What to Wear? Layering Guide for Winter Hiking and Adventuring!

Trail TalkKatie Kommer
Winter Hiking Clothing Layers


Overdressing in the winter has led to some of the worst chills in my life. When I wait too long to take off my down jacket, I inevitably sweat through my base layer, and then struggle with a damp layer next to my skin the whole rest of the day.

In this article, I share the clothing I wear and the layering system I use for a variety of different conditions during the winter months — figured out, in large part, through trial and error. It’s organized by temperature range, with some tips for precipitation as well as especially cold adventures.

It’s important to note, these suggestions are dependent on individual activities. If you’re doing a high-output activity, like trail running, you may be able to go up a temperature category. Conversely, a leisurely activity, like a meandering snowshoe, may require extra layers.  

Also, if you know you run cold, carry an extra layer at all times, and maybe even start the day more bundled up than others. If you run hot (like me), be prepared to take a break early on to de-layer, and perhaps do your best to follow the mantra: be bold, start cold.

When it comes to winter activities, starting off a hike or run with a slight chill ensures that once you work up a sweat, you’re in the perfect temperature zone — toasty, but with enough breathability in your clothing layers to wick moisture away from your body.
 

Everyday Winter Layering: Temperatures from 35°F to 50°F

This list of clothing is your base for all cold-weather activities.

  • Base Layer Top: A solid base layer that wicks sweat away from your body is extremely important. Even when it’s cold outside, you will still sweat as you hike. Quality base layers help manage the moisture produced from sweating, so when you stop for a break or start descending, you don’t get incredibly chilled. The two main* options for base layers are merino wool or a synthetic material. 

    Merino Wool - Merino wool has a high warmth-to-weight ratio. It also cools you down when it's warm out and does a really good job of not retaining bad smells. But, it’s typically more expensive than synthetic options. Example: Merino Tech Tee by Voormi.

    Synthetic - Synthetic base layers are typically more durable and stretchy, while also wicking moisture well. Example: All Day Tee by Territory Run Co.

*there are some brands developing base layers with new materials, like alpaca wool.

Winter Hiking Clothing Layers

 

    • Warm Midlayer: This is the piece I like to think of as my “comfort” piece. I usually wear it on the descent, or at a summit as I’m enjoying a snack, when I want to be cozy and warm. Depending on the forecast and your personal preference, you can go lightweight or heavy here for more or less warmth.

      Techy mid-layers help regulate temperature but can be expensive; bear in mind that a hoodie you have at home can also work. Here are a few great examples:

    • Lightweight Insulated Jacket: A lightweight down or synthetic jacket is key for winter adventures; it protects you from wind and keeps you toasty when temps plummet. It’s ideal to select a compressible jacket, one that doesn’t take up much space in your pack. Here are a couple different examples:

      • Enlightened Equipment Torrid APEX - An extremely lightweight synthetic insulating layer. Synthetic insulation manages moisture better when wet (from sweat or precipitation).
      • Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Jacket - One of the most popular down jackets for thru-hikers. Down insulation has a higher warmth-to-weight ratio than synthetic filling, though it is typically more expensive and needs to be kept dry.

Winter Hiking Clothing Layers



      • Pants: I’m going to throw out a few different options here, knowing full well that hikers typically have a preference for what they wear on the bottom.
         
        • True hiking pants - Kuhl makes a few great pairs of heavier, full-length pants that are great for winter hiking. 
        • Leggings - As with the hiking pants, you’ll want full length leggings that aren’t too thin. My favorite pair of winter leggings are the Patagonia Peak Mission Tights, because they have a very light brush on the inside for warmth. 
        • Base layer pants - You can often find me on the trails wearing lightweight merino wool base layer pants under running shorts. I find this to be a great option for high output activities in the cold weather, because they manage moisture better than leggings or hiking pants.

      • Accessories: For every cold weather adventure, I don’t leave the house without these accessories. Even if I take them off 10 minutes into a hike, these are all absolutely crucial for keeping my extremities warm, hanging out in nearby pockets, where I can grab them and put them on again as soon as I start to feel a chill.

