An Expert Guide to Midlayers
Midlayers are an integral part of dressing to have a successful, comfortable day on the mountain! Read on for all the details you'll need to choose a good midlayer.
Out on the slopes, temperatures can vary drastically. Skiers and snowboarders need clothing that can protect them when the mercury plummets—and when it mysteriously noses upward. In a classic three-layer system, the outer layer protects from the elements (snow, wind, rain), the base layer wicks moisture and heat away from the body to keep you comfortable, and the middle layer is responsible for most of the warmth. Because of this, the midlayer jacket is the most versatile piece, needing to do many things, yet it is often the most overlooked. In this article, I will cover the important factors to take into consideration when selecting your midlayer, and when you should choose which style.
Important Functions of a Midlayer
What makes a good midlayer? Like most things, the answer will be different for just about everybody, however, there are some common attributes—like warmth, breathability, and waterproofing—that almost everyone will agree on.
On cold days, people want clothing that will keep them warm so that they can enjoy being outdoors. Warmth is therefore probably the biggest consideration to keep in mind when choosing a midlayer. In a three-layering system, the midlayer is vital for trapping and conserving body heat. This means a midlayer should have good insulating properties. This can be accomplished in a few different ways, which are covered below.
Skiing and snowboarding are athletic activities, which means that your body temperature will rise as you exert yourself doing these high-output activities. However, the last thing you want to do when you’re outside in the cold is to start sweating, because the sweat can freeze. In an ideal scenario, the excess body heat and moisture will be moved away from your body. This process, where air and water vapor are moved away from the body to evaporate, is called moisture wicking.
A jacket that features moisture-wicking is said to be "breathable". Moisture wicking can be achieved in a couple of different ways. In some jackets, it's as simple as designing it to have select areas made from a thinner, more porous material. These areas are usually high warmth areas such as the back and side panels under the arms. Another method is by transporting moisture through the material of the jacket. This can be done while still maintaining waterproofness because the water vapor escaping is smaller than the water molecules on the outside. So, the pores in the material need to be large enough to allow the water vapor through, but small enough to prevent the water molecules from entering.
There are varying degrees of breathability available, which will allow wearers to remain comfortable whether on the resort riding the chairlift or on the skin track outside the ski resorts.
In most outerwear, waterproofing and breathability go hand in hand. Even though they are distinct features, there is a strong correlation between the two and a high level of one almost always means there will be a high level of the other. In midlayers, that is not always the case. It is very common to have a highly breathable midlayer that has little to no waterproofing. It basically comes down to what functionality you’re looking for in your kit.
Because a midlayer, by definition, is not on the outside and bearing the brunt of weather conditions, it’s not necessary for it to be water-resistant at all. One of my favorite midlayer pieces is a fleece that the wind cuts right through. In fact, upon close inspection of it, the gaps between the wool fabric are visible. However, since I almost exclusively wear it under a shell, this is a non-issue for me. I have other jackets that I occasionally wear as a midlayer when I want some protection from the elements while still having the option of wearing them as an outerpiece. If it becomes sunny and relatively warm in the middle of a ski day, having a midlayer with some protection from the elements gives me the option of packing my outer shell away and wearing the midlayer by itself.
Types of Midlayers
So you now have an idea of the features and function of a good midlayer piece, what are the pros and cons of each type?
A warm, cozy fleece jacket is a staple piece of clothing when in the high alpine. Fleece was traditionally made from wool, which is naturally a good insulator as it traps air between the fibers and has a high resistance to heat transfer. Wool, however, is extremely absorbent and loses much of its insulating factor when wet. Synthetic fibers are now available that maintain many of those same warming characteristics, even while wet. This makes them extremely desirable for high-exertion activities in cold and wet environments. No fleece is windproof by itself, though. It must be used in combination with another wind-blocking material. Fleece jackets are generally the cheapest midlayer option, as they are the most simple and easiest to manufacture.
