Outerwear 101

Shell vs. Insulation

Now you know a bit about the technologies involved in outerwear production. The next step is to dive a bit into basic outerwear construction. One of the most common questions is whether to go for a shell, or an insulated piece. These designations are pretty simple, so I’ll keep this brief.

Shells – Versatility

The good: Shells are extremely versatile and can be made with the most technical constructions. A good shell can be worn in absolutely any weather scenario. It has the flexibility to perform well on a hot day in the pouring rain, or in blizzard conditions well below freezing. The only thing you need to modify is your layering.

Burton Hover Jacket.
The 3L Burton Hover Jacket, a shell.


The bad: Shells offer little to no inherent insulation. They are not warm and require insulating layers to be warm.

Insulation – Warmth

The good: Insulated outerwear has insulation integrated into the garment’s construction. These pieces can be extremely warm on their own.  You don’t have to deal with layer incompatibilities (i.e. a “grabby” fabric versus a “slippery” fabric).  It can also be cheaper in the long run, considering that good layering can cost a decent amount of money on its own.

Orage B Dog jacket.
The Orage B-Dog, insulated jacket.

The bad: Insulated outerwear is much less versatile then a shell. Too much insulation can cause you to overheat easily, even in cold temperatures. This happens for two reasons. The obvious reason is that the jacket has insulation that can not be removed. Less obviously, the breathability of an insulated jacket is also limited by the breathability of the insulation, regardless of fabric technology. Bottom line, if you need a really warm jacket and are willing to buy multiple jackets for multiple weather conditions, insulated may be for you.

2L vs. 3L Shells

Here is an important question when purchasing a shell: 2 Layer or 3 Layer? And does it really matter?

2L – The Original

2L garments are constructed with two layers; a nylon face fabric (generally with a DWR) that is bonded to a WP/BR laminate. 2L garments are always lined with some sort of lining fabric. These linings are generally made of thin nylon or mesh, and serve two purposes. First, the lining keeps the laminate from direct contact with the skin. This is important because the laminate generally has a plastic feel to it and can be quite uncomfortable.

The lining’s main purpose, however, is to protect the laminate. Even though the laminates are engineered to be resistant to fouling, without further protection of the laminate, its durability can suffer greatly. 2L garments are generally constructed with some amount of seam taping. Seam taping keeps water and wind out at the seams, but does not breathe.

2L outerwear dominates the market for many reasons. 2L construction lends itself quite well to making insulating garments, which dominate the consumer market. (People want their coats to be warm. Who knew?) 2L construction is also less expensive because the technology has been around much longer. The construction of the garments is easier because the lining allows many sewing options with less need for seam taping, and the design is easier because of the ability to work with a lining.

3L – Or, Why does this jacket cost $600???

3L garments are constructed with 3 layers: (1) a nylon face fabric (with a DWR) that is bonded to (2) a WP/BR laminate, which is bonded to (3) a tricot layer on the inside.

3L construction: blue = nylon face, yellow = WP/BR laminate, orange = tricot liner
3L construction: Blue = nylon face; Yellow = WP/BR laminate; Orange = tricot liner.

3L garments are not constructed with a lining and are therefore often shells. 3L pieces generally use the most advanced (and therefore expensive) fabrics and laminates. These fabrics make up some of the most technical pieces of outerwear available. Construction of 3L garments is difficult. Every seam has to be taped or welded, and every cut greatly modifies the look of the garment. Given that both seam taping and the fabric are extremely expensive, and construction is difficult, 3L garments can be costly pieces of outerwear.

So why bother to make (or buy) a 3L jacket, when you could just produce or purchase a 2L jacket?

There are a few reasons why 3L construction has gained a lot of momentum in the industry lately. First is performance: the addition of the bonded tricot liner increases the breathability of the garment. The tricot is hydrophilic and, as you sweat, the tricot preferentially absorbs your sweat and transports it to the laminate so it can diffuse out. Contrast this with a 2L garment, where the water vapor has to randomly bump into the laminate while navigating between your skin and the lining to diffuse out.

The next advantage is weight. 3L garments can be made without a lining, and therefore, save a substantial amount of weight when compared to their 2L counterparts.

The final advantage is the durability of 3L construction. The addition of the tricot liner adds a significant amount of support and protection for the laminate that is not present in a 2L garment. In short, a 3L garment will have better performance, with less weight, and be more durable than a comparable 2L design—albeit at about twice the cost.

