The Importance of a Good Mid Layer

 Fall is approaching quickly and that means plummeting temperatures. In order to have fun outdoors in cooler and wetter climates, clothing becomes all the more important. Although almost no single piece of clothing is more important than the other, one garment is paramount to your outdoor adventure: the mid layer.

While a very warm winter jacket or parka is a good solution for everyday use, it’s less so for strenuous outdoor activities in colder temperatures because most of them are designed to keep you warm while sitting still or while engaging in low-cardio activities. If your activities are a bit more strenuous (say, tour skiing, mountaineering, trekking or walking in the mountains) they will be incredibly hot and heavy – heat stroke style. This is where the layering principle comes in, and the mid layer is an important part of that.

Basically, the mid layer is the layer you put on while resting, or sitting still for extended periods of time. Ideally, it is able to warm you up quickly and retain heat effectively. Together with the base layer, to wick away moisture and offer next-to-skin comfort, and an outer layer, to keep out wind, rain or snow – and in extreme circumstances a reinforcement layer for additional heat or weather protection – it provides you with a system of clothing adaptable to almost any situation.

So, what do these mid layers look like? They come in various shapes and sizes, each with its own pros and cons. One might be warmer than the other, while the other could be better able to cope with moisture, for example. There are two main groups of mid layers: sweaters and puffies, each with a number of sub groups. We’ll look at all of these in turn and close with a look at their combined usage. Let’s look at sweaters first.

Sweaters

Sweaters, or pullovers or jumpers, as they are known in some parts of the world, are fairly straightforward pieces of clothing. They come in various thicknesses and materials. The two most widely seen nowadays are wool sweaters and fleeces. They both come in a number of form factors: with or without hood, with half zips or with full zips, or as plain sweaters without any of those features. In essence, they all do the same: they retain heat within the weaving of the fabric and by creating an extra layer of air between the user and the garment. However, they do so with varying results.

Wool is a very natural fabric, with some excellent and less excellent qualities. On the upside, it is a very good insulator and a very durable fabric. Furthermore, it is naturally moisture wicking, resulting in a highly breathable garment. Also, it is still capable to retain a great amount of heat even when damp or wet. It is a favorite among survival enthusiasts because it is very resistant to fire as well.

However, it also is relatively heavy, and gets more so when wet – also, it takes forever to dry (do not let your wool garment dry in a badly ventilated space, as that could result in a severe case of mildew). Some people might find the texture of wool annoying next to the skin, resulting in an itching sensation (very fine weaving or certain types of wool such as Merino alleviate this somewhat, resulting in excellent base layer fabrics). Overall, wool is a great fabric with some less awesome characteristics. It is great for certain types of users, such as survivalists. But for mountaineers or trekkers its downsides might push them over the edge.

Fleeces provide somewhat of a mirror image to wool. Traditionally, fleeces used to be 100 per cent synthetic, in most cases polyester. Polyester fabrics are light and hard wearing. The major downside to polyester is that it might be a bit difficult to keep fresh and clean due to its washing restrictions and the fact that bacteria seem to be quite fond of it. Also, traditional fleeces are somewhat boring and ugly due to its reliance on a soft and uneven surface to retain heat.

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Modern day fleeces look a lot better, with innovations such as Powerstretch, Polartec and polyester/wool/elastane blends creating better looking surfaces with more comfort and better heat retention abilities.

The major upsides to synthetic fleeces are that they are lightweight, comfortable and quick drying. Also, they retain a lot of heat even when wet. The major downsides however, are that some (especially cheaper or thicker weave polyester fabrics) might be less able to wick away body vapor and moisture resulting in a sweaty feeling, and that they are very susceptible to fire, being 100 per cent synthetic.

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Due to these characteristics, fleeces are very suitable for strenuous outdoor activities such as trekking or mountaineering, but might be less suitable for bushcrafters, survivalists and camp fire enthusiasts…

Footnote: obviously, there are also cotton sweaters. These are very comfortable. However, for serious outdoor activities involving sleeping in the outdoors I seriously recommend you shun these. Cotton takes forever to dry and offers very little warmth when wet. It’s not unusual to suffer serious hypothermia because of the use of cotton base- or mid layers. Cotton kills. 

Puffy Jackets or vests

Air is the best insulator known to man – or any other species for that matter. It’s why polar bears, huskies and polar foxes all have a thick winter fur. The thick layer of air this creates is what makes them capable to cope with extreme cold.

Humans don’t have this ability, but we have come close to creating something as good as (if not better than) those arctic naturals. Puffy apparel relies on a large pocket of air within the garment itself to retain heat. That is why they look so ridiculously large and why the extreme versions of such jackets make us look like marshmallow men.

