Layering for Fall and Winter (Big Post!)


I have been in the outdoor industry for quite some time now and I would like to make a contribution so that you all can stay nice and warm this winter. Be ready for some education.

Layering concepts have been around since the beginning of time. There have always been 3 main ingredients to layering. Base, insulation and shell are the primary ingredients to layering. Here are the definitions to each:

Base-The base layer is designed to wick sweat and transfer the moisture out to the insulation layer. The materials used for absorbsion are typically synthetic hydrophobic fabric. This means that the material will only absorb the moisture to transfer it without retaining any of the water. The fabrics available today have a very quick drying ability, which in turn will make you feel very comfortable and keep you warm. The best materials used are polyesters rather than polypropylene. Polypropylene (or polypro) has a reaction to odors and typically retains odors even after washing. Polyesters are mush more resistant to water saturation and odor retention than polypro. Contrary to popular thoughts, polypro isn’t used very often in base layers even though people still call base layers polypro. The best base layers I have found are very thin yet still transfer and dry quickly. Here are a few choices; Patagonia silk weight layers, Smartwool aero layers, Sporthill energy layers. Remember that if you use anything other than polyesters (or wool blends), the fabric will retain water which will in turn conduct cooler air and make you cold regardless of how much insulation you are wearing. Cotton is the main culprit.

Insulation-Insulations vary from thin (2mm) to very thick (3”). The primary function of insulation is to trap the warm air that your body produces and retain the warm air for as long as possible. Insulation thickness directly relates to warmth factor. The other function to insulation is to transfer moisture produced from your sweat to the outside air while still retaining the warm air that is produced from your core temperature. Insulation layers are typically a type pile or fleece but can also be a lofting material. Insulation layers can also range from the following layer from your base layer to the very last layer that you are wearing. There is a formula for insulation by varying thickness of fleece designed from the Malden Mills Company, which are the primary textile manufacturers of fleece. They label their fleece Polartec. Weights are from 100 to 300 weight. 100 weight fleece is the thinnest and will typically do the best job in wicking the base layer moisture to the next layer of either insulation or wind/waterproof shell material. 200-weight fleece is the most popular insulation layer because of its wide temperate range. 300-weight fleece is the warmest pile material available from any manufacturing company. This weight is typically for very cold temperatures.
All 3 weight have some common ground, they are all very breathable which means the material can insulate when damp, can transfer moisture from sweat the fastest and is very light in actual weight. The downside to fleece is its compressibility. Packing a fleece jacket is difficult for it’s insulation value. Also remember that if the insulation layer is windproof, it will not transfer moisture at the same rate as a non-windproof pile fleece. Typically windproof pile retains more moisture than non-windproof fleece, which can make you colder as well.
The only other type of insulation is down. Down has the greatest warmth value for its pack ability and weight. It can also be used in varying ways as the next layer from your base layer, to the very last layer in your layering system. This factor is quite different than fleece because down can also be worn over your shell layer. Down can not retain trapped warm air when wet and looses it’s insulation value when wet. The fabrics that retain the down vary from very breathable nylons to not so breathable yet waterproof laminates depending on how it is used in your layering system.

