How to Dress Properly for a Winter Hike: Basic Layering

Dressing for a winter hike is part art, part science, and all survival skill. It's also the key to staying comfortable on — and thus enjoying — a cold-weather outing. Even if it's not full-on winter yet, you can still apply the same basic layering principles to any cool-weather adventures.

Layered clothing serves three purposes:

  • Keeps you warm when at rest
  • Keeps you warm but not overheated when you're exercising (and thus generating extra body heat)
  • Makes it easy to adjust your insulation between those two extremes.

You need more insulation to keep your body warm when you're at rest, but as you start moving you can remove extra layers of clothing to keep from overheating. The key is to remove those layers before your body activates its built-in cooling mechanism (sweat). Sweat can drench your inner layers, reducing their insulation value; the damp fabric is also very uncomfortable against your skin.

Base Layer

Snow falls on pedestrians

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Think long underwear. This first layer should fit close to your skin, but not so tightly that it impedes your movement or circulation. Avoid cotton — which holds water and loses its insulating ability when wet — and aim for wicking polyester (which also comes under branded names like Capilene) or wool, both of which will help keep you dry and warm, even when wet.

Underwear (Optional)

Wearing skivvies under your long underwear is optional, although if you're on a long backpacking trip I recommend it for the sake of hygiene. Once again, steer clear of cotton and opt for wicking synthetics or wool instead.

  • Yes, even something as innocent and everyday as cotton underwear can contribute to hypothermia. Nature has no modesty and will take full advantage of your choice of undergarments.
  • Yes, they make wool underpants (and bras). You can buy them in most sporting goods stores.

Insulating Layer(s)

You should still be choosing wicking fabrics (synthetics or wool) for this layer. Your insulating layer is usually thicker than your base and primary layers, although in mild weather I might just carry a second base layer.

This layer should also be a little bigger than your base layers — just big enough so you can move comfortably, but not so large or heavy that you end up feeling like a yeti.

This is the layer you're usually going to take off once you start moving, then put back on once you stop moving and your body starts to cool down — so a full-zip closure makes it easier to get on and off.

I recommend avoiding pullovers if possible — they're a challenge to get in and out of quickly and comfortably. But if you're strapped for money you can always make do with all-wool sweaters (usually pullovers) from a from a thrift shop.

Weatherproof Layer - Upper Body

Good-quality jackets tend to be pretty ​pricey — so if you can only buy one, I usually recommend spending your hard-earned money on a waterproof, windproof and breathable hard-shell jacket that meets these fit tests.

This type of jacket will serve you well in even the worst conditions but can be zipped open for extra ventilation (or just taken off) when the weather's mild. Pit zips come in handy for extra ventilation.

Weatherproof Layer - Lower Body

For some reason it's easy to overlook layering the lower half of your body — but just because your upper half is dressed warmly doesn't mean your lower half will automatically stay warm too! You should still wear a wicking base laser on your lower half too, topped with a pair of weatherproof or weather-resistant pants.

Features to look for include thigh zippers for ventilation; zippered ankles for extra ventilation and to help you get the pants on and off over your shoes or boots; or in a perfect world, full zippers up the sides of your legs that serve both purposes at once.

I find that I usually don't need a mid-layer on my legs if I'm moving — but I bring one along to keep me warm once I'm standing still, and thus not generating as much body heat easily crop up during a winter hike.

Now that you've got your body covered, it's time to dress your extremities for the cold, too. You can also use these tips and tricks to help you stay warm while you're outside.