In essence, puffy jackets come in two varieties: loft-filled versions, and down-filled versions. Similar to the various materials used for sweaters, they come with their own pros and cons, which makes them ideal for certain circumstances, while being less so for others.

Although down comes in various grades of quality it is hands down the lowest weight/highest warmth insulator available (pun only noticed after writing). It is incredibly light and comfortable to wear (depending on the inner fabric of the jacket, which is usually some form of polyamide known as Pertex Quantum). It’s like putting on a good sleeping bag but still being able to, you know, do stuff. You barely notice it being there but it creates incredible amounts of heat.

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Down has one major, and I do mean major, negative point: it is rubbish when it gets wet. Moisture makes the down fibers and feathers needed for the pockets of air cluster close together, which makes it lose nearly all its insulating ability. Also, like wool, it takes ages to dry. This harnesses the potential to ruin an otherwise awesome outdoor season such as autumn. Down is great in the dead of winter when cold is much dryer than during the fall months. Puffy down jackets are in their element when the snow starts falling, not when the rain is pouring. However,  a down vest can be a great reinforcement layer over a fleece when autumn slowly starts to change into winter. Just remember to keep it dry.

Loft puffy jackets, again, form somewhat of a counterpoint to down puffy jackets. They are not nearly as warm or as light as down-filled jackets, but they do offer the ability to retain heat even when damp and they also dry a lot quicker. Also, they are more affordable. This is why most outdoor brands, from The North Face to Arc’teryx and Fjällräven to Patagonia, have some form of loft-filled jackets, each with their own name of filling, but all relying on the same principle: synthetic polyester down emulators. It looks different from down on the inside. It’s very similar to cotton candy instead of goose feathers.

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The fact that it’s much more similar to such a fiber is also what creates its major pro: it cannot cluster when wet. It also creates its major con: much more actual stuff is needed to create its insulating effect, resulting in a larger package and a heavier garment than a down equivalent. This is why these types of jackets are often thinner and more geared towards autumn (when temperatures are higher than in the dead of winter) than their down counterparts. Again, these are great for severe usage due to their ability to retain heat when wet, especially in wet and cool climates. They are less suitable for severe usage in dry, extremely cold climates, although they can work in such climates when combined with a down-filled vest as reinforcement, to heat the body core.

Combined Usage

While each mid layer is great for their intended use, they can also be combined to get the most out of them.

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While sweaters and fleeces serve as great mid layers in the warmer months of the years (in which they are mostly only used as a layer to put on while resting or during the evening by the cabin or tent) they could actually be needed to keep the body warm during strenuous winter activities. While tour skiing, or on snow shoeing hikes, you start coolly, because the body core heats up quickly resulting in less clothing needed to keep warm. However, warmer layers are needed to keep warm during rest stops: enter down jackets or vests. These are then often pulled on over fleeces.

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By combining various mid- or reinforcement layers, you never run the risk of heat stroke or hypothermia due to either heat, cold, or moisture. Just remember to adjust clothing accordingly the moment you get cold or hot.

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Also, it is paramount to protect your clothing from the elements. Use a proper shell garment (either water resistant or waterproof, depending on weather; for a discussion on these see one of my earlier posts) to protect the clothing you are wearing, and pack your clothing properly into your backpack when not in use, preferably in a waterproof pack bag to keep rain or snow out. This will result in much better times spent outdoors!

Further Reading and Watching

http://leaf.arcteryx.com/product.aspx?language=EN&gender=mens&category=Mid_Layer&model=Atom-LT-Hoody-LEAF

http://www.mammut.ch/store/BX/en_BX/B2C-Category/Men/Jackets-and-Vests/Insulation-Jackets/Mercury-Jacket-Men/p/1010-14940-5535

http://www.fjallraven.com/pak-down-vest-34395

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NubocNM6Gag

http://www.fjallraven.com/keb-fleece-jacket

Outdoor Gear Review: Fjällräven Keb Jacket

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Full disclaimer: I currently work for Fjällräven as a sales advisor. However, that does not mean critique is a foul word in my book.

Overview

Named after Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain, the Keb series of garments is Fjällräven’s most technical line of clothing. It is meant for demanding treks in high mountain regions, and as such focuses on freedom of movement, ventilation, a high degree of comfort and the ability to deal with almost any weather. The Keb Family, as almost any other family in the Fjällräven collection, is designed to be used as a system of garments, with the inclusion of base, mid, reinforcement and outer layers. This jacket is meant to be used as an outer shell for active outdoors activities such as trekking in the mountains, or mountaineering in dry but demanding weather.

Construction

As most Fjällräven jackets are, the Keb is largely constructed out of G-1000, the company’s tough and durable 65-35 per cent polyester-cotton blend. While often understood as a Gore-Tex alternative, G-1000 is not actually completely waterproof. While its wind- and water-resistance can be improved upon by applying Greenland Wax (which is a soap-like substance made from paraffin and beeswax), you’ll still need a hardshell or poncho for those torrential rains, while it will suit you well for anything from a light drizzle to a short shower. The upside to this is that G-1000’s ventilation is unparalleled and that its durability is incredible, meaning that you won’t destroy your precious hardshell with a heavy backpack when you don’t actually need that 30K water column jacket because of unexpectedly good weather.

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A very large part of the Keb Jacket is made from four-way stretch material, mostly on the sleeves and the back. This adds extra freedom of movement and ventilation at places where you need them most. This stretch also covers a part of the front, although Fjällräven was smart enough to make this only cover the outside of the front pockets, meaning the user still enjoys the benefit of G-1000’s weather-repellant abilities on the entire front side.

As far as stitching goes, this is where you’ll notice that this is still a human’s job… For those obsessed with small imperfections that might be a deal breaker as some of the end stitching might show some loose threads. These are mostly leftovers from production, however, and cutting them loose should not result in any major unraveling or breaking. As you might expect from such a major outdoor equipment manufacturer, Fjällräven has quite a well-organized and generous warranty policy so any imperfections and major malfunctions should be dealt with.

Features

Feature-wise this is one of the most well rounded jackets I have ever used. Its hood, for example, might come across as ridiculously large the first time you put it on. But then you discover all the Velcro and draw-cords used for adjustment and it becomes one of the best collars cum storm hoods ever. It is fully and snugly adjustable so it follows any head movements to the tee. No more lost peripheral vision! Also, it is large enough to fit a helmet, or if you’re like me, the hood(s) of one or several mid layers, without it feeling stuffed. Also, due to the large collar, the tunnel hood acts as a snow deflector due to the few centimeters of space between the brim and the user’s face.

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Other smart features are the stretch panels covering the chest pockets, so they are incredibly expandable. They are roomy enough to fit items such as GPS devices, gloves or other cold gear as it is, but with the stretch the jacket makes sure they don’t bother the user while they’re full of useful items.

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As you might expect from a jacket like this, it has an elastic draw cord at the hem to make it sit nice and snug on the hips. This ensures no wind will come through to cool the wearer down. I have this one in permanent use due to the fit of the jacket, which brings us to the next point.

Fit

While I am, as most people, tempted to buy a jacket which looks super nice and tailored to my body, that actually is a costly mistake with most outer shell jackets, whether they are hard- or softshells (unless of course, you have a money tree growing in your back yard). Per definition, such jackets are designed to be used as a system garment, meaning the user has to have enough leftover space for a base and mid layer – in extreme circumstances even a reinforcement layer. Nowadays, most insulation layers are filled with either down or loft fibers, which means they rely on the principle of air pockets. This means the user needs extra space to hold on to that precious warm air. With a tight-fitting jacket, the user will smother the mid layer, ruining its insulating effect – meaning he or she will eventually have a very cold body core.

So much for theory.

In practice, this means that I have opted for one size larger than I would have chosen from a fashion standpoint. I chose a Medium. It still looks quite nice on my shoulders, but on the main body it looks a tad bulky when I’m wearing just a t-shirt underneath. But this is more than just a summer jacket. I want to be able to wear this year-round. That means being able to pull this over a thick sweater or even bulkier loft or down jacket. And then, all of a sudden, that Small becomes incredibly tight and weird looking, while the Medium is super comfy.

From a functionality and insulation standpoint, extra space is a necessity.

Details

Always the simplicity enthusiasts, Fjällräven has opted to keep this jacket as undetailed as possible. Of course, there’s the usual, such as the hood draw cords, which are integrated in a subtle and clean way. Another one is the (apparent) lack of hand pockets, which I personally think is not a lacking feature but a feature in and of itself, because a smart user will notice that the ventilation zippers at the sides (core ventilation instead of arm pit ventilation) double as a way to access the pockets on any mid layer worn under the jacket. Hand pockets are inaccessible when wearing a heavy pack or climbing equipment anyway, and this construction helps keep the weight and bulk of the jacket down.

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On the left sleeve there’s another pocket one could use for stuff such as GPS devices or flashlights I guess. I personally tend to keep as much gear in my trousers as possible because I want to be able to switch from a soft- to a hardshell jacket as quickly as possible when the weather turns and having a large amount of small items in my jacket pockets makes this impossible so I doubt I’ll use it much.

