratings or measurements. Rule-of-thumb: waterproof clothing is also windproof.

Less commonly you may also see brands talking about air permeability. The truth is, even beyond the lack of standardization, there is so much inconsistency in how the industry talks about breathability (already confusing given contextual differences), air permeability, ventilation, and windproofing, and the inter-relationships between these, that we'd rather not discuss it at all in our guide. The best advice we have is to try things out!

We also found this great trick: Blow as hard as you can into a piece of fabric to approximate a 20mph wind, put your hand on the other side, do you feel it?

How much of a technical trait do you need?

Is water-resistant enough, or do you need full on waterproof? How much insulation do you need? The answer really depends, as you can see from the various scenarios below.

Waterproofing Breathability Insulation Windproofing
Less More Less More Less More Less More
Your body*

You sweat less**

You sweat more**

You run hot*

You run cold*

You run hot*

You run cold*

Physical activity level**

Low activity

High activity

High activity

Low activity

High activity

Low activity

Temperature

Low temp

High temp

High temp

Low temp

Humidity

Low humidity

High humidity

Wind

High wind

Low wind

Low wind

High wind

Low wind

High wind

Precipitation

Low rain/ Snow

/

High rain/ wet snow

/

Low rain/ Snow

/

High rain/ wet snow

/

Rain

Snow

Location

On land

Over water

On land

Over water

*Generally, men run hotter than women

**Generally larger bodies sweat more

Adding to the complexity, many of the above situations will occur concurrently. Rain often brings humidity, some climates are designated hot & humid, etc. Sometimes you have to make trade-offs. For example:

  • In tropical climates, sometimes you may not want to wear a rain jacket even when it's pouring, because it's such high humidity that any layer, no matter how breathable, will trap sweat. So even if you're dry from the rain, you can still get wet from sweat!
  • If you're skiing hard in a cold environment, do you go with more insulation (following temperature) or less insulation (following activity level)? This is precisely why, as we'll see next, layering is super important, so you can be more adaptive.

Layering: the best way to get it all out of your technical apparel

The best strategy to manage the trade-offs in technical traits is layering. We'll go through & discuss each of these more in detail, but here's a high level summary.

Base layer Middle or mid layer(s)* Outer layer*
Primary purpose In terms of technical trait Breathability** Insulation Waterproofing & windproofing
Counters body heat loss from Evaporation Conduction (sometimes radiation) Convection
Optional purpose* In terms of technical trait Insulation Waterproofing & windproofing Insulation
Counters body heat loss from Conduction Convection Conduction (sometimes radiation)

*All layers in a system must be breathable (i.e., allow sweat vapor to escape) for it to work. For example, if the base layer is breathable and trying to funnel sweat to the outside, but the mid-layer is not, then the sweat will just stop and condense there. Therefore, breathability is a given in a technical layering system, whereas the 'Optional purpose' refers to additional components that the clothing may have, depending on its brand. See more info below

**Technically this is fulfilled by the moisture wicking technical trait, more info on this in the base layer section

Methodology

When we compare materials, comparisons are meant to be general guidelines at a high level. There are various sub-types of materials (e.g., wool can be standard sheep's wool, cashmere, merino, etc.; for outdoor use, merino wool is favored because it's a good balance between softness & price). Additionally, ratings may be affected by fabric weave or construction (e.g., breathability is affected by how open a weave is), and any special treatments that may be applied (e.g., waterproofing).

Base layer

Recall that in an outdoor context, breathability means allowing sweat to pass through, despite any waterproofing layers that may be present. Therefore, as we mentioned in the footnote above, all layers must be breathable. However, this layer, closest to the skin, has a special purpose, it must help facilitate the transformation of sweat from liquid water to water vapor.

Moisture wicking is the name for this technology (given the abilities below, you may also hear it referred to as quick dry fabric), where the fabric is designed (woven & treated) such that it:

  • Quickly pulls sweat from your body via capillary action
  • Distributes that sweat over a larger surface area for faster evaporation

More minor, but moisture wicking fabrics often also are a one way street, so they pull sweat off your body but then are themselves water resistant so that once sweat is pulled into it or rain falls on it, that water is then not transferred onto your skin

Therefore, to say the primary purpose of a base layer is breathability is a bit of a simplification, it would be more accurate to say that the primary purpose is to facilitate the evaporation of sweat, which passes through other breathable layers, to the outside environment.

