Back to Gear

How to build a layering system

Checking out some elk rub

All photo credits: Josh Kirchner

When I first heard the term "layering system," I wrote it off as a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. I was perfectly content with my huge stack of long johns, flannels, and hand-me-down jackets. To me, it was just another ploy to get the attention of hunters who had a wallet too big to sit on. Over time, though, I did start to get tired of bringing a suitcase full of clothes with me on my hunts. Wearing too many clothes also interfered with my mobility, which wasn’t cool—especially if you are a bowhunter. I used to wear the leg end of a sock on my arm and over my jacket so that my bow string wouldn't make contact on the shot. If it did, my arrow would fly left. So, this layering system mumbo jumbo started to get my attention. I noticed that the clothing was not nearly as bulky and you didn't need nearly as much of it. Now, the problem was, where to start?

What is a layering system?

First Lite layering system

The best place to start is to, first, define what a layering system actually is. The term gets thrown around a lot, especially now with all of the new high tech clothing lines out there. When I started looking into this stuff, it was pretty confusing to me. Each company might have their own names for certain pieces of clothing, which is, of course, not universal throughout the rest of the industry. This can be confusing if you are not educated on the subject. However, a layering system is exactly what it says it is: a system that works together to cover you all the way from blazing hot temperatures to freezing ones. Sounds hard to believe, right? Believe me, I know, because I was there. What if I told you that I have three to four pieces of gear that get me through 95% of the year? That's way less than the stack of clothing I once used. It's also way more efficient and effective. Here's how it works.

Base Layers

Mid morning layers

Your first and second layers are going to be your base layers. Some might see these and think that they are reminiscent of the long johns we are all familiar with from our youth. They might resemble them in appearance, but they are very different. Unlike the old school long johns that were only worn in cold weather, these new pieces are also worn in hot weather. I wear the same base layers whether it is 100 degrees or 20 degrees. Sounds impossible, right? How does something keep me both warm and cool when I need it to? The key is in the fabric being used. These technologically advanced fabrics are made to breathe extremely well, which will keep you cool when it's hot and wick moisture away from your skin, which will help keep you warm when it's cold. These layers are made out of two main fabrics: merino wool and synthetic.

Merino wool

First Lite merino wool layers

Merino wool is my preferred fabric for base layers. In order to understand why you really just need to try the stuff out. I first started looking at merino wool specifically for backpack hunting. Why? Well, on backcountry hunts you don't really have the luxury of bringing that suitcase full of clothing. This is where merino wool comes in. Merino wool is naturally odor resistant. This is because bacteria have a hard time latching onto its super fine threads. Because of this, you can wear these pieces for long periods of time with a very minimal stink factor. I say minimal because, after 10 days in the field, you yourself will stink, but the stink on the clothing will be very minimal, if not non-existent altogether. Another benefit to merino wool is it retains 80% of its insulation value—even when it is soaking wet. This is a major help when you are either sweating your tail off or get hit with an unexpected downpour. The only downside I have found with merino wool is that it is not the most durable of fabrics. If you want that, then you need to pick synthetic.

Gear Shop - Shop Now


Synthetics or polyester also make a great base layer. Layers made of this material are going to be comfortable and will dry very fast—much quicker than merino wool. As I have already pointed out above, these fabrics are also more durable than merino wool. Before using merino wool, I dabbled in the world of synthetic. Right off of the bat, I was impressed. I loved how the material felt on my skin and wondered why I didn't try this stuff out before. But what’s the downside of synthetic? I found that out after only one evening of glassing during a summer month here in Arizona. A pungent smell kept wafting across my nose out there. My first thought was, "Man, my hunting partner must have forgotten to take a shower or something." But I was wrong. I was actually smelling myself. The stink factor of synthetics is pretty high. If you are just day hunting from the truck, give this stuff a try. However, if you are planning on heading into the backcountry, I would stick with merino wool.


Insulation layers

Believe it or not, it does get cold here in Arizona from time to time so I need a good insulation layer to add to my system. We've discussed base layers and how they move moisture away from your skin. An insulation layer is going to not only insulate your body heat, but it is going to help dry out those base layers underneath as they wick that moisture away. Remember, I said this stuff all works together. Insulating layers are going to vary slightly in terms of fabric, but the end goal is the same: it will keep you warm! A lot of jackets will be made of down. Down is super warm, super compressible, and super lightweight. This really comes in handy when you are stuffing that jacket into your pack for the day. It weighs little to nothing and takes up a minimal amount of space in your pack. Other jackets are made of a synthetic blend of sorts. Unlike the stink factor differences I have found in the base layers, I haven't noticed that with the jackets. Some insulation layers also have a DWR coating applied to the outside of them in order to help keep you dry should you get hit with some rain. This is no substitute for actual rain gear but can help in a pinch. That brings me to the next thing on our list: rain gear.

