The traditional refrain when heading out into the cold is simple: You’ve got to layer up. Sounds easy, but if you’ve ever shivered your way through a winter hike or stripped off a layer on a chairlift because you’re steaming in your ski gear, you know getting all those layers to work together is tricky.
When it comes to regulating your temperature, you need midlayers. Stack one over a moisture-wicking, next-to-skin base layer and under a weather-proof shell. They’re made from materials that help your body retain heat—an absolute must when temperatures drop, and especially when you’re battling snow, sleet, wind, or rain.
Types of Midlayers
Retaining heat in cold weather makes sense, but when you look at exactly how midlayers do it, things start to get a little complicated. First, you can opt for either fleece or insulated layers, said Ben Rabinowitz, a Gearhead at outdoor retailer Backcountry.
“Fleece is comfortable, offers great breathability, is relatively inexpensive, and very versatile,” Rabinowitz told Men’s Journal via email. On the downside, however, fleeces won’t block wind and they don’t pack down easily.
Compared to fleece, insulated layers are generally warmer and compress more, making them easier to pack, Rabinowitz says. There are two types of insulation to choose from: down and synthetic. Down is expensive, but “warmer for the weight, lasts longer, is lighter, and compresses more,” he explains. You can compare down jackets using the fill-power rating, which refers to how well the down insulates—the higher the number, the more warmth it’ll retain. Synthetic, unlike down, still retains heat when wet and is usually cheaper.
Finding the Right Midlayer for You
Choosing the right midlayer depends on what you need (something packable vs. something for everyday wear, for example) and the conditions you’ll face. Fleeces have great versatility, while insulated jackets are a better bet for more extreme conditions. For this guide, we’ve included some top options from trusted companies like The North Face, Arc’teryx, and Patagonia, and tapped Rabinowitz for his recs. The midlayers below will keep you warm in all kinds of conditions, whether you’re hoofing it through deep powder or scraping ice off your windshield on a chilly morning.