Though it facilitates evaporation, since the sweat ultimately evaporates from the base layer fabric itself rather than your skin, it counters body heat loss through evaporation. That's why the base layer is called the 'second skin' or 'proxy skin' since it takes on the evaporative cooling effect, and why for it to work, it's important that a base layer be well form-fit to your body.

Fabric material Synthetics (nylon or polyester) Wool Silk Cotton
Performance Primary purpose (breathability through moisture-wicking)

Cotton absorbs rather than wicks moisture*

Optional purpose (insulation)
Durability
Ability to compact small & be lightweight
Affordability
Other considerations: odor resistance

*The moisture absorbing ability is why cotton is a good undershirt. One purpose of an undershirt is to absorb sweat before it can get to the outer shirt & stain it. A wicking undershirt would facilitate more sweat getting on your outer shirt, leaving more stains!

Conclusions:

  • Synthetic or Wool: are the best
  • Silk: better to avoid; high cost & not the most performant
  • Cotton: best to avoid for outdoor activities where keeping warm in the context of strenuous activity & cold weather is important

You may have realized that base layers are similar to many gym clothes! This is very true, but outdoor-specific layers also may have a secondary, insulation ability that gym clothes do not have.

Weight class

Less insulation

Less expensive

More insulation

More expensive

Lightweight Midweight
(aka middleweight)
Heavyweight
Example uses

Gym, sport, general fitness (e.g., yoga pants)

High exertion outdoor activities (cross country skiing, running, etc.)

Most versatile, good for general fitness to snowsports Very cold weather (e.g., expeditions)

Outer layer

We're going to skip the mid-layer, you'll see why later. The outer layer is the most obvious to think about, it needs to be windproof & waterproof to prevent heat loss from convection. That's why it's often called a shell; specifically here we'll be talking about hard shells (we'll compare soft shells later). Rule-of-thumb: clothing that's waterproof is also windproof, but not vice-versa. There are many waterproof materials, Gore-Tex is probably the most famous (it's actually related to Teflon, the same non-stick coating that was popular for cookware!), but each major outdoor gear brand has developed their own waterproof 'membrane' technology (e.g., eVent [another commercial brand used by multiple manufacturers], HyVent from The North Face, H2No from Patagonia, MemBrain from Marmot, etc.). Unlike with other clothing layers, we will not discuss the pros & cons of each membrane technology, as most consumers will not be interested in the details & it's difficult to standardize comparisons for highly proprietary technology. At a similar price point, each technology works very similarly. If you're curious, one comparison chart we've found is here.

Given that the proprietary waterproof membrane technology is so high-tech & important, you want to protect it! If it scrapes on rock or ice, gets caught on a branch, you could damage it & its ability to protect you. You even need to protect the membrane internally--your body oils, sweat, salts, etc., can clog the membrane, reducing its breathability, which can actually cause you to get wet in a surprising way. For that reason, in a single outer layer garment, there are actually multiple material layers. The catch is, these layers are pretty much all bonded together so that when you touch it, you only feel a single layer. The only way to tell is to read the product label (or, once you've developed a feel for it, you might be able to identify by touch, and we've called out some characteristics below).

Outer layer anatomy

Source: https://www.dryguywaterproofing.com/store/blog/post/breathability-why-it-s-important.html

Layer Count

Jacket name & appearance

X-layer, or X-ply construction

Performance of primary purpose* (wind- & water- proofing) Durability Ability to compact small & be lightweight Affordability Other considerations

+1
Outermost face fabric

+1
Middle waterproof-breathable membrane

  • Primary waterproofing
  • Primary windproofing

Interior layer options

  • Protects middle membrane (the higher the layer count, the better the protection)
  • Affects name!
+1
Bonded liner
+0.5
Spray-on coating
+0
Un-bonded liner

2

Visually obvious, a loose 'flap' on the inside, sometimes mesh

2-layer shell construction
Not that many material options for face fabric, see this section

Un-bonded liner is a separate piece of fabric

Un-bonded liner may be more soft & comfortable

2.5

Only 1 layer detectable & interior looks a little shiny, has spot patterns

2.5-layer shell construction

Coating is just '0.5' a layer

Coating may be less moisture wicking; sweat may condense inside & it feels clammy***

3

Only 1 layer detectable & it feels more stiff & robust

3-layer shell construction
Bonded liner may be a little 'crinkly'****

*Performance of optional purpose (insulation) depends, as jackets may come with varying degrees of insulation (more info below)

**It's actually really important that the outer face fabric is water repellant, otherwise you can get wet in a surprising way

***For this reason, sometimes people say a 2.5 layer is less breathable compared to a 3 layer. But this difference has become very minimal with the latest coating technology, and moreover, any difference is likely negligible compared to the larger differences between products & brands

****Modern 3-layer jackets don't have as big of a problem here, also this tends to improve over time as the fabric is 'worn in' or 'broken in'

Images from: https://www.outdoorgearlab.com/topics/clothing-mens/best-rain-jacket/buying-advice & https://nwt3k.com/blog/waterproof-jackets-and-fabrics-guide/

Conclusion: a 3-layer will be most versatile across all activities, also see comparison with soft shell below

What about a poncho as an outer layer?