2.5L – Or, What in the hell is a half a layer?

This is not a very common construction in the world of winter outerwear, but it is a common source of confusion, so we’ll briefly touch on it.

A 2.5L fabric is made up of two and half layers—sort of. It has a nylon face fabric (with a DWR), a WP/BR laminate, and then a printed lining. This printed lining is present for the sake of protecting the laminate, but does little to eliminate the clammy, plastic feeling of the laminate directly on the skin; hence the designation of a half of a layer. 2.5L fabrics are used on active rainwear because they are easier to produce and end up being lighter than 3L garments, though less comfortable.

What does it all mean?

Hopefully you’re now in a better position to make an informed decision when purchasing your next piece of outerwear. The most general take away is: Beware of performance ratings, and find a good DWR.

Beyond that, let personal preference (and your wallet) be your guide to picking out your next piece of outerwear.

Buying outerwear is a process. It almost always sucks, at least until you are standing in the backcountry or on top of your local hill, in a white out, completely comfortable.

36 comments on “Outerwear 101”

  1. Freaking killer articles. All of them. Even as a seasoned gear shop employee and tech junkie, can always count on Blister to deliver the goods on beta, science, and the layman’s terms to tell the whole story.

    Keep up the really really ridiculously awesome work.


  2. Wow. Technical yet totally accessible article. Great, great read for anyone looking to buy waterproof, breathable gear. I learned a lot & will try to spread the word about this article. Thanks!

  3. Really in depth article, but really useful even for the non technical out there. You covered some great points. Time to go shopping for the right balance of tech in my new jacket! I’ve shared this on our Facebook, will be really useful to our followers.

  4. Terrific article! Might I suggest for Outerwear 102 and article about actually dressing for skiing/boarding? How are the various layers supposed to be used? What do you guys wear for different conditions? Two layers? Three layers? How should you layer under a shell? Think would be a useful companion. Keep up the great work!

  5. Great Article!
    Was just about to buy 3L Gore pants… Questioned my choice (and the price)… Found your article… Read the whole thing… And just ordered the pants!
    It confirmed my decision — also answered my long wonder about how the 20k/20g (etc) ratings compared to others and if they really could be trusted. Answer = no more board shop employees trying to sell me over priced claimed “technical” wear.

  6. This is a fantastic article. Where does Dermizax fall? I keep seeing the material in very high end Kjus ski jackets; is it simply a PU laminate? If so, I can’t imagine the performance would warrant the $1500 price. They claim incredibly high breath ability scores, but thanks to your article I now know to ignore them :) There also appears to be several versions of Dermizax. Is this material any good?

  7. Great article, nice to see one of these that doesn’t spew the misinformation of water drop vs vapor molecules through holes stuff.
    The one thing you didn’t stress was the effect of shell and liner fabrics on breathability of the total laminate.

    • Hey Slim,

      That is definitely a huge part in the total breathability of any garment. A bit difficult to baseline, but certainly a huge factor. Thanks for your comment!


  8. stupendous and layman friendly article! it took me a few minutes to fully absorb (he he) all this ‘dry as a bone’ information to great effect. no ‘watered down’ or fishy patent references to get wallowed down in either! wish there were more ‘commercial’ PR folks who had the smarts to actually divulge facts, rather than foist their marketing jargon upon so many naive buyers!

  9. So far what I’ve read on this site has been very useful, and I like the writing style. I don’t think I’m the only one around that is sick and tired of being treated as an imbicile, or worse, just a source of income by sometimes dishonest outdoor companies that are run by the marketing departments. Even companies like Patagonia, TNF, and others that started off right, by climbers and such, have gone far astray, letting the marketing departments and “the bottom line” affect their decisions.

    Hell, Gore’s lies have killed people, hypothermic in their own sweat. How the f__k is that “keeping you dry”? Meanwhile they have made billions.

    Good to see a honest, independent source of information. I hope you continue.

    Got anything on Pertex Equilibrium, by chance?

    • Hey Alvin,

      Pertex Equilibirum is a non-laminated (no membrane) fabric that acts like a very thin softshell. It is typically used in very lightweight garments and is not waterproof.

      Like most non-laminate softshells, Equilibrium claims “weatherproof”-ness by using a high density weave on fabric exposed to the elements.

