Hiking in the winter demands proper attire to avoid both overheating and hypothermia. Learning how to layer the right clothing and materials can make or break a trip. Using the wrong layers can even result in dangerous consequences.
As you hike, your body naturally wants to sweat. Your sweat quickly cools your body and can cause chilling effects. The ability to quickly remove various layers to adjust to your body temperature becomes critical. Adding layers immediately after you stop moving or slow your pace (say going uphill versus downhill) will help you retain the body heat that you’ve built up.
The standard layering system includes a base layer, middle layer, and outer layer made of different materials.
Read on to learn more about how to layer while hiking in the winter.
Protect against moisture with base layers
Photo by Lionello DelPiccolo
A base layer touches your skin and wicks moisture away from your body to avoid losing body heat and to keep other insulating layers dry. Synthetic or wool fabrics offer the best wicking capabilities; however, cotton absorbs sweat and sits against your body and should be avoided to prevent hypothermia.
Depending on the temperature, it may not be important to wear a bottom base layer. Bottom base layers depend on the weather elements and moving time. Legs seem to sweat less than the core and may not need the wicking feature the top half of your body needs.
On a cold hike, try wearing a bottom base layer under your hiking pants. If you find yourself too warm during the less extensive parts of the day, take mental note and stash the layer at the bottom of your pack or leave it at home.
Insulate with middle layers
Photo by Angela Crampton
A middle layer traps in body heat to keep you warm and help continually dry your base layer, like a human drying system. Middle layers come in various weights to keep the core warm like thicker long-sleeve layer, fleece, down sweater, or a vest.
Breathable fleece layers keep you warm and allow sweat to dry but may not offer protection from high winds. Heavily knitted synthetic mid-layers add stretchiness and dexterity and usually have better wind resistance than fleece.
Down sweaters (puffy down-filled jackets) fit nicely under rain jackets, and work well if they stay dry. If the weather cooperates and you’re working hard on the trail, you may find yourself hiking in this layer.
As the temperature dips, you might use more than one middle layer. As an example, you might don a base layer, then a thin fleece, followed by a down sweater before adding your outer layer.
Weather protection with outer layers
Photo by Axel Holen
Also known as hard and soft shells, outer layers protect you from wind and rain.
Soft shells typically offer a water-resistance and can prevent light rain and wind from penetrating. They also have better breathability for high-intensity activities.
Grab a pair of soft-shell hiking pants for extreme temperatures. The stretchiness and breathability make them great for steep climbs in deep snow.
Photo by Thomas Griesbeck
Hard shells (also known as rain jackets) protect water from being absorbed into the material and are treated with GoreTex or other waterproofing solutions.
Hard shells shield hikers in mixed weather conditions and keep the other layers dry, but can prevent inside layers to dry properly due to lack of breathability. Some come equipped with vents in the armpits or sides to help keep air circulating and stop condensation from getting trapped inside.
Easy to pack and lightweight, we recommend always carrying a waterproof jacket, even if you don’t expect rain. In cold and rainy weather, don’t forget the rain pants at home either!
For a full guide to choosing the right rain jacket, we recommend Adventure Alan’s Rain Jacket 101.
Protecting head, hands, and feet
Photo by Angela Crampton
Brisk air will sting exposed skin, so adding buffs, hats, gloves, and thick hiking socks will make the day more enjoyable. Cover those ears with a headband or beanie, which come in a variety of weights.
Hands can lose blood flow easily and the right gloves will prevent frostbite. Liner gloves act like a base layer and allow sweat to evaporate. Add mittens, fleece gloves, or waterproof gloves to your pack if around snow or rain to keep hands dry.
Arguably the most important place to avoid cotton. Places like REI carry synthetic or wool socks, and sometimes even silk as an inner sock liner that helps to prevent blisters.
Always bring extra socks. Feet can sweat even in cold temperatures and may be good to switch out socks halfway through the trip if your feet aren’t warming up even when hiking.
Wear gaiters to prevent snow from getting into your boots. Waterproof and durable, a gaiter will attach to your boot laces and extend as high as your knees for protecting on the deepest snow.
Listen to your body
Everyone’s bodies handle temperatures and cardiovascular activity differently, so listen to your body for cues on when to switch up your layers.
When sweating profusely and too hot, take the time to shed a layer. As your teeth chatter, it may be time to add one.