What to Wear for Hiking in Cold Weather

hiking-clothing-layeringAs autumn deepens and the nights grow longer, most hikers are scheduling an end to the year of enjoyment.

Some of us, however, plan to keep hiking and backpacking even into the coldest months of winter. If you’re one of those people then you’ll be happy to know that you’re not alone. It can be difficult to figure out what to wear for hiking in cold weather but, luckily, we’re going to keep it pretty simple for you.

First, I’m going to walk you through something called layering. Then we’ll talk a little bit about different types of clothing layers, and finally I’ll leave you with some recommendations that you can get started with. Ultimately every person’s cold weather hiking gear system is going to be different and unique. Remember to get out and test your gear in the back yard, local park, or on a short overnight hike before attempting anything major with a new system. It always pays to test and improve your hiking system.

What is Layering

To best understand how to stay warm, dry, and comfortable for cold weather hiking we need to understand layering. With this system our goal is to create a highly flexible clothing system which can be adapted to the widest possible set of conditions for a given set of clothing.

Layering systems generally have some combination of these basic elements:

  1. Base Layer
  2. Insulation Layer
  3. Hard Shell

Of  course every person’s layering system is different and will vary depending on many factors. However, to get started learning to layer we’re going to stick with these basic elements.

What to Wear Hiking in Cold WeatherBase Layer

Base layers are, generally, comprised of a shirt or tights made of merino wool or polyester. Under Armour is famous for producing “technical” base layers and the tight fitting polyester shirts are exactly what we’re talking about when I say “base layer”.

Remember, you may choose a thicker or thinner weight fabric material for your base layer depending on your specific needs but for hiking I would recommend lightweight or midweight to avoid overheating.

Base layers are meant to regulate temperature and moisture – wicking sweat and moisture away from the skin where it can evaporate more safely in cold temperatures. It may pay to look for a base layer with a 1/4 zip chest to improve temperature management in active situations.

Insulation Layer

There are various names for this layer and, often, hikers may have more than one of these layers on at a time for double or tipple warmth (when camping, or sleeping, for instance). This mid layer’s job is to keep you warm! It’s really that simple when we boil it down.

Insulation can, generally, be down (goose and duck feathers), synthetics, or even thick merino wool.

Whether you choose to use a single insulation layer or multiple lighter layers, make sure you’re carrying enough insulation to keep you warm! If you plan to stop for lunch, make camp, or sleep overnight you’ll want tons of insulation to retain body heat. During hiking insulation is often unnecessary as your body will quickly overheat from exercise in all but the most extreme cold.

Hard Shell

Don’t get confused by this layer’s name – we’re not transforming into turtles! Instead, what we’re looking for is a waterproof and windproof jacket. Since we already have plenty of warmth from our insulation layers, it’s not necessary that this layer by insulated.

A simple but high quality rain coat can do the trick here, depending on the situation and your needs. Want something more technical? Don’t worry, outdoor apparel manufacturers produce shell layers in every color, feature, and style you can imagine. There’s something out there for everyone.

Expect to pay big money for some of the high end name brand shells, but remember that inexpensive shells (when chosen properly and with good understanding) can perform and function just as well.

Our shell has one real job and that’s to keep wind and rain from entering into the inner parts of our layering system. Wind will steal our heat, and letting rain in comes with obvious problems.

Remember that any garment which is fully waterproof will also be windproof. However, not all windproof garments are waterproof.

What to Wear Hiking in Cold Weather

If you’re having trouble understanding layering systems then just reach out to me in the comments – I’ll help you figure it all out. At this point I’m going to launch into recommending a few pieces of hiking clothing which have worked for me. Remember that these systems, suggestions, and ideas can all be adapted to meet your needs with a little testing, ingenuity, research, and planning. Have fun!

Base Layer

For a base layer, I usually go with a lightweight long sleeve merino or polyester shirt with a chest zipper for temperature management.

This is one area where I tend to go with the cheapest and most effective option while saving as much weight as possible. I can’t recommend any specific as my choices vary each year, however Patagonia’s Capeline line of base layers is wildly popular and most UnderArmour is top-notch!

Check out Ibex, Icebreaker, and Smartwool for merino wool fiber base layers. They’ll cost you a bit more, however they’re more odor resistant and arguably better at regulating body temperature.

Insulation

What to Wear Cold Weather HikingWhile the options are nearly limitless, I prefer synthetic insulation whenever there’s a good chance of getting wet. In those months when autumn has turned wintry cold but the precipitation is still liquid it can be very dangerous to get wet. If there’s a high probability of getting wet (for any reason) and the temps are low, I recommend synthetic insulation.

Why synthetics? Because synthetic insulation retains more of its ability to keep you warm no matter if it’s wet or dry. Down insulation loses a huge amount of insulation value when wet – this can lead to dangerous situations if you’re not careful.

I like and recommend the Patagonia Nano Puff Hoodie for synthetic insulation. Ladies there’s a women’s version of it just for you!

If you’re looking for the lightest, warmest insulation possible then I suggest the Mont Bell Plasma 1000 for Women. Weighing only 4.1 ounces this jacket is insanely light and warm! Guys, you’re in luck because Mont Bell makes the men’s version just as lightweight!

Alternatively (or in addition to), a heavy weight merino or polyester layer can make a good insulation choice as well.

Something like the Patagonia R3 Hoody (women, men) provides tons of warmth and the benefit of a hood for another adjustable aspect of temperature regulation.

 

Shell

Shell can be highly personalized and my preference is usually weight savings, followed by budget restrictions. If you’re looking to keep the wind and rain out with an inexpensive jacket, the Marmot Precip is a great choice. For some, the lack of “breathable” fabric on the Precip jacket may be concerning but I’ve found over the years that breatheable fabric simply doesn’t live up to its promise. I avoid the extra expense when possible and suggest others do the same.

For other options check the clearance rack at REI, or your local outfitter. If you happen to be near an outdoor gear outlet store, go check for deep discounts on great waterproof shell layers on their racks.

If you’re really careful with your gear and want to save as much weight as possible, try an ultralight shell like the Marmot Essence at just 5.6 oz (I know, I own it and weighed it myself).

Remember to check that all the seams on your garment are sealed and taped to be sure the garment is waterproof. Some low priced “waterproof” garments are in fact not constructed correctly and can be a total waste of money. Be sure you know what you’re really buying whenever saving a buck or two!

Conclusion

Layering systems must be adapted to meet the needs of each hiker in each situation. Make sure you’re carrying enough clothing to hike safely in the record low temperature conditions of any area you are entering.

With all of your layers worn in the proper order you should have an insulation system which is both waterproof, windproof, and highly adjustable. It’s not necessary to buy the most expensive clothing to have a great cold weather hiking system, however it’s really important to understand your layers, what they’re made of, why they work, and how to maximize their effectiveness.

Test your clothing system on short hikes before going too far into the wilderness with your new clothing. It’s important to work out the kinks before committing to a long hike.

About the author

Casey Fiedler

Professional ski instructor and backpacking guide, Casey Fiedler went to school with CWC and NOLS for Outdoor Education and Leadership. Want to read more about what it takes to lead great adventure trips? Casey writes about outdoor education at caseyfiedler.wordpress.com