Layering for cold weather and winter hiking is a lot more nuanced than people make it out to be. While assembling a wicking base layer, insulating mid-layer, and waterproof/windproof shell is the foundation for a layered clothing system, experienced hikers employ a number of temperature regulation techniques beyond adding or removing their shell or mid-layer to avoid sweating or getting cold as their level of activity changes during a hike or snowshoeing trip.
The Function of Clothing
Your cold-weather clothing layers are designed to trap heat and keep it close to your body so you can stay warm. But they can also trap too much heat and cause you to perspire when your activity level increases, say when you are climbing a steep hill. While you can conceivably remove a layer to prevent overheating, there’s a good chance that removing your shell or mid-layer insulation will release too much heat and you’ll get too cold.
Release Some Heat
The trick to fine-tuning your temperature regulation is to release some of the heat without removing an entire layer. Opening the center zipper or pit zips on your hardshell jacket (if it has them) or unzipping the chest zipper on your mid-layer fleece pullover, or unzipping the side zippers on rain pants (if they have them) are good ways to shed extra heat without removing an entire garment.
Some other tricks hikers use are to:
- Push up the sleeves of your mid-layer or baselayer to shed heat from your wrists where the arteries pass close to the skin
- Remove warm gloves or switch to a lighter-weight pair
- Roll your fleece beanie up over your ears to vent more heat
- Switch to a lighter-weight hat or a thin buff
- If there’s no snow, take off your gaiters to vent more heat from your lower legs
- Open the side venting zippers on your pants, if they have them
Trap More heat
If you’re too cold, you can always put on a warmer hat and warmer gloves, pull the hood of your rain shell over your hat, and close all of its zippers. Some other tricks include:
- Cover your neck with a Buff to better insulate the blood flowing close to your skin in your neck. Insulated buffs can be overkill, but they do warm you up fast!
- Put on a pair of gloves with wrist gauntlets and cinch them closed
- Close the wrist cuffs of your rain shell (if it has them)
- Put on gaiters to better insulate your lower legs
Most of the advanced layering techniques I’ve illustrated so far involve your torso or extremities. What about layering for the legs?
Truth is, you need less insulation for your legs when you’re hiking in cold weather. They are the biggest muscles in your body and they generate a lot of heat. That said, everyone’s physiology and the weather they hike in are likely to be different. But before you assume that you need to wear long underwear for cold weather or winter hiking, try hiking without them, using just your regular hiking underwear, gaiters, and pants for insulation.
It’s easier to add layers than take them off, and overheating and sweating profusely because you started off with too many layers is best avoided. Whenever you start a cold-weather hike, you want to try to start ‘cold’ and add layers as needed after your body and core temperature heat up from exertion.
Thin Layers are Better
The best layers to wear and carry for cold-weather hiking are thin layers because they let you fine-tune the degree of warmth you need. They also wick moisture more efficiently away from your skin and up through your layer “stack” because there’s less fabric to soak through at the next (higher) level. Moisture on your skin will chill you if you stop to rest, so it’s best to move it away from your skin as soon as possible.
This is contrary to what many clothing manufacturers are selling, in part because they make winter clothing for skiers who sit on chair lifts half the day and aren’t moving constantly and generating as much heat and perspiration as hikers. I’d recommend avoiding mid-layer jackets and hoodies that combine multiple layers into “self-regulating” garments. Layering and temperature regulation is a skill you have to learn and not one you can rely on artificial intelligence to do for you.
Cold weather layering is much more nuanced than taking a layer off when you start to sweat or putting one back on when you get cold, requiring all kinds of different micro-adjustments to maintain your comfort. When choosing your core layers and accessories, in addition to hats, gloves, and neck insulation, you want to make sure that you build in a lot of different venting and layering options that let you fine-tune your layers without having to stop and readjust your clothes each time. Learning how to stay warm and dry in cold weather takes practice, but it’s an important skill to learn if you plan to do a lot of cold weather or winter hiking.
Last Updated: October 2023