When it comes to harsh-weather wardrobing, there are two main styles: mountain man or North Face. Oh, I suppose there’s a third, too: corpsicle.

Layering is an easy idea and almost equally so easy to screw up. The main thing to remember is to have layers be loose and non-constricting. Tight layers provide little insulation and constrict blood flow, and it’s actually possible to layer so poorly it makes you colder.

Beyond simply keeping layers loose, you must make some important decisions about materials. Here’s a handy pros-and-cons list for some popular materials.

Pros: Readily available, inexpensive, you’ve likely got quite a bit of the stuff around Cons: It sucks for winter. Cotton tends to retain moisture, making it feel colder. Most fabrics made from cotton compress easily, reducing insulative air pockets. Cotton absorbs and retain moisture readily, and doesn’t “wick” it away, meaning that when you get wet, you tend to stay wet. Generally to be avoided.

Pros: While there are many kinds and some are better engineered for cold-weather performance than others, most tend to wick away moisture readily. Synthetic insulation or “batting” holds and regains its shape and structure well, retaining critical air pockets. Some are meant to be waterproof or water resistant, while others are designed to wick moisture away from the skin. They are also generally quite lightweight, which means more mobility and less fatigue. Synthetics are also usually low-maintenance fabrics that can be laundered as easily as cotton.
Cons: Synthetics can be quite expensive and many varieties don’t live up to their manufacturer’s performance claims. They also need to be washed regularly, as they tend to encourage body odor.

Pros: Excellent insulating properties, even when wet. Naturally antimicrobial, so less BO. Wind and water resistant. Naturally wicks moisture away from the skin. Quiet (a big plus when hunting or trying to avoid the prepper’s greatest fear, Snow Zombies). Durable and long-lasting. Naturally fire-retardant; wool can be used to handle objects hot enough to melt synthetics, so getting near a campfire is less a concern. Cons: Expensive, and quality matters. Much heavier than synthetics. More difficult to maintain, and usually not washing-machine friendly.

Layering is best approached as an incremental process. Simply put, add layers when its cold, remove layers when it’s warmer. Layers are essentially broken down to base layer, mid layers, and outer layer or “shell.” Moisture wicking poperties are very important for staying warm, and don’t make the mistake of only guarding against getting wet from the outside-in: whenever you’re active in the outdoors, your body produces moisture in the form of sweat, and it’s as important for that moisture to find a way to the outside of your gear as it is to prevent external water from getting in. The middle layers should add bulk with plenty of room for air, while the outer layer should provide as much protection as possible from wind and precipitation, leaving the middle and base layers as dry as possible while permitting body moisture to be conveyed away.

The (614) Base Layer Test:
While informal at best, Executive Editor David S. Lewis gave three kinds of thermal underwear a good college try while performing a variety of outdoors activities, from snow removal to fire-building to rabbit hunting. Here are his notes:

(standard fare Fruit of the Loom thermal underwear):

These have been my stand-bys for years. In light activity, they are warm, and that’s because they are thick. For light work outside, such as chasing the dog or shoveling snow, they are more than adequate. For rabbit hunting, however, things came to a head quickly after I walked onto thin ice over a pond and fell through. While the water was only knee deep, I was concerned that I would have to cut the trip short, as I became cold and stayed cold for a long time. In fact, they stayed wet all day long, and were wet when I removed them that night. Thanks to their inability to wick away moisture, I had uncomfortable swamp ass for most of the day. Also, I got a cold.

DSL rating: “Didn’t care for ’em.”

(Champion’s C9 Baselayer, 100-percent polyester, $20 at Target)

Purchased for the polar vortex, I used these when I had to build a small fence in poor weather. While very thin, they were perhaps too thin; they felt like I imagine wearing pantyhose feels. While very flexible, they didn’t seem to provide much insulation at all; when the wind blew, they actually seemed to feel colder. They did seem to wick away moisture during moderate-to-high activity, so no swamp ass, but didn’t seem to provide very much additional warmth at all.

DSL rating: “Didn’t care for ’em, either.”

(Minus 33’s Lightweight “Saratoga” Bottoms, $60 at Clintonville Outfitters)

Now we’re talking. These longjohns’ light weight didn’t stop them from providing serious additional warmth. Used to do various outdoor chores, including building a fire and preparing an outdoor breakfast, these had the low-profile, low-bulk of the aforementioned polys, but were MUCH warmer. Like the polys, my buttcrack area stayed dry and unswampy, but they seemed to combat the wind chill rather aggressively. Also, when I finally did go indoors, I left them on and they stayed comfortable – in fact, I forgot I was wearing long underwear at all until I took off my trousers for bed. Granted, the price-point is much higher and they must be washed with Woolite or similar wool wash, but they seem as though they will last a long time. I also appreciate that they were made with an animal product.

DSL rating: “Them were good longjohns.”