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It is traditional to start off writing any kind of hiking clothing review article with a quote that, whilst attributed to a wide range of folk including Sir Ranulph Fiennes and (more weirdly) comedian Billy Connolly, was actually down to the Lake District’s No.1 fan, Alfred Wainwright.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”
Alfred Wainwright; “Coast to Coast”; 1973
On the one hand, I agree with the sentiment. Appropriate clothing can indeed make bad weather much more pleasant (and a good mid layer is a key element of this). On the other hand, sometimes the weather is so grim that we just need to curl up on the sofa with a mug of hot chocolate and watch the wind and rain hammering against the windows. All whilst wearing our warmest mid layer, of course.
The mid layer is a really important component of our bad weather defences – known as a ‘layering system’ this comprises base layer, mid layer, and waterproof top layer. I’ll talk more about these different layers in a moment. The mid layer has seen some major changes since Wainwright’s day, moving from what was likely a hand-knitted sweater made by Alfred’s mum, to a series of mid layer options which are lighter, thinner and warmer.
I’ve got a few recommendations for my favourite mid layers below and I’ll also look at how to choose between the various types of midlayer available for hiking to keep you warm in our changeable British weather.
How to layer clothes for cold weather
A ‘layering system’ is a fancy term for what you wear when you go out hiking. It generally consists of three layers: base layer, mid layer and waterproof top layer.
The base layer is what we used to call a vest back in the day. They’ve become a little more technical than this now and are made from a variety of fabrics, with different length sleeves, and optional zips at the neck for ventilation. The main purpose of a base layer is to trap a layer of warm air next to your skin. For that reason, a base layer will tend to be quite close fitting.
Next up we have the mid layer and I’ll talk about these in a moment.
Finally, we have the waterproof top layer. This does two jobs. The first is to act as a barrier to rainwater, so will be made from an impermeable fabric. The second is to protect you from the wind. Rain protection is important as some mid layers (such as down) will stop keeping you warm if they get wet. Likewise, wind protection is key as a chilly breeze could otherwise whip through your clothes and take away the trapped heat.
Types of middle layer clothing
There are two main types of mid layer: down jackets and fleeces. Both work really well, although having recently been introduced to down jackets I’ve become something of a convert!
Fleeces come in a variety of thicknesses – useful depending on the temperatures that you’ll be hiking in. They can also have different features such as half or full-length zips, hoods, thumb holes, and pockets. I like to keep a couple of fleeces of different thicknesses – a thin one for warmer conditions, thicker one for cooler, and both at the same time for the coldest days. Zips are useful for giving a little ventilation when the day gets warmer (or the ascent gets steeper!)
The second type of mid layer is the down jacket (which can also be bought as a body warmer style, though I prefer to have my arms warm). Down jackets are all the rage these days, and it’s not hard to see why as they have an incredible warmth-to-weight ratio. Which means that they keep you really toasty without weighing you down and they also tend to pack up very small, which is great for popping them in a rucksack when not needed. One downside to be aware of with down is that it loses it thermal properties if it gets wet – so if there’s a chance of a downpour (and when isn’t there?!) then make sure you pack a waterproof top layer too.
If I had to choose, I’d go with a down jacket these days. Incredibly cosy and very light to carry.
The mid layer is like the meat in your Layering System sandwich and, just like a sandwich without a filling, your layering system will be sadly lacking without it. Whether you go with a fleece or down jacket, that extra layer of warm air that they trap will help keep you protected from the elements. As you explorer uncharted lands with Sir Ranulph, hike the hills and fells of the Lake District with Alfred, or tell rude jokes in a Glasgow pub with Billy.