My cold weather clothing layering system – upper body

I recently was asked for advice on a minimalistic / flexible approach to winter clothes.  My pending trip to Milwaukee tomorrow inspired me to share that advice more broadly.  I’ve listed out the various clothing items below, with a short description of how each is used.  For now, I’ll just concentrate on upper body/core (which I think is most crucial for staying warm), and leave another post or two for the rest of the body.  Some common elements between the items are breathability (so they can be layered without body temperature control issues), light-weight material (again helps with layering, but also with traveling/packing light), and high quality construction (lasts longer).

Icebreaker Tech T Lite

($65 – merino wool – 150 g/m2)
I have a few, and use them all throughout the year for hanging around house, casual wear around town, running, hiking, etc…extremely versatile.  In terms of winter, I’ll wear it around the (warm) house, or as a undershirt under the sweater-like garment below (long sleeve half zip).  As for outdoor winter gear, it serves as my base layer on hikes down into 50′s or so (under my hard shell jacket).

Icebreaker Mondo Zip

($90 – merino wool – 200 g/m2)
Turtleneck for cold weather casual wear, but more often used for outdoor activities – running shirt in 50′s and below, and sole base layer for winter hiking and/or cycling.  In fact, while hiking, I generally only need to wear just this under my hard shell jacket in order to stay warm in most cold temperatures thanks to the heat generated by the workout.

Icebreaker Long Sleeve Half Zip

($150 – merino wool – 320 g/m2)
This has the consistency of a sweater, and is also very versatile.  It’s what I wear around house or outside when it’s cool (perfect for spring/fall weather), or on top of a nice shirt to go to work or to go out for a nice dinner.  It’s also rugged enough to use while camping, though it generally stays in my bag during camping trips (as a backup warmth item) since my down jacket keeps me so warm.  One note is that though this sweater keeps me pretty warm, it needs something on top (my hard shell jacket) if it’s windy, since the wind cuts right through.

Mont-bell Alpine Light Down Parka

($210 – 800 fill goose down)
This is a miracle jacket – it’s as light as a t-shirt, but I can wear it over said t-shirt on a non-windy day down into the 20′s and feel pretty comfortable.  If I put the hard shell jacket over top of it, I have no problems with the wind or colder temperatures.  I’ll wear it around town when it’s too cold for the sweater + hard shell jacket combo, and whenever we stop moving while hiking/camping.  Oh, and it packs up to the size of a football (stuff sack included) so it’s a no-brainer to throw in a bag if there’s a chance the weather might turn.

REI Shuksan Hard Shell Jacket

($300 – eVent fabric)
Photo by Alan Webb
A hard shell jacket is somewhat like the consistency of a rain jacket, but a bit heavier duty, and the idea is that you can wear it on its own during the summer to protect against wind/rain, or during winter as a way to trap heat / layer over other warmer items.  This way, one doesn’t need multiple jackets (rain, winter/snow, fleece, etc.), just one that can be layered with the items above to handle any weather condition.  I think the Shuksan jacket has been phased out, but one especially notable aspect of this jacket to keep in mind as you explore other options is its use of eVent waterproof fabric which is much more breathable than the famed GoreTex fabric.

That’s all folks…

These 5 items in various combinations have handled all sorts of weather conditions, in temperatures ranging from 110 degrees F down to 0 degrees F (the latter being most important given the theme of this post).  I’m imagining it would handle even lower temperatures, but I have yet to have the opportunity to test that!   This “system” covers all of my outdoor clothing needs, and a pretty sizable chunk of my casual clothing needs as well.  On top of that, having only 5 light-weight items 1) reduces my overall clothing amount, which fits in line with my minimalist values, and 2) makes deciding what to pack (and fitting it into my bag) a breeze.
One negative is that if one were to buy all of these items together (I didn’t), it’d be pretty pricey, but I’ve found the value (in terms of functionality, flexibility, and quality) to be well worth the total cost, especially over the long run.  In fact, if I were to look back at the total cost of the numerous clothing pieces (many t-shirts, several turtlenecks, fleeces, and sweatshirts, and 3-4 bulky coats) that were loosely filling my needs before, I’m sure their total cost would be at least the same.
One last note: Some people balk at wearing wool because of the general perception that it is by definition itchy and uncomfortable.  Certainly, some types of wool are, but other types, like merino wool, are silky smooth and really breathable.  You should definitely give it a try – many of the people that I’ve steered towards merino wool clothes have bought and loved them.  You can read more about the wonders of wool in a blog post I wrote a while back.
Would love to hear about other people’s attempts to solve the same problem, and hope that my research/experimentation can be useful to someone out there!

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