One of the biggest challenges faced by winter hikers is figuring out a clothing layering system that keeps them warm and dry across a wide variety of temperatures, wind chills, and exertion levels. It takes a lot of experimentation to dial in a system that works for you and it’s something I’ve been tweaking for years. In this post, I thought I’d explain what I use for winter pants layering and the process that led me to the garments I use today. Please feel free to leave comments about your layering system and how you came to develop it.
This post is also a response to a reader who is struggling with the issue of sweating in winter, and who appreciates the fact that I talk about sweat in my reviews. She writes:
But you want to know a funny, what won me to your site at the beginning – you sweat :-) Not a lot of reviews talk about that in their evaluation of gear, especially womens’. TMI, but give me any exertion I am warm and sweating – heck I came home from the hospital at birth in freezing December sweating – so I need outdoor clothes and systems to match and I know that you are coming from that approach.
Yeah, I sweat. Especially in winter, when I need to carry at least twice as much safety and survival gear for hiking in the mountains. Winter hiking, snowshoeing, ice climbing, and mountaineering are so different from the 3 season hiking I do, that I have to almost think of them as a separate sport.
Pant Layering Components
Here are the components of the winter pant layering system I use today:
- Under Armour 9″ Boxerjocks
- REI Mistral Pants
- Capilene 3 Long Underwear
- Marmot Precip Full Zip Shell Pant
- Montbell Thermawrap Insulated pants
- Outdoor Research Crocodile Gaiters
This winter, I’ve done most of my hiking in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, where there is actually snow. I’ve done 11 trips since the official winter season started and expect to get in another half dozen before the season ends. Most of these have been day hikes, but I have some overnights coming up in March.
Most of these have been in the 0 – 30 degrees Fahrenheit range with wind chills down to 20 below zero. Still, I am prepared for an even larger temperature window of -40 degrees below zero to 40 degrees above zero. There are some days when we see this kind of temperature range in the Whites, especially on higher summits. Layering is really the only way to adjust your clothing to such a wide range of temperature conditions.
I generate a lot of heat when I climb elevation in winter and I need to be able to vent it very quickly or I sweat. Sweating is normal, but if it soaks your base layer, you’ll chill more rapidly when you stop exerting energy. The key to avoid sweating is to vent the heat and/or move it away from your base layers up into your mid layers to get it off your skin.
For temperatures down to about 10 degrees, I just wear the Under Armor Boxers, the REI Mistral Pants, and the OR Crocodile Gaiters. This effectively gives me two layers of coverage since the boxers end just above my knee and the gaiters start just below it. I still generate a lot of heat, but most of it is vented by my pants which are a very inexpensive soft shell, so I’m not generating much sweat above the knee.
It’s a little different below the knee and under the gaiter, where I tend to sweat a lot. That used to be a problem for me because the sweat would soak my socks and lower legs. However, this year I’ve started wearing a vapor barrier sock over a sock liner and under a heavy sock in my mountaineering boots. I’ll talk about that experience more in a subsequent post, but the net-net is that I don’t get wet socks anymore, because the perspiration can’t pass through the non-breathable vapor barrier layer.
If it’s colder than 10 degrees and if there’s a wind chill advisory, I wear a Capilene 3 long underwear layer under the REI Mistral pants for more warmth. Capilene is a very god baselayer because it moves perspiration away from my skin very rapidly and up to the soft shell layer where it can evaporate without causing my skin to cool. In this case, I put the long underwear on before the hike.
However, if I haven’t or I’m feeling cold during the hike, I put the Marmot Precip Full Zip pants on over the REI Mistral Pants. Precips are relatively inexpensive waterproof shell pants and the pair I use are heavily patched with duct tape where I’ve sliced them open with crampons or from bushwhacking. As far as I’m concerned, you’re pouring good money down the drain if you buy very expensive shell paints and use crampons.
I only wear my Montbell Thermawrap insulated pants in the evening on winter backpacking trips or if I need to stand around for an extended period of time outdoors. They’re great if you’re not moving much, but I immediately begin to sweat in them if I start to hike with a pack on.
Previous Layering Systems
Before this year, I used to wear long underwear and the Marmot Precip full zip pants on most hikes. The nice thing about that system, if that you can vent the shell pants across a wide range of temperatures and exertion levels by opening or closing the zips. However, I was always too hot and tended to sweat. On top of that, I found it awkward to hike in shells that were unzipped all the time.
In the past, I’ve tried “more breathable” eVent based shell pants and found them to be just as awkward as the Marmot Precips. I’ve also considered buying a pair of bib-style climbing pants, but not done so because I don’t want to spend the money. My problem with buying more expensive winter shell pants, in general, is that I’m bound to slice them up with crampons, so I’d rather stick with a less expensive but adequate shell pant like the Precips.
The next winter hiking season, I mostly hiked in fairly heavy REI running tights with high gaiters and layered over a pair of UA boxers. That system worked a lot better and I only covered them up with the Precips when I got too cold or it got windy. I’m not exactly sure why I stopped wearing those tights and replaced them with the Mistral pants this year – I think it’s because they disappeared in my house and I couldn’t find them for a while.
But the Mistrals were really a break-through for me and are made out of a stretchy, water-resistant soft shell fabric that is wind-proof to 25 mph. I like them better because they are real pants and a little baggier than the tights, plus I can slide on snow with them and they won’t get wet. At the moment, I plan on using them indefinitely and stockpiling a few pairs for perpetuity.
If I were to summarize the lessons I’ve learned about pants layering, it’d be the following:
- Don’t spend a lot of money on one garment and expect that it will perform in a variety of different conditions. You’re better off spending your money on a combination of layers that each do the thing they’re designed for very well. For example, none of the garments in my pant layering system above cost more than $90.
- Don’t worry about being too cold. If you are moving, you will generate a lot of heat. Instead, aim to be slightly cool.
- Remember that your underwear (boxer shorts) and gaiters count as a layer. Adding another base layer on top of them can make you sweat excessively.
- Wind-proof or wind-resistant layers trap heat as much as they keep out wind and can have a really big impact on your warmth level even when it’s not windy.
- Try to use garments that are very good at moving sweat away from your skin to the next highest layer in your layering system. This can be done by using a wicking baselayer, a porous grid-like fleece sweater like Patagonia R1, or full zip shell pants which can be unzipped to shed a lot of extra heat and rapidly evaporate sweat.
What lessons have you learned about winter layering?