Layering in 2019: mid and wind layers

Since 2011 I’ve owned around two dozen windshirts, and while a third of those were for larger reviews and garments in which I didn’t have an inherent interest, this still amounts to an extravagant total.  As of today there are only four in regular rotation.  In the same period I’ve had at least the same number of fleece pullovers, vests, and hoodies, including half a dozen items in current use, on top of a couple active insulation pieces.  I could, by contrast, cut baselayers down to two or three pieces without issue, and gladly go the whole year with a single hardshell.

All of which is to say that the task of additional weather protection for on the move is far more complex than any other.  The most relevant question is thus which items provide for the greatest range of use/comfort, and why.  Not only will versatile items better trim the closet, using generalism to frame our inquiry makes for more incisive answers.

I call wind and mid layers, which collectively are generally used for added protection while on the move in the backcountry, action layers (nod to Twight and Extreme Alpinism).

Thinner baselayers made with faster wicking fabrics and construction (as discussed previously) best fit and indeed demand action layers that prioritize breathability.  For example, take the opposite extreme, a 200 grams/meter 100% merino shirt which was “cutting edge” 15 years ago.  Hike uphill hard with a pack, even around freezing, and the shirt will get quiet to very wet.  Pop above treeline and get hit by wind, or turn the crest and head downhill with the associated drop in heat production, and you’ll want something to moderate evaporation, least you get cold.  Traditional windbreakers work well here, with limited breathability (<5 cfm, say) making for something of a wetsuit effect.  The disadvantage is of course that further measures will be needed to get ahead of the moisture curve, and if kinder ambient conditions don’t help you out, external heat of some kind, in the form of a fire or added insulation, will eventually be needed.  Modern layering seeks to avoid this, with systems that retain far less moisture under adverse conditions, and need far less input to dry.

There is a broad range of functionality here, with individual metabolism providing heavy influence.  Smaller folks, leaner folks, and those with slower metabolism often need a vastly warmer and more protective action layer.  For every case their is emphatically such a thing as too little or too breathable protection.  A case of too little protection would be the aforementioned thick merino and windbreaker combo, which in most cases has too little insulative value and too much protection against external forces, which makes the body work to hard to maintain equilibrium, which is in turn a poor use of calories and morale.  Too much protection would be a thin synthetic t-shirt and a 100 weight fleece pullover in the same conditions.  This combo is good at moving moisture, statically warm, but provides little protection against external conditions (e.g. wind).  This past fall I revisited using 100 weight fleece in place of a windshirt, and it only took one brisk day and one cold and still morning to think that the lack of control with respect to the wind and transpiration generally was stressing my metabolism more than seemed necessary.


This is why the nylon 20D mechanical stretch nylon Patagonia developed for the Nano Air series, a fabric found on its own in the Airshed pullover, might be the most significant development in outdoor apparel in the last decade.  The insulation used in the Nano Air Light (above) is different that Polartec Alpha, but the reason it and the regular Nano Air are utterly different in use than other active insulation I’ve used is the shell and liner fabrics.  Not only are they very (but not excessively!) breathable, but the thin, mechanical stretch (spandex free!) fabrics retain amazingly little moisture.  A few weeks ago I was out in -15F on consecutive days.  On one the least breathable component in my system was my BD Alpine Start hoody, with a couple hours work putting a fine coating of frost against the inside.  On the other, a Nano Air over a baselayer (the LaSportiva Troposphere) stayed dry after three hours of hard trailbreaking.  The Nano Airs are even more versatile companions for people who run cold.  Since getting one in late October M has hardly taken hers off.

There are times when a windshirt which blocks a lot of wind has no substitute, including (at least for me) a hardshell.  The sadly discontinued Rab Windveil continues to be my all time favorite here, due mainly to fit and features but also to toughness.  The Alpine Start also remains a favorite, and oddly the windshirt I use most but the one I might let go first.  The fit is frustrating, as is the way it hangs on to just a little too much moisture when conditions are truly challenging.  On the other hand it’s durable, balanced with respect to weatherproofing, and looks good.

If I had to pick only two items from all the action layers I’ve had or have, they would be the Windveil and Nano Air Light.  The Alpine Start would be hard to give up, and the Airshed hasn’t been in my closet long enough for permanent consideration.  The fourth item would be Haglofs Pile hoody, not because it’s more performance oriented than something like a Nano Air hoody (or what the Tough Puff, which I’d love to try), but because fleece still beats active insulation on intangibles, if not on performance.


Actions layers are the other area, along with baselayers, where I think premium items can be worthwhile.  The Nano Air series, along with the best modern wind layers, are astonishingly efficient.  The premium is steep, when comparing for instance a $35 fleece shirt and the $250 Nano Air Light, but just with baselayers when you’re wearing it almost year round, action layers are a good place to put dollars.

