Nothing is worse than spending your day shivering out on the water. Cold days out on the water can be awesome – the trick is just making sure that you’re not cold! THE way to dress warmly is to layer effectively. Each layer serves a distinct purpose. I’m somewhat of a gear whore but a big part of that is I like having the right pieces of clothing for each situation. I’m going to do my best not to drone on and get straight to the skinny.

In a nutshell, your typical layering system consists of three parts: a base layer, insulating layer, and a shell layer. Each layer has a specific purpose but with today’s wide variety of options, this may not mean three separate layers. Rather than think of layering in 3 distinct layers, I would recommend thinking of the 3 layers more in principal. I’ll explain more later. Here’s the breakdown.


This is the layer closest to your skin. The purpose of this layer is to manage moisture – more specifically move moisture away from your skin. Once the moisture is further away from your skin it’s able to evaporate. This is important since body temperature  varies when you’re out on the water. Cotton is a no no – pretty much in any layer for outdoor activities. It holds moisture and that’s not conducive to keeping warm. Merino wool or synthetics is where you want to be. There are different weights of base layer. While lightweight and heavyweight baselayers will both move moisture away from your body, heavier weights will add some additional insulation. We have a stellar heavier weight baselayer on clearance in the shop for those in need. I’ve been loving that LOOP baselayer but otherwise have been a longtime user of Patagonia Capilene.

I’ll go with lighter on cool-cold days and break out the heavy weight baselayer on the coldest of days. If I know that I’m going to spend prolonged periods actually in the water when it’s frigid then I’ll throw on a pair of sweats over them. The bottom line is this: if you want to stay warm in the winter then make sure you’re wearing a good baselayer!


This is where your warmth comes from. Merino wool, Polartec (both fleece and Primaloft-type insulation), and down are the main options. Each has the pluses and minuses but I’ll elaborate on those below. I’ll typically plan my insulation on the weather. Cold days: I’ll throw a fleece on without a shell. A new favorite is the Nano Puff (pictured above). I like it cause it’s a light layer that provides some warmth but also cuts wind. Another good option is a soft shell. They typically offer a little insulation and they obviously offer a barrier from the wind. Colder days: When it’s super chilly my go to has been the Patagonia DAS Parka. It’s a really warm synthetic jacket and a barrier from the wind. Down is  obviously a great insulator as well. Coldest days: When things are at their gnarliest, I will add a fleece underneath and/or a hard shell on top of a puffy jacket.  Wet Days: I’ll pretty much follow the same MO but add a hardshell over the top.


This is your protective layer from precipitation. Traditionally the shell is a hard shell but softshells and most down/synthetic jackets are windproof and water resistant so also serve as a shell layer. I pretty much only dawn a hardshell  when I want the ultimate barrier –  rainy/snowy days or the windiest and/or coldest of days. While rubber rain jackets and similar barriers are effective at keeping you dry – they’re not breathable. Breathability is important in a shell layer. Without it, perspiration doesn’t have anywhere to go and stays inside your shell.


There are millions of options out there and many proprietary names for each of the technologies. Keep in mind that layers can be added and subtracted. If it’s crazy cold then throw a fleece on over your baselayer and under your down jacket. You get the idea. Here are some of the basics that I use.

WOOL: I have sensitive skin so I don’t use much wool but it’s a great layering and baselayer material with many innate benefits.

  • Pros
    • Great natural insulator
    • Still works well when wet
    • Fire retardant (you never know!)
  • Cons
    • Not very packable
    • Not windproof

FLEECE: Fleece is a very popular fabric and with good reason. It makes a great layering piece.

  • Pros
    • Comes in various weights
    • Super breathable
    • Comfortable
    • Works wet and dries quickly
    • Affordable
  • Cons
    • Can be bulky if you’re packing it
    • Wind cuts right through it

SYNTHETIC: This type of layer is probably my favorite for cold weather fishing. They protect you from everything but rain.

