The Science Of Layering Your Clothes To Stay Warmer This Winter

Ditch that giant jumper and opt for these smart layers (in this order).
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You’re reading Winter Well, our seasonal guide to taking care of your body, mind and spirits during the winter months.

Snow has arrived across much of the UK this week, which means we’re back to our favourite British pastime: talking about the weather.

When it’s icy outside, it’s temping to grab the heaviest, snuggliest-looking jumper available and hunker down (especially if you’re trying to keep your heating bill to a minimum). But you won’t find outdoor adventurers, hikers or professional tour guides dressing in this way.

Those in the know wear a series of layers in colder weather – often dubbed ‘the layering system’ by outdoorsy types.

The University of Portsmouth explains why it’s needed: “As we get cooler, the blood vessels in our skin shut down, shunting the flow of warm blood deep beneath the insulating layers of fat which we all have.

“This makes the skin, especially of the extremities, uncomfortably cool, but is an effective strategy for protecting deep body temperature: 2.5cm of fat insulates to a similar degree as a 7mm thick wetsuit. But we can limit loss even further by wearing warm insulating clothing.”

Wearing multiple thin layers will keep you warmer than a single thicker layer, because warm air gets trapped between each piece of fabric. But there’s a knack to nailing it.

1. Select a breathable base layer

The layer closet to your skin should trap warm air against your body. But you want the fabric to be breathable – especially if you’re doing exercise – to avoid sweat getting trapped against your skin. Merino wool is recommended as an ideal material on lots of outdoor adventure sites. Otherwise, a standard long-sleeved top will do.

“Our body’s built-in cooling system is to sweat when we get too warm, and when the sweat evaporates, it cools us,” explains Winfields Outdoors.

“But, if you’re in a cold environment, you may lose too much heat through evaporation and not be able to warm yourself fast enough.

“This is why breathable clothing is always worthwhile for outdoor activities, as the moisture can then be moved away from your body. Clothes that retain moisture (e.g. cotton t-shirts) keep sweat (or water) closer to your skin, which makes you feel cold.”

2. Next, nail your mid-layers

While the base layer is all about controlling sweat and evaporation, the mid-layer’s main priority should be maintaining warmth. A good mid-layer usually consists of one or two breathable fleeces. In really cold weather, some sites recommend adding a soft shell jacket.

Wearing layers like this mimics the body’s horripilation response – when we’re cold and we get goosebumps, it’s the body’s attempt at creating more insulating air space.

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3. Buy the best outer-layer you can

The main function of an outer layer is to protect you from the elements, so look for a coat that’s wind and rain-proof if you’re heading outdoors. The colour isn’t really that important when it comes to heat regulation, according to a 2019 study from the University Multan, Pakistan, but we recommend opting for something that fills you with cheer.

4. Top it off with a hat

Contrary to popular belief, studies suggest we actually lose more heat from our torsos than from our heads. However, once you’ve nailed your other laters it’s still worth wearing a hat.

“There is an old mountaineering adage, “if you want warm hands wear a hat”. Because blood flow to the skin of the scalp doesn’t shut down as well as other areas in the cold, a lot of heat can be lost through the head,” the University of Portsmouth explains.

“It can also be lost at the neck as heat rises from underneath the clothing and escapes at the neck. So, wear a hat and neck covering (scarf/buff).”

5. Add a blanket if you’re in the house

Simple but effective: a study of elderly hospitalised patients conducted Southern Illinois University School of Medicine found feels of being uncomfortable (in pain, being cold, or feeling anxious) were significantly reduced when a nice, warm blanket was provided. Don’t underestimate the little things!

Winter calls for us to take greater care of ourselves and each other at this time of year, from our health and homes to our headspace and matters of the heart. Whether you’re seeking motivation or hibernation, HuffPost UK’s Winter Well series is here to help you through the short days and the longer months.

Lynn Scurfield for Huffpost