Fitness Fabrics Explained: An In-depth Look on How to Layer for Any Activity

Do you feel like you need to hire a guide just to understand all the terms in the fitness and outdoors clothing section? Sometimes buying the clothes is harder than doing the sport. Let us guide you through the lingo and process of how to layer clothing for the outdoors.


  • Synthetic– Any material that is man made. Polyester, Spandex, Nylon.
  • Zone Mesh– Panels on clothing that are made of synthetic mesh, or lots of holes, that allows for plenty of ventilation.
  • Moisture Wicking– Synthetic fabrics that are designed to direct moisture away from the body. They are light weight, and dry quickly.
  • Flatlocked Seams– Seams that are sewn to be flat and provide as little friction and chafing against the skin as possible. These contrast with typical thicker, rolled seams, and are sometimes referred to as seamless.
  • UV Protection– All clothes offer UV protection because they block a measure of sunlight in some way. Sometimes this label is a marketing reach, and other times, it has “optical brightening agents,” or OBAs in it that really do increase UV blocking and are sometimes found in newer white fabrics.
  • Bacteria/Odor Resistant– Clothing that provides this feature often has silver particles called silver salts that are woven into the fabric and inhibit the production of the bacteria that causes odor. Think of it as a deodorant stick sewn into the clothing.
  • Waterproof vs Water Resistant. Water proof means no water will pass the barrier. Water resistant will give temporary respite from light precipitation. So, water will slick off of it for awhile, but will not keep you completely dry during a serious rain storm.
  • Laminate vs Fabric Coating. Laminate is a fully formed adhesive layer, while coatings are spread over a material. Think of Laminate as the wood laid down on floors, and Fabric coating as the gloss that goes on top.
  • 2-layer- The most basic rainwear. A layer is applied to base fabric, and a second layer that hangs loose, like mesh, adjoins it as a protection.
  • 2.5-layer- The base fabric is light and breathable, and the second layer is a WP/BR laminate or coating, depending on the jacket. WP/BR is from polyurethane. Finally the .5 layer is a super light sheer layer that acts as a protective barrier.
  • 3-layer- Pure laminates here, no coatings. Expect the full laminate to be snuggly conjoined with the base fabric and the protective liner. Because of the tight fit of these fabrics together, many of these jackets offer a very attractive design that can really take a beating and look great on at the same time.

Specific Fabrics

  • Merino Wool– Made from Austrailia and New Zealand’s Merino Sheep, who are known for producing the most soft, fine wool know to man. It is the rare exception to the synthetics only rule (that and silk), because it is superbly breathable and wicks even better than a lot of synthetic material. Since it comes in different grades, look for the lightest.
  • Lycra– Also known as Spandex. This has been popular in fitness clothing for decades due to its comfortableness and moisture wicking.
  • Gore-Tex– A high-end fabric that has tons of microscopic punctures that pave the way for water vapor to escape, while at the same time blocking entry of all water. Considered one the most breathable, while waterproof materials on the market.
  • Fleece– A warm fabric that can be made of either synthetic or natural fibers. Usually synthetic, made of 100% polyester, it can sometimes be combined with other natural or synthetic fibers, and then treated to be water resistant. It comes in three levels of thickness. They are quick drying and outrun wool on the level of warmth provided.
  • Omni-Heat, Thermal Reflective- This is a material made of 35% metallic dot patterning and 65% breathable fabric. It reflects your body heat back at you like a little toaster oven.

 How to Layer: Think C.I.S. (Cover.Insulate.Shield)

Cover: This is often referred to as the base layer. It lays against your skin as the first defense against moisture, and is a major component of maintaining body temperature, in either cold or hot weather. Moisture wicking, odor resistant fabric is the way to go. If you are in the cold and your base layer does not wick away moisture, shivers are surely on the way. Cotton is a definite no-no. There is a reason for the old hikers’ adage “Cotton is rotten.” It does not disperse moisture. Whether you choose thermal underwear, or just a shirt as a base layer, synthetic is the way to go. Silk and merino wool are the only acceptable natural fiber alternatives.

Moisture can come from two directions, the outside elements and our own bodies. So if you are bundled up from the wind and rain, that is great, but without a way to disperse the interior acquired moisture, discomfort is a sure thing. This is a very important thing to remember with underwear, especially bras. There’s nothing worse than underwear that won’t dry the whole time you are outdoors. Go light and synthetic! See our article on How to pick the right Sports Bra for you.


For Cold Weather: A Merino Wool Base Layer

Merino wool base layer


For Hot Weather: Handful’s Built-in Sports Bra Tank

tank top


Insulate: This next layer is there to insulate you against cold, between your base layer and outside layer. Think of your warm body as a club and this layer as the bouncer keeping the cold out. With this layer, both synthetic and natural fabric is fine to use. For snowy conditions with negative temperatures, nothing beats goose down for consistent warmth, but it must be kept dry. Merino wool can warm you even when a little moisture catches on. For a nice middle ground try Fleece. You can’t beat the perks of fleece for insulation. It is light, breathable, and very warming. Since it is synthetic you can get it on the lighter side for spring time, or the thicker side for winter. It is a little on the bulky side but worth it.

Keep in mind your activity level when choosing this layer. It may be cold out, but if you are doing an intense aerobic activity where your body will be very heated, pick a lighter fleece to accommodate it so you don’t overheat. Whereas the inverse is true as well. If you will be sedentary in cold conditions, get a heavier insulating layer to hold in the heat.


For Light Cold: Mountain Hardwear Pyxis Jacketpyxis



For Heavy Cold: Columbia Women’s Lush Plushcolumbia lush plus


Shield– The final outside layer, often referred to as a Shell, takes the brunt of rain, wind, and snow, preventing the other layers from absorbing it and sucking out your heat. However, breathability is still very important.  You want the material to be like a revolving door with moisture moving in one direction: out, not in. If this layer is too thick, then condensation between it and your other layers can form.

Think about how sweaty your hands get in snow gloves when skiing. It’s the same idea. Almost all companies account for this in outer layers by using materials that have a level of breathability while maintaining weather resistance.

Remember to get this layer in a size that allows for freedom of movement. It needs to be big enough to fit the other layers comfortably. There are many different kinds of shells. The barrier level comes in 2-layer, 2.5-layer, and 3-layer. We will start from the cheapest/lightest and go higher. Almost all of these are also treated with an exterior Durable Water Repellant that causes water to scurry into little beads and fall off.

  1. First up is a class of shells that aren’t meant to be airy, just water/windproof. They are typically very inexpensive and make a good pull over for easy activities where you won’t be building up internal heat. Often, the lower end ones have a strong chemical smell because they are made of thick polyurethane and nylon.
  2. Next are Soft Shells. Made with soft stretch fabric panels, these are comfy and usually water resistant, meaning that water can come in brief contact with the jacket, but won’t hold up under a downpour. They are a minimalist option. The fabric is easy to move in, breathes well, and slicks water off temporarily. Many also have an added layer of light insulation. This is a good option for runners.
  3. One step up, from these are soft shells that utilize the same flexibility but add in tightly woven fabrics that block wind and rain, while maintaining a limited level of breathability. Some use GoreTex to do this while others use a type of nylon. Either way you will be good to go in a downpour. Try this for spring snowboarding or fall hikes.
  4. Lastly, are “hard shell” or waterproof shells. These can be expensive (as high as $500 sometimes) and fully weather resistant. Moisture does not get in or out of these, so buy it big to make breathing room. The laminated membranes, like Gore-Tex and eVent, used here are extremely effective. If you want to get a more affordable option, look for fabric coatings instead of laminates. Although most fitness enthusiasts won’t need this since it is meant for low activity, due to it’s lack of breathability and stiffness.


Runners and Bikers: Marmot’s Storm Shield Rain Jacketmarmot storm rain jacket



Snow Boarders: Patagonia’s Snowbelle 3-1 Insulated JacketScreen shot 2013-04-09 at 4.49.39 PM


Now you can walk into a sporting goods store with confidence and direction. Which products do you like best for different activities? Tell us in the comments.