For city use, or hiking/ backpacking* Poncho (high end)** Shell clothing
Example images Poncho Rain jacket
Performance Insulation

So loose, wind completely blows inside

Wind- & water- proofing

Given the loose fit, there's lots of opportunities for wind & water to get inside; but if wind/water hit the fabric straight on, it's fine

Breathability

The loose fit means it's always super breathable

Durability

Even high end ponchos are still very easy to snag on outdoor objects. If this were a low end poncho, it wouldn't even get a star! (I've had one that I bought at a gift shop out of desperation rip as I put it on, right out of the packaging!)

Ability to compact small & be lightweight
Affordability

A poncho may also cover enough of your lower body that you don't need shell pants, saving even more money

*For activities based in snow or water (e.g., skiing or sailing), a poncho isn't even an option, it's far too loose to keep out snow or water splashes

**We are however not talking about a poncho that cost just a few dollars. Those are usually just like a plastic bag--so not durable that any errant twig will rip it apart (usually they're made with PVC)! High end ponchos are also made of ripstop nylon, and should cost at least $50. Some also have nifty features, like being able to transform into tarp tents

Conclusion: the only condition under which we think a poncho might be useful is one in which breathability is so impacted (e.g., a very humid environment) that it's worth all the other trade-offs in performance & durability. Even then, it's easier to imagine a poncho for city use, where there may be wide open paths, than for use on trail

Do you need a Middle (Mid) layer?

Insulation is flexible, it can be added to other layers. We've already talked about heavyweight base layers. Outer layers can also have insulation material (usually lofting filler technology, more info on this in the mid-layer section):

  • Built-in insulation the insulation is sewn in to the inside of the jacket. These jackets are referred to as insulated jackets or insulated shells
  • Zip-off insulation the insulation is a separate internal jacket can be removed. These jackets are sometimes referred to as system jackets (outer + mid-layer together in one system) or 3-in-1 jackets (because you can wear it as outer + mid-layer, just outer layer, or just mid-layer).

Across these 2 styles, you can find every combination: less insulation, more insulation, different insulation materials, etc. Obviously, the more insulation, the more expensive you can expect the outer layer to be.

Isn't a 3-in-1 the best of everything? For most people yes, but (recall what we said earlier about context) if you're trying to optimize at the highest levels of performance, you may want to fine tune amount of insulation, materials, etc. based on minor changes in circumstance. A 3-in-1 would force you to go with what's built-in, without this degree of control

At this point, think about the context of your needs, do you still need a separate mid-layer?

Middle (Mid) layer

By now, you know that mid-layers (aka midlayers) are the most flexible because:

  • You may not need it (e.g., if you have a heavyweight base layer & an insulated outer layer)
  • It mainly needs to insulate, rather than provide technically advanced purposes (moisture wicking for base layers or water/wind-proofing for outer layers)
  • It needs to vary in insulation across a variety of conditions (cool to extremely cold)
Insulation technology

Lofting fillers

Fillers expand to fill up space to trap dead air. Materials are stuffed inside a face fabric

Standalone material

Material fibers themselves trap air

Natural down Synthetic fibers Wool Fleece Cotton
Naturally-derived from the fluffy part at the root of duck or geese feathers Man-made, various technologies exist Naturally-derived from sheep Man-made, from polyester Naturally-derived from cotton plants
Performance Primary purpose (insulation) General performance *
Lofting filler Standalone material

Lofting fillers have a better warmth-to-weight ratio because their puffiness traps more dead air, thus these jackets may be called puffer or puffy jackets. However, sometimes clothing needs to fit tightly & not loft, that's why there are standalone materials that are also insulating (standalone materials may also be more breathable). For how it works, be sure to check our insulation pop-out

When wet

Wet feathers don't loft well. Face fabrics or feathers may be treated to be water repellant, but care should still be taken to avoid getting this wet


Fibers are designed to loft even when wet


Holds air pockets even when wet


Absorbs water quickly, but also dries quickly (so sligtly better than cotton)


Absorbs water quickly

Optional purpose (wind- & water- proofing) /

Filler materials not directly exposed. Rating varies depending on exterior face fabrics. If jacket is an outer layer (e.g., insulated shell), it can be fully wind- & water- proof & highly durable. If jacket is just a mid-layer (e.g., a puffer jacket), it is likely less so


Fibers can absorb a good amount of water before it feels wet

Durability

Ability to compact small & be lightweight

See general performance for notes on warmth-to-weight ratio

Affordability
Other considerations Ideally is cleaned with special detergent N/A Bad at moisture wicking

*Synthetic lofting fillers' fibers will break over time, impeding their ability to loft. With proper care (e.g., not prolonged compressed storage), down fibers can last much longer

All the comparisons above compare only the materials, for the filler materials, factors are further impacted by the external face fabric (e.g., if it's part of an insulated shell, how many layers does it have)

Conclusions:

  • Lofting fillers: are the best, and the choice of down vs synthetic comes down to budget & activity type (e.g., wet conditions or backpacking where small/lightweight is more important)
  • Wool: is best as insulation in a base layer (e.g., heavier weight), given that it's heavier/bulkier & less durable
  • Fleece: is an affordable, versatile option you should just have on hand (see our recommend layering)
  • Cotton: should continue to be avoided!

Outer layer & mid-layer merging together: hard vs soft shell

Given the versatility & affordability of fleece, wouldn't it be nice if it were more wind/ water proof? That's the exact idea behind a soft shell! It's compared to a hard shell in the sense that both are designed to be worn on the outside (though you can also use a soft shell as the mid-layer since that's how it evolved). What's the difference between a hard shell with some insulation (e.g., an insulated shell) versus a soft shell, by definition an insulation layer, with some water repellence?*

Hard shell with some insulation Soft shell with some wind/ water repellence
Performance Insulation

Hard shells use lofting fillers, whereas a soft shell is a standalone material

Wind- & water- proofing
Breathability**

No matter how breathable a hard shell is, a soft shell that doesn't have the waterproof membrane will always be superior

Durability Both are designed to be worn as outer layers so durability is similar, but can still be different based on other factors
Ability to compact small & be lightweight

Hard shells use lofting fillers, whereas a soft shell is a standalone material

Affordability
Other considerations: stretchability

Since soft shells don't have the waterproof membrane, they're more stretchy, allowing you a wider range of motion even if it's form-fit

*There are some soft & hard shell hybrids, specifically soft shells that claim full waterproofness because there is a membrane or there is a laminate layer applied. Think of this as more of a spectrum than a one-or-the-other comparison

**Required technical trait for all layers, so it's not highlighted on previous tables, but here, it's a key difference

Conclusion:

A hard shell is more versatile--you can always try to unzip to increase breathability, but you can't force a soft shell to become waterproof. Not to mention technology is constantly improving to make the waterproof membranes used in hard shells more breathable.

That said, if you will need the full waterproofing more, go with a hard shell; if you will need the breathability/ stretchability more, go with a soft shell. For example: cross country or backcountry skiers, climbers, and trail runners tend to favor soft shells because those are high exertion activities done during fair weather (though skiers should carry a hard shell just in case).

Layering: up & down the body

We know there are tons of recommendations out there for what layers to wear for different climates, activities, etc. But these recommendations tend to assume that you will go out and buy dozens of different types of layers, which most people don't do! What we've tried to do up to now is to really help you understand the purpose of each type of layer, material, etc. so you can decide what's more worth it.

Here, we'll give you our recommendations for the most versatile pieces (as well as talk about which pieces, grayed out, are less recommended or generally used), with the estimated price range for a nice article of clothing that should last with proper care. If you had to cut due to budget, then de-prioritize the last 3 rows of clothing (always have activity-appropriate helmets & shoes), or of course, check out our rental program & get a 90% discount for many of the articles of clothing here!

