When you live in a place like Alaska, your clothes aren't just decorative -- they're your portable shelter against the elements. If you're going to spend any amount of time outside, they need to do three things: keep you warm, keep you dry and adjust to changing conditions. The key to achieving all three things at once? Dressing in layers.
At its simplest, layering looks like this: a base layer of wicking, breathable material that both insulates and pulls perspiration away from your skin -- think long underwear, top and bottom -- and an outer layer that protects you from the elements. Depending on the weather, how heavy your base layer is and your activity level, you might also want a middle layer -- usually fleece or wool -- for extra insulation.
There are a couple of catches. Avoid cotton, when it's wet it holds moisture against your skin, chilling instead of warming you. That's why local retailers recommend either merino wool or wicking synthetics, like Patagonia's capilene fabric, for your base layer.
Second, your mid and outer layers should be easy to get in and out of. As you get moving and generate heat you'll need to remove a layer to avoid overheating, which you'll put back on to stay warm when you slow down.
Outer layers should be impermeable enough to keep rain, snow, wind and cold out while still releasing moisture so you don't end up soaked in a puddle of your own sweat. That's usually achieved with a coating on the outside of the fabric, or a waterproof, breathable membrane that's laminated between other layers of fabric.
If you're moving fast
There's some trial and error involved in finding the right layering system for your body. To a large degree, your layers will be dictated by your activity of choice. For example, people engaged in fast-moving pursuits like running, skiing and cycling often need layers that are relatively impermeable on the front, but highly breathable on the back.
That said, you'll usually get better results if you plan your layering system from the inside out, says John Clark, Skinny Raven's "prime minister of purchasing." Your outer layers may have to change according to conditions; after all, the coat that keeps you cozy at negative 10 degrees will probably be overkill at 30 or 40 degrees. At least your base layer can stay consistent, even as you swap outer layers to fit current temps.
Clark also says runners need extra visibility to be safe; that's good advice for anyone who spends any amount of time on Anchorage's (still) relatively dark streets, especially if you're moving fast.
And finally, if you're involved in a fast-paced activity that's going to generate a lot of body heat, you might want to dress lighter or leave that extra layer in your pack, instead of starting out with it on. "I'd rather be a little cold the first five minutes than be too hot at the end and just drenched in sweat; that actually has more of a negative effect at the end of the run," Clark said.
Easy does it
For slower-moving sports like hiking, you'll want all-over protection, because you never know where the wind, rain or snow will be coming from. But you still need some breathability to dissipate the heat created by your exercise.
Last but not least, anything that has you idling outside in the cold -- whether you're belaying a climber or just stargazing -- is going to require more insulation than active pursuits, since you're not moving to generate your own body heat. The beauty of layering, though, is that if you're out hiking and sit down to rest a while, you can just throw on an extra vest or fleece layer to keep you warm, then take it off when you start moving again.
Synthetic vs. wool
Once upon a time, synthetic layers were notoriously odiferous (see: polypropylene once it's been worn a few times) and wool garments were notorious scratchy, thanks to the irregular lengths of the natural fibers. But Clark says that today's manufacturers dealing in merino wool use specialized breeding and husbandry techniques to create fibers of regular lengths.
The result is a soft, itch-free fabric at a price that's slowly been dropping to something closer to the cost of synthetics. Not only do merino garments wick moisture away from your skin, they're also naturally microbial and help regulate your body temperature -- warming you when you're cold, cooling you when you're hot. Still, as Liz Johnson, owner of the women's active clothing store The Sport Shop points out, the one real caveat to wool nowadays is that it doesn't dry as quickly as synthetic fabric.
Speaking of wicking and quick-drying materials, Johnson warns that most sports bras include enough nylon and elastic that once they get wet, they're going to stay wet. One of the tricks she recommends to her customers is for women to wear a wicking tank or short-sleeve T-shirt under their sports bra; the bra still holds everything in place, but the extra layer ensures that you stay nice and dry, even if your bra doesn't.
When I polled retailers for their clothing recommendations, they overwhelmingly recommended SmartWool socks. For base layers, they singled out SmartWool, Ibex and Icebreakers (all wool) and Patagonia's capilene. There was, however, more variation in the mid and outer layers they recommended:
From Shane Prosser, AMH's "Jane of all trades":
For extra insulation: Patagonia's R1 pullover or hoody ($119 and up)
Outerwear for fast-moving athletes: Swix Universal pant ($85 and up)
For crossover from fast to slow activities: Patagonia's Houdini Jacket (starts at $95)
From Heather McMillan, sales lead at REI:
Insulation and protection from the elements: Patagonia's Nano Puff jacket ($199), or REI Revelcloud jacket ($149)
Insulation for your legs: REI Teton pants ($60 and up)
Protection from the elements: REI Telus shell ($249/$189, jacket/pants)
From Liz Johnson, owner of The Sport Shop:
Base layers: Bergans of Norway ($75 and up)
Mid and outer layers: Sherpa brand ($60 and up for mid layers, $120 and up for outer layers)
From John Clark, "prime minister of purchasing" at Skinny Raven:
Outer layers for runners: Brooks NightLife jacket ($120) and Brooks Infiniti jacket ($85)