Winter Hiking Clothes 101: What to Wear and How to Layer It
I’m a big believer that hiking is one of the best ways to stay in shape, lose weight, have fun, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. And it’s totally possible to hike all year round and get the benefits, even in very cold climates. So today on the blog, let’s talk about winter hiking clothes: what to wear and how to layer it for maximum warmth and comfort.
You’ve heard the old adage the cotton kills! But what do you wear instead?
In today’s post, we’ll talk about the three-layer system for hiking clothes (base layer, insulating layer, and shell layer), plus some tips for putting together each layer.
I’ll also give you some specific product suggestions for your upper body, lower body, head, hands, and feet. And finally, we’ll look at some essential winter hiking accessories that fall outside the layering system but still help you stay warm and safe.
It’s a big topic, so let’s dive in!
How to layer winter hiking clothes
Have you ever noticed that the comforter on your bed is so much warmer when you’re under a sheet too? That’s because the sheet creates additional air spaces for your body to heat up.
Clothing layers follow the same principle. They create air spaces that trap heat radiating from your body.
Layering also allows you to control your body temperature by adding or removing clothing. For example, if you’re powering up a long hill, your body is going to radiate more heat. You don’t want to sweat, because wet clothes will make you cold for the rest of the hike. So you just take off a layer or two.
When choosing your winter hiking clothes, here are the three layers to think about:
1. Base layer
This is the layer that pulls sweat and precipitation away from your skin. For winter hiking, this usually means wearing long underwear. Other examples include hat liners, glove liners, and sock liners.
2. Insulation layer
This layer provides additional warmth by trapping body heat in air spaces inside the fabric. Examples of insulating clothing include fleece jackets, puffy jackets (down and synthetic), wool hats, wool socks, and insulated gloves.
3. Shell layer
This layer protects you from the wind and rain. Examples include rain jackets, rain pants, rain hats, and shell gloves.
Do I really need to wear all three layers all the time?
The three-layer system is warmest when you wear it all together. I wear all of my layers when I’m winter camping or teaching a mountaineering course, because I’ll know I’ll be standing for long periods.
However, if you’re going to be moving most of the time, you might not need all three layers on every body part. For example, I don’t usually hike with insulation on my lower body unless it’s REALLY cold. And I don’t wear my shell jacket unless it’s windy or wet.
But on longer hikes, I do throw both of these layers in my pack in case the weather changes or I get stuck outside for some reason.
Remember, extra layers are part of your 10 essentials of survival gear that you should always carry in the backcountry! For more info, check out my 10 essentials blog post.
Base layer: The best base layer for cold weather
Having a good base layer is super important, because damp clothing against your skin will make you cold and can even cause hypothermia. A damp synthetic base layer can still make you cold, but it’s way warmer than wet cotton.
The best base layers for hiking are made of synthetic materials (nylon, rayon, spandex, polypropylene), merino wool, or silk. Synthetic base layers are the most affordable and very durable (I’ve had my current long underwear since 2009!).
The downside of synthetics: they hold in odors. So if you’re going on a longer trip and concerned about odor buildup, consider merino wool long underwear.
In order to do it’s job, the base layer needs to fit snugly against your skin. So look for a tight (but not uncomfortable) fit when shopping.
Finally, for longer, harder hikes where you’re likely to sweat, consider bringing two base-layer shirts. That way, you can put the second one on if you start to feel wet or cold.
Here’s how I do base layers:
The “no cotton” rule also applies to underwear and sports bras. For winter hiking, choose comfortable undies made of synthetic fabrics or merino wool. My personal favorites are ExOfficio Give-n-Go underwear, which are available for both men and women. For more details on why I love mine, check out my ExOfficio underwear review.
For most winter hikes, I wear mid-weight synthetic long underwear under my clothes. However, if I’m going to be teaching or camping (in other words, standing still for a long time), I sometimes wear heavyweight long underwear. I prefer the half-zip neck to the crew neck, because it gives me much more temperature control.
As with my upper body, I use mid-weight long underwear for more active hikes and heavy-weight long underwear for colder temperatures or trips where I’ll be standing around.
I’m totally in love with my Smartwool hat liner. I sometimes wear it by itself when I’m jogging in the cold or to protect my ears when I’m wearing a ball cap. And it adds an extra layer of warmth when layered with an insulated hat.
