How To Choose a Rock Climbing Midlayer

Here’s how to pick your most critical item of climbing clothing.

We could talk about layering strategy for hours. But on most climbing days, your comfort usually boils down to just one piece of clothing: your midlayer. 

A midlayer is essentially a light jacket, sweater, fleece, or vest designed to provide moderate protection from the elements. Because rock climbing is a high-output activity that takes place in mountainous environments, on wind-scoured cliffsides, or during shoulder seasons, many climbers wear their midlayer on the wall more often than not. On hot days, it might stay at the bottom of your pack. But when the temps drop, it’s a must-have.

The midlayer is the climber’s layer. Here’s how to pick the best one for your needs. 

Types of Climbing Midlayers

Midlayers provide several services: insulation, moisture wicking, wind resistance, and breathability. Certain designs prioritize some of those functions over others, but the best midlayers do all four fairly well. Here are some common examples.


A soft jacket made of brushed synthetic material.  

  • Better for: Insulation, moisture wicking, breathability
  • Worse for: Wind resistance

Insulated Soft Shell

A soft-shell jacket with a fleece or brushed liner to provide insulation. The soft-shell exterior provides durability and weather resistance but reduces breathability.

  • Better for: Insulation, wind resistance
  • Worse for: Moisture wicking, breathability

Active Insulation

Jackets or pullovers with body-mapped panels of insulation or wind resistance. These often offer the best combination of characteristics but may be less likely to keep you warm when you’re standing still.

  • Better for: Moisture wicking, breathability, wind resistance
  • Worse for: Insulation


Usually a hoodless layer made of merino wool or woven synthetic fibers. Some thin pullovers lined with gridded fleece are also referred to as sweaters. 

  • Better for: Moisture wicking, breathability, insulation
  • Worse for: Wind resistance


An insulated, sleeveless piece, usually with a full zipper. The design keeps your core warm but lets the pits breathe.

  • Better for: Breathability, insulation
  • Worse for: Moisture wicking, wind resistance

Features To Look For

Because midlayers are such a broad category, they boast a wide variety of features. Here are a few that can add major comfort and convenience to your climbing day.

Chest Zippers

Full zips allow maximal venting and are easiest to take off with a helmet on. Caveat: Zippers add weight, which is why ultralight layers often utilize a quarter zip or less.


These should be located in harness-compatible spots. Chest pockets are most coveted.


Wool and synthetic fleeces and fillings will keep you warm and dry in a variety of conditions. Down is light and packable but will collapse in rain. 

Durable Water Repellent (DWR)

A water-resistant coating can come in handy during short, unexpected showers. 

Stretch Panels

In climbing, ease of movement is paramount. Look for stretch panels under the arms or around the waist, which enable big reaches and boost breathability.

Body Mapping

Your body produces more heat in some areas, and takes more pummeling from wind and rain in others. With this in mind, some midlayers have insulation or wind-proofing on the front of the jacket and breathable materials along the back and underarms. This helps maximize warmth and minimize sweat.

Helmet-Compatible Hood

A hood is a nice touch for keeping your neck and ears warm in windy conditions. Just make sure it fits over your helmet before you buy (or underneath if that’s how you roll).

Reinforcement Patches

Higher-denier (more durable) fabrics along the sleeves and shoulders will boost your layer’s longevity.

Gridded Interior

A waffle pattern on the inside of the layer helps lift it off the skin, both trapping warm air and improving breathability.

Midlayer Fit and Sizing

By definition, a midlayer is designed to go in the middle—sandwiched between a base layer and an outer layer. That means you’ll need a loose-enough fit to wear a thin shirt underneath, but a trim-enough silhouette to pull a puffer jacket or rain shell overtop if the weather turns. 

When trying on midlayers, bring the rest of your kit to make sure everything works together seamlessly. If you feel constriction across your shoulders or binding in the armpits, you may need either a trimmer-fitting midlayer or an outer layer in a larger size.

How To Choose a Midlayer for Sport Climbing and Cragging 

While sport climbing, you’ll likely be trying harder, more dynamic moves than you would on a multi-pitch or trad climb, which means you’ll need to keep your muscles and tendons warm without making your hands sweat. Here are some questions to help you choose the right midlayer for the job. 

Do I tend to run cold?

Warm fingers and wrists are less injury-prone. Look for fleece or synthetic insulation along the arms to keep warm blood flowing to your hands.

Do I have sweaty hands?

Choose a vest or a long-sleeve layer with underarm stretch panels to let heat escape.

Am I headed to a windy crag?

Look for soft-shell fabrics or windproof panels, or consider bringing a wind shell. 

Will I keep climbing in winter weather?

Winter must-haves: A helmet-compatible hood and good insulation.

How To Choose the Best Midlayer for Multi-Pitch Climbing

Choosing the right layer for multi-pitch climbing is especially critical. After all, it’s a lot harder to change clothes between pitches on an all-day objective. To maximize your efficiency on the wall, choose a layer you can leave on for most of the day even amid temperature swings. Here are some key considerations to help you pick.

Is there a high probability of rain?

Wool and synthetic fabrics and insulations stay warm when wet.

Climbing in a windy spot?

Look for an insulated soft shell or strategically placed panels of wind-stopping fabric. 

Planning to move fast with minimal stops?

Choose a lightweight sweater or active-insulation layer with a full chest-zip for venting. 

Expecting cool, dry conditions?

If there’s no wind or rain in the forecast, a fleece may be your best bet.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.