        • Lightweight gloves - When choosing the weight of your gloves, think about how much your hands will be exposed. If you like using trekking poles, you may want heavier gloves. If you like to put your hands in your pockets and/or plan to move quickly, a lightweight pair will do. 
        • Fleece headband or beanie - This is crucial for keeping your ears/ head warm. For high output activities like trail running or fast hiking, I’m usually fine with a fleece headband, but I choose a beanie, like the Liner Beanie made by Voormi, for longer days or more leisurely hikes. 
        • Wool socks - I choose the thickness of my socks based on the activity. Most brands have a range of weights to choose from, starting with ‘lightweight running’ up to ‘mountaineering’. For winter, a midweight option is great. 



What if it’s raining or snowing?

Winter Hiking Clothing Layers


Here’s what to add for wet activities. If it’s snowing, I skip the rain pants and just make sure my bottoms are warm enough for the temperature. The snow, especially in Utah, is less of a threat for soaking through clothing than rain.

 

      • Rain Jacket: There are many different options to choose from here. Heavier jackets with Gore-tex will keep you drier but also sweatier. Meanwhile, lightweight jackets are easier to soak through but offer much more venting and heat management. I choose my rain jacket depending on how hard of an activity I’m planning to do.

        • Enlightened Equipment Visp Rain Jacket - This lightweight rain jacket is great for moving fast and light, or for forecasts with a chance of moisture. In a true downpour, it is not the best option. 
        • Arc’teryx Beta AR Jacket - A heavier shell that will keep you extremely dry on very wet days, and provide more warmth.

      • Rain pants: Again, I only add rain pants if it’s 100% going to be wet and cold. Many quality hiking pants have a DWR (moisture repellant) treatment, so they’ll handle a bit of precipitation just fine. I also recommend going lightweight with rain pants.

        • Zpacks Vertice Rain Pants - For just a few ounces, pants like this keep your legs dry and toasty. These are also great for summer storms and can be worn over shorts.

      • Mitten Shells: Mittens made out of Dyneema, Gore-Tex or other waterproof materials do a surprisingly good job of keeping your hands warm. Pairing these with lightweight gloves is enough for most winter adventures. Gore-Tex mittens were one of my favorite purchases over the last year. The Ultralight Rain Mitts by High Tail Designs made out of Dyneema is also a worthy choice. 

      • Gaiters: I use hiking gaiters, like the Hillsound Armadillo LT™, whenever I’m hiking through rain, mud or snow. Wet feet lead to cold toes, which makes me want to beeline straight back to the car. Gaiters go over your shoes and help keep moisture from penetrating your feet. 



Colder Activities: Temperatures from 20°F to 35°F 

Winter Hiking Clothing Layers


For the most part, activities in this temperature range can use a similar layering system to the basic guide, BUT with warmer/ heavier/ more versions of all the pieces listed. The most important addition when going out in these temps is a heavier down or synthetic jacket. These clothing pieces are essential for retaining your body height.

      • Heavy Insulating Layer: A heavy down jacket can be the difference between enjoying a cold, snowy summit and hurrying back down. An example is the Feathered Friends Helios Down Hoodie, which features one of the highest warmth to weight ratios you can find.

      • Heavier / Lined Pants: Too often I’ve come back from a winter adventure with red, blotchy thighs. Though the core of your body is most important to keep warm, don’t neglect your legs as well. 

        • Hiking Pants - Anything that’s listed as a ‘softshell’ pant offers extra protection from cold, wind, and precipitation. 
        • Leggings - If you prefer to wear leggings, choose an option with a fleece lining or extra insulation. The ones that I wear all winter for trail running and hiking are the Smartwool Merino Sport Fleece Wind Tights.

      • Neck Gaiter - Neck Gaiters keep wind and cold air from hitting your neck and penetrating spots of exposed skin. A longer gaiter can also be pulled around your ears and cheeks for extra protection on windy summits. I prefer ones made out of wool; however, this polyester Hiking Gaiter made by High Tail Designs seems to be a trail favorite. 



Dead of Winter — Temperatures from 5°F to 20°F 

Winter Hiking Clothing Layers


These are the temperatures where one forgotten layer or accessory can have major consequences. When I’m venturing out in these temperatures, I double check my pack and don’t even attempt to go lightweight. I also do my best to shed a layer as soon as I start to sweat, in order to stay dry. Here’s what I add for adventures like this.


