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How To Layer Your Clothes For Winter Hiking

If you are like us, there is nothing better than getting outside in the Winter and feeling that cool brisk air. Not too mention the views are better and snow on the ground can be quite beautiful. But how to hike in it, let alone spend the night in it, can be a little challenging. How to stay warm without over heating? Let’s talk about the three-layer system for hiking clothes (base layer, insulating layer, and shell layer), plus, we’ll share a few tips for putting together each layer.

The trick to layering is creating additional air space for your body to heat up. Clothing layers follows a simple principle. They create air space that traps 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:

    This is the layer that pulls sweat and precipitation away from your skin. For winter hiking, this usually means wearing long underwear. For example: The Smartwool Women’s Base Layer Top – Merino 250 Wool Active Crew is a great base layer for Women or Men. It’s warm and at the same time keeps sweat from colleting against your skin. 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. The downside is that they tend to hold on to body smells when doing a long distance hike. But who are you really trying to impress out there?
    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. A good example is the Patagonia Micro Puffy. Very lightweight and will keep you warm.
    This layer protects you from the wind and rain. Examples include rain jackets, rain pants, rain hats, and shell gloves. Most of the time the “Shell Layer” will be a windbreaker. This is when the wind can be blowing enough to get into those “breathable” layers. What most people think of rain jackets only, think of a windbreaker/rain jacket. A good example is the Outdoor Research Men’s/Women’s Interstellar Jacket. This will stop a cold wind right in it’s tracks.

A cold weather three-layering system is warmest when you wear it all together. We wear all of our layers when we are winter camping.

However, if you’re going to be moving most of the time, you might not need all three layers on every body part one hundred percent of the time. For example, we don’t hike with insulation on our lower body unless it’s REALLY cold. And we don’t wear my shell jacket unless it’s windy or wet. The one thing to remember is that your body is a natural furnace when you are hiking. It will keep you warm!

Remember, the “no cotton” rule also applies to underwear and sports bras. For winter hiking, choose comfortable undies made of synthetic fabrics or merino wool. Our personal favorites are ExOfficio Give-n-Go underwear, which are available for both men and women.


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.

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.

Snow reflects UV into your face, so protect your eyes with wraparound sport sunglasses or glacier glasses.

Hiking in Winter is FUN. HOWEVER: It can be a bit expensive when keeping warm out there. Winter hiking clothes are 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. Get to know how your body reacts to hiking and camping in cooler temps. To know your body is the key to not breaking the bank.

Happy Winter Hiking!

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In 2003 I completed a Thru-Hike on the Appalachian Trail. Since then I have over 12,000 miles underfoot and 20 years of backpacking, and camping experience. Certifications include WFA, WFR, LNT Trainer, and belong to AORE. Have been guiding backpacking trips for over 10 years. The outdoors has taught me one thing. Trusting the Trail! really does provide everything a person needs.

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