Base layer Mid layer Outer layer
Upper body

Midweight synthetic base layer (versatile for general fitness + outdoor activities), long or short sleeved

$30-70

2 pieces that you can wear individually or layer together to cover most activities

Hard shell, 3-layer, ideally a high denier fabric so this can be versatile for land-, snow-, or water-based activities*

$150-300

Fleece (versatile for city or outdoors)

$70-150

Insulating jacket (e.g., puffy; ~100g insulation, middle of the road for outdoor activities)

$100-200

Base layer top Fleece jacket Puffy jacket Hard shell jacket
Lower body

Midweight synthetic base layer (versatile for general fitness + outdoor activities), pants- or shorts-length

$30-70

While fleece pants (and more rarely, insulating puffy pants) do exist, these are more rarely used, since the lower body is typically more in motion & gets hotter. If you need more insulation, you can also think about getting a heavier weight base layer or more insulation in the outer layer

Hard or soft shell depending on the more frequent activity (hard shell for water/snow-based or very rainy conditions)

$70-200

Base layer bottom Fleece pants Puffy pants Soft shell pants
Head, neck, face

A versatile buff** (pictured), or a facemasks (aka balaclava)

$10-30

A scarf & beanie both would count as mid-layers, but given how heavy/ bulky they can be, as well as the fact that many outdoor jackets have high collars & hoods to insulate, these are less recommended

Where approriate, an activity-appropriate helmet for safety or hat*** for sun protection. Both layers also insulate

$20-50 for outdoor-specific hat***

Buff Scarf Beanie Hat
Hands There are glove or mitten liners, but these, worn with gloves or mittens, further compromise dexterity. Generally people just wear one set Extremities are hard to keep warm, the nicest gloves or mittens seem to still leave you cold. Yet layering isn't ideal, so remember to always bring some hand-warmers****!

Insulated mittens or gloves (for cold-weather sports)

$50-100

Glove liners
Hand-warmers
Snow gloves or mittens
Feet There are sock liners, but since feet can get so sweaty & smelly, people are less inclined to add more layers here

Ankle-length (to prevent twisted ankles) wool (for better odor control) socks. If you're worried about warmth (especially for snowsports), get toe-warmers****!

$10-30

We always recommend activity-appropriate shoes, which also provide some insulation
Sock liners Toe-warmers Socks N/A, out of scope, depends on your activity

*This versatility is nice in a pinch, but if you frequently do an activity, there may be features particular to an activity-specific outer layer that's worth investing in

**Buffs were originally made by the eponymous company, but now many companies make their own versions. Legally, these other versions can't be called buffs, so they're often called neck gaiters, but many people refer to these as buffs anyway (like how tissues are generally referred to as kleenex)

***Outdoor specific hats can also be waterproof, which drives up the pricing relative to a baseball cap. Most people will just use a hat they already have. We just recommend it have a brim, preferably all the way around, and chinstrap to prevent it from being blown away

****A small packet of chemical powder or gel that generates heat once you expose it to air & shake it little. Warmers generally top out at 2-3 hours of heat, then feel a little warm for another half day or so. Commonly used in snowsports, where gloves may even have pockets just to contain them!

Gloves or mittens?

Gloves

Maybe more dexterous*

Gloves

Mittens

Definitely more warm**

Gloves

*How much dexterity depends. Snowsports gloves, for example, are quite thick; you probably won't solve any puzzles wearing them! (Actually most snowsports clothing has extra-textured or large zipper pulls to accommodate.) And even though smartphone predominance has led to textured 'E-tips' on gloves to help you use a touchscreen, honestly the performance generally leaves much to be desired--you can maybe check the time and a quick message, but can't really entertain yourself.

**Because fingers touch & share body heat

Durability

In our discussion in the Thermoregulation section, we talked about materials & durability differences for base layers & mid-layers. We saved outer layers because materials are all very similar, and durability is more related to fabric thickness, cut, and construction.

Fabric thickness

If you've heard the term 'denier', this refers to fiber thickness*, in short the higher this D number, the more thick the overall fabric is. A thicker fabric is important for activities with a greater risk of abrasion. However, as you can imagine, thicker fabric also increases weight & bulk (and price). This is why people may have multiple shells: thicker (or heavy duty) for climbing or snowsports** (where you can fall on snow, ice, or rock); thinner (or standard & ultralight) for backpacking, where weight & compressibility can be important, especially on long trips.

*While denier can be measured for all types of fabrics, durability is most critical for exterior face fabrics, which is why the industry typically analyzes denier for common exterior face fabrics: polyester & nylon

**Snowsports pants may have extra-thick fabric around the ankles, beyond the higher denier of the overall pants, to prevent the sharp edges of snowboards or skis from slicing into the pants

Denier

Thinner

Less durable

Less expensive

Lower weight/ more compactible

Thicker

More durable

More expensive

Higher weight/ less compactible

10 20 40 80 160 200 400 600+
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Nylon Clothing examples Ultralight hard shells Standard hard shells Heavier duty hard shells
Gear examples Ultralight tents Standard tents Bags or backpacks
Polyester Clothing examples Standard hard shells Heavier duty hard shells
Gear examples Tents

