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:
- REI Activator V2 Softshell Pants
- Outdoor Research Crocodile Gaiters
- Under Armour Boxerjocks
- KUIU Ultra-Merino Zip-Off Long Underwear
- Enlightened Equipment Visp Rain Pants
- Montbell Tec Thermawrap Insulated Pants
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.
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 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 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 put it back on. This makes it really flexible for layering. Originally developed for hunters, I think it’s a best buy for winter hiking.
If I’m feeling cold during the hike, I put Enlightened Equipment Visp Rain Pants on over the REI Activator V2 Soft Shell Pants. The Visp Pants are very lightweight waterproof/breathable shell pants (4 oz) with calf-high boot zips so you can put them on or take them off without removing your boots. That’s a big advantage. I mainly use the Visp Pants as a wind barrier, although they;’re perfectly waterproof as well.
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.
If I were to summarize the lessons I’ve learned about pants layering, it’d be the following:
- 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.
- Don’t worry about being too cold. If you are moving, you will generate a lot of heat. Instead, aim to be slightly cool.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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