Rain gear

First Lite rain gear

The first year I ever went bear hunting, my hunt was "ruined" by rain. I ended up going home early because I simply was not prepared for the weather. I vowed from that point on that I would have rain gear so I didn't have a repeat of that first year. Fast forward to now and I'll tell you this: My rain gear layer drifts its way in and out of my pack. I really just go by the weather report. If there is rain in the forecast, it comes with me. If not, I leave it at the truck. While the insulation layer is basically like your mobile sleeping bag, your rain gear is like your mobile tent. If I am on a backpack hunt, I usually always bring rain gear with me. Especially during the months of August and September when monsoons can pop up out of nowhere; I like to be prepared for those. Some folks complain about the noise that comes with having rain gear, but, in my opinion, this is not really important. When it is raining, there is already noise from the rain so that's not really a concern I have with it. Another concern that many have with rain gear is breathability. This is a valid concern, but I think you can only go so far with this. It makes sense that breathability is limited because it is a hard shell piece. It is made to keep water out, but that also means that it will keep water in. At this moment, it is a necessary evil.


Early morning glassing

As far as downstairs goes, I keep it pretty simple. For underwear, I'll use a light/midweight merino wool boxer short for the same reasons I use the tops. If it is really cold I will throw on a midweight full-length merino base layer over those followed by my pants. For pants, you can go with either a merino wool pant or synthetic—much like the options for tops. Synthetic is going to be more durable, but also a tad noisier. This could pose a problem when spot and stalking animals with a bow. For that, my favorite pant is a merino wool pant. Not only is it comfortable, but they are dead quiet and perfect for sneaking up on an unaware buck. I use both types of pants and each of them has their place in my system. When it comes to socks, I prefer a merino wool sock. I can wear these for days on end and they are extremely comfortable. I have yet to get a blister wearing these.

My layering system

Here is my basic layering system that gets me through 95% of the year. I say 95% because there might be a time later in the season where I add an extra layer of clothing up top, which will usually be a fleece type layer for added warmth.



In closing

Checking for elk sign

If you were like me and are sitting on the fence with this stuff, I hope this article points you in the right direction. Layering systems might differ slightly from climate to climate, but the foundation remains. Nowadays, having a layering system is an absolute must for me and, truth be told, I won't do it any other way. Since I have changed my ways, I have never been more comfortable out in the field. Because of that, I find myself spending way more time in the field—no matter the conditions. This transfers into more animals spotted, which inevitably leads to more opportunities to fill that tag.


Log in or register to post comments.

Jeff F. - posted 1 year ago on 12-10-2018 09:21:34 pm

Ditto. First Lite gear has transformed my hunting life. I stay cool in hot weather, warmer in cold weather - and the old synthetic BO issues are a thing of the past. I've got the layering down to where I can stay comfortable without becoming a sweaty mess, however, having some patience to stop and layer down helps. Often it comes down to putting on or taking off my Sawtooth vest.

Josh K. - posted 1 year ago on 12-02-2018 06:46:40 am

@Mike M.

Thanks for breaking down your system Mike! Useful information!

Mike M. - posted 1 year ago on 11-05-2018 09:37:09 am

I started building my layering system from mostly First Lite in the last season. I am primarily a whitetail bow hunter located in Oklahoma. I have the following pieces and use them as the weather dictates. Note that all of these situations are stationary, if spot and stalk I will wear my hiking set + my Chama hoodie.

-First Lite Wilkin (last year’s lightweight merino/nylon lightweight base shirt)
-First Lite Chama hoodie (100% merino, heavier than Wilkin)
-First Lite Uncompahgre puffy vest
-First Lite North Branch jacket and bibs (replaced by the quieter, .5 less layers Catalyst series)
-First Lite Woodbury jacket
-First Lite Sanctuary bibs
-First Lite Kanab 2.0 pants, merino (replaced by Obsidians)
-Prana Zion pants, mud color(similar to Corrugated guide pant from First Lite)
-Darn Tough full cushion hiker socks
-Generic brand 95% merino/5% spandex lightweight bottoms
-Under Armour hooded fleece (soon to replace with First Lite Klamath in the 1/4 zip version)
-ASAT Leafy suit
-First Lite merino beanie
-First Lite tundra balaclava
-generic hand warmer pouch
-First Lite SEAK Stormtight jacket (in pack if rain is forecasted)
-ECWCS military gore-Tex pants (in pack if rain is forecasted)

If I wear the Prana pants I will put the ASAT leafy bottoms over them one to my destination. Also, I’ll wear the full leafy suit when ground hunting as it works excellent.

