Layering systems in the winter

The cold winter of Northern Minnesota, while harsh, can create some of the most amazing spectacles of nature. The clear black glossy ice allowing you to see the rocks beneath your feet. The glistening of snow blowing on a sunny day. Or maybe it’s the silence of a wilderness lake at sunrise. All these epic views tend to take place when it’s below freezing and chilly to the bone. While that might keep some folks away from our winter wonderland, for the boy scouts, we tackle these challenges and are often rewarded handsomely with the most magnificent sunrises, sunsets, and wildlife the Northwoods has to offer. In this month’s Northern Tier blog post we are going to talk a little more about the strategies we use at Northern Tier to stay warm. Our gear helps us stay comfortable and allows us to see these amazing places despite what some would call less-than-ideal temperatures. 

Creating a winter clothing system that works for you. 

We will be covering a lot of information about different layers and how to use thembut it’s important to remember that there is not a one size fits all solution to being warm. This guide serves as a starting point for you to understand the basics. You can take these basics, apply them, and then learn what works for you. To put it simply, you must first know the rules before you can break the rules. 


The Basics of the Layering systems 

Before we dive deeper into the gear we are going to talk about the basics of layering systems because layers become the premise for all our equipment. Layers are incorporated into everything from our sleep systems to our clothing. It all follows the basic three W MethodWicking, Warm, and Wind in that order 


Wicking Layer

The wicking layer’s primary function is to move moisture away from your body. In  the winter, moisture is your worst enemy and your body is constantly perspiring. You might only notice it when you exercisebut it happens all the time and the wicking layers work to help move  that moisture away 


The warm layer is really where all the insulating power comes from in the layering system. These layers consist of materials that allow for small pockets of air that can trap your warm body heat next to your body. The problem with insulation layers is that even just a light breeze can penetrate the air pockets and blow away the warm airThis is why the wild layer is very important 


The wind layer’s primary goal is to shield the warm layer and prevent a breeze from blowing away all the warm air inside the air pockets of your warm layerAs a secondary function most wind layers have water protection as well through waterproofing or water resistance. Breathability is also important because we are trying to avoid moisture build-up. Materials like Gore-Tex work all right for winter usebut your best materials are going to be water-resistant and not waterproof. Waterproof jackets that are not breathable like ones made of rubber are a definite no when considering jackets for wind layers 


The Problem with Cotton  

When it comes time to dress up for cold weather most people will tend to reach into the closet for an old cotton hoodie but we want to caution folks who reach for cotton materials. Cotton does work quite well as an insulative warm layer but unfortunately, cotton does not handle water very well. Cotton is a plant-based material and therefore the fibers hold onto water much like a plant would and this can become very dangerous if the cotton becomes wet. When other materials would be wicking the water away from your body and keeping you warm, the cotton will hold the water close to your skin, accelerating the heat loss. Cotton can be used in the winter but should be reserved for experienced campers in dry winter climates. Wet climates or locations where you could get wet are places where you should avoid wearing cotton. Fleece makes a great alternative to cotton and is significantly cheaper than the other alternatives down, or wool. 


Layering systems in Clothing 

Wicking Clothing 

Warm Layer

The wicking layer in the clothing system consists of skin type base layers. This layer should only be wool or synthetic material. Cotton base  layers aren’t uncommon but, as previously mentioned, it holds on to water and can keep you cold. It’s important that the base layer is skin tight or close to it that way the material can soak up moisture and move it away from your skinWicking layers touch your skin and because of that, Northern Tier does not issue them so any participants coming up to Northern Tier has to have their own set 

Warm Clothing  

Warm clothing goes over the wicking layer and is your main source of warmth. These layers are typically wool, fleece, down, or other synthetics. Cotton as previously mentioned is a material you want to avoid. You always can double up or even triple up on layers to help keep you at  comfortable temperature. A frequent practice among our guides is to consider the materials and fit of clothing when combining layers. The friction of some materials and the sizing of the jackets will give different results when doubled up and that can be a good thing to consider when combining warm layers. Play around with different combinations of warm layers and learn what works best for you.  

