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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.

Usage

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.

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7 comments

  1. I know that I have mentioned this before, but feel compelled to again: for women, there is an underpant made by SportHill, the makers of cross country ski apparel. It is called North Wind Under and I find it great for winter activities such snowshoeing and cross country skiing. While I usually do not venture into high mountains in winter, the wind coming across a field in northern NewHampshire, Maine or Vermont can dip the windchill temp into the minus 30s, sometimes quite unexpectedly. This underpant is made of their proprietary 3SP polypropylene and it wicks while providing warmth. Also, I think the legs are 8 inches in length from the crotch. They are also made for men, with the appropriate room for fellas.

  2. I use a similar system. I found with the Precip rain pants work well, but I needed to sew the waist velcro on the side together so I didn’t have a “wardrobe malfunction ” when the side zippers were open and the velcro wouldn’t hold.

  3. Great layering advice. Happy trails to all. Peace :-)

  4. This is very helpful in helping me gear up for some winter hiking

  5. Great and timely post for me. Living in SoCal and don’t get much chance to experiment and tweak, but I’m gearing up mentally and otherwise for some winter hikes and backpacks in the mountains.

    I have newer smartwool microweight bottoms (which I use for sleepwear) and much older Patagonia capilene, R1 and Capilene fleece pants that I probably wore alpine skiing in the past. I also have a couple of outside layers, including RailRider Eco Mesh pants, and some Mountain Hardware Conduit SL side-zip pants (that are not waterproof I found) and probably a pair of Frogg Toggs I could dig out.

    I’m sure if I layered much of that I could be warm almost anywhere, but was thinking even yesterday that I need to really have a few pieces max. Using what I have I would probably wear the R1 pants under the Eco-mesh, and have the smartwool microweight for sleeping or just in case I needed another layer. I might take the fleece if it was really cold, but I’m not sure how well the eco-mesh would fit on top of that I gave up on rain pants for 3 season use because of the lack of ventilation, but if I’m hiking in the rain and it turns cold that sounds more serious.

    Your discussion about the softshell pants sounds encouraging. Do they provide any warmth? I only see one REI soft shell pant (Activator), but it doesn’t give weight or any sense of how thick it might be. A better plan may be softshell for hiking and fleece + frogg toggs for in camp, or when it’s really cold and/or wet.

    I’d really appreciate your articles and any feedback you or others can give me on this.

  6. Experiment, even if it means just walking in a local park for two hours to see what works.
    Softshell pants do retain heat well, they’re water resistant, and breath well. You don’t actually want to be too warm since you will be generating plenty of heat.

    • Yea, not to rub it in but it’s 68F here today with some moisture flowing in from the South. Not a good test for cold weather gear, so I’ll have to take a trip for testing.

      I may get out to the local mountains next week for some colder temp day hiking that will be a better test. I may check out the REI Activator or other softshell pants they may have in stock. Even with their water resistance, if it’s rainy and cold, I expect you are changing out of these at Camp and trying to dry them under your tarp?

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