How to layer for cold weather so you can keep hiking

Tempting as it might be to hunker down indoors during cold weather, you could be missing out on an invigorating experience. Plus some of the most beautiful, historic, culturally fascinating and exciting places in the world can be found in colder climates and avoiding cold temperatures will mean you miss out on some of life’s most fulfilling adventures. 

All you have to do to stay warm and comfortable is dress for the weather and that generally involves wearing layers.

Layering Basics

Now you might be wondering how I’m going to blabber on for 1000+ words about how to layer for cold weather. I mean, it just involves putting on layers of clothes doesn’t it? Well, yes but to avoid being sweaty rather than warm, and for all over warmth and comfort while doing outdoorsy stuff, learning how to create proper layers will take more than hurling a sweater over a T-shirt.

Layering correctly and choosing the best fabrics for base layers, mid layer garments and outer layers will make winter hiking, ice climbing, cross country skiing and other outdoor adventures far more fun. No-one enjoys feeling as cold as Olaf.

Base Layer: Moisture Management

Ensuring you have a good base layer is crucial to staying warm. This next to the skin layer has to help maintain body temperature trapping air warmed by your body next to your skin to keep you warm.

A quality base layer will also wick away any perspiration. Whoever said: “Women don’t sweat, they glow.” never met a badass explorer chick who has just climbed a glacier.

Pure Merino wool is generally considered the top choice for a quality base layer material. It’s generally soft and not itchy even against sensitive skin, effective at keeping the wearer’s skin dry and warm even when it is wet, and largely doesn’t hold any stinky body odors.

You can get all types of Merino wool top and bottom base layers in a variety of styles, colors and patterns.

However pure merino garments are expensive so many people opt for blends or all synthetic fabrics. Just remember the golden rule – no cotton! They say cotton kills because when it gets wet with rain or sweat it loses any insulating ability leaving the wearer vulnerable to hypothermia.

Middle Layer: Insulation

Often known as the insulating layer, middle layering clothes keep you warm. Usually the middle layer is an insulated jacket or an over the head or zip up fleece.

You can opt for thin, medium or thicker fleeces depending on how cold it is. Thinking about jackets you might choose a lightweight down jacket.

Cotopaxi Fuego Hooded Down Jacket

Down is made from feathers from geese, ducks and there’s a rating system ranging from about 400 to 700+. The higher the number, the warmer the coat.

Down doesn’t do well when it gets wet so don’t plan to wear it without a rain jacket in wet weather. Wet down clothing doesn’t retain heat, takes forever to dry and requires special cleaning. However down has the best weight to warmth ratio and compresses really well into a small space.

If you have ethical or financial reasons to give down coats and vests a miss, there is a vast choice of synthetic middle layer garments available like this lovely Icebreaker hi-pile fleece.

Icebreaker RealFleece High-Pile Full-Zip Fleece Jacket

In mild conditions you might not need anything over this layer but in winter weather you might need two mid layers and for ultimate weather protection, you should wear three layers plus an outer layer.

Outer Layer: Rain and Wind Protection

Even the best base and middle layer cannot cope with anything more than light rain, so if there’s any chance of moisture on your adventure then make sure you have rainy weather layers.

Rain jackets can be sourced almost anywhere but for good wind resistance and a jacket that is not just water resistant but waterproof it’s worth shopping somewhere where the clothing is designed for outdoors adventures.

I like an outer shell jacket that comes at least to my thighs like this long line rain jacket so that when I sit to catch my breath admire the view I don’t get a damp derriere.

REI Co-op Rainier Long Line Rain Jacket

However for ease of movement you might want a shorter jacket which you could maybe team with waterproof pants like these breathable eco-friendly waterproof pants made with recycled materials.

Rab Downpour Eco Waterproof Pants

Layering Tips

As you’ve probably gathered, planning your cold weather layers is very important. The success of your layering system relies on you knowing the local weather conditions, planning for unexpected changes to the weather and making sure all of your layers are breathable.

Planning for your cold weather adventures might mean investing in a good base layer, insulating mid layers inner layers and waterproof garments but there’s no such thing as being too prepared.

  • Think about weight. You might already be carrying a loaded backpack and adding heavy layers which might end up needing to be carried when you warm up or the rain stops might leave you exhausted. Choose lightweight, packable layers and make sure you have room in your rucksack to stuff them in if need be.
  • Choose function over