The arrival of fall can bring a surge of excitement for those of us who love the outdoors, can’t it? The changing colors are a true sight to behold, the air smells divine and I don’t know about you but kicking through the autumn leaves in my hiking boots makes me feel like a kid again in the best way possible.
There’s no denying, however, that the temperatures are falling, and while we might have all understandably relaxed around hiking layers during the hot summer months, it’s time to get back to business if we want to stay warm and safe on the trails. Yes, a camping mug full of hot, sickly sweet pumpkin spice latte might seem like it can turn any chilly adventure into a glowy Hallmark card, but the reality is, you need a mid layer too.
Mid layers are perhaps the most versatile piece of kit you can own. They can serve as light outer layers for brisk summer hikes, but when the weather starts to cool off they provide essential insulation between your shell and base layer. They’re also one of the least defined items of outdoor kit. A mid layer can be a jacket or a pullover, thick or thin, fleece, softshell or down, long-sleeve or sleeved. So how do you know where to start?
Here I’ve rounded up my five favorite picks for mid layers this year, to help you stay toasty on fall adventures.
1. Lightweight: Montane Protium Lite Pull On
For aerobic romps like cold trail running and vigorous hiking, a lightweight mid layer that can also be a base layer provides tons of warmth without the bulk. My favorite lightweight mid layer this year has easily been the Protium Lite Pull On from Montane, which merges all the best qualities of a fleece with a base layer. The outside of this high-neck, half zip top appears like a smooth synthetic base layer, but on the inside you’ll find brushed grid fleece which is warm, soft and moisture-wicking.
It has the exceptional warmth and softness you expect from a fleece when worn on a cold hike, but the super light weight and active fit mean that you can easily wear it for fast adventures. It’s breathable when you’re moving fast and super stretchy for scrambling and rock climbing.
2. Gilet: Columbia Powder Lite
If you like the idea of a bit more warmth around your vitals, but you tend to run a bit hot and sweaty, why not try a gilet, or vest, as your mid layer? Of the gilets we’ve tested, we especially like the Columbia Powder Light, which boasts a combination of generous synthetic insulation and Columbia brilliant Omni-Heat thermal-reflective lining to trap heat but leaves your armpits free to vent.
The thick baffles make it look as if it’s down-filled, although it’s actually a practical, fast-drying synthetic filling that keeps you warm. Gilets can fit under an outer layer like your waterproof jacket, but if it’s dry-ish and not too cold, throw this on over a long-sleeved wool base layer for your next jaunt in the wild. The outer is water resistant and there are two decent-sized zipped pockets either for your valuables, or more likely, your hands.
3. Fleece: Helly Hansen Varde Fleece Jacket 2.0
When it comes to cozying up for a cold autumn walk, what’s better than a good old-fashioned fleece? We spend half our lives here at Advnture testing out fleeces, and the Helly Hansen Varde Fleece Jacket 2.0 has been one of my favorites of 2023. I first wore it during a frigid (-20s) ski trip to Verbier in February where it served me well over a merino wool top and under my Helly Hansen ski jacket as a really robust mid layer, then a few months later it made for an excellent outer layer on cool spring hikes.
The classic look of this streamlined fleece jacket isn’t at all showy, and as a result its high performance may not be obvious at first glance. Wear it for your next fall hike, however, and we’re certain you’ll be impressed with its ability to provide ample warmth while remaining breathable. The full-zip design means it’s easy to pull on and off in changing conditions, while the knitted construction gives it a higher quality look, almost like wool, and ensures that it won’t pill with wear.
4. Puffer: Patagonia Alplight
For high altitude and extremely cold zones, you’re going to want to arm yourself with some heavy duty insulation, and a light puffer jacket that you’d wear as an outer layer for summer camping can actually make a brilliant mid layer. The key is to find one that’s not too bulky and doesn’t have a hood. Enter the Patagonia AlpLight.
Like down on a diet, this lightweight down jacket fits under a more heavy duty shell as the temperatures drop, and while it’s still mild you can throw it on for both belaying at the crag and moving fast through the mountains. Best of all, this jacket is highly packable, so if you underestimate the temperatures, shove it into your back for when you need it. Needless to say, this jacket packs some serious eco creds too, with recycled shell and lining plus PFC-free DWR .
5. Softshell: Rab Borealis
Softshell jackets are great when the conditions are going to be really cold and a fleece won’t quite cut it. The Rab Borealis is made for the mountains and those who play at the pointy end of them. This slim fitting, lightweight softshell is smartly designed to supply high levels of functionality and allow maximum movement.
Although reasonably windproof, the thermal offering of the Borealis is relatively low, and it won’t cope with much rain before absorbing the water – fortunately it does dry quickly. That makes it excellent as a mid layer for cold adventures, though it make a great outer layer for mild days. It also packs down very small, making it a very good just-in-case layer on those days that fall between the cracks in the seasons.
All the latest inspiration, tips and guides to help you plan your next Advnture!
Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.