  • Pros
    • Available in various weights
    • A good poly-fill jacket’s warmth to weight ratio nearly as warm as down.
    • Lightweight
    • Super light
    • Can be used as shell in dry conditions
    • Still insulates when wet.
  • Cons
    • Many times aren’t abrasion resistant
    • Good poly-fill jackets can be pricey – although less than down typically

DOWN: The warmest and lightest of all but not the best fit for many situations.

  • Pros
    • Super warm
    • Super light
    • The most packable
  • Cons
    • Typically not very abrasion resistant
    • Doesn’t work wet
    • Expensive

SOFTSHELLS: Versatile and comfortable solution when facing the elements.

  • Pros
    • Windproof and water resistant
    • Comfortable
    • Super breathable
  • Cons
    • Not very packable

HARD SHELLS: Stick with breathable hard shells like gore-tex or similar technology. A bomber shell can save your hide on a gnarly day.

  • Pros
    • Lightweight
    • Abrasion resistant
    • Waterproof/windproof
    • Packable
  • Cons
    • Bomber/breathable shells are usually expensive.
    • Typically offer little to no insulation and act only as a barrier


  • Wear a hat. Anywhere from 1-100% of your body heat escapes through your head so keep it covered. Duh.
  • Wear a buff. I use a buff for sun protection but I love them most on cold days.
  • Wear good socks. Smartwool or wool are my favorite. Remember, not too tight! Packing a bundled up foot into your waders limits circulation which is what keeps your feet warm. Patagonia’s wool-lined wader booties are a bonus on cold days too.
  • Wear gloves. The wool fingerless are good and offer some warmth to your hands. Your fingers still might suffer a bit. Kast’s Steelhead Glove offers a completely submersible waterproof solution. In combination with rubber cuffs of a wading jacket this probably offers the best solution for warm hands in the winter.
  • Keep your core warm and your extremities will benefit! On a recent trip to the mountains my brother and I camped out in the new fallen snow. It was 28 degrees when we arrived in the middle of the day and tempertures dipped into the single digits. I didn’t take gloves. Intentionally. I probably should have as a backup but I hate gloves when I’m fishing/camping. The thing is that my hands didn’t get cold the whole trip. I had layered properly and kept my core warm and the blood circulating.

Let us know if you have any questions or other tips that you’ve found to be helpful!

About The Author

Chinese Boy

The ringleader at OSF, Nathan likes well-proportioned fish, moonlit walks by the river, and stripping streamers through dark lies on the dreariest of days. View full bio.

8 Responses

  1. Alex T.

    Good info. I always look forward to reading your new posts. A friend of mine and I first started winter fishing a few years back and developed a few rules to live by that might be helpful to any winter-fishing virgins out there.

    1) Don’t fall in – I guess this is pretty obvious, but especially important in sub-freezing temps, even more so if you fish by yourself and are any distance from your car. Wading out a little further than you feel comfortable to reach that spot behind the rock that you think might have a fish is better reserved for the summer season when a swim isn’t such a big deal.
    2) Don’t get your reel wet – Not quite as obvious as rule #1. If you can avoid dunking your reel in the water, fishing in the winter is much more enjoyable as you wont be dealing with a frozen reel locking up.
    3) Avoid felt soles – I know there has been a big push recently to go away from felt altogether, but I personally think it is much better on any river with large slippery rocks–except in the winter. Once you get out of the water, your soles will become ice blocks. Rubber with cleats is the way to go while winter fishing.

    • Nathan Leavitt

      Thanks for the feedback, Alex! Those are good suggestions! Ha! Totally forgot about #3 – that is money money advice. Felt is like death in the winter. I’m tempted to add it to the post.

  2. Spencer O

    Winter time is some of the best fishing around, especially when it is FREEZING out. No Moss, no crowds, clear water and big fish. (The three rules Alex mentioned started out as a joke when we first started fishing during the winter, but actually are pretty important) I hope all is well with you and your fam. (you still play any soccer? or just fish?)

  3. Mike Sepelak

    Good stuff, and timely. Nothing better than a cold day on the stream when you’re dressed for it. And these techniques work well for your Atlanta commutes… 🙂

    Keep it coming, Nathan.

  4. Cort

    Really great and informative post guys. I think that there are a lot of people out there that don’t know how to properly layer. They do now.


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