Puffer (or Puffy) Jacket
Traditionally, a puffer jacket is a quilted coat that uses goose or duck feathers (known as down) as insulation. The air pockets (baffles) created by the bulk of the feathers allow for excellent insulation properties and a much better performance-to-weight ratio than fleece. Unlike fleece, which has little to no wind-blocking or waterproofing, puffer jackets can be constructed with whatever materials the manufacturer desires. Brands can therefore create insulated jackets with varying levels of wind and waterproof protection to suit any need.
However much like natural wool, down loses much of its excellent heat retention properties when wet. So, as water vapor passes through the baffles of down, the jacket will become less and less insulated. For that reason, many puffer jackets that are meant for use in cold and wet climates, like skiing and snowboarding, have switched to a synthetic insulation. One such type is polyester, which features the same insulating properties as down, whether dry or wet. It is more humanly and sustainably produced as well. Puffer jackets are more involved to make than a basic fleece jacket, especially if they feature some waterproofing and breathability qualities. As a result, they are generally more expensive.
The term softshell is given to a jacket that has partial or full waterproofing and windblocking abilities, and has some level of durability to withstand abrasions that occur while skiing or snowboarding. The waterproofing is usually accomplished through the application of a DWR, or durable water repellent, to the jacket material.
Softshells differ from hardshells because they are more flexible, or “soft”, and therefore more comfortable to wear under an outer layer. A softshell can have as many or as few features as you desire, or are willing to pay for. This is generally the most premium category of midlayer jackets, however, you get the widest variety of features and better value for your money.
With some midlayer features, their usefulness is straightforward. Things like hand pockets and a zippered chest pocket make sense for functionality, and so too do integrated thumb holes in the cuffs and an extended hem for increased comfort and keeping out cold drafts. The value of some other features may not be so obvious, but I will explain their importance below.
Putting together all the information explained above, the first thing to decide on when considering a good midlayer is when and how you plan on using it. Do you need water and windproofing, and if so, how much? Do you need it to be abrasion-resistant for wearing while skiing or snowboarding? Do you need it to be breathable because you plan on also using it for high-output activities, like cross-country skiing, backcountry touring, or climbing? Your answers to these and other questions will determine how versatile you need your midlayer to be and can help you choose which styles and materials are right for you.
Your midlayer should fit snug to the body without restricting any movement. This will allow you to layer over it without feeling hindered or uncomfortable. For this reason, most alpine-dedicated midlayers are tailored to be trim, but if you’re looking at something more generalized, it might be a good idea to downsize. Once again, it’s crucial that it still fits properly and doesn’t restrict mobility.
Hood or No Hood
Do you need a hood for your midlayer? Well, it depends. If you plan on wearing your midlayer by itself, or as an outerpiece with a weather-resistant puffer or softshell jacket, then it’s probably a good idea to have the hood as an option to protect your head.
If it’s a jacket that’s designed specifically for skiing or snowboarding, there’s a good chance the hood is helmet compatible. If not, the hood will still be a reliable head covering when you’re not on the slopes. It can be useful when walking to and from the car, hiking, or even for extra coverage if the wind picks up when you’re walking around town. If you do opt for a hoodie, just make sure that your outer shell fit is large enough to accommodate the extra material around your shoulders.
We’ve spoken at length at how a good midlayer works with an outer layer, but we haven’t talked about the baselayer. As stated before, a midlayer should be snug without restricting movement, and there should be enough room underneath for a warm, insulating base layer to be worn.
The base layer also plays an important part in moisture-wicking because it transports perspiration and other moisture away from the body. For this reason, you should never feel the need to wear multiple base layers, as this makes it possible for moisture to be more easily trapped close to the skin. Merino wool is a popular fabric for base layers, as it's lightweight, extremely soft, and comfortable. Even a simple cotton t-shirt can be an effective baselayer, especially on a warm day.
The midlayer jacket is the most versatile piece of your ski or snowboard apparel, and the options available can be overwhelming to choose from. By working with a knowledgeable Ski or Snowboard Expert at Curated, you can be sure of getting the best options, narrowed down to a few choices that are most appropriate for you and how you plan on using your ski jacket. They will also be the best deals available. If you have any questions or would like to get a list of recommendations tailored specifically for you, chat with a Winter Sports Expert.