How to layer clothes for a winter hike

Avid outdoor adventurers know that the exploration doesn’t have to stop when the mercury drops. Winter hiking provides those who venture out with a unique experience, but the proper gear can make all the difference. You’ll need to navigate cold, windy weather, plus precipitation that can range from a light, slushy mist to a sleety downpour. The following six tips for layering clothes for a winter hike will keep you dry, comfortable and safe, no matter what the weather throws at you.

Tip #1: Start with the base

The purpose of a base layer (and yes, this includes underwear) is to wick moisture away from the skin. Moisture in the form of sweat can actually make you colder as you hike, so it’s critical to move it away from the skin as quickly as possible. 

The best materials for a base layer are:

  • Synthetic blends
  • Merino wool 
  • Silk 

These vary in thickness and can be tailored to your personal preference. Some people naturally run hotter than others, so a thinner base layer is more appropriate. 

It’s best to avoid cotton, which traps moisture and can make you even colder. This includes bras and underwear.

Tip #2: Mind the middle

The job of the middle layer is insulation. It holds heated air close to your body to keep you cozy when it’s cold. The middle layer is most likely made of down, synthetic down or fleece. 

In general, down is useless against heat when it’s wet, so if you’re hiking in wet weather, it’s best to go with a synthetic alternative. 

Tip #3: Top it off

Contrary to how you might dress for a simple winter walk around the neighborhood, your outer layer is less about warmth and more about weatherproofing. An outer shell keeps your other layers dry and adds wind resistance. It should be waterproof, breathable and easy to pack. Some outer layers also have zippers at the armpits to release moisture.

You’ll need to make sure your outer layer is large enough to fit over the other layers. 

Tip #4: Protect your feet

Excellent hiking boots are a critical component to warm-weather safety and comfort. Both women’s winter boots and men’s winter boots should have plenty of traction on the outside and insulation on the inside.

Dry feet mean all-day comfort and warmth. Look for moisture-wicking hiking socks in the same materials as the base layers on your body.

Tip #5: Keep your hands warm

When it gets cold, your body preserves its heat, sending it to the major organs for optimal function. This leaves your extremities out in the cold.

The gloves you choose need to maintain your dexterity while still protecting your hands and fingers from frostbite. The best gloves feature layers similar to how you dress, with a moisture wicking interlayer, insulating middle layer and waterproof outer layer. 

Bonus points if you can still operate your cell phone while you’re wearing them. 

Tip #6: Cover your head

Top off your winter hiking clothes with the appropriate hat.  The best use a material that is quick-drying, antimicrobial, durable and moisture-wicking. Merino wool and synthetic fiber all fit the bill, but merino may be a more expensive choice. 

Consider also the thickness of the hat. If you choose a hat that’s too thick, not only can you not add another layer if you need to, but there’s also a chance you might feel overheated. A hat that’s thinner can be layered, but only if you plan ahead with another layer to add (or a coat with a hood).

Best clothes for layering on a winter hike

Icebreaker Merino Women's 200 Oasis Leggings

Icebreaker Merino Women’s 200 Oasis Leggings

These 100% merino wool leggings are the perfect base layer for cold weather hiking. They have a brushed elastic waistband and seams that lay flat to prevent chafing. They are also available in men’s styles.

Sold by Amazon 

Outdoor Research Trailbreaker II Snow Pants

Outdoor Research Trailbreaker II Snow Pants

This outer layer pant has thermo-regulating technology that keeps you dry while still allowing moisture to escape when needed. They are waterproof below the knee and are breathable and wind-resistant from every direction. The dual snap fly and tricot-lined waistband is comfortable and secure. Also available in women’s styles.

Sold by Amazon 

Arcteryx Atom Insulated Hoodie

Arc’teryx Atom Insulated Hoodie

This synthetic down mid-layer keeps you insulated and warm. It has a high-performance ripstop nylon shell and is filled with breathable, heat-efficient polyester. It dries quickly but stays warm even when wet. 

Sold by Amazon

Danish Endurance Merino Wool Hiking Socks

Danish Endurance Merino Wool Hiking Socks

These merino wool blend socks wick moisture to keep feet warm and dry. Synthetic materials and elastane keep them in shape, and they are machine washable. They come in six colors and are available in men’s and women’s sizes.

Sold by Amazon

Arcteryx Beta Men's Gore-Tex Shell.jpg

Arc’teryx Beta Men’s Gore-Tex Shell

This Gore-Tex jacket is machine washable, waterproof, windproof and breathable. It features zippers in the armpits and a zipper closure for security in all types of wet weather. It is made waterproof without the use of harmful chemicals. Choose from six colors.

Sold by Amazon

Outdoor Research Flurry Sensor Gloves

Outdoor Research Flurry Sensor Gloves

The inside is made of warm, soft fleece, and the nylon exterior sheds water for the perfect combination of layers.  Silicone prints on the fingers to allow for cell phone use on the trail.

Sold by Amazon 

Sorel Mens Caribou Waterproof Boot

Sorel Men’s Caribou Waterproof Boot 

Seam-sealed waterproof construction features a suede and ballistic nylon upper. Lug soles offer heavy-duty traction in the slickest conditions. They come in six colors.

Sold by Amazon

Smartwool Merino 250 Cuffed Beanie

Smartwool Merino 250 Cuffed Beanie

This unisex hat is made of moisture-wicking merino wool. It is warm enough to wear on its own but lightweight if you need another layer on your head. The rolled cuff is long enough to cover your ears and part of your neck in colder weather.

Sold by Amazon and Dick’s Sporting Goods

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