      What makes Equilibrium a higher performance fabric than some others in this category, is the use of a denier gradient to facilitate breathability by capillary action throughout the fabric.

      Basically, the inner layer of the fabric (against skin) is woven with a larger diameter fiber than the outside layer. This creates a driving force for capillary action out of the garment for breathability.

      I hope that answers your question,

  10. Is it just me, or is DWR way, vastly, overrated? I’ve had any number of pieces with DWR. Typically they stop working within minutes of a light rain, even when new. Of course it gets worse after even just a couple washings. And I buy good quality (in every other way) expensive stuff (Patagonia usually, also Arcteryx, Lowe Alpine, others)…I’ve yet to see DWR work properly. Ever.

    • DWR is a tricky thing to nail down. The performance depends on many things. When you have Patagonia claiming to put the same DWR on their M10 3L hardshell as a pair of casual pants, there is obviously going to be some performance differences.

      In many ways, the fabric that the DWR is on is just as important as the DWR itself. Low density weaves, stretchy and high denier fabrics (like a lot of casual clothing) typically don’t have the same DWR performance as high density weaves on laminated fabrics.

      Bottom line: DWR is essential to your hardshell, not so much to your “softshell” crag pants – and even then, performance varies wildly.

      • thanks, that makes a lot of sense. Even still, I haven’t had much luck with DWR on anything at all, honestly. My hardshell always wets out on the surface, and then doesn’t breathe, or even in cold weather sometimes becomes a sheet of ice-fabric.

        It’s funny but just today I recieved email from a well-known, highly experienced outdoorsman who I happened to ask some of these questions to, and he told me he often uses an umbrella!

        Others suggest those cheap plastic ponchos. That says a lot about the state of these “high tech” (and ridiculously over-priced) garments, I think. You can buy a lot of umbrellas and ponchos (or Hefty Bags!) for 600 bucks, eh?

        • You know, that is a great point to bring up. Depending on what you’re doing outside, often an umbrella or poncho is all you really need. Hardshells do NOT excel in rain, they just don’t work well for many reasons. If you’re in the rain and don’t need both hands, or aren’t sweating extensively, there are other options.

          The reality of the situation is that 90% of the time you’re outside, you don’t need anything more than wind protection. In heavy, wet snows and rain — the other 10% — you need the protection of a hardshell. But most people (including me) go out in a hardshell almost everyday… Something I’ve been pondering a lot lately. Can a non-hardshell based layering system catch on in mainstream snow sports?

          • I had heard they already are popular in skiing and snowboarding, when the lodge is right there. I don’t believe a hard shell is all that necessary in snow for a few reasons: 1. snow takes time to melt, and brushes off easily, 2. snow is 90% air anyways, 3. in the cold, humidity is lower (i find things dry quite fast in the winter, IF they ever get wet in the first place, that is) 4. you don’t sweat as much in the cold, leaving the insulating and wicking layers with only external moisture to deal with 5. i had another one but forgot it right now kk

            It seems to me, from experience of myself and others, and just logic, that the only truly difficult conditions to deal with (from a clothing perspective anyways) are sustained, cold rainy conditions, with temps above freezing up to the low 50s or so. And only then, really, when you stop hiking. As long as you are moving, you are generating plenty of warmth, and continuing the evaporative process. As soon as you stop either the rain that soaked in, or the sweat under a hard shell immediately makes you start chilling, and fast.

            That’s my opinion, and I am going to start testing some soft shell combos when i get the chance in those kind of conditions. Honestly, how often do you get those kind of conditions? Not much, thankfully. But I plan to seek them out as soon as my new Equilibrium shell gets here! ;)

          • There is one garment that works well in chilly, wet conditions…the old school wool sweater, the think, airy kind (knitted i guess)…those things keep you comfortable in all kinds of conditions, and don’t over-heat readily. I’m sure the Llama ones in the Andes and the Yak ones in the Himilaya must just be superb, since those places are cold and people live up to 6000m above sea level.

            Someone should really start researching this more and try to produce things of this nature commercially. I’m not sure what Sir Edmond wore, but I bet there was wool, maybe even Yak wool, involved…and clearly his porters were using that. Heck, they didn’t even have polyester in those days, I don’t think! :-D

            • Yes, if anyone knows of someone making Yak-wool sweaters, let me know. Maybe it could then be lined with micro-fiber and shelled with Pertex too…oh that would be great….heavy as hell, but great.

