Outdoor Clothing for Scouts: Layers

CampingMeg stops to adjust her layering system after warming while climbing this hill.

For the past 9 months, I have volunteered to mentor my old Boy Scout Troop.  I’ve attended several meetings to give lectures, lead a hike for some of the beginners, and gone on a winter camping trip with the boys and their leaders.  One of the lessons I’ve really been trying hard to teach is how to select safe and comfortable outdoor clothing for scouts.

Dressing in Layers

Everyone knows that you should dress in layers when heading out into the wilderness, but few people understand what this really means.  I’ve seen many people start the day already wearing all of their layers, with nothing left to put on if it gets colder.  Some wear a single thin undershirt and a thick jacket over the top.  Many people don’t understand that the various layers serve different functions.

The Problem with Heavy Jackets

A heavy jacket is a great way to keep warm around town, but poses problems in the wilderness.  Here’s a story:

CampingJay starts the day wearing a heavy jacket over a cotton sweatshirt.  As his activity level increases, he’ll start to get warm and will remove the jacket.  The bulky coat doesn’t fit in his pack, so he’s forced to carry it.  Now he’s wearing only his sweatshirt and the wind is blowing right through. It starts to drizzle and his sweatshirt gets wet, but putting the jacket on again just makes it worse.  When he stops for lunch and activity drops off, the chill really starts to set in.

Proper Layering

Now let’s look at what proper layering can do:

CampingMeg starts off the day wearing a base layer, a few layers of thin insulation, and a thin waterproof jacket.  As she warms up from activity, she removes a few of the insulating layers and replaces the jacket with a thin windbreaker.  All of the thin layers fit in her pack.  As she hikes, it starts to rain, so she puts the jacket back on over her windshirt, opening its vents so she doesn’t overheat.  When she stops for lunch, she quickly puts some of her insulating layers back on so she doesn’t cool off.

So what are all these layers?

As a rule, your scout should wear or carry a minimum of three layers: base, insulation, and shell.

  • The Base Layer is made of thin wool or synthetic material to help carry moisture away from the skin.  In the winter, this will keep your child warm by keeping moisture from conducting heat away from him.  In the summer, this the wicking  effect will offer a cooling sensation.
    • A summer base layer may be a thin running shirt and pair of synthetic underwear or nylon shorts.  On warm days, this might be the only layer your child needs to wear.  Long provide protection from sun and bugs.
    • A winter base layer is slightly thicker and consists of a long sleeve synthetic or wool shirt and long underwear.  It isn’t very thick because insulation is by outer layers.  On really cold days, I double up my base.
  • The Insulation Layer consists of one or more layers of thin wool or fleece. Its purpose is warmth.  At all times of year, I carry at least one thin wool or fleece pullover, but in winter I carry or wear several of these layers.  Your child should start the day wearing only half of his insulating layers, with the other half packed in reserve.
    • In the summer a thin down or fleece pullover provides sufficient insulation.
    • In the spring a and fall, more than one layer is necessary.
    • In the winter, I carry an extra lightweight down “puffy” jacket to put on when I’m less active.  Down and synthetic down are compressible enough to tuck away in a backpack when not used.
  • The Shell is the outer-most set of layers that protect your child from wind, rain, and snow.  This layer is water-proof  and wind proof but breathable.
    • A cheap poncho makes a great summer shell.  Ponchos are breathable by their very nature, allowing vapor to escape out their open spaces. A poncho has the added benefit of covering both your child and his/her backpack.
    • I carry a windshirt with me year-round. This is a very thin nylon shirt, similar to what runners or cyclists wear.  Its main purpose is to protect the wearer from wind, but might hold off a light rain.
    • While the brave may rely on a poncho in the winter, most will opt for a full rain jacket and rain pants.   Remember, ventilation is very important, so look for zippers under the armpits and down the sides of the legs.  The jacket should come down to mid-thigh.

This is Part 3 of a Five Part Series

Materials: What clothing is made of matters!

Footwear: It starts with the feet!

Layering: What are these layers they speak of?

Accessories: Hats, and gloves and mittens, Oh My!

Shopping: Gear is expensive, shop smart!

My Gear Lists

Summer Backpacking Gear List

Winter Backpacking Gear List

Look back soon for Summer and Winter Camping Gear Lists!