Wind Clothing 

Wind layers are what most people consider as a regular winter jacket. Often these will have some sort of insulation, but this is generally discouraged by Northern Tier because it removes a level of flexibility in the layering system by combining a warm layer with a wind layer. Some form of waterproofing or water resistance should be a part of the wind-protective layer and is very beneficial in a wetter winter climate. Winter specific jackets are the best fit for a wind jacket but even a rain jacket can often cover this role although usually not as well due to having less room for layers underneath and lacking breathability  


Wind Layer

When we talk about layering most people think about jackets but forget about pants. The important thing to remember is that pants can also be layered! Snow pants with insulation are common and they work but at Northern Tier we supply crews with fleece pants for warm layers and breathable rain pants for outer wind layers  


Layering on your hands 

Wicking Gloves 

The wicking layer on your hands will typically be a pair of fingered liner gloves. These allow you to be able to grab and use items even in the extreme cold for a short amount of time 

Warm Mittens 

The warm layer on your hands consists of a mitten. Usually fleece or wool. Mittens keep hands significantly warmer that gloves and are therefore preferred over thicker finger gloves in extreme cold. They can keep you warmer because the fingers work together to create warmth rather than individually. You typically wear the fingered liners inside of the warm mittens but you don’t have to. 

Wind Mittens 

It is common for warm and wind layers to be combined into one pair of mittens. This is usually all right with mittens, but it all comes down to your needs. Northern Tier supplies separate warm and wind mitten layers to put together for maximum flexibility in choices 


Layering on your feet 

Wicking Socks 

Wicking in boots starts with a good pair of wool socks. Synthetics can be used here but wool is the most common and best material to use for footwear due to the sensitive and important nature of your feet. Some people choose to use a set of liner socks under a thicker wool sock and that would also be considered a part of the wicking layer, but they aren’t necessary. This is another decision that comes down to personal choice. 

Warm Boot Liners 

The warm layer at Northern Tier is a boot liner. Our removable liner is fleece material and can be pulled out of the boot. This is important because it needs to go inside the sleep system which we will talk about later. 

Wind Boot Shells 

The wind layer on our boots consists of a waterproof shell with cinching bungees so they are easier to use gloves. It is common for winter hiking boots like you might find at your local gear store to be equipped with integrated insulation. These are superior for traditional cold weather backpacking because they are lighter and easier on the feet. The catch it that they are not as warm as the pack boots, we use at Northern Tier and when the mercury starts to fall below 0 degrees Fahrenheit you will be thankful for a good pair of winter boots. 


Winter hats 

Typically, your head is one area that does not receive the traditional layering system. However, it is an area that is often forgotten that needs covering. There is a lot of skin coverage and therefore a lot of potential for heat loss. So, don’t forget your hat! Any wool or fleece hat that is comfortable to you and keeps you warm will do the job and a hat that can cover the ears is preferred. 


Layering in a sleep system 


Your primary wicking layer in a sleep system like the ones we use at Northern Tier is 2 parts. The first part is the base layer that you are wearing. When you are at Northern Tier you will change into a clean base layer at night. The 2nd part is a 3-season sleeping bag. This sleeping bag is an item that scouts bring up and can be the same one used on typical camp out that scouts take. Together these form the base layer for your sleep system. When you change into your fresh base layers, your old ones will stay inside the sleeping bag with you to warm up and hopefully dry out overnight. Other items that go inside your liner sleeping bag are your hat and liner gloves. 


The warm layer of our sleep system is a cold weather sleeping bag. These bags are large enough to fit the 3-season bag inside of and thick enough to keep scouts warm even on –30F nights. You will put several articles of clothing inside of the cold weather sleeping bag but outside of the 3-season bag. The items that go inside of the cold weather bag but outside of the 3-season bag include the items of your warm layer. That also includes the boot liners as well. This order is easy to remember because clothing warm layers go inside the warm layer of the sleep system.  


The wind layer of the sleep system at Northern Tier is a blue tarp and two closed cell sleeping pads. The tarps are just like the ones you will find at a hardware store, but they do a great job for how we use themThere are several other items you can use as your wind layer like a traditional tent, but we don’t typically send those out in the winter. We do offer crews the opportunity to sleep in a large Russian tent if they do want a more traditional shelter. The sleeping pads are more of a warmth layer, but they fit better with the wind layer because your wind layer articles of clothing will get sandwiched in-between the two sleeping pads keeping them from freezing overnight. 



Each item covered could easily become its own blog post and the information out there on these topics are endless, but we hope this gives you a good base to stand on for how to stay warm in winter environments. There are of course several other factors that can affect warmth in the winter like nutrition, activity, and even hydration. These topics can be just as in-depth as layering so we will tackle those another day. Until then, enjoy these tips on cold weather clothing and do not be afraid to tackle the winter to see all it has to offer!