Dressing for Winter Hiking. Layering explained.

Ah, here it comes. That fresh, crisp fall air. The calming cool that brings with it the beautiful changing leaves and color.

Fall is one of my favorite times of the year to hike. You stay nice and cool during the day, and those falling leaves begin to slowly open up new vistas for the winter that were previously concealed by lush trees and shrubs.

Cold weather, however, does bring it’s challenges. Too often you’ll see hikers either over, or under dressed for their adventures. Either way, you’ll end up shivering during your overnight.

Wait huh? Overdressing can lead to being cold? Yes. I’ll explain how, and how to avoid it.

Hiking Layers 01
A fine tuned layered system. Base, Mid and outer layer.

The dangers of Moisture: The primary reason that hikers develop hypothermia is moisture. I’m not talking about falling into a river, or rain, although that is a threat as well. Sweat. Sweat will make you wet from the inside of your clothing out and it will be trapped there. Even a little sweat in the cold of winter will bring an intense cooling affect. When your body is moist, the heat of your body is transferred into that moisture, and the moisture is ejected from your body in the form of evaporation. You loose all that energy, aka body heat. The cooling affect here is much greater than wind, or direct cold contact. If you begin to sweat, and you stay wet long enough you’ll begin to shiver, and you can even be at risk of hypothermia. It takes very little once your body cools down while you rest, which is where the trouble sneaks in.

Forget big and fluffy:

Big fluffy jackets might keep you comfortable while your standing around, but as soon as you hit the trail, you’re going to heat up, quick. With only a large single layer, you’re stuck. You’ll get hot, and eventually you’ll begin to sweat, a lot. By the end of the day, you’ll be anywhere from damp under your clothing, to soaked. This is a bad situation, especially when it’s the only layer you packed. On top of this, larger layers tend to be bulky, and heavy. Avoid this mistake. You’ll stay drier, pack smaller, and even save some weight.

Layered up and ready to roll.
Layered up and ready to roll.

Cotton is the enemy:

Avoid cotton at all costs. Cotton will not offer sufficient warmth. Cotton also will absorb your sweat, and it will not dry quickly at all, which can be dangerous. You want a material that will dry quickly, and wick away moisture. More on that later.


Layering, simply put is wearing several layers to provide your protection, instead of relying on one. There are many advantages here. You’ll stay drier. Layering allows you to shed, or add clothing as you need. There isn’t much sense in hiking in a huge coat, as you’ll quickly become too hot, and you’ll start sweating. Wear too little, and you’ll get cold. When you stop hiking, you’ll cool down. Then suddenly your small thin layers that were keeping your warm while you were hiking aren’t doing their job because your body isn’t releasing as much heat. Now, you’ll throw on another layer. Basically, you’ll want to be able to adjust to your conditions, and layers allows this.

How to layer:

There are 3 specific primary layers you need.

1. Base Layer. You need a base layer. Essentially, this is what directly touches your body, and it includes underwear.  Most hikers target synthetics for their light weight, quick drying, and ability to keep you warm when wet. Something like wool, or polyester works great. Full coverage base layers, from feet to the ends of your arms, will be best as it’s going to act on your entire body. The idea here, is to provide light warmth, but more importantly Wick Moisture.  Moisture wicking allows for moisture (sweat, water, etc) to be pulled away from your body. This is vital, as staying dry is the first step to staying warm. If you’re wet, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, you’ll be cold when you stop moving.

Hiking Base layer. Underwear, long or short, thick wicking socks, and a synthetic base upper layer.
Hiking Base layer. Underwear (long or short), thick wicking socks, and a synthetic base upper layer.

2 Mid layer. Your second layer, is your mid layer. Easy enough right? The point of the mid layer is to provide your actual warmth. Again, synthetics are key. What’s the point of synthetic underwear if  your base layer is socking up all the moisture? Popular here, is fleece. Fleece or wool both work great. You’ll want something that fits well, without too much bagginess. A growing popular option is Polartec, if you need something warmer, but without too much bulk. It also insulates when wet, just like fleece.

Fleece. One of the most popular mid layers.
Fleece. One of the most popular mid layers.

3. Outer layer Finally, you have your shell. This is your layer that will actually be in contact with the elements. The shell needs to be water, wind, and UV proof. Remember, water resistant, and water proof are not the same thing. Breath-ability is also a key element here. If you can find a outer layer that allows for ventilation, you’re golden. Many jackets and shells also have zippers that open up vents under the arms, or on the back. Clever companies will even hide vents that are combined with your pockets for a little extra chest venting. This is great for keeping from over heating, and keeping that sweat down.

Goretex rain jacket. Great breathable outer layer if you're in wet environments often.
Goretex rain jacket. Great breathable outer layer if you’re in wet environments often.

4. Socks. Yes, socks gets their own little category. As mentioned before, cotton is the devil. Especially here. Your feet will sweat while you walk regardless of the temperatures. Wool, smart wool, or a polyester blend will do just fine. These materials wick moisture, and provide ample cushioning, and good warmth for winter trekking. Never double up your socks! That will reduce circulation, and increase your chances of frost bit.

Bonus layers

Often times, when hiking the 3 layers will be just fine, but when you stop and cool off you’ll be craving something a bit warmer. This is a good chance to add an additional layer. Down filled puffy jackets and Primaloft filled garments work great here. They are light weight, and compress down very well. Plus they offer a ton of warmth for the weight. You don’t want to hike in a puffy down, as you’ll overheat pretty quick, and your sweat will make it go flat, and thus no longer insulate. They’re amazing around camp, though.

A down jacket makes excellent base camp wear, and also extra pillow fluff.
A down jacket makes excellent base camp wear, and also extra pillow fluff.

Other options are adding on addition layers of wool, fleece, polyester, etc. Just be careful around fires. Synthetic materials can actually melt quite easily, and getting too close to the fire can have bad results.

More tips for staying dry:

Bring along a couple extra pair of socks, and extra base layers so you can swap them out when your current pair get damp. You can air dry your used socks in the top of your tent on the meshy inner ceiling if you have one, or dangle them on the outside of your pack. If you want fast drying action, stuff them into your sleeping bag at night.

Never wear damp clothing to bed. It’s better to take it all off. It will only cool you down when your body temperature drops as you doze off. Hang them out and allow them to dry for morning. You’re better off wearing fewer, dry layers than anything damp.

Don’t hike too hard. You want to avoid sweating in the colder weather. If you must hike hard, wear fewer layers. You want the air to be able to dry you out as you go. Typically this will be a thin synthetic shirt and perhaps a wind jacket.



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