Stay warm or cool with various layers

I’m trying to decide on a jacket to use as an insulating midlayer for backpacking this winter. I want one that’s warm while sedentary, but really breathable while doing aerobic activity. I’m not sure what to go with: fleece, soft shell, down? The Arc’teryx Hercules jacket seems to be promising because of the high-loft fleece interior and superior breathability, although I’m concerned it might not be warm enough. Any advice? – Matt, Birmingham, Ala.

I’ve got advice: That’s why I’m here, isn’t it? And my advice is … rethink your clothing setup. Anything that will keep you warm when you are sitting around is going to be too much when you are working, and I don’t care much if it’s 0 degrees F.

Consider this: Take the Arc’teryx Hercules Hoody, which aside from being wildly expensive ($350) is also very functional. It’s a very warm soft shell piece, a midweight fleece lining over a wind- and water-resistant shell. It actually would be fairly warm when you’re quiet, and breathes well enough to be halfway comfortable when you are hiking.

But it’s much better suited for activities such as winter mountaineering or backcountry skiing – in other words, stop-and-go activities in foul weather. Put it on when you’re, say, hiking uphill on a chilly day, and you’re gonna overheat in a few hundred yards.

Think layers: You really need to think in layers, and add and subtract them during the day. Let’s say it’s 30 degrees at noon, with maybe some light snow or fog.

You start with a Patagonia Capilene 1 T-shirt ($39), a superlight, fast-drying synthetic base layer. Over that goes a midweight wool long-sleeve shirt like Icebreaker’s Altitude Zip ($120), whose neck design lets you ventilate easily by zipping up or zipping down. And that is your basic hiking setup. When you stop for a break, you toss on a wind shell. In camp, you add a fleece layer, such as Mountain Hardwear’s Monkey Man ($150), and throw a shell over that, and you are set.

When its colder: Temps in the teens? Then what you need is a down sweater for those cold evenings. MontBell’s U.L. Down Inner Jacket ($150) is just the ticket, a fantastically warm piece that weighs a mere 8 ounces. Put that over your other layers, add a shell, and you are a warm hiker.

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