Nylon vs Polyester

Nylon is stronger than polyester, meaning that for the same use case (i.e., same risk of abrasion), you can have a thinner nylon fabric, you can see this relationship in the table above. Nylon is also more expensive. As a result:

  • Higher end gear & clothing is made with more nylon; lower end gear & clothing is made with more polyester
  • Ultralight gear (high end) tends to be made with nylon

Dyneema, the new frontier

While we're talking about fabrics, you may hear buzz around Dyneema. Dyneema is a synthetic material with one of the highest strength-to-weight ratios, important because one of the core areas of innovation in outdoor manufacturing is ultralight. The reason we don't include Dyneema more formally, is because there are currently 2 major barriers to widespread adoption:

  • Purely woven Dyneema is rare, it's often used in a composite form, called Dyneema Composite Fiber (DCF) or Cuben fiber. In this form, it's sandwiched between 2 layers of mylar which, alas, is not very strong (early reviews of tents with DCF warn about filing your nails before using to avoid tearing the fabric... just a joke or a dire warning?)
  • It's extremely expensive. A 2-person ultralight tents made from DCF pushes to $1000 (which is why a pure Dyneema tent is even more unrealistic). In every item where DCF or Dyneema is used as a major component (tents, backpacks, clothing, etc.), prices push to the very top of any estimated ranges we provide, sometimes it's out-of-range entirely (i.e., it's too expensive for us to reasonably include as representative of the market, see pricing methodology notes where available)

Other factors of durability

Even more technical, so we won't go into all the details, but some things to look at would be:

  • Seams: where are they placed & how are they sealed? (e.g., a welded seam is more durable than a taped seam)
  • Fit & stretch: does it allow for good range of motion? (e.g., a soft shell can be more durable than a hard shell in the sense that its stretchiness means you're less likely to bust through any seams!)

Activity performance

Features

At a high level, since technical clothing is generally designed to keep you warm & dry in a changing outdoor environment where you may be alternating between periods of high activity & rest, it has features that city clothes won't:

Features you will generally see

Features you may see

May add to price

  • Ventilation zips: For example, pit zips (under the arm pit), or zips along the leg (which can be along the entire leg, making it suitable for ventilation or quick change). These help drive more ventilation when the jacket isn't 'breathing' fast enough and too much body heat is being trapped. Some zips open to a mesh liner whereas others open fully to your skin or the next layer underneath
  • Cinch or velcro: Almost every opening (jacket hoods, waist lines, wrists, or pant hems) can be cinched or velcro'd shut to keep out the cold
  • Waterproof zipper tracks: Either the track itself is waterproof or there's a waterproof flap that covers the track when it's zipped
  • Sun protection: Clothing may be woven or treated or have certain fabrics or colors designed to protect you from UV radiation. Rated with the Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) number (much like SPF in sunscreen)
  • Bug protection: Clothing may be treated with bug repellancy

Ok so you've decided you want a hard shell... you look online and see rain jacket, ski jacket, snowboard jacket, sailing jacket, belay jacket, etc. There's still so many different options! What's the difference??

We put features last, because once you get into activity-specific features, you reduce overall versatility of the item. This is great if you want to perform the best, but if you go out only a few times a year and try different activities, you may not want to spend $100s in different clothing items with different features. Here, we'll list out common features so you can decide what's worth it to you, the more features, the more price may go up. Keep in mind that feature differences generally apply to outer layers. Base layers are very similar across activities (though you may want a different weight), even if their functions & names may slightly change. For example, for watersports, a base layer is very similar to a rash guard, which is called that as one of its purposes as a 'second skin' is to prevent your skin from UV exposure or chafing due to sand, surf boards, wetsuits, etc. Mid-layers are also similar, you'd just want to swap out materials based on activity, e.g., given its weakness to water, a down puffer for sailing is not the best idea.

