Effective Clothing Layers for the Outdoors

Posted by on Dec 13, 2013 in Kit, Outdoors, Resources | No Comments

Layered clothing – the theory

Much has been written and discussed over the years about the importance of using ‘Layered’ clothing system when facing the elements. It is clearly important to have a robust and flexible approach with the right clothing layers for extreme conditions, where there is a need for insulation, protection from wind/rain, and breathability  to prevent you ever overheating.
In addition, effective clothing layers should also provide an easy way to cool down/warm up by simply removing/adding layers when required.

I have been using a variety of different layering systems for outdoor uses over the years which are constantly developing and updating, as newer technologies and materials emerge. However, the recent development of the US Military’s ECWCS Generation III, seven layer clothing system had allowed me a way to perhaps compare, define and explain my various types of preferred clothing layers within their structure.

So I’d like to explain what clothing I use in the outdoors whilst also referencing the US seven layer system and theory..

Level 1 – The Base Layer

The base layer in any clothing system is very important, as it provides that layer which is nearest to the skin and usually consists of both a top and bottom item.  This layer needs to be made out of a material which is obviously insulating, but also that dries quickly and wicks the moisture away from the skin (so no cotton here, as cotton gets wet, stays wet, and then makes you cold). The two standard types of materials used therefore should either be synthetic polyester or wool type mixes.
I usually use a cheap and cheerful standard Karrimor short sleeved base layer tshirt  in warmer conditions, which is made of a quick drying and comfortable 100% polyester material. Plus at around £6 it doesn’t break the bank and you can afford to buy a spare. For slightly cooler conditions, I use a budget webtex type longsleeve polyester top which has slightly more of a mesh feel to it, but is very hard wearing and comfortable. For colder conditions, I use  Ussen Baltic Norj Pro  top and bottoms which are extremely warm and comfortable . Ussen Outdoors are a UK based company which specialize in  base layer clothing and they use a synthetic fabric/wool type feel mix for ultimate cold weather warmth, and would highly recommend.

Level 2 – Mid Weight Base Layer;

Although this can be technically classed as a 2nd slightly warmer and thicker base layer which perhaps would not be used in all conditions, the top can however provide quite a versatile and comfortable shirt in warmer conditions.

I primarily use a (Helikon-Tex) US Mil spec ECWCS/PCU GENIII Level2 top which has an almost gridded format on the inner side to retain warmth, thumb loops on the sleeve, and also a long back to prevent it riding up.  Made with quick drying and highly breathable 95% polyester (grammage: 210/m2) & 5% spandex, this is a great example of that ‘shirt’ level item that won’t let you down in difficult situation. You could also use a Norwegian army type top for your level2 item, which although perhaps gives you some of the comfort and warmth,  will unfortunately not be as quick drying or breathable as the above. However, the Norgy top is widely available across the UK, and so is an easily accessible and affordable solution to this layer.
For Level2 bottom layers, I use either a pair of armoured vehicle flame resistant long johns, or alternatively a pair of old US army previous issue/design leggings. Though I do confess, I would not normally consider this option as my Ussen level 1 long johns provide more than enough warmth for most conditions!

Level 3 – Insulating layer;

This level of clothing layer should primarily consist of a good item of fleece/polartec type material, which can be used as your insulating layer in colder conditions and would usually only consist of a top item. A good fleece is usually lightweight however, there are a variety of types of fleeces with differing weights, wind proofness, durability etc. In addition, many of the high street fleeces can often be very poor quality for real outdoor use, so is well worth investing the time looking for one that is right for you.

For my level3 fleece, I either use a US Navy surplus polartec fleece or a ‘high st’ Mountain Equipment fleece. The US Navy option is extremely hard wearing with reinforced shoulders and elbows and perhaps the heavier option of the two. The Mountain Equipment fleece is slightly thinner and less windproof, however the material is much softer and closer fitting making for the more comfortable option.

Level 4 – Wind Jacket layer

Level 4 according to US specification is more of a lightweight wind proof jacket, much like the light combat shirt concept. I guess you could also perhaps include under armour shirt and even normal trousers in this layer. However, as this layer is perhaps not as relevant to me, I am just going to use trouser examples here…

I prefer to use a nice hardwearing pair of BDU type specification trousers from Tru Spec in neutral colours. These have the usual 6 pocket configuration and are made out of ripstop cotton/nylon mix and reinforced seat and knees. These are a true workhorse and have never let me down. I will on occasion also use  a cheap pair of Karrimor trousers which are very quick drying and lined for additional insulation. Although these are perhaps not as hardwearing, they are extremely quick drying and also damn cheap at £10!

