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:
- REI Activator 3.0 Softshell Pants
- Outdoor Research Crocodile Gaiters
- Darn Tough Hiker Boot Socks
- Under Armour Boxerjocks
- KUIU Ultra-Merino Zip-Off Long Underwear
- Outdoor Research Helium Rain Pants
- Mountain Hardwear Compressor Alpine 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. 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.
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 thin 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.
Last Updated October 2023SectionHiker is reader-supported. We only make money if you purchase a product through our affiliate links. Help us continue to test and write unsponsored and independent gear reviews, beginner FAQs, and free hiking guides.