Shells- Shells are your very last layer. It can be water-resistant, wind-resistant or insulating or all three. To determine what you need most from your shell, you must decide which is more important; water-resistant, wind-resistant, insulating or all of the above. The most common way to use a shell layer is to only combine the water and wind-resistancy or possibly water and wind-proofness. This layer varies the most and you will have the most amount of options depending on how necessary each factor is. Typically, waterproof shells are also windproof but not vise versa. In warmer climates (45 to 55 degrees), you will only need a base layer and a windproof shell. In wet and warm climates (45 to 55 degrees), you will only need a base layer and a waterproof shell. As the conditions change, you will need to add and subtract insulating layers to regulate your core temperature. The most popular waterproof shell materials are nylon and polyester with a PTFE laminate. PTFE is a Teflon based material, which can bond to nylon and polyester to provide a waterproof yet breathable material. The rate of breath-ability is based on its water-proofness. The more waterproof, the less breathable and vise versa. Gore-Tex is the main manufacturer in the US for waterproof/breathable laminates but Gore-Tex isn’t always the best. Sometimes you will only need very little water and rain protection but will need much more insulation. This is where a nice and thin windproof shell that is very breathable will work better. Your sweat will evaporate at a much greater level if it is not trapped under a laminated nylon which can in turn, make you much warmer. If it is not raining, you should be more concerned about insulation and wind protection than water protection so at this point, you should not be wearing low breath-ability shells such as Gore-Tex rain jackets. People typically will wear Gore-Tex shells to protect them from the wind only because of the versatility of wind and rain protection but the compromise if the fact that some water will be retained and not insulate as well.
Laminates are rated by pressure. The higher the pressure rating, the less breathable the material is. Waders that are made with patented Gore-Tex aren’t very breathable at all because they have a high pressure rating against leakage. This means water cannot enter through the pores in the laminate but it also means very little water can escape from the inside as well. Some water does escape when you are not standing in the water due to water vapor transfer. Water vapor transfer is the only way a waterproof/breathable laminate can transfer moisture. If the outside air is cold enough, condensation occurs on the inside of the fabric, which can give the impression of leakage. Leakage only occurs at weak seams or in punctures or when the laminate is thin enough to allow some water to penetrate the laminate. Gore-Tex waders are probably the highest pressure tested laminate available and is estimated at 75 psi. Gore-Tex jackets are more like 40 psi. Some higher quality jackets with Gore-Tex XCR are still 40 psi but claims the breath-ability of a 25-psi laminate. This suggests a greater amount of breath-ability without the compromise in waterproof ness. In order to obtain the greatest amount of waterproof ness, all seams must be factory taped which is a process that can only be done by very special and expensive process and machinery.

Contrary to popular belief, wading gear that is available from Simms is not the best gear available. Although they are the most technical company in the flyfishing industry, climbing clothing manufacturers have the best layering concepts available at his time. The best place to test technical clothing is right here in our backyard. Washington has a range greater than any other place in the world other than Alaska. Although I am expressing my opinion here, I believe ArcTeryx’ has the best Gore-Tex shells. A close second would be Patagonia and then third place would be Simms. I am sure Simms and ArcTeryx’ will have a contract in the near future considering Simms stress for the most technical wading gear available. I do believe that Simms manufactures the best waders though. At a very high cost though.

Some pointers on layering techniques: What you wear on top, you should wear down below and all over if possible. This means if you wear a silk weight top, then you should wear a silk weight bottom. If you wear a 100-weight top, you should wear a 100-weight bottom. This only allows you to be able to remove your upper layer when you overheat so you will never have to remove your bottoms. Overheating is due to too much insulation trapping heat from your core. Also remember that you are usually standing in water from the waist down which means you should counter insulate. Wear more insulation where you need it, in the water. If you tend to get really cold on the coldest fishing days, wear down. Even if down gets wet by the end of the day, you can still throw it in a dryer when you get home and re-loft it for the next day. Also, remember to never wear cotton and try not to even wear wool if you want to keep warm. Marino wool is an exception. It has the best insulating value of any natural fiber.

Here is the best layering system that I could come up with using the best and most technical manufacturers available:

Patagonia silk weight long sleeve crew and bottoms and socks


Polartec powerstretch 100 weight fleece top and bottoms by ArcTeryx’
Polartec 200 weight full zip bottoms (custom made)(use REI or other)
Smartwool (simms) mountaineering socks
Feathered Friends nylon 800 fill power down “Helios” vest

Simms lightweight Gore-Tex Waders
ArcTeryx’ Theta AR jacket in Forest Green
ArcTeryx’ Cairn Pants (just nylon backpacking pants)

Simms fingerless gloves
Outdoor Research Windstopper fleece hat with ear flaps
Baseball cap
Filson Packer Hat
Outdoor Reasearch Crocodile Gaiters
Simms Neoprene Gaiters

I listed everything I use but I don’t necessary use all of them at once. I might exclude insulation layers or the lightweight nylon pants of I have to wear all of my bottom layers. I also typically reserve the down vest for when I get really cold or when I am moving really slow. If I get cold on the river with all of my layers on, I get out and start walking until I warm up again. I also bring a little stove and sierra cup and coffee press to make coffee on the riverside. I can fit the whole setup in my fanny pack with my fly boxes and additional layers.

I hope this helps you guys out and feel free to ask questions and I will answer them the best I can. Also, please remember that I spared no expense and spent years trying to find the best layering system available. Most of my clothing crosses over for climbing as well. If you are on a budget, you can still obtain good layers for an inexpensive price.


Active Member
Wow, what a lot of good info. You must have some free time! I really like the patagonia capaline products for a baselayer while fishing/hiking. I also really love my Simms Gor-tex waders. I often go with a base of capaline, followed by polartec 200 fleece and a Helly hansen packable jacket. seems to work well.