See the most up-to-date version, the Smartwool NTS Merino 150 Beanie at REI.
A big challenge for hikers is finding a glove that will keep your hand warm but also allow you to use your fingers. For this reason, I’m totally in love with these mid-weight liner gloves by HEAD. I actually wore them all through mountaineering school. They’re so grippy, I could tie all my rescue knots without taking them off. Pick up a pair at Costco or buy them online at Amazon.
Today’s socks do a pretty good job of insulating. But if you have a lot of trouble with cold feet, try wearing a sock liner next to your skin. It may also help to prevent blisters.
Insulation layer: Keep everything toasty and warm
When it comes to your insulation layer, you have a few different options.
Fleece fabric stays warm even when wet and comes in a variety of fabric weights. Some companies like Polartec classify fleece as 100-, 200-, or 300-weight, with 300 being the thickest and warmest.
Fleece is a very affordable option for many hikers and is easy to care for. Fleece’s downside: it’s heavier and less compressible than “puffy” garments made with down or synthetic fill.
Merino wool is another good insulator that stays warm when wet. It’s drawbacks are that it can be heavy and slow-drying. Many winter hiking socks and hats are made from merino wool or wool-synthetic blends.
Clothing filled with down (duck and goose feathers) is very warm, durable, compressible, and light. It’s also super breathable, meaning it lets moisture generated by your body (ahem, sweat) escape.
Most down clothes have a fill power rating. A high rating (800+) means the down inside is very fine and fluffy, giving the garment a good warmth-to-weight ratio. If you’re day hiking and not worried about going ultra light, any fill power over 600 is probably fine.
Down’s big downfall (pun intended): it collapses when wet and looses any ability to insulate. Once wet, it takes a long time to dry and may require “fluffing” in your dryer to fully regain its insulating ability. New water-repellant down technology, which involves treating down feathers at the microscopic level, may offer some protection.
It’s important to choose down manufactured according to the responsible down standard (RDS), which protects the welfare of ducks and geese.
(aka Thermolite, Elixr, Thermal Q, TechLoft, and many other brand names — all basically polyester fibers)
Clothing insulated with synthetic fill performs well in wet conditions, dries quickly, and costs less than down. However, it’s heavier, less compressible, and less durable than down.
The bottom line …
There’s no one insulated garment that’s perfect for all activities and weather conditions. So as you shop, think about your hiking style and local conditions. A trail runner would do better with a fleece jacket than a down parka. And if you live in the rainy Pacific Northwest, you might be better off with synthetic fill than down.
Here’s how I handle my insulated layer:
Gear head confession time: I actually have three different down jackets. (But no living room furniture.) Here’s the line-up:
- One lightweight Sierra Designs Gnar Lite jacket that has been with me since 2012 and is still going strong. It’s true that down lasts! (Discontinued, a few women’s still available on Amazon.)
- One mid-weight Marmot Ama Dablam hoodie jacket. With 800-fill-power down, it’s lightweight and super toasty, but doesn’t roast me when I start hiking. (Men’s version here.)
- One North Face Immaculator Parka. With almost two pounds of 800-fill-power down and a hood, it’s my go-to coat for winter camping, teaching, and any time I have to stand around in cold conditions. (Men’s version here.)
As you may have noticed, I prefer jackets with hoods. We all lose a disproportionate amount of heat through our heads and necks, so wearing a hood keeps the entire body warmer. Also, it’s hard to lose a hood, and you never have to fumble in your backpack when you want to put it on.
When it’s very cold out, I wear more than one puffy. Try doubling up before you invest in a huge down parka!
I usually don’t wear insulation on my legs while I’m hiking, because it makes me too hot. But if I’m winter camping or just hanging around outside, I highly recommend these REI Teton Fleece pants. They’re thick enough to keep you warm, but not too bulky under your clothes. (Also available in tall and petite sizes, men’s here.)
A really nice friend bought me the Turtle Fur Lift Line Beanie. It’s a wool-knit hat lined with microfleece and possibly the warmest winter hat I’ve ever owned!
When it’s really cold, I like my insulation and shell layers combined in the same glove. That’s because my hands are always touching poles, packs, boots, ice axes, and snowshoes, and they tend to get wet without a shell layer over the insulation.
My go-to glove for cold winter hikes is the Marmot Randonee glove. I originally bought these gloves for high-altitude climbing in Bolivia (up to 20,000 ft.). They weren’t quite warm enough for that, but they’re great for cold days in Colorado. The fleece lining inside is super soft on my hand, and they resist water well.