Outer layer feature examples Hiking & backpacking Biking Watersports (e.g., sailing) Snowsports Climbing*
Less likely to be insulated More likely to be insulated
Jacket only N/A
  • Drop-tails (e.g., back longer than front) to protect your behind when you're leaning forward
  • Generally do not have hoods
  • High collars to keep out water
  • Goggle-sized pocket
  • Lift pass pocket or voucher loop
  • Helmet-compatible hood
  • Large textured zippers (easier to use with gloves)
  • Large pocket for climbing shoes or gloves
  • Helmet-compatible hood
  • 2-way zipper for access to belay harness***
  • Large textured zippers (easier to use with gloves)
Pants only N/A N/A
  • Straps or gaiters to cinch around boots to prevent water from going up
  • Reinforced fabric at ankles to prevent board or skis from tearing into fabric
  • Reinforced rear for comfort when 'sitting' into a belay device
  • Greater flexibility for technical moves that require stretching your legs apart
Jacket & pants
  • Weight-conscious design (minimalist in terms of pockets)
  • Pack into its own pocket
  • Zip-off sleeves or pant legs for thermoregulation versatility
  • Reflective patches for road visibility
  • Integration features**
  • Gaiters (snow skirt aka powder skirt or boot gaiters) to prevent snow from getting into clothes
  • RECCO avalanche safety reflector
  • Integration features**
N/A
Gloves
  • Weight-conscious design (minimalist in terms of pockets)
  • May be finger-less
  • Reinforced palm for grip
  • Shock-absorbent palm padding
N/A
  • Handwarmer pockets
  • May be finger-less
  • Generally no mitten options given need for high dexterity
Helmets Out of scope since this is more gear than clothing. For more info, check our helmet gear guide

*Generally cold/ alpine conditions, getting into mountaineering & ice climbing. Not for the gym or sunny days at the beach!

**There may be loops or zippers on jacket/pants that allow them to be integrated togethr in a way that minimizes seams or openings. This may require both jacket & pants to be the same model or product line

***2 zipper pulls that go in both directions, so you can unzip just the bottom part. If you're wearing the jacket over your harness, unzipping from just the bottom means you can access your harness without taking it all off.

Style & design

Beyond just a fashion statement, style & design can be important to safety in the outdoors. Generally, you may notice that technical clothing:

  • Sizes larger: so you can implement a layering system (important difference for bicycling, below)
  • Is brightly colored: for better visibility (I was lost for 2 hours on trail until I saw a neon blue jacket in the distance!)

Here are some other differences you may see in outer layer jackets & pants:

Hiking & backpacking Biking Watersports (e.g., sailing) Snowsports Climbing
N/A
  • Solid, fluorescent colors for visibility
  • Very slim fit for more aerodynamic movement (and less likely to need lots of layers)
  • Solid, fluorescent colors for visibility
  • Longer clothes provide more coverage (more warmth & padding; less snow getting in)
  • Skiing: Slimmer fit for more aerodynamic movement
  • Snowboarding: Looser fit (adapted from streetstyle & also better for tricking)
N/A

For snowsports particularly, there are also onesies & bibs (overall-type pants). Both of these serve the benefit of reducing snow getting under the clothes, but are also very much a fashion statement. For example, onesies were much more popular in the late 1980s (I had a onesie as my first ski outfit!). We unfortunately do not have onesies (these are largely out of style & not manufactured). For bibs, we have some men's sizes for rent (usually aren't made for women), but these are very limited, please call to reserve.

There aren't that many differences here, and personal preference probably vastly trumps any differences that do exist. We've definitely heard that a sailing jacket on a snow mountain would make you look like a big traffic cone! But then again, think about the naked person skiing, and decide what's best for you!


Less technical, but still technical, clothing

If you're just going for a day hike, do you still need all of the technical layers mentioned above? Well first remember need is relative. A day hike starting from Everest Base Camp? Yes, you need the technical stuff! But a day hike in an urban environment? Less important. (Another example: people will often do a short walk after dinner in their camp clothes, rather than changing into a more technical set-up.) As well, more people want multi-functional options so they can go from trail to city for an event (e.g., you may see yoga pants worn with this flexibility), and they want technical features that still look fashionable.

We define less-technical-but-still-technical clothing as made with:

  • Some technicality in mind
    • Fabric is more durable & doesn't have cotton, but generally won't be fully waterproof
    • Features lots of pockets (e.g., think cargo style), zippers/zip-offs for ventilation/versatility (e.g., pants that can change into shorts, shirts with removable sleeves), UV or bug protection
  • The design of street clothes
    • Similar fit & cut (not form-fit)
    • Similar patterns & styles

You'd still think of these clothes as outer layers, but since we're talking less technicality here, they may also be the only layers you need, i.e., worn standalone. Typically, they're most common for folks going hiking or backpacking or camping (i.e., more grounded, land-based activities) in good weather, so you'll often see the word 'hiking' in the name. These are the 3 most common pieces

Hiking shirt Hiking pants Hiking skirt*
Hiking shirt Hiking pants Hiking skirt

*Hiking skirts, for both sexes (for men, may be marketed as hiking kilts), allow for more ventilation, ease of using the bathroom (no worry about accidentally splashing or hitting the pants piled around your legs), and quicker changing. For some people it's a way to reduce chafe, but for others it may increase it.

