Home / Backpacking Skills / Clothes and Layering / Winter Pant Layering for Hikers Who Sweat

Winter Pant Layering for Hikers Who Sweat

Hiking in Shorts in Winter
Hiking in Shorts in Winter

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 explain what I use for winter pants layering and the process that led me to the garments I use today.

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 three 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:

I do most of my winter hiking in the White Mountains in New Hampshire where the temperatures range from 30 degrees down to -15 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chills down to 30 below zero. 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 moving. The key to avoid sweating is to vent the heat and/or move it away from your base layers up into your mid layers where it can evaporate without chilling you.

For temperatures down to about 10 degrees, I just wear the Under Armor Boxers, REI softshell 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.

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, I’ve started wearing oven roasting bags over a sock liner and under a heavy sock in my winter 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 oven roasting bag.

If it’s colder than 10 degrees and if there’s a wind chill advisory, I wear a Patagonia Capilene midweight long underwear layer under the REI softshell pants, for more warmth. Capilene is a very good 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.

If I’m feeling cold during the hike, I put the Marmot Precip Full Zip pants on over the REI Softshell Pants. Precips are inexpensive waterproof shell pants and the full zips are great because you can vent them when hiking.

I only wear my Patagonia Nano Puff 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.

But softshell pants were really a break-through for me and are made of a stretchy, water-resistant soft shell fabric that breathes well and is fairly wind-proof.

Lessons Learned

If I were to summarize the lessons I’ve learned about pants layering, it’d be the following:

  1. Don’t spend a lot of money on one garment and expect that it will perform in a variety of conditions. You’re better off spending your money on a combination of layers that each do the thing they’re designed for very well.
  2. Don’t worry about being too cold. If you are moving, you will generate a lot of heat. Instead, aim to be slightly cool.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Last updated 2016.

Most Popular Searches

  • winter hiking pants
  • best winter hiking pants
  • best lightweight winter hiking pants


  1. The biggest mistake hikers makes while trekking in cold temps is probably wearing cotton underwear/boxers and not moisture wicking material. The UA boxer briefs you suggested are a great start.

    • Thanks for re-emphasizing that point. I take it for granted that winter hikers know not to wear *any* cotton for winter hikes. None, nada, no way.

      • Except for that ball cap you wear? :P

        I’m going on a snowshoe day hike (my second snowshoe trip ever) this Monday and I’m really looking forward to getting outside! I’m going to keep an eye on how I do sweat wise. I usually wear a pair of nylon soccer shorts, and will probably be bringing some eVent snow pants with me as opposed to the Precips that I have, but maybe not. I pants with full zips down the side of the leg because I will often zip them almost all the way open to vent, which will still protect the front of my leg from bushes/shrubs that I might have to fight through. I wish they made regular hiking pants like that too instead of the shorts/pants combo zip offs.

      • “They” do, and they happen to be my favorites. Check out railrider ecomesh pants. http://sectionhiker.com/railriders-eco-mesh-pants-a-love-affiar/

      • Awesome, I was unable to find any of these on REI or Backcountry. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. I tried out some poly boxerbriefs this summer after one of your posts and I always wear them now when I hike or board as they are great in winter under baselayers.

    I also upgraded to Smartwool baselayers which I love and got a pair of REI Taku pants that I use with low gaiters. They work great and good vents but can’t use them in really cold weather unless I’m hiking.

    Also been wearing liner socks (under wool socks) this year to regulate some moisture. They work well.

    I like the idea of using the precips over your shell pants when needed. I just got another reason to justify another purchase. :)

  3. What a great post! Pant layering is such a challenge because it is really hard to change those layers on the trail which means they must work in every condition. I made the mistake of wearing an extra layer of fleece pants while hiking to Tuckerman’s Ravine. it got so bad that I had to literally stop on the side of the trail and change out my entire pants layering system.