If your hands get really cold, consider buying an insulated mitten with a waterproof shell. Mittens tend to be warmer than gloves, because your fingers can work together to warm up the air space.
You can also try battery-heated mittens. (Be sure to carry extra batteries if you go this route, because the gloves themselves may not be very warm.)
If you’ve been hanging around this blog for longer than five minutes, you’ve heard me rave about my Darn Tough Vermont socks. They’re the comfiest socks you’ll ever wear, they’re made in the USA, and they’re guaranteed for life. (So don’t lose one in the wash.)
For winter, you can sometimes use your summer hiking socks (wear two pairs if needed). But if your feet are still getting cool, consider upgrading to a mountaineering weight sock. This one by Darn Tough goes over your calf to give your leg some extra insulation (men’s version here).
Note that in order to properly insulate your feet, you may need a bigger hiking boot. Tight boot-sock combinations will impair your circulation, causing your feet to freeze faster. My winter boots are actually 1.5 sizes bigger than my summer ones. So take your heavy socks along when shopping for winter hiking boots.
Shell layer: Protect yourself from wind and rain
When it comes to shell layer fabrics, there are several options available:
These garments are painted with a light waterproof substance (often polyurethane). They’re very water-resistant, but they will also hold in moisture (erm, your sweat) as you hike.
(aka hard shell, Gore-Tex, eVent, PreCip, many other brand names)
Waterproof-breathable clothes have an additional layer (the laminate or membrane) that repels rain while also allowing your sweat to escape. They’re very comfortable for hiking and climbing but more expensive than coated fabrics.
Waterproof-breathable fabrics come in 2-layer, 2.5-layer, and 3-layer versions, depending on how the laminate attaches to the fabric.
- 3-layer garments are best at managing moisture, and also most expensive.
- 2.5-layer fabric is lightest, and also very good at managing moisture.
- 2-layer fabric is an affordable option that does a good job of repelling rain and wind
Soft shell fabric combines water- and wind-resistance with a bit of insulating power. Soft shells are light and comfy to wear but give you less protection from the elements compared to hard shells.
Here’s how I handle my shell layer:
Upper and lower body
For years, I’ve been totally in love with Marmot’s PreCip line of rainwear. It’s super lightweight (2.5-layer hard shell), breathable, and has many technical features that are rare at this price point (for example, full-zip pant legs). For less than $100, these pieces offer a ton of value.
Downsides: I do wish they were a little more durable. (Pro tip: these lightweight shells don’t mix that well with ice axes and crampons). Also, the waterproofing does fade after a few years, even with repeated wash-in treatments. Marmot sizes run small, so check the size chart when ordering.
Additional accessories for winter hiking
Buff or neck gaiter
In cold weather, you lose a disproportionate amount of body heat from your head and neck, so be sure to cover your neck area. A Buff UV headband can also be pulled over your fact to protect you from sun and cold wind.
Balaclava or face mask
In very cold and windy conditions, you may need to cover your entire face to prevent frost nip. Pair your balaclava with ski goggles to completely cover your face.
Sunglasses or ski goggles
Snow reflects UV into your face, so protect your eyes with wraparound sport sunglasses or glacier glasses. Ski goggles are bulky but offer the best protection.
Shopping tips for winter hiking clothes
Outfitting yourself in winter hiking clothes can be expensive. Here are some tips to help you find the best selection and value.
- For the best deals, shop for winter hiking clothes in December or January. Around this time, many stores start putting winter clothing on sale to move their inventory before spring. However, the longer you wait, the less selection will be available.
- Don’t feel the need to buy everything at once. The best way to know what you need is to get out there and hike. Gradually build up a wardrobe that’s right for your hiking style and local conditions.
- Historically, it’s been tough for hikers to find plus-size performance clothing. But the outdoor industry is slowly coming around. Columbia Sportswear probably offers the best range of sizes for winter hiking clothing. Marmot and REI (house brand) are also getting into the plus-size game.
- For more tips on scoring discounted and free winter hiking clothes, check out my blog post: 16 ways to save money on outdoor gear.
So there you have ’em. My best tips on winter hiking clothes.
Do you have any tips I missed? Or additional recommendations? Comment below to share.
Originally published Nov. 3, 2018.