The waterproofing is not working!

Even though it's not fully answering the question of what clothing you need, this section may prevent you from accidentally throwing out something that just needs a touch up! For example, many people throw out shells after a rip, tear, or hole, but you can easily patch this in a way that maintains waterproofing: with Tenacious Tape!

Hiking in the rain

Now let's examine other issues affecting waterproofing. First, recall that there are 3 ways to define 'waterproof'. Let's talk about the first 2, not fully waterproof, types of fabric:

Why it happens How to fix it
Water resistant fabric is failing You've reached the end of its resistance! If you jump into a pool wearing polyester (which absorbs little water) or wool (which holds lots of water before it feels wet), you will get wet Since this resistance is conveyed by the material, you just have to dry it out to build the resistance back up... and maybe use something else if it's raining that hard!
Water repellant fabric is failing

The Durable Water Repellant (DWR) finish has worn away, especially likely:

  • Around the shoulder - rubbing from backpack straps
  • On the buttocks - sitting & scraping on solid surfaces
  • Around the wrists & ankles - lots of contact & rubbing with various surfaces
You can use either spray-on treatments or detergents to refresh the DWR (more info here)

You're probably more concerned about the fact that a $300 fully waterproof Gore-Tex shell isn't waterproof anymore, right? There are many potential causes & solutions, which may surprise you:

Why it happens How you might identify this cause How to fix it
Seams are leaking If seams are sewn (as opposed to welded), the needle punctures the waterproof membrane. That's why these seams then have to be sealed with a waterproof material, typically a kind of tape. This tape may deteriorate over time If you can physically see strips of tape peeling away & notice that you're getting wet just behind those seams You can sometimes buy seam tape & do the repair yourself. Different fabrics require different application methods & different types of tape, check with the manufacturer

The waterproof membrane is actually fine, but sweat is not escaping & that's what actually keeping you wet.

Surprisingly, this is the more likely issue if your shell isn't obviously damaged

The DWR finishing has worn away--this doesn't mean water can get in (since the waterproof membrane is there), it means sweat can't get out!

This is because the shell exterior gets wet, which means that water concentration outside the shell is high. Recall that water tries to equilibriate; if concentration outside is high, evaporation may not occur. This is why DWR treatment is an important part of waterproofing for outer layers

You notice wet patches on the outside of the fabric (this is referred to as 'wetting out' or 'wet out'), especially in hot spot areas where DWR is likely to fail (see table above for examples) See table above for how to refresh DWR
The waterproof membrane is clogged from the inside with body oils, dirt, etc., and this is not allowing sweat to escape When was the last time you washed your shell? You should at least wash once a season (with use).* It's best to use special detergent that doesn't strip away but can refresh the DWR (see table above)
As above, the waterproof membrane is clogged, but specifically because the spray-on protective coating in a 2.5 layer piece of outer wear is wearing away If you can see flaking or peeling** on the interior of the shell Unfortunately you cannot replace the spray-on coating. The waterproof membrane itself should still be working, assuming it's not damaged, but you may want to clean even more often

*Unfortunately, DWR never gets restored to factory-new conditions & washing can cause more abrasion, thereby removing more of it. That's why even washing with DWR-refreshing detergents can feel like 2 steps forward, 1 step back. This also implies that there is a direct trade-off given opposing effects: the more you wash...

  • The more you unclog the membranes which can improve breathability to allow sweat to evaporate
  • The more you may remove DWR which can cause wet out which will prevent sweat from evaporating

**If you've read our gear guide on tent repair, this is not the same thing as the tent's waterproof coating flaking or peeling. Tents don't need to be both waterproof & breathable (they have mesh or windows or ventilation flaps for that purpose), so they have a waterproof coating that can flake off. Clothing on the other hand needs to be both waterproof & breathable, so it's not made with a coating, but a membrane. This membrane doesn't flake. However, the protective coating in a 2.5 layer piece of outer wear may flake.

A specialty repair shop, such as Rainy Pass Repair, may also be able to help with waterproofing seams or washing. This might sound like a lot of overhead, but quality gear & clothing should be treated as an investment piece. Cheaper items don't work very well or last very long, so if you're paying for performance, you want to maintain it as long as possible. This is why we have a rental program, to allow you to try things, or to give you the complete freedom of not having to deal with any maintenance issues.


Thoughts, ideas, questions? Let us know in the comments below! We're Last Minute Gear, the only outdoor gear shop where you can buy, rent, or borrow gear!