60°-75° F
I wear my base layer bottoms with Kanab pants over. If hiking long distance or and packing a stand I will wear my Wilkin top only and pack my Chama, fleece hoodie, and Uncompahgre vest. When I get to the stand I will sit until I am not hot and am beginning to cool. Immediately I will put on my vest or UA fleece. If using the vest, I will always put the UA fleece over it once I cool some more as it “mutes” the sound of the vest nylon better than other layers. Then if I get cooler due to wind, temp drop, etc, I will place the Chama over the fleece. I always keep the beanie in my pack as well. I have found that the fleece UA hoodie causes me to hear less when the hood is up as opposed to the merino beanie and Chama hood. This is why I am going to purchase the Klamath quarter zip to replace the UA fleece.

I’ll pack my North Branch jacket and bibs for longer sits in addition to the above mentioned items. I have ordered a cheap pair of military full zip fleece pants that I can layer over the Kanabs and under the NB bibs if my legs get cold (sometimes they do when it is 40° with a stiff breeze). The Uncompahgre pants would work in place of the FZ fleece pants.

I’ll wear the light base bottoms and Kanab pants over. I’ll wear my Wilkin top and Chama over for the hike in. I pack my Uncompahgre vest, Woodbury jacket, Sanctuary bibs, and Tundra balaclava. When I arrive and begin to cool, I will immediately put on my Woodbury and Sanctuary bibs over the hiking layers. When my head begins to cool, I will put on the merino beanie and then the tundra balaclava if it’s less than 30° and windy. I also have my hand warmer pouch on at this point as I don’t wear gloves for bow hunting. I hunted at 10°F sitting stationary all day last December and never got cold with this setup. It was not windy, but I never pulled the Uncompahgre vest out of my pack. It has been said elsewhere that the Uncompahgre + Woodbury jacket equals the same insulation as the Sanctuary jacket. This makes it more versatile for my uses as the Uncompahgre vest packs so small. The Woodbury and Sanctuary are absolutely silent and you cannot joke in either one. They are definitely the warmest outer layers I have ever tried and I am 100% satisfied. If you bust brush in them, they will not hold up. But, then again, they’re too warm to hike in so that is a moot point.

Hope this helps some whitetail hunters wondering what they should do. I am a believer in the merino layers as after 8 days with no shower, they don’t stink. I do like to have an extra pair of socks at camp to let the pair from the day’s hunt air out. Also, keep an eye on forum classifieds, sign up for First Lite emails for sales, and eBay for discounts on new or slightly used gear. Ha saved me $100s.


stephen s. - posted 1 year ago on 11-04-2018 08:11:38 pm

I have chased good gear since the 70's as a gore-tex athlete test runner... For most part today, I have standardized on Sitka Gear both for hunting and on my sport fishing charter business. Expensive but it is hunting gear that functions as survival gear. I have found that the sitka gear base layers do not hold stink. I tested one set for a week in Canada last summer and have reworn one in a week's worth of workouts with same effect - they do not hold stink - with the added benefit that they do not feel cold and clammy when wet, body heat will dry rather quickly. The only non-Sitka Gear that I wear is sox (have not found a great solution there) and ExOfficio underwear (has same qualities as sitka gear T's - dries quickly with body heat and does not feel cold and clammy when wet. Just spent 10-days in Montana on self-guided hunt - we relied on Sitka Gear from base to outer layers.

AJ W. - posted 1 year ago on 11-04-2018 07:39:06 pm

Good read and very informative .
I usually never comment but thought I should .

If you're wearing a synthetic base layer that stinks, then you are definitely not wearing Wonrate's base layers . .

Good luck in the field everyone .

Josh K. - posted 1 year ago on 11-04-2018 05:44:34 pm

@Brian S

Chris hit the nail on the head. This stuff is definitely an investment, but so worth it. I was on budget as well when starting out and I just got things here and there. Maybe one year I would get some base layers, then the next I'd pick up a good insulation piece. After a bit, i had a full kit and never looked back.