I wanted to ask you about fishing in the Enchantment lakes. I saw a post a while back about you going there. I've never been, but am planning on going next summer, if I get a permit! anyway, any fishing or hiking info would be great! Thanks, YT
I had to type this report for something else so it was easy to customize it for you folks.

As far as the Enchantments, my advise is to get off the Snow Lakes superhighway and the Colchuck Lake superhighway. Those lakes are all stunted and only provide "okay" fishing compared to other lakes in the area. There are lakes out there with 14" average size fish.

Give me an e-mail before you leave and I might be able to give you a better report. I might even post a photo this winter if I ever get around to scanning the negatives.


Idiot Savant
Also, remember to never wear cotton and try not to even wear wool if you want to keep warm. Marino wool is an exception. It has the best insulating value of any natural fiber.
My experience has been that wool works really well depending on the layers under it. I wear Capilene top and bottom and liner socks. Then I often wear a Pendleton wool shirt or a wool sweater. I rarely get chilled and often have to open my jacket to let off some steam. I also use fleece in place of the wool and the only difference is how it looks. Socks are always Merino wool over the liners. Insulating layer for pants is fleece, haven't found any wool britches.

Not contradicting, just sharing...
Wool is a great natural fiber. When I am decked out in my technical garb, my fishin buddy is wearing filson wool bibs, a pendleton wool sweater, marino wool underwear, and a wool baseball cap. Can you guess what his second hobby is?

Like I stated, polyesters and fleece are the best "performing" material for wicking and transferring moisture. Insulation is still measured by the amount of warm air traped between your body and the outside air. It makes no difference if it is down, wool, fleece, fur, or polarguard. When we look at which one does the best job at transferring moisture.... the order is different.

Usually if you are involved in more than one outdoor activity, you are going to want clothing that crosses over to suit more than one activity. Spending $400 on a wading jacket seems fine if you can afford it but wouldn't it be nice if you could go skiing in your wading jacket? Maybe not.
as a thought, you can get very nice synthetics and wool at second ascent in ballard. they have used and new name brand stuff at great prices. just an idea. jer
Just wanted to say thanks to troutman and everyone else that posted, this has been a very insightful string of messages. This will be my first winter season of steelhead/salmon fishing here in western washington, and since t-man's post I've already started preparing...



Active Member
OK here's my $.02: Patagonia Capaline is great for one reason- it doesn't stink up as fast as regular long johns. As far as skiing in your fishing coat, I guess that's up to you. There are great deals on fishing specific gear out there if you put the energy into finding them. Here's what I've found recently:

Base: Patagonia capiline or similar: Sierra Trading Post for seconds- 1/2 price.

Thermal layer: bottoms: fleece pants with ankle loops at Outdoor Emporium for $25. Top: Zip Tee Patagonia or similar, again seconds or discontinued colors at Sierra Trading Post or similar for 1/2 price or less.

Outer Layer: This is the place not to skimp. Cabelas Waterproof breathable jacket: $120. Or go for the real thing: IMHO Simms or Patagonia SST- find a deal. Waders: GoreTex. Pategonia again at Sierra Trading Post for $225 (regular $350). Why screw around and buy mutiple pairs when you can buy one to last forever? Bailey's for $150 or so seem solid.

Wool socks, fingerless gloves, hats & misc at Outdoor Emproium for cheap.

I prefer light/middle weight long johns, light fleece, with a fleece vest as the variable. A hat and core body insulation will do the most to keep you warm on top of layers.

PS: As the outdoor pros say: cotton kills. Down and water DO NOT MIX. Stay with synthetic.


Active Member
This is a great thread; thanks, troutman. I can't tell you how many times I have taken newbies out for steelhead in February or March only to have them get cold on me within half an hour. Now I will just send them to this thread for info! A couple of other things that I would add.

1) The best pants/insulators I have ever worn are these pants by Patagonia (; I have never been cold when I have worn them. (Well, except for that time I tore my waders open on an oarlock and took in a gallon or two) They are not cheap but were a good investment for me.

2) I feel the same way about bootfoot waders. After about November, I wear these exclusively until the water warms over 40-45 degrees. Most days I don't even think I need to wear socks, my feet are so warm. The open space around your foot provides all the insulation you need, and it is well worth a tradeoff with a little stability, especially on easy wading rivers like the lower Sky.