The Three Layers – A Climber’s Gear Guide

by: Dan Renyi

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The Golden Rule of the Three Layers

Are you confused how to dress properly for the mountain?

Many of our climbers are puzzled by the challenge of having to dress for cold weather (like it is on the mountain) while preparing to sweat (which you evidently do when you engage in physical activity such as climbing).

If you wear too warm things, trying to avoid hypothermia, you will soon get too hot, sweat your ass off, and that will feel very uncomfortable.

If, however, you only focus on the aspect that this is heavy physical activity, hence, you dress lighter, you might get too cold, which can jeopardize your trip, but you may even freeze, which is the least you are asking for.

The trick is layers.

And to know which are the right layers.


Basically, you need three (or sometimes four) layers when climbing a mountain. Each of the three layers have separate functions, so the features of the layers need to adjust accordingly.

The first layer is to give you a comfy feel, both dry and warm, in direct contact with your skin. The second layer is to keep you warm. And the third layer is to protect you from hard external circumstances like wind and rain.

But let’s get more specific.

1. Base Layer

The base layer functions to keep your skin warm and dry, while generally giving you a comfortable feel.

The most important thing to keep in my mind is that the base layer has direct contact with your skin all through your trip, so it is quintessential that you feel comfy in it. (Therefore, always-always try them on before buying them.)

It’s one thing that cotton feels nice and soft but don’t forget that if you sweat — which you will — cotton stays wet, keeping your body wet (and eventually cold) as well.

As opposed to this, the ideal base layer absorbs moisture and spreads it all through its surface, which facilitates evaporation and quick drying.

So, when picking your base layer items, keep an eye on comfort as much as moisture management.

Here are some brands we trust: Icebreaker, The North Face, Patagonia, Helly Hansen


2. Insulation Layer

It is the insulation layer which is first and foremost responsible for keeping you warm. It traps air pockets with its fabric, which helps you maintain your body heat as much as possible.

Usually the insulation layer is a middle layer, so you will have another, outer layer against wind and rain on top of it.

As your second layer, you can pick a fleece sweater, or you can choose between a down jacket or a synthetic jacket. Note that each has its benefits, while you need to be aware of their weaknesses too.

Here’s a short comparison:

fleece sweater

  • warm
  • heavy
  • dries slowly
  • keeps you warm only until it’s wet
  • great as second layer, under a shell
  • not very expensive

down jacket

  • warmer
  • if covered with another layer, might get compressed, thus less warm
  • lighter
  • dries more slowly
  • keeps you warm only until it’s wet
  • more expensive

synthetic jacket

  • less warm
  • heavier
  • dries faster
  • insulate even when wet
  • less expensive

These are some brands we trust: The North Face, Columbia, Jack Wolfskin, Mountain Hardwear


3. Shell Layer

The shell layer is the external layer of your gear, whose function is to protect you from the wind, the rain, and the snow.

In other words, this is not mainly for warmth, much more to serve as your ultimate protection, your shell.

Generally, you have two choices for your shell layer, again with strengths and weaknesses on both sides.

What you need to consider is what kind of trip you are taking, whether you are expecting to face a lot of precipitation (for example, on an alpine trip it is pretty likely), or if it is free movement and comfort that is the priority (for example, if you go rock-climbing, stretchy fabric is quintessential).

Here’s a summary:


  • comfortable
  • durable
  • keeps you warm
  • water-resistant but not water-proof
  • ideal for rock-climbing or couloir skiing


  • wind-resistant
  • water-proof
  • light
  • doesn’t keep you warm
  • ideal for alpine climbs

These are some brands we trust: The North Face, Marmot, Mountain Hardwear, Millet


The 3 Layers: An Overview

So, it’s not that complicated after all, isn’t it?

What was the Golden Rule again? Layers.

Your first layer, the base layer, serves to absorb moisture and keep you dry and comfy. The second layer, the insulation layer, will keep you warm. The third layer, the shell layer, will protect you from the hardships of the environment, like wind and rain.


Did you find the list useful? There is more for you!

These are the layers for your upper body. But you need stuff for your lower body as well! Get the know-how here.

You know what? There’s even more.

You don’t need to remember all this by heart. Here’s a clear and simple Equipment Checklist for your alpine adventure. You just take the checklist with you to the store, or use when packing, and I promise you’ll have everything and just what you need.

Easy, clear and free. Get it here. Get it now.

Mont Blanc Climb Equipment Checklist