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Winter Pant Layering for Hikers Who Sweat

Winter Hikers wearing Short Pants

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 preventing perspiration 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 Activator V2 Soft Shell 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. This is all I need for most of my winter hikes.

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. I mainly do this on overnight winter trips not day hikes, so my boots don’t absorb moisture and freeze overnight. If you want something a little bit more upscale than oven roasting bags, try Rab Vapor Barrier  Socks. They’re designed for the same thing but are easier to wash and reuse.

If it’s colder than 10 degrees and if there’s a wind chill advisory, I wear a Minus 33 long underwear layer under the REI softshell pants, for more warmth.  In this case, I put the long underwear on before the hike. It has to be really cold for me to do this.

If I’m feeling cold during the hike, I put the Marmot Precip Full Zip pants on over the REI Activator V2 Soft Shell Pants. Precips are inexpensive waterproof shell pants and the full zips are great because you can vent them when hiking. You can also put them on and take them off without removing your boots. That’s a big advantage.

I only wear my Montbell 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, 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 REI’s Activator V2 Softshell Pants were really a break-through for me and are made of a stretchy, water-resistant softshell 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. My solution for this has usually been a polyester base layer with that base layer weight depending on temperature. And the top layer is a synthetic wind resistant pant or even GTX rain or ski pants in higher winds.

    Recently I’ve come to much prefer DULUTH TRADING CO. “Dry On The Fly” fleece lined nylon cargo pants over the base layer and found it to be breathable enough for high activity but also very wind resistant. In fact I’d rather have the DTC pants than the more expensive Rail Riders lined nylon pants due to the features on the DTC pants. Quality is excellent.

  2. Thank you Philip for the helpful writeup. Do you know the weight of the REI Activator V2, either in a size Medium or in whichever size you wear? REI unfortunately often leaves out weights. Also, when wearing your above winter clothing system, which winter hiking boots and which plastic mountaineering boots do you wear?

    • Don’t know offhand, but I’ll weigh them sometime next week and post it. Have to dig them out for a winter hike up Mt Washington next week. I currently use Oboz Bridger 10″ single layer insulated boots. I’ve given up on plastic mountaineering boots.

    • My 32×30 weigh at 14z. There’s no venting zippers and the clip belt takes some getting used to, but they performed well enough in September at 10000 ft.. Temps low 20’s – low 50’s plus 10-20mph winds.

      My only issue is lack of venting once temps get into the 50’s. They were certainly warmer in camp than the REI Sahara’s. I can’t hike in thermals unless really cold so I sometimes keep my sleeping thermals on until leaving camp. But that means extra time taking off layers. The Montbell Tec Thermawrap pants look great (full zip is nice!), but it adds an extra lb. Absolutely see the utility below 20F while inactive. Finding an efficient combo for low 20’s (inactive) to 50-60 (active) is a challenge.

      If I was handy with sewing, I’d add side zips to Activator. Not sure it’s worth expense of sending it out for the modification.

  3. Your number one and number four points in your list inspired me give you a virtual high five. We don’t have the kind of winters here in Georgia that you do, but both those points are still extremely important. I’m learning to trust multiple thin layers and this article points me in the right direction for more lessons. Thanks.

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