Chris M. - posted 1 year ago on 11-04-2018 05:28:50 pm

Brian S I would recommend building your system over time if you are on a budget because you will not regret the upgrade in quality nor the money spent once it is gone. I started with some excellent First Lite rain top/bottoms that were on sale and then bought a little more every season. My favorite by far is the corrugate guide pants and the cirrus ultra lite puffy. My system took about 3 years to complete so the sticker shock was not so severe and I’ve been very happy with the increase in comfort and quality.

Dan L. - posted 1 year ago on 10-30-2018 09:08:43 pm
Corona de Tucson, AZ

I was also very hesitant at first to spend the money on some of these items but after I absolutely destroyed some cheaper clothing, which was also really REALLY uncomfortable, I started getting pieces of First Lite one and two at a time. Like Josh, who has been really helpful giving me advice on gear, I hunt southern Arizona but try to hunt the Wisconsin rut out of a tree stand whenever I can. The investment has been well worth it, and whether you prefer FL or any of the other brands I highly recommend incorporating a quality layering system. My personal favorite layering system is a merino underwear, mountain athlete triad sock, corrugate guide pants (awesome) wicking hoody, kiln quarter zip, Halstead Tech Fleece which has been replaced by the new Klamath line and the insulating layer is their new catalyst jacket. I have the Woodbury for cold weather sits in the tree stand. As for noise the tech fleece, and from what I've heard the new Klamath, is as close to silent as can be in addition to being my most comfortable piece. A quality layering system makes all the difference on a hunt where the temps and conditions swing or change significantly and for me there's no other way to go.

Steven Z. - posted 1 year ago on 10-30-2018 11:13:15 am
Ellsworth, ME


The merino selection of First Lite is silent. There is no rough coating on it. I commonly use the Obsidian pants, Sawtooth jacket, and Woodbury jacket as outerwear. the Woodbury is the only piece that is not wool, and it is still one of the quietest fabrics I have used. It also does a fair job of blocking out the wind. Just bear in mind that silence usually lacks toughness of fabric.

Josh K. - posted 1 year ago on 10-30-2018 08:32:28 am

@Justin S.

The actual jacket that I mention in this piece(uncompaghre puffy) I would not consider quiet. However, I have heard different about the Sanctuary. More insulation made for the whitetail guys. What I like to do if I am super concerned about noise is stay away from a puffy like jacket. I will run something like the Wick, Kiln, and Klameth. The new Klameth from FL is fleece and DEAD quiet. All of the merino layers are dead quiet as well. They actually just came out with a thicker line of base layers for colder weather too. Merino X. If I needed another layer, I would FOR SURE check out the Catalyst jacket. Also, a very quiet piece in my opinion. Hope that helps man!

Seth D. - posted 1 year ago on 10-30-2018 05:25:59 am
Public Lands

I have a mix of gear from hunting, military, and mountain climbing companies. I kind of got on the Kuiu fan boy bandwagon for a while, but I am happier with a variety of options instead of just staying with one company. I love wool as well, and while I hate the durability of wool, it has no peer for smell factor and moisture wicking.

I wish I would have bought a Weatherby Wool outfit when they were doing that.

There are so many brands globally that make high end hunting clothing Norronia, Merkel, Blaser, SwedTeam, Harkila, Browning, Beretta, Kuiu, First Lite, Sitka and of course Cabelas's and LL Bean have high end stuff in the top end of their catalogs as well.

It is hard to know unless you walk into a showroom or a big box retailer what you need and what you really will use.

I am convinced that soft shell fabric clothing is great, unless you need it to do more than it is made to do. It works well for truck hunting, but if you need an insulation piece or a water proof shell, it generally doesn't survive a downpour or a 20 F morning wind.

I like Gore-Tex, but I really love Gore Windstopper. I think that having a windstopper option in a jacket can help beat the heat that you will lose by just having an insulation layer.

This weekend I am testing the a Gore Windstopper top and pants, that I am laying over synthetic long underwear and a wool base layer shirt and wool base layer top.

Brian S. - posted 1 year ago on 10-29-2018 08:42:18 pm

I love the options, I've read nothing but great things about First Lite hunting apparel. My only concern is price, putting together a full package base layering system is going to run well over a thousand bucks, what would you recommend for those on a tighter budget?

Justin S. - posted 1 year ago on 10-29-2018 04:55:49 pm
Bigfork, MT

Josh, my biggest concern with most of the camo I see on the shelf is how noisy it is. Whenever I buy camo I take my fingernails and scratch at the outside. This is what every branch is going to sound like or every time my legs run together. Are these First light insulation layers quite? I know you mentioned the pants but what about the top?