Have you ever been caught outside when it starts to rain suddenly? It’s not a great feeling, especially if you don’t have an umbrella or rain jacket to keep you dry. Ever caught a chill while hiking and didn’t have a fleece to warm you back up? 

Traveling outdoors, be it hiking, ATV tours, or raft trips require us to be a little more cognizant of our wardrobe choices. While in the front country, we might be able to get away with one giant waterproof parka for all of the adverse weather conditions we face, that same system doesn’t work for a hike or a trip down Hells Canyon. Instead, it’s important to use a layering system to ensure we’re prepped and ready for anything. At Killgore Adventures, we’d be selling ourselves short if we said we spent a little bit of time outside. With years of experience, we’ve found that the layering system we’ve outlined below does a great job of keeping us warm, dry, and happy in nearly any weather conditions we might find ourselves in.

Why Not Just Use One Layer for Everything?

Take a quick trip through any outdoor outfitter or even a big box store like Walmart, and you’ll see a variety of huge down or synthetic jackets that have every bell and whistle you could think of. While these might be ideal for trips from your front door to your car, they aren’t well suited to outdoor pursuits like backpacking or rafting. Instead, dressing in multiple lighter layers does a better job of keeping you comfortable.

By dressing in layers that complement each other, you can navigate through a variety of conditions more competently. One large layer, a “one size fits all” approach to dressing for the outdoors, can be heavy, too warm in some conditions, not warm enough in others.

So What Layers Should You Pack?

We’ll start with our favorite non-answer: It depends. Before you start dragging out every rain jacket, down vest, and wool sweater in your closet for a short day hike, keep a few factors in mind:

  • What time of year are you traveling?
  • What elevation will you be at?
  • What’s the expected weather forecast say?
  • How long will you be out?

The answers to these questions should start to inform your packing decisions.

For instance, if you’re doing a simple day hike down a short trail in the Hells Canyon region in the middle of summer, you might just need a simple insulating layer like a fleece and a rain jacket just in case. But if you’re making an alpine ascent of a peak in the Sawtooths in the middle of October, you’ll want a base layer, insulating mid-layer, a hardshell outer layer and other soft goods like beanies, buffs, and gloves.

Next, let’s take a look which layers are which.

Base Layers

Consider this the foundational layers for your outdoor outfits. The base layer should be made from some sort of moisture-wicking material. Merino wool is a favorite among outdoor enthusiasts, but so are materials like polyester and nylon. Avoid cotton layers, as they trap moisture. Your base layer can be lightweight, or heavy, depending on the time of year you’re going out. Make smart decisions about what weight of layer is right for your next trip. For instance, don’t pack a summer weight t-shirt as a base layer for your next Everest attempt.

We’ve found that a long sleeve synthetic shirt makes for a great three-season layer. Made from a material like merino or polyester, the long sleeves protect your skin from the sun in the warmer months, and keep you warm in the cooler months. This is a versatile piece of kit.

Mid Layers

Have you ever opened up an outfitter catalog and seen images of people rocking brightly colored jackets that have the texture of a trash bag? Those are mid-layer jackets, and those are in charge of insulating you from the cold of the outdoors. Like your base layers, you can choose a mid-layer that is constructed from a range of materials, including natural and synthetic. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and which you should wear depends on your expected activities and location. Let’s take a look.

Fleece jackets are available in a range of fabric weights much like your base layers. Fleece is a great outdoor layer because it stays warm even when it’s damp. It also breathes pretty well, so you won’t get sweaty or overheat while you’re moving. The downside is that because it breathes well, it’s not very wind-resistant. A strong breeze can quickly strip away any of the heat you want to retain. You’ll want a wind shell to keep the wind from chilling your bones.

Synthetic insulated jackets are increasingly becoming a popular choice among outdoor recreators. The synthetic materials inside the jacket mimic the insulating effects of natural down feathers. For those who travel through wet and rainy conditions regularly, a synthetic material is ideal, as it retains its warmth even when wet. As an added bonus, many synthetic jackets are being constructed from materials that are rain and wind resistant. The downside to synthetics is that they are bulkier and heavier than down jackets. This can be frustrating for those who want a lightweight way to stay warm, or who have limited space in their daypacks.