  11. Brilliant article. It means even for an accomplished tailor/seamstress diy’ing a good shell that functions properly will take some thought and care. Tips on what to look for in terms of construction of a commercial garment would be great.
    Many thanks!

    • Hey Rosanna,

      I assume you’re looking for a commercial garment for inspiration in making your own? My advice would be that quality is less of an issue than simplicity.

      If you’re making a 3L shell, precise patterning is essential, so much so that most major companies laser cut their fabric. The margin for error is tiny.

      If you’re making a 2L shell, again, keep it simple! These garments can get extremely complicated!

      Let me know if you have any other questions! I have commercially produced both 2 and 3L shells and may be able to answer your questions.


  12. Great article, one of the best i have ever come across. i just wanted to add a nit-sized comment – i have a Patagonia 2.5 layer ski jacket with the “H2No” membrane, and just a mesh liner that is not laminated to the membrane, but just hangs loose in the garment – I thought that was what was meant by the half-layer, but i see it’s used to describe a variety of materials and construction that is more than 2L but not quite a 3 layer build, either. so… Veritatem dies aperit… thanks again for the very informative article!

  13. Fascinating! Thanks for the article. It’s so refreshing to have someone putting solid content out there. Most big publications could learn a lot from what you do. I’ve come to realize that soft shell jackets and pants with the right layer(s) underneath and a good or refreshed DWR finish are the most comfortable in all but the worst weather. Some trips are too remote or long to rely on soft shells but most are not.

    • Hey Greg, thanks for the kind words!

      I definitely agree with your take on softshells. My go-to kit is all softshell. In 90% of the conditions I face, hardshells are overkill. We are keeping our eye on some companies making super light emergency hardshells (some that are under 5oz) that look interesting — throw them in your pack as a precaution and wear your softshell. Kind of a cool concept!

      • Can you elaborate on your standard kit a bit? I’m sure I’ve seen you write about / heard it on the podcast before but I can’t recall the details. Currently I’m skiing about 75/25 resort/touring and starting to figure out that the gear I need to be comfortable on the ascent needs to be lighter and more breathable that what I’ve been rocking. I’m wondering what direction to go for a complementary outer layer since I’ve already got a patagonia snowshot, which does seem fine for the down but is pretty bulky. I’ve got a handful of midlayers so I feel OK there. Would you go for a softshell here or look to upgrade the hardshell?

        • Hey Ari,

          Unfortunately, I test so much gear that I never get to settle into a “standard kit” these days. That said, for 50/50 (or 75/25) kit, I would generally think like this:

          Jacket(s): I think a midweight 3L hardshell with a roomier cut is generally a good, versatile option. When I say midweight, think 500-700 grams (size Medium). If you live in a drier area (like Colorado), then I would go with something air-permeable. On the coasts, I’d stick to a more protective shell. For mid-layers, I’m a huge fan of active insulation. The Patagonia Nano Air line has lots of options but it is far from the only active insulation on the market anymore — shop around and find something that fits well and is the right warmth for where you ski. For ski touring, I like to add a softshell to this kit. My current favorite is the Patagonia R1 TechFace, but that piece works best for very high output days. Something with a bit more weather protection is generally best for the average person.

          Pants: I like to have a pant that is a bit more protective than my shell. I’m often kneeling/sitting/falling in the snow so the pant tends to get a bit more abuse. Again, I would go with a midweight 3L pant but I would prioritize large vents and fit/comfort over the “highest” tech fabrics.

          Hope that helps!

          • Awesome, this is super helpful. I’m on the east coast and ski Colorado or Utah a couple times a year. I do think 3L shell is the right way to go but was maybe thinking of trying eVent. Might not be enough for an all around shell on those brutal VT days though.

            Thanks for the comment.

  14. Great article. I have been wearing an Arcteryx hard shell with a base layer and an atom jacket for skiing. Comfort wise, I’m plenty warm and never feel sweaty. The problem I’ve noticed, however, is that the hard shell is trapping moisture inside. I had been keeping my phone in the breast shell pocket and after a few runs, I noticed my phone was wet. Considering it was about 25 degrees at Deer Valley, I knew the moisture was coming from me. The base and middle layer were functioning as designed but the Gore Tex shell was trapping the moisture in. I guess I could have opened the pit vents but I never felt warm enough to want to open the vents.

    I think switching to a soft shell product is going to make more sense.

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