How to Layer for Winter Hiking

How to Layer for Winter Hiking

Layering is one of the most important skills that winter hikers must learn.  It’s the key to staying comfortable in cold weather and preventing perspiration from chilling you. Perspiration reduces your clothing’s ability to trap the warm air heated by your body heat. While the effect is less dangerous on short outings, it becomes much more critical on all-day hikes and overnight trips when it’s difficult to dry your winter hiking clothes.

Perspiration Management

The challenging thing about layering is that new winter hikers aren’t used to micromanaging their warmth and the rate at which they perspire through frequent clothing adjustments. It’s not something you need to do in warmer weather because you’re wearing much less clothing and perspiration helps to keep you cool.

Small clothing adjustments can significantly reduce your perspiration rate.
Small clothing adjustments can significantly reduce your perspiration rate.

But in winter, you need to develop a more nuanced awareness of your perspiration rate because small changes in the clothing you wear or your pace can have a significant impact on the amount of perspiration your body generates. For example, taking off a hat or pulling up your sleeves, or slowing down your pace, can help cool you down and make you sweat less.

Active and Passive Insulation

We’ve been trained since we were young to fear the cold. So it’s natural for people to overdress when faced with the prospect of hiking for hours in the cold and snow. But the reality is that your body throws off so much heat when you’re hiking or snowshoeing, that you need far less clothing than you realize. It’s only when stop moving, that you cool off and need extra insulation to keep you warm.

I find it useful to think about the clothing I need when I’m moving and active and the clothing I want to have at hand when I’ve at rest and passive. For example, my baseline clothing includes a long sleeve jersey, a fleece hoody, a fleece cap, light gloves, and softshell pants. If it’s windy, I’ll on a thin nylon wind shirt and waterproof mittens over my gloves. If it’s raining or snowing, I’ll put on a rain jacket/hardshell and rain pants, and waterproof mittens. Those are all active insulation layers, which can be adjusted by taking them off or vented by unzipping a zipper or pitzips.

When I’m at rest and not moving, I’ll put on a passive insulation layer, like a puffy down jacket or parka, a heavier fleece hat, and heavier mittens. If you try to wear these when you’re active and moving, you’ll drench your base layer and mid-layer, so they have to come off and get packed away when you start hiking again.

It's perfectly normal to call for a layer break on winter hikes to remove or add clothing
It’s perfectly normal to call for a layer break on winter hikes to remove or add clothing

Thin Layers

When you perspire in cold weather, you want the moisture to move away from your skin into an outer layer of clothing, so the layer closest to your skin can trap warm air and keep you warm. This is a process called wicking and it requires using clothes that are designed for that purpose. Synthetic undergarments, base layers, and fleece pullovers are the most effective for this, although many people like wool because it stinks up less, even though it takes longer to dry and holds onto moisture longer.

Wicking works best if you dress in thin base layer and mid-layer garments instead of thicker ones because it takes less time for the moisture to pass “up” from one layer to the next, enabling the inner layers to trap more warm air closer to your skin. There’s an old saying, “dress like an onion”, that reflects this layering approach. The benefit is that you can put on or take off layers, often quite inexpensive ones, to fine-tune your warmth and perspiration rate.

The problem is that a lot of cold-weather clothing manufacturers want to sell you garments that purport to combine multiple layers into a single garment based on some kind of “new intelligent self-regulating fabric technology.” But they never work anywhere as well as layering thin garments where you can fine-tune your warmth and perspiration level.

I usually just wear a thin nylon windshirt over a fleece hoody and base layer on my winter hikes.
I usually just wear a thin nylon windshirt over a fleece hoody and base layer on my winter hikes, and softshell pants without long underwear.

Layering Experiments

If you’re new to winter hiking, it’s very useful to conduct a series of layering experiments where you take hikes with a full pack to test out different clothing combinations in different terrain. You can start this process in the autumn and continue it into the winter when you can add snowshoes, microspikes, and crampons to the mix to assess their impact on your warmth and perspiration rate.

View these experiments as an opportunity to develop an awareness of your comfort level and perspiration rate in different activities and with different clothing items. It will really help you dial in a layering system that works for you across a range of temperatures and terrain.

Here’s a list of garments I’d encourage you to experiment with. They don’t have to be fancy or expensive and you can use a lot of clothing you already own. Decathlon is a good source of inexpensive base and mid layers and REI’s return policy gives you the ability to return clothing that’s been used if it doesn’t work out. I’m not suggesting that you abuse that benefit, but it can prevent the danger of a costly mistake.

  • Light and heavy fleece or wool hats
  • Light and mid-weight fleece gloves
  • Wool socks
  • 200g and 400g winter boots
  • High gaiters
  • Unlined waterproof/breathable mitten shells
  • Synthetic or wool underwear
  • Synthetic or wool long underwear bottoms
  • Waterproof breathable rain pants, with or without full-length side zips
  • Synthetic or wool long sleeve jersey
  • Fleece or wool pullovers, jackets, or hoodies of different thicknesses
  • Rain jackets or hardshell jackets
  • Wind shirts
  • Fleece or synthetic vest
  • Lightweight down or synthetic jackets as mid layers
  • Down or Synthetic parkas

It will take a few iterations to get through most of these in different conditions, but you’ll be glad when you understand how your body reacts to different clothing in the cold, at rest, and on the move.

See also:

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 8500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 3000 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip has hiked all 650+ trails in the White Mountains twice and has completed 8 rounds of the 48 peaks on the White Mountains 4000 footer list with over 490 summits in all four seasons. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire. Click here to subscribe to the SectionHiker newsletter.
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6 comments

  1. Hi Phil,

    Another great article. Four years ago I asked for your advice regarding winter hiking layering, and it was invaluable.

    Wanted to get your suggestion on what light weight wind shirts you would recommend?

  2. Good article. Thanks for the advice.

  3. I actually wear a complete 3-layer for the active parts and carry complete heavier layer to slip over top for lengthy stops (lunch usually). That way I don’t have to ‘change’ anything and expose myself.
    For example, first 3 layers are tank top, zipT, and Patagonia Houdini (3oz). Second layers are fleece, down puffy, and rain/Gortex jacket. Gets pretty cold here ha ha like -13 F

  4. Jean-Marc Lapierre

    Great article. I typically have one layering set of clothes to go up and a completely different one for coming down. I found that it makes perfect sense to change, even in extremely cold weather if you are getting dry clothes ( I have strip to skin on top of Washington in February and felt great afterward because it was fresh, dry clothes). The most important point for me is adjusting your pace to be comfortable, so many people don’t understand that. It is most important in winter but also in summer, so you are able to continue without stopping

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