Down jackets are easy to pack down and are remarkably warm for the weight. This is thanks to the fill power within the jacket itself. Typically ranging between 450 to 900 down fill, the number rating indicates the density of down inside the jacket. But the lighter weight comes at a cost. Down loses nearly all of its insulating properties when wet, making it a bad choice for those in rainy areas.

Outer Layers

Your outer layer is your most rugged layer. This is the shell that keeps you safe from rain, snow, and wind. These layers are typically treated with a water-resistant finish of some kind. These layers are a must for nearly any outdoor expedition, as you’ll never be sure when you might get caught in a storm.

You’ll find outer layers that are waterproof and layers that are water-resistant. If it sounds like a battle of semantics between the two, that’s not quite the case. Waterproof layers are high-end garments that are what you want if you find yourself in heavy rain or snowstorms on the regular. These won’t wet out the same way a water-resistant layer will. Water-resistant layers, on the other hand, a better suited to the occasional rainstorm. These are made from materials like nylon as opposed to a more specialized fabric like gore-tex.

A Layer for All Seasons

Ok, so we understand which layers do what now, but you’re really wondering about which layer you should wear on your next outing. Here are our suggested packing lists for the most common conditions we see here in Hells Canyon. You might need to tweak these lists in order to meet your expected conditions if you’re traveling in other places.

Summertime Travels

Suns out guns outright? Well, if you want a wicked sunburn, sure. For our summertime adventures, we typically rock a two-layer system. We pack something like the following:

  • Long sleeve base layer, preferably with a UPF rating to protect us from the sun.
  • A wind-proof layer to keep us warm on those breezy afternoons.

This does a great job of keeping us comfy while we traverse the trails that filter in and out of Hells Canyon. 

Backpacking or “Shoulder Season” Travels

If you’re going to be out for a longer period during the summer, like an overnight backpacking trip, we’ll pack a fleece layer or insulated jacket, and swap the wind-proof layer for a rain jacket. The insulated jacket is a must when the temps begin to drop during the evenings, and when things are still warming up in the mornings. The same long sleeve shirt stays with us, but we might pack a short sleeve shirt too in case we want something to lounge in camp with. Finally, an outer layer is vital. A waterproof or resistant layer is about the only way you’ll stay dry and comfortable should you get stuck in a rain squall while backpacking.

This combination of layers is well-suited for conditions from late spring to early fall. Put on and take off these layers as conditions change and you’ll be able to enjoy every minute of your trip.

Winter Travels

Winter in Idaho can be pretty unforgiving. When you’re snowshoeing, backpacking, or even summiting a mountain in the winter, you’ll want more layers in heavier weights. Here’s what we pack when we’re adventuring in the winter.

  • A wool long sleeve base layer
  • A mid-weight fleece layer
  • An insulation layer (down or synthetic)
  • A waterproof, breathable outer layer.

By using four layers, rather than two or three, you’ll have options to address changes in conditions throughout the day. Additionally, you can add or shed layers should you get hot or cold. We top off our four layers with accessories like a hat or beanie, a buff, and gloves.

Tips for Buying the Right Layers

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the huge number of options that are available for each layer. For many new outdoor enthusiasts, there’s a tendency to feel like they can’t travel comfortably outside if they don’t have the most high-end or expensive layers. While these pricey layers are certainly of higher quality, that doesn’t mean that more affordable layers aren’t just as capable. You can find cost-effective layers that do their job just as well as the premium layers. You might find that these layers are just not as lightweight or durable as the more expensive options.

If you’re new to outdoor recreation, we suggest finding cost-effective options that fit well first. If you decide to do more, set aside some money and invest in higher quality options later. You can always wait for outfitters to have sales, or look for second-hand options.

Go On a Hells Canyon Adventure Today

Your bags are packed, your rocking your favorite puffy jacket, and you’re ready to go. But where to go? Why not explore the immense natural beauty of Hells Canyon with Killgore Adventures? We offer a wide variety of adventures to match your restless spirit. From whitewater rafting trips to fishing expeditions, jet boat tours to ATV tours, and much more, we’ve got it all. We even offer jet boat transport services so you can go backpacking in the most remote parts of Hells Canyon. 

Find out more about our Hells Canyon adventures and book yours today!