      • Softshell Alpine Jacket: This is a large shell jacket, typically used for skiing, that blocks wind and retains heat. I’ll wear this over a lightweight down jacket to trap in warmth.

      • Heavy Shell Pants: You can’t forget to keep your legs warm when it gets this cold. I’ll typically pair my heaviest merino wool base layers with heavy Gore-Tex pants for these coldest adventures. The pants really help because typically when it’s this cold it’ll also be snowy, so you can take breaks in the snow without soaking through your clothes. Ski bibs also work as a bottom outer layer, and I’ll often wear them for very cold winter hikes.

      • Accessories: In temperatures this low, keeping your head, hands, and feet warm and dry are absolutely essential.
         
        • Warm Mittens - I use heavier duty mittens that have a fleece lining and Gore-Tex shell in addition to a liner glove in these temperatures. Mittens do a better job of keeping your hands warm because they keep your fingers together. 
        • Full Face Mask/ Buff / Balaclava - Preventing frostbite on your cheeks and nose is extremely important when you’re out for long days. This is the Buff that I use all winter, but full balaclavas or a fleece face mask are a great option too. 
        • Extra socks - Even with gaiters to keep my feet dry, I like to pack an extra pair of wool socks just in case. 



Hope this Cold Weather Clothing Guide helps. Remember, when it comes down to it, it’s better to carry an extra layer and not need it than get back to the car shivering uncontrollably.

 

Katie is a freelance writer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. When she's not behind her laptop, you can find her guzzling instant coffee in the backcountry or developing a new and expensive outdoor hobby. To see her adventures and occasional long rambles, follow her on Instagram @katelyn_ali

Trail talk

3 comments

Jim T

Jim T

You touched on two issues relating to what to wear during day hikes. Cold and sweat. Don’t forget to plan exposure into the equation relating to gear taken.

I agree with the neck being an important part of heat management . Personally I use the Klim Rogue Balaclava . It has a mesh top and Windblocker all around. Creates a little microclimate in the mouth area. Topped off with the Zpaks Possum Down hat which is warm and breathes well.

After many trial and error attempts (mostly errors ) I have found the feet are the key ingredient to staying warm. If your feet are warm your body is warm. If your feet are cold its game over and back to camp or home base. So far just a Thin liner sock and Midweight Merino wool have kept my feet warm inside conventional hiking boots in pretty wide range of winter temps. If colder or winter backpacking I wear Thinsulate Hunting boots . Interestingly putting the Torrid Booties inside my hunting boots make them that much warmer.

Hope this helps the Adventure community.

Amy Hatch

Amy Hatch

Thanks for the added ideas and notes, Jim!

Jim T

Jim T

Great article. Looks like you’ve done your homework well.
In regards of the base layer I have found a new go to piece that rocks the house and surpasses all that you mentioned. It’s Cashmere Zip T neck sweater. Made from Himalayan Goat wool its far superior to Merino in it’s wicking properties. Mine you can see right thru so you know sweat is managed better. I’ve battle tested it and have felt the moisture from my sweat on the outside of the garment. It’s wide range of Thermal properties is just plain hard to believe.
On colder days I wear my Eddie Bauer down vest over the Cashmere and a EB rain shell jacket. For even colder I have an ultralight Mont Bell down hooded jacket ,then the rain shell.

Agree with the Torrid jacket. Mine is insanely warm.

Agree with keeping legs warm. I use a Patagonia thin base layer or an REI thin Merino wool layer followed by Rab Alpine Event pants with zipper options on them. Don’t carry them on day hikes but for Backcountry base camp I’ve got the Torrid pants.

For the feet I’ve found silk or Coolmax liner socks under a midweight Merino wool is warmer than just the Merino itself.
Finally a EMS windstopper earband handles the widest range of temps. If colder then I add my ZPaks Possum down full knit hat. It’s breathes well and is super warm. Also along the glove option I use a EMS gore Tex shell glove and if colder than my Possum down gloves.

Hope this helps.

Leave a comment

Featured Products

Save 10%
Vecto 2L Water Container by Cnoc OutdoorsVecto 2L Water Container by Cnoc Outdoors
Save 20%
Portable Bidet by CuloCleanUltralight Portable Bidet by CuloClean
Ultralight Portable Bidet by CuloClean
From $ 7.99 $ 9.99
In stock