Level 5  – Softshell layer

The softshell layer is intended to provide a very light and easily carried ‘shell’, which can be easily put on to overcome wind and light rain, whilst remaining highly breathable. Softshell materials are becoming increasingly popular with outdoor enthusiasts due to these qualities and will provide protection against anything but heavy rain.

Without access to US surplus items for this, I have again been using Helikon-Tex reproduced versions for around a year. The jacket and trousers are made out of a very light weight 98% nylon & 2% spandex to give added flexibility and are very windproof and can certainly deal with light to medium rain. The jacket itself is quite simple in terms of features, with a storm flap covered ykk zip, 2 chest pockets and a roll out hood. The trousers however have part way zips on the ankle and also the hips to aid in pulling over existing layers quickly and easily. They also have good leg cargo pockets with drawstrings and tough reinforced knees, seat and even inner calf sections to prevent wear and tear. This softshell layer is a very robust layer as can be used with a variety of combinations of other layers to provide a perfect outshell for most conditions with the exception of extreme wet. In addition, both items pack down extremely small and with no real weight is an easy addition to throw in any rucksack.

Level 6 – Waterproof layer

This waterproof layer is intended to keep you dry by both preventing the rain getting through whilst also being breathable enough to stop moisture build up on the inside.
Most people are familiar with gore-tex type products, both for jackets and trousers, however there are also different types of gore-tex which should be considered and more details can be viewed here.

I have 3 gore-tex jackets that I use for different situations due to their different properties. Firstly I have a ‘high st’ North face jacket which is very lightweight, but not very hardwearing and is not effective in really extreme downpours. Therefore this is great for city or short walk use, but would not take out on any real adventure. My second jacket is my US Navy gore-tex parka which is amazingly durable, effective and can stand up to anything thrown at it (full review here). The downside with this jacket however, is it’s bulk and weight when perhaps compared with other models. The 3rd and final gore-tex jacket I have is a reasonably cheap Austrian army surplus jacket, which is very durable and quite simple in terms of features. However due to it’s relative cheapness, tough outer layer and that I can rely on it in the worst conditions, it is also the only item of gore-tex that I don’t mind wearing whilst sitting by a campfire.

Level 7 – Extreme Cold Weather layer

This layer as the name suggests is intended to be that supremely warm and insulating layer for really cold conditions. Many people either use synthetic ‘softie’ type jackets or alternatively down filled jackets for this purpose; however each has it’s distinct advantages and disadvantages. Although down filled are traditionally warmer, lighter and pack down extremely well, they are unfortunately often quite useless when wet. The feathers often bulk together when soaked and loose their insulating properties. Whereas traditional synthetic softie jackets which although reasonably light weight and compressible are actually warm when wet.

For my choice for this layer, I have again 3 very different options that I use depending on the situation. My first is a snugpak softie reversible synthetic  jacket I have had for many years. This a simple but solid all round level7 layer which allows you to warm up quickly and is a welcome addition to any cold night. My second option is a mamut down filled jacket, which I was lucky to find at a heavily reduced rate in a closing down sale. This is a beautifully comfortable jacket, with great attention to detail with such features as a soft fleece lined collar and pockets. It is also very, very warm, whilst perhaps being a bit less robust so am always careful when in use that I do not snag/rip the outer layer. I have also recently started using another jacket which is a genuine mint condition level7 extreme cold weather jacket which I will be reviewing soon.
In terms of trousers for this layer, I use a pair of surplus British reversible softie pants which are perhaps similar in construction and feel to my snugpak jacket, but again have some genuine level7 trousers to test and throw to the party soon…


The US 7 layer model for clothing layers is a comprehensive and versatile system. Obviously alternative products can be easily adapted and incorporated into the layers to provide even more flexibility.

However, with the full 7 layers in my rucksack, I am fully confident that I can be comfortable in whatever weather conditions I find myself in.

Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on any clothing layer systems and products you use.

Useful links;
Information on the US ECWCS GEN III system
Cheap Karrimor products
Ussen Outdoor products
Helikon-Tex products


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