  4. I generate a lot of heat and have spent years tweaking things. Right now I am keeping things simple. Depending on the temperature will wear LL Bean’s lightweight or midweight polartec long base-layer and a pair of REI synthetic shorts. For the feet I use Darn Tough socks and Outdoor Research crocodile gaiters. Have used this set-up in both cold and windy conditions. In my pack I carry a pair of LL Bean windproof/waterproof pants if I need them for an added layer or if I plan to sled. Only in the most extreme cases will I pack my eVent hard shell pants (they usually just come along cor the ride).

  5. Same system here – non-cotton boxers, pants like the Mistrals, crocodile gaiters. Backup in the pack: merino wool long undies that double as my pj bottoms for the night, plus wind/waterproof pants to wear on top if needed.

    Am looking forward to your vapor barrier sock system write-up, that’s one bit that I’ve been experimenting with in the past two winters, but haven’t got dialed in yet.

  6. Pant layering sure is tricky. Thanks for sharing lessons learned. Very helpful.

  7. I’ve found that the Crocodiles are overkill for most snow conditions and trap a lot of heat on my calves. I prefer a low cut gaiter with my long softshell pants over the top of them.

    The newest version of the Thermawrap pants are full zip, which is nice.

  8. Gosh, I always thought it would be fun to be published – but for saying I like a guy because he sweats – oh my!

    Going forward though, I/We can upgrade our description to Michael’s more refined “I generate a lot of heat” – sounds powerful…not messy :-)

    As always thank you for sharing your journey!

  9. I avoid sweating by going slower, it suits my nature :)

    I think I read about it first in Nansen’s “Furthest North”. He says the Inuit wrapper up super warm at all times, and just never exerted themselves too much. I do wear wool layers that wick, and I “start cold”, heating up as I ski and using a down jacket at breaks. However rather than fine tuning layers and zips as I heat up too much, I just really slow to a crawl and enjoy the view.

    Only works when solo though, other people find it really annoying.

  10. About 12 years ago I made the switch to softshell pants from using true shell pants. Depending on the expected temperatures I’ll wear boxer briefs beneath, or midweight underwear bottoms, or a pair of Powerstretch tights. If I think I’ll need more than the Powerstretch tights it’s time to wear shell pants over the top.

    This was part of a great winter layering breakthrough, which came from reading “Extreme Alpinism”. Twight makes the point that you’re either dressed to move, and you vary a bit around gear that works for movement, or you’re not moving and need a lot more clothes. For me that means relatively light clothes for movement and puffy pants and a big puffy parka for not moving. At rest stops or when setting up camp, I throw on the puffy pants and the big parka over everything.

    I’m comfortable and warm much more of the time with this approach.

  11. As a base layer under soft shell pants (with no lining or insulation built in), I love Smart Wool’s long underwear. Breathes incredibly well. 150 wt., the lightest, or 250 wt., depending on the day’s temps.

  12. Some guys wear kilts to hike. It is easy to add and remove layers and stay comfortable.

    • In re full zipper pants and vapor barrier systems (socks!), don’t forget New England’s own curmudgeon “Stephenson’s Warmlite”. Their converta pants zip up the inside rather than the outside, which is great if you need to answer nature’s call, esp ladies!

  13. You might consider experimenting with polypropylene a bikini style brief to start. Polypro is superior as a hydrophobic material and a bikini style provides the freedom of motion lost with boxer style briefs. For the second layer consider the Brynje fishnet polypro bottoms. For a third layering, you might consider a standard polypro bottom such as Duofold. Should the third layer be utilized, it would be best to use the Duofold as the second layer and use the Brynje fishnet as the third layer. I prefer a pair of nylon hiking pants for the exterior with no personal manufacturer’s product to support.

  14. This is off topic, but are there any reasonably priced kid’s hiking gear for winter? My 9 year old loves going out, but I am having a hard time stomaching spending $300+ to gear him out for 4 months. (And we only go hiking once or twice a week.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *