The Idea of Multi-Layer Outdoor Clothing is good for any kind of sport or outdoor activity. Its main purpose is keeping your body temperature constant regardless of physical activity level or weather conditions.
Generally, three layers are used in such clothing: the inner (base) one - to wick the moisture away from your body, the mid (insulating) one to provide it with warmth and the outer (shell) one to protect you from rain and wind. The key feature of this multi-layer approach is that you can quickly adapt your garments to the weather conditions and your own body activity level with just taking off the excessive layers when its warm or putting on the additional layers when its cold. There are many materials which combine two layers functions in one (when also reducing the quality of their functional abilities, though).
For a long period of time the multi-layer approach was the best idea for athletes and outdoorsmen, but now there is another possibility also the Soft Shells. This kind of technical clothing combines the functions of both outer (shell) and middle (insulating) layers. And in addition to that it has a better breathingability.
Base (inner) layerdraws the sweat away from your skin. This layer is highly responsible for the body thermoregulation. Have you ever put on a cotton t-shirt under the raincoat when joggling? Even if such a garment will protect you from the rain, shortly you will feel cold. When your clothing accumulates moisture it starts to cool down the body even while the outer clothing layer is successfully resisting the rain and snow.
The cotton absorbs moisture easily but slowly dries it out. The synthetic polyester wicking materials, such as Polartec® PowerDry® and CoolMax® effectively transfer the sweat from outside. They dont accumulate moisture but spread it on the layers outer surface, where it quickly evaporates. So you feel comfortable even when sweating. It is very important to keep you body dry if you dont want to overheat yourself in the summer or get the hypothermia in extremely cold conditions. There are generally different models of each thermal underwear (light, medium and warm) so it can fit any weather conditions. It is very important that underwear fits your body snugly, so the sweat wickers quicker.
Mid layer provides your body with warmth. It keeps the warm air trapped near your body. Fleece coats, jackets and pants are good examples of mid layer outdoor garments. They are good at keeping the air warm and their polyester material fibers also transfer the moisture away. Wool and down are also known to be good insulators. Though, unlike synthetic fabric, these natural materials accumulate excessive moisture. Polartec® and Thinsulate® provide good insulation for different conditions while having the minimal weight. The down is superlative for extreme low temperatures but can only be used in dry air. The fleece clothing due to its great insulation and breathability is the most widespread layered clothing now. These clothing goes on keeping its insulation functions even after it becoms wet outside, and it also dries faster than the wool. In order to avoid overheating when doing hard physical activity (sports like cycling or running) it is recommended to use lighter kinds of fleece, such as Polartec® Micro. For colder weather use the thicker fleece materials - like Polartec® 200, Polartec® 300 or Polartec® Thermal Pro. Also you can put on clothing with wind protection membrane materials: Gore® Windstopper® и Polartec® Windbloc®.
Fleece clothing (likewise thermal underwear) doesnt need any special care. Yes, there are liquids specially intended for washing fleece materials, but you can easily wash them with detergent for a delicate wash and water not hotter than +104°F (+40°C). If you wash Soft shells, though, use ONLY SPECIAL DETERGENTS (!!!) which are usually liquid. Dont be greedy and buy only these special care detergents, otherwise after two washings your clothing will lose all of its functions!
There are materials which combine fleece insulation and, like Hardshell, almost dont let the water through. They are called Soft Shells. They are usually of very light weight and not thick - though, they loose some of water resistant abilities with that. Almost every Soft Shell is windproof (up to 31 km/h (50 km/h) wind speed). Different Soft Shells have different functions and names: Softshell, Windblock, Windwall, Windstopper, WindPro etc. Each producer invents its names. = The Soft Shell breathability is worse than fleeces, but better than of ANY membrane fabric!
The key of the soft shell approach is using one layer with the maximum effectiveness, so that it can substitute three or more other layers. This idea includes invention of the clothes which are effective and comfortable at the same time, making wearing additional layer (such as a t-shirt or a jacket) reasonable only for extreme air temperature conditions. This simplicity made the weight lighter and the price go lower and also made a person more free in his motions. The essential advantage of Soft Shell system is, of course, that it can give you the greater ability to control your temperature balance (one layer is just easier to adjust than three).
Ive, personally, been using the Soft Shell Clothing for years. Why? Because it is light, windproof has great insulation abilities, dries out fast and сan easily repel a small rain. I use the same soft shell jacket both for snowboarding at considerably warm weather (down to +23°F (-5°C)) and for bicycle rides when its not higher than +59°F (+15°C) outside.
Soft shell clothing types
Light soft shell clothing includes compact jackets and pants made of material with a firm resistant outer and a fleecy inner surfaces. As I said before, this clothing is extremely water-resistant, windproof and rub-proof, and at the same time its very breathable. This breathability and light weight makes it ideal for aerobic activities: cross-country skiing, hiking, biking, downhill skiing, snowshoeing and various kind of usage in the urban area. Also it can act as good additional layer under your waterproof and windproof clothing. The essential element of Soft shell clothing is its micro-fleece inner layer. This layer is of considerable volume and low density and its hydrophobic that all making it warm while being very light in weight. It traps very little of sweat inside and most of the moisture goes out of it quickly. Micro fleece consists of tiny fibers reducing material and body contacting area to minimum. Thats why when this clothing gets wet it still stays dry if touched: the body dries out each separate fiber just in a second. The jacket outer coating blocks any wind and water from outside and at the same time instantly absorbs the moisture coming up from the inner layer - transferring it to the outer surface where it then evaporates quickly: this all helps to keep the necessary microclimate conditions under the soft shell clothing.
The Soft shell clothing has greatly developed and expanded for the past years. Initially, this kind of clothing didnt have waterproof models but then new materials appeared and waterproofing in Soft shells became real. To make the waterproofing absolute you can use the soft shell clothing with membrane interlayer which absolutely blocks the water from outside. Pants and jackets made of Polartec(r) Windbloc(r) Softshell, Polartec(r) PowerShield, Gore(r) Windstopper(r) Softshell easily repel the rain and can be used as full-functional foul-weather clothing. Some of the soft shell membrane materials can be covered with a special adhesive tape which stops seams- through water penetration. Moreover, warm inner fleece layer will provide you with good thermal insulation when the weather is cold. So, instead of the classical windbreaker + fleece layer combination, you can buy just one apparel with lesser volume, lighter weight and (whats also very important) lower price.
Now lets take a look at third layer of your clothing. Its called Hard shell. Materials which are used in Hard shell clothing are windproof, waterproof and breathable. This clothing can be only membranous. There are three kinds of membranes: porous membranes (Gore-tex, Dermizax, SimpaTex....and so on), hydrophilous membranes (laninates and other names), and "coatings (outer surface is glued with water-resistant chemicals or wax - this kind of waterproofing has even more names). All this types of membranes work in different ways, but here we just need to understand their features.
Porous membranes have best functionality, but they are also most expensive ones. The price for a jacket of porous membrane fabric starts from $400. Porous membranes have the highest breathability level. Hydrophilous (laminated) membranes' breathability index is close to zero, but they are also 99, 9% waterproof. Coatings dont breathe at all and often loose they waterproof qualities after first washing.
You can see two figures on your outerwear labels. One of the figures shows the height of a water column which can be suspended above the fabric before water seeps through. Another number indicates how many grams of water vapor per 1 meter2 (10.7639 ft²) of fabric per 24 hour period. In reality, most companies exaggerate these figures.