Favorite Thermal Layer & Shell Combinations For The Woods

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Clothing for the woods, call it what you will, I’ve been asked about it a lot. I guess it’s because I spend a lot of time in the woods and have done for many years.

I do shy away from talking about kit unnecessarily because I think there is an overemphasis on accumulating outdoor kit and an under-emphasis on accumulating outdoor skills and experience.

That said, we all need some outdoor clothing and equipment, more so as we move away from the equator. In particular, our clothing forms the first line of defense against hypothermia. In the woodlands of the northern temperate zone and into the forest, where conditions can be cold and wet, we need clothing which is both protective as well as tough.

The question of what I choose to use has come up several times in my shows as well as in other questions which have been submitted to me.

I’ve been repeatedly asked to talk about what I use, what I like and why. I’ve resisted doing this for a some time as I don’t want people to feel pressured to use what I use.

I talk about three sets of multiple thermal layers combined with a shell layer which I find make particularly complimentary combinations.

I should point out these are favorite combinations of mine.

While I would, of course, recommend all of the garments I suggest, this is not me saying you have to have any of these specific items before you go to the woods.

This is not least because some of the garments I use carry a significant price tag compared to some people’s budgets.

I’ve calculated that most professional people who have a number of good quality suits for their office job have spent more on those suits, along with shirts, ties and shoes have spent more than I have on my outdoor clothing.

My clothing also needs to last. I spend a good amount of the year outdoors, through the seasons, teaching outdoor skills, guiding trips and having my own outdoor adventures.

I’m responsible for others when I teach and guide. I shouldn’t be spending time sorting myself out because I’m cold and wet, when I should be looking after my clients, running a course or a trip. I need to rely on my clothing.

People have asked, though, and I’m answering. These are clothing combinations I use year-round in northern temperate forests as well as spring, summer and autumn use in the forest. The various combinations of clothing in this video have served me well in the UK, Scandinavia and in North America.

Much of this is in woodland and it’s tough on clothing.

The shell layers are all resilient and tough, well suited to the higher levels of abrasion encountered in woodland settings.

Just in case there is any doubt, I’m not being paid to talk about any of the garments or brands in the video. All of the items were paid for by me personally.

It’s not just about specific brands or specific garments. There are some general principles at work here. I refer to some of these in the video, particularly with respect to base layers and hats. In the text below the video, I continue the discussion, drawing out some general principles which you can apply to find items of clothing which fit your budget and specific needs.

The final point, before I let you get to the video, is even though this is not a kit review, all of these garments have been used for many, many months in the field. First impressions are one thing but I don’t believe in video “reviews” which give opinions based on how the clothing looks when it comes off the hanger or out of the packet. I’ll use it for a few years and then give you an opinion…

Clothing Combinations Greater Than The Sum Of The Parts

I mention it in the overall value and performance I get from these clothing combinations is greater than the sum of the individual parts.

While I look at particular models from particular manufacturers in the video (because these are what I own), I feel it’s worth drawing out some general recommendations which you can apply using any number of different manufacturers and models.

Clothing Combinations To Keep You Warm – First Get The Basics Right

If you need to be donning warm upper body layers, then think first about what you have next to your skin. Invest in a good merino wool base layer. They make a huge difference to your warmth and comfort level. The performance they add to your overall clothing system far outstrips any additional weight or bulk.

The second basic which you need is a warm beanie hat. Again the added comfort and warmth from such a small item. A woolen head-over or scarf is also worth carrying in the colder months of the year.

Once you have the basics sorted, below are the generalizations of the three main clothing combinations I discuss in the video…

Protective Combo 1

A thin fleece pullover with zip neck, to wear over your base layer. This type of fleece pullover is both ubiquitous and inexpensive. I like simple models that can be tucked into trousers for extra warmth.

A medium to heavy fleece to wear over the thin pullover. In the video I show a medium weight fleece which also tucks in. If possible, I like this layer to have a hood as it adds a lot of extra protection from the elements for little extra weight.

A sturdy breathable smock of Gore-Tex or similar. This should be large enough to fit over the thermal garments above. This type of smock is good for prolonged periods in heavy rain. The longer smocks keep your groin (and trouser pocket contents) dry without having to don waterproof trousers. This is my go-to style of jacket for teaching courses in the northern temperate zone and wilderness canoe trips.

Protective Combo 2

A thin fleece pullover as described above or thin fleece jacket over your base layer.

A Primaloft or similar synthetic-filled duvet jacket, with a decent, full-sized hood. If the outer shell of this jacket can be made of a good windproof material then all the better. Even better still is a material which is also somewhat water resistant – shower proof if you like – which will help stop moisture going into the insulation. Belay jackets designed for climbers are a good place to look for many of these features. They also tend to be quite light for their performance. The one I use is a little over 600g (21 oz.)

A tough breathable shell jacket of Gore-Tex or similar. Triple-layered breathable membrane fabrics provide high performance and resilience. This style of jacket I use for hiking in heavy wooded areas and ski-touring. I look for good ventilation as well as good pockets for maps, compass, gloves.

Protective Combo 3

A synthetic pile-lined top with an integral windproof outer shell. There are a number of similar designs on the market, some designed to be worn close-fitting, some with a little more room. These garments tend to be very protective, even worn on their own. In the mountains, this is often all you need. The synthetic shell outer of this type of garment, however, is prone to damage from sparks in particular, but also thorns and the generally higher abrasion levels of life in the woods. In the woods, then, I recommend combining them with a tough smock over the top (see below).

A Ventile smock over the top of the above type of garment forms a very tough, protective and breathable combination for the woods.

Longevity And Value

Any of the three clothing combinations discussed above should last a long time if the items are selected carefully. None of the clothing I showed in the video is new. In fact much of it I’ve had for many years. For example, the Norrona jacket is at least 10 years old. The Buffalo Special 6 shirt is 15 years old. The Swazi Tahr is 7 or 8 years old. All of the garments have seen a lot of use. In particular the shell layers see months of use each year.

For the amount of use they have had, all of the garments have provided incredible value. And that’s before I think about how many times they’ve protected me from hypothermia.

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