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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.  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. My winter hikes typically last 6-10 hours and I frequently adjust, add, or remove clothing to prevent perspiring depending on my exertion level. Layering is 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 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 wear the Under Armor Boxers, REI Activator V3 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 was 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 but 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 0 degrees and if there’s a wind chill advisory, I wear a KUIU Ultra-Merino Zip-Off Long Underwear under the REI softshell pants, for more warmth. It has to be really cold for me to do this. This KUIU underwear is really unique because it has side zips along each leg, that let you take the long underwear off without removing your shoes or pants, or putting it back on. This makes it really flexible for layering. Originally developed for hunters, I think they’re a best buy for winter hiking.

If I’m feeling cold during the hike, I put Outdoor Research Helium Rain Pants on over the REI Activator 3.0 Soft Shell Pants. The Helium Pants are very lightweight waterproof/breathable shell pants (6.7 oz) with ankle-high boot zips so I can put them on or take them off without removing my boots.  That’s a big advantage. I mainly use the Helium Pants as a wind barrier, although they’re perfectly waterproof as well. If you have larger boots, try the Precip Full Zip Rain Pant. These rain pants have full-length zippers down each leg so you can put them on or take them off without removing large boots. They’re also easy to vent because they have full-length zippers along the outside: I used them for many years myself.

I only wear my Mountain Hardwear Compressor Alpine Pants in the evening while cooking and melting snow on winter backpacking trips or if I need to stand around for an extended period of time outdoors. I also pack them on day hikes as a form of insurance in case I hurt myself or need to help an injured hiker. They’re great if you’re not moving much, but I immediately sweat in them if I start to hike with a pack on.

Softshell Pants – My Big Breakthrough

My biggest breakthrough in terms of winter pants was when I started wearing softshell pants. These are warmer than normal three-season hiking pants, they’re much more windproof, water-resistant, and highly breathable. I started off with REI Mistral Pants (no longer made), REI Activator 1.0 Pants (no longer made), REI Activator 2.0 Pants (no longer made), and now wear REI Activator 3.0 Pants. I wear them whenever temperatures drop below freezing. They’re just fantastic and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Before this, I used to wear long underwear and the Marmot Precip full-zip pants on most hikes. The nice thing about that system is 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.

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 thin 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 October 2023

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  1. Usually I would wear my double layer nylon ski pants over a “polar weight” base layer and hope for the best – unless skiing or hunting in very bitter weather. Then I’d wear Thermolite insulated Gore-Tex ski pants..

    But about 4 years ago I discovered Duluth Trading fleece lined “Dry on the Fly” nylon cargo pants.
    VOILE’! These pants are warm enough for 20 F. weather when worn over a light polyester base layer and warm to -10 F. when worn over a polar weight base layer.

    Yeah, at -20 or so I still need those Thinsulate insulated ski pants but for all else the fleece lined Duluth Trading cargo pants fill the bill. And as a bonus they are about $20. less than their only equal, the RailRiders similar pants.

    And for nights in a winter camp before bed time I wear my Chinese side-zippered down pants under the fleece lined pants.

  2. I purchased a pair of REI Activator pants last month and absolutely love them. They are warm and flexible. Anxious to see how they react in rain.

  3. I too use plastic bags over a liner sock, then a wool sock over that, to keep the insulation of my winter hiking boots (or pack boots) dry. Tip: Rectal gloves, the ones veterinarians use, are very thick and super cheap. They are made not to rip easily, for obvious reasons. Tougher than oven bags and less expensive. A box of 100 is only $10 and you can use each glove over and over quite a few times. A large animal vet recommended them to me and they work great! I fold the fingers over the top of my foot before putting on the top sock. Be prepared for odd looks though.

    • So nice to hear from you Louise! Too funny.

    • Louise, the BEST VBL socks I’ve found are 3 mm closed cell diver’s socks (over thin poly liner socks).
      And the best brand of these divers’ socks is “US Divers” because they are factory seam sealed and have Left and Right shaped socks for no bunching at the toes. No other socks are needed with this system.
      Carry a pair of clean poly liner socks for each day and put the stinky, wet liner sock in a Zip Lo FREEZER bag marked with a radioavtive warning logo! ;o)

  4. I’ve used your old base layer plus full zip rain pant system since I read about it here. Works great.

    The Activator doesn’t seem to have any venting. But it still gets the heat and moisture out?

    • The Activators work great. I’m on my third generation with them have used the Activator 1.0 and 2.0 models as well. Just got back from a 14 miles hike in them up Passaconaway/Whiteface.

      • When I lived in the Boston area and winter hiked with the AMC and alone, I wore mid weight capaline or similar top and bottom and liner gloves, Patagonia baggies shorts, knee high gaiters and a winter shell that I frequently unzipped or took off entirely. Carried a down jacket in my pack. Wool socks with liners with leather boots. In colder weather, I wore double boots – usually snowshoeing.

    • Lack of venting was my biggest issue with the Activator 2. But, I was looking for something that would be comfortable hiking shoulder seasons (30-60F) range without having to stop to delayer. 1/4 zips are almost impossible with my boots and full zip options are heavy. Anything above 50 without a lot of wind and I was roasting. Great below that. Comfortable in camp with rain pants.

      Since this is just for dedicated winter pants I agree with Philip -they would work well for most people in most situations.

      Current setup for shoulder seasons is polyester base, nylon pants, rain pants (1/4 zip) for camp and when temps are below 40. Just have to deal with stopping for delayering if temps move up and change when in camp before temps drop too much. Looking wishfully at adding down pants & booties though!

  5. I have been on the REI train (Mistral thru Activator) and agree with your opinion of them. They seem to perform without breaking the bank.

  6. For those willing to wear skirts, I’ve had a surprising amount of success adding an insulated skirt in extra cold and/or windy conditions. Easy on, easy off, and makes more of a difference than one would think.

  7. I’ve been experimenting a lot with winter outerwear while living in Minnesota. I picked up a pair of Smartwool winter hiking leggings at the end of last season sale and it’s been a game changer. I’ll say the same about the Farpoint Alpha hoodie as well. It’s been the difference between enjoying winter hiking and cross country skiing to being stuck indoors for 6 months. Thank you for the helpful tips. Keep’em coming.

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