25 responses to “Layering in 2019: mid and wind layers”

  1. collinswannabesite Avatar

    I hadn’t noticed the Airshed Pullover…wish it had a hood though. That’s a deal breaker for me if it’s going to be my main windshirt.

    My old Rab Zephr is still my favorite windshirt. It doesn’t do much against rain, but provides just enough protection against wind, manages heat well, and is durable.

    For daily wear, I’ve gone back to fleece too. So much more durable than my puffy. And it’s less of a mess when wet.

    When backpacking / hiking though, isn’t the Haglof’s a bit of a pain if you aren’t wearing it and have to pack it?

    1. The Haglofs is massive when packed. If it makes it into the pack it is not on a trip where space is much of an issue. My most common use for a thick fleece hoody like that over the years has been on packraft trips where I know I’ll spend a lot of time sitting in the boat, in raingear, in cold ambient temps (e.g. Bob Open). If I had a Nano Air with thicker insulation that would probably make the cut instead (Haglofs is warmer under a shell than the Nano Air jacket).

  2. collinswannabesite Avatar

    Forgot to hit the notify of new comments box.

  3. I’ll come clean- I have a closet full of windshirts, couple of Houdini’s, couple of Alpine Starts, military Houdini, HPG Windcheater with coyote ruff :)

    Colder weather it’s usually the Alpine Start or Military Houdini, warmer the “regular” Houdini. Extreme cold the Windcheater.

    Dave surprised you didn’t make mention of the R3 vest- I use that a lot in cooler to colder weather when moving hard and need a little more than the base layer provides.

    1. I cut the sleeves off my Nano Air Light this fall. Made a good piece better and other vests pretty irrelevant.

      1. I bet those sleeves could be turned into a great hat, mitts, or sleep socks.

  4. It’s not uncommon for me to find my Nano Light still on my person as I prepare for bedtime in our drafty, 140 yr old house after having been on my person all day working outside in subzero temps. For you to say it, “…might be the most significant development in outdoor apparel in the last decade.” is definitely not an overstatement.

    1. Upstairs we have modern double pane windows. Downstairs the windows are six feet tall and first hung the year Montana became a state. Lots of indoor layering the past month!

      1. The first year Montana became a state. Pshaw, you hipster, my house was like nine years old by then ; )

  5. Are you guys going up a size with your Nano Air Lights? The sizing seems quite a bit trimmer than the regular Nano Airs. I tried my regular size in a NALH and while it’s great on, it’s quite hard to get off. Thanks!

    1. Mine is a medium, same as almost all my jackets.

  6. collinswannabesite Avatar

    FWIW, the Nano Air Light Hoody is on sale in a lot of sizes and colors for $149 or less at several places.
    It kind of looks like it might not be available next season at since all the colors are on sale, and no new ones at full price.

    1. I’m sure it will come back for fall.

  7. […] be hard to hew closely with, having warm enough clothing shouldn’t be much of a mystery.  If action layers are for staying warm during various permutations of on-the-go, pure insulating layers are for […]

  8. The new Houdini Air looks pretty intriguing…I’ve had the Airshed for a while and definitely wish it had a hood at times but still almost always grab it over my Alpine Start unless it’s really windy. Curious how similar the fabric is to the Airshed/Nano.

    1. I believe the Airshed fabric is the (regular) Nano Air shell fabric.

  9. Dave,

    Quick question and a longer one.

    What would you estimate the CFM for the Windveil?

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the Airshed when you have enough time in it. When the DWR wears off on the Alpine Start it does have too much water ingress and the dry time is longer than one would like. A windshirt of similar breathability but without spandex would be welcome. Durability would be the open question – the Alpine Start remains king with regards to this metric and the Airshed material gives me pause.


    1. Windveil is single digits CFM for sure.

      The Airshed is weird. I’m still coming to grips with it, but overall not finding it to be all that handy.

  10. […] are complicated, because their job is a difficult one, and an important one. Patagonia’s Airshed, a pullover shirt made from the outer fabric of the […]

  11. […] Air (since July 2014), Alpha Direct, Polartec High Efficiency (above), light poly baselayers, and windshirts like the Alpine Start.  In other areas (shoes) development has been frustratingly circular, but […]

  12. […] been exploring a Patagonia Stretch Terre Planing hoody as a replacement for my BD Alpine Start windshell.  The Terre has promise in this area, with one glaring flaw in the voluminous torso size.  […]

  13. […] written an enormous amount about windshirts over the past decade, their importance in a layering system, and the […]

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