Usage

Since obtaining this jacket about a month ago I have used it almost every single day. For me, it perfectly fulfills the role of an everyday jacket suitable for most weather conditions. While some might think that it looks a little too sporty and hardcore (it does), I actually like that look – a lot.

G-1000 makes sure I’m good for most weather conditions, meaning my extremely expensive rain jacket will only come off the hanger when actually needed (resulting in a longer lifespan!). I am looking forward to testing this jacket in a proper outdoor situation very soon. Next month I will take it to a weeklong trip to Ireland. To be sure, of course I will also pack a hardshell. Lord knows I’ll probably need it (but don’t tell my girlfriend…).

Pros

Very good-looking

Natural feel

Simple

Well-adjustable tunnel hood

Freedom of movement

Durable material

Well-ventilated

Weather protection on exposed areas

Cons

Stitching details are off here and there

Tunnel hood is extremely large

Hem draw cords have no vertical orientation

Stretch not as weather resistant as G-1000

Overall

All in all this is one of my new every-day favorites, which, for me, works as well on the streets as it does in the mountains. It’s adjustable in all the right places, and well thought through with some very useful features and details. It offers just the right amount of weather protection to be useful on almost every day short of those featuring Biblical precipitation. Its cut is tight enough to be good looking without mid-layers, but generous enough to wear them when necessary and do so comfortably.

It does have some features and details that some people might find annoying, such as the overly generous tunnel hood. While this used to be an issue for me, after a month of use it no longer bothers me and I have grown to like it quite a lot due to its excellent double function as a very wind resistant collar.

I do, however, have a small issue with two details, one being the stitching details and the other being the hem draw cords. The cords could have been stowed away a little more elegantly. But this is nothing a small knot can’t fix. The stitching details do not negatively affect the functionality of the jacket in any way. It’s just something which, when done better, would have elevated the jacket from a very good looking, to an extremely good looking jacket.

All in all, I really like this jacket and it only has some very minor caveats. Buy when you’re not a stitching-obsessed person, and you’re looking for a very good general purpose, technical trekking jacket!

Further reading

http://www.fjallraven.com/keb-jacket

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTwmJIgAlGQ

Having a taste: Fjällräven Classic 2015

 So obviously it has been a little quiet here for a while… That is, however, with a very good reason. My employer saw fit to dispatch me, and a few of my colleagues to Abisko in Northern Sweden, to show some of our new products and colors for Fall/Winter 2015 to the finishers of one of the world’s most beautiful long-distance treks: The annual Fjällräven Classic.

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Running a long 110KM from Nikkaluokta to Abisko, the Fjällräven Classic follows a part of the well-known King’s Trail in Swedish Lappland. For many it is an introduction to long-distance trekking, to others it is just practice. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that it is not an easy road. Trails with large and small stones and rocks make sure the walkers need to think about where to put their feet and the absence of huts or cabins means that camping out is the way to go, so participants need quite a large and heavy pack to make the multiple-day walk enjoyable and comfortable – although some people prefer to do it trail-running in less than 24 hours, most trekkers do it in three to five days.

Personally, walking the Classic is definitely on my to-do-list, but I was there to work – kind of.

Being there was first and foremost about tasting the atmosphere of Northern Sweden. About talking to people, whether they were passers-by, long-time trekking enthusiasts, newcomers, other Fjällräven employees of every part of the company, and to existing or prospective customers – in short, it was a networking event set to the backdrop of one of the most impressive and beautiful areas in Europe, maybe even the world.

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Luckily we also had time to get out there. The surroundings of the Abisko Tourist Station are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen: Wild rivers, large lakes, and long-stretched plains, hills and mountains – even a very scenic sauna down by a lake which we were lucky enough to get to use. Although we didn’t have the time to get far enough away from civilization to get that typical sense of vastness and solitude I associate with long-distance trekking, it was awesome and beautiful nonetheless.

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I would definitely love to visit the place in my actual spare time once or twice again: once just to finish the Classic and again to enjoy the surroundings on my own or with a close group of friends. If you ever have the time to go, please do. It’s up North, so even in summer months you need to take the necessary stuff to enjoy the outdoors even when it’s a little colder. During the darker months, you can also get a good view of the Northern Lights. Getting there is not very straightforward (we had to fly from Amsterdam to Stockholm and change to a domestic flight to Kiruna, and drive for an hour and a half) but it was totally worth it!

Further reading

 http://www.fjallraven.com/classic

http://www.svenskaturistforeningen.se/en/Discover-Sweden/Facilities-and-activities/Lappland/Fjallstationer/STF-Mountain-station-Abisko/

http://www.visitabisko.com