As gear and apparel get more specialized, you wind up owning a quiver full of pieces that are perfect for a few things and, well, less than awesome for others. That one hard shell rocks at blocking Pacific Northwest–style rain and snow, but is too burly for the Sierra and Rockies. Those softshell pants are bomber for cragging, but too wispy for the alpine. Enter new technical midlayers that our testers have used from last winter through the beginning of fall. We focused our test on synthetic fleece, which provides warmth and breathability in a slim profile. Bonus: Many are $100 or less. From the dozen midlayers tested, we culled the five best— each would do well for any and all of your upcoming adventures.
Patagonia Capilene 4 ($99, patagonia.com)
Performance: What Patagonia calls an “expedition-weight baselayer,” all our testers called “the best damn midlayer out there. Period.” We gave it to testers alpine climbing in its namesake Patagonia, bouldering in central Utah, and ice climbing in Hyalite Canyon, Montana, and every single one asked if they could buy it—when a dirtbagging climber offers cash, you know it’s good. The Cap 4 has been around for a while, but by updating it with Polartec's High Efficiency Power Dry fabric, Patagonia turned a limited-use layer (too warm for all but the coldest days) into the most versatile layer in our test. It has a grid-like waffle pattern similar to Patagonia’s hall-of-fame-worthy R1 layer, but the fabric is thinner (see page 29) and the grid more widely spaced, resulting in 30 percent less weight. How does that relate to performance? Better breathability and a wider range of utility. “I could work hard in temps from 15°F to 35°F and never overheat or sweat out,” said one tester. It cuts wind, but still allows some air through for an appropriate amount of cooling. Although the fit is snug, ample stretch never inhibited range of motion. Two testers called it “the must-pack item for any trip,” and “the first and only midlayer I always take.”
Cons: Short-torsoed individuals might find the length a little too long, so much so that the hem nearly covered one tester's backside. Not adequate for the deep freeze; you'll need beefier layers for anything really cold.
Conclusions: It’s warm but breathes better than almost anything else, and has the functional design and fit that this company is known for. “Ideal for quick on-off on those days where it’s sunny and spectacular then cloudy and frigid.”
Adidas Hiking Fleece Jacket ($75, adidas.com)
Performance: Fit doesn’t get much better than this full-zip jacket from the forward-thinking designers in Germany. The extended torso is trim and hugged the body (without being too tight); it tucked nicely under a harness without bunching; and the long, articulated sleeves kept it from lifting up when climbing. After guiding for 14 straight days in the Alaska Range on classics like the Mini Moonflower and the Southwest Ridge of Mt. Frances, our tester deemed this midlayer’s durability top-notch, and it shined in the Last Frontier's colder temperatures on technical ice terrain and alpine rock routes. “Its tight weave shed snow and light rain more readily than other fleece layers. You still want a shell when you hit serious precipitation, but you won’t soak through before you get the shell out.” Credit Adidas' hard-faced proprietary Climawarm fabric: it was airy enough for highoutput ice-tool swinging, but still maintained wind resistance to keep chills at bay. Roomy and well-placed hand-warmer pockets were ideal for using even with a harness high and tight. Bonus: Unlike other techy pieces, the heathered-look of this jacket falls right in line with Euro style.
Cons: Some hot-blooded testers were too warm. Breathability would increase if the thin stretchpanels beneath the arms on the jacket's back were enlarged; they are too small to be truly effective.
Conclusions: A “stylishly designed and flashy-colored” jacket that fits athletic builds perfectly and has few downfalls, this will be your go-to jacket for everything from cragging next to the car to big alpine objectives.
The North Face Radish ($230, thenorthface.com)
Performance: This piece was literally built for climbing, thanks to Renan Ozturk, Conrad Anker, and Jimmy Chin, who needed a do-it-all midlayer for their second attempt at Meru’s Shark’s Fin in the Himalaya in 2011, after a failed attempt in 2008. They asked designers for a breathable workhorse piece, and that’s what they got. From low-output belaying in the shade to the struggle of a sun-drenched crux, our tester stayed comfortable—no sweating bullets or chattering teeth. The new proprietary FlashDry technology has additional wicking properties that successfully regulated body temperature in Colorado’s fickle hot-thencold spring months. It breathed well and wicked away sweat without chilling cold-blooded testers either, a key need when our testers went big on alpine towers in Rocky Mountain National Park. A longer-than-average torso and four-way stretch means the jacket stays where it should when you’re doing the dynamic, gymnastic moves required in our sport. One said, “Finally, a jacket I’m not constantly pulling down under my harness. It did the job without me even thinking about it.” A full-coverage hood fits smoothly under a helmet without restricting vision or movement.
Cons: Fit was loose on some testers compared to other midlayers. No hand pockets. Superpremium price. Mortals will need another layer in really cold climates.
Conclusions: An excellent hooded jacket for any vertical pursuit where temp swings are the norm (think shoulder seasons and alpine environments). A great balance of insulation and breathability.
Mountain Equipment Eclipse Zip Tee ($130, mountain-equipment.co.uk)
Performance: As the thickest piece in our test, this pullover still felt light on skin. It has the plushy, cozy feeling of a favorite old sweatshirt, which testers loved for hanging around at base camp or when belaying, but it packs all the performance features they need for shoulder-season climbing. Mountain Equipment employed body mapping to provide optimum breathability, stretch, and warmth with Pontetorto Technostretch panels in the underarms and waist (for breathability and a low profile beneath a harness) and thicker fleece everywhere else. This keeps maximum heat where it’s needed in the front and back of the torso and arms, but allows heat to escape right from the source (pits). A stretch panel that wraps around the waist also encourages airflow to an area of the body that is usually bogged down by harness and pack waistbelt. Plus, a deeper-than-most zipper provided extra ventilation when a sudden latespring snowstorm in Rocky Mountain National Park turned into a sunny afternoon. The fabric is treated with Polygiene, which is a stink-controlling antimicrobial technology that kept this jacket odor-free for the duration of six months of testing and 20 days out with no wash.
Cons: With the softer fleece material, it tended to snag a lot on trees and bushes, less on actual rock. Not particularly wind-resistant or as packable as others.
Conclusions: A thicker, relaxed-fit pullover with the ventilation capabilities of a thinner layer; get this if you don’t like the feel of techy fabrics.
Millet Vector Grid ($100, milletusa.com)
Performance: “I warmed up immediately in 30°F temps and stayed warm throughout my climb without overheating,” said one western-state tester. It packs down to about the size of a softball and weighs about 10 oz. for a men’s medium, so the warmth-to-weight ratio is spot on. The full-zip jacket shined for steep spring approaches in Colorado, where our tester unzipped completely on sweaty ascents then pulled it up to the chin on the shaded and cool descent, deciding just how much ventilation and airflow she got. While the most weather-worthy pieces in our test boast a hard face to block the elements, the Vector's MicroGrid fleece is fuzzy on the inside and out–you'll need to add a layer to block wind. Thinner Technostretch panels under the arms give your pits some air. Our tester said, “I didn’t want to take it off, and luckily it hasn’t started to stink yet.” This was one of the lightest in the test (with only the Patagonia Cap 4 being thinner), so it is better for warmer temps and high-output activities. Because of supreme comfort, fit, and softness, this is a great piece to take from crag to bar without a second thought.
Cons: The cut was short for some testers; the hem can ride up when reaching. One tester called the fit "a little boxy." Not windproof.
Conclusions: No frills. Straightforward but excellent performance; best suited for warmer, non-windy climates and high-aerobic activities.
How to layer
A clothing system should work in many climates and environments, especially at high altitude, where temps go from warm and breezy to freezing and wet in a heartbeat. The three main components are a baselayer, midlayer, and a shell. Pick a baselayer that wicks away sweat, fits your body well, and feels good next to your skin; synthetics and merino wool are common fabrics. For a midlayer, look for breathability and insulation; it should be roomy enough to fit a baselayer underneath, but hug the body so you can wear a shell on top. The shell is where options expand greatly; decide if you need waterproof, water-resistant, or just windproof. It's still essential for this layer to be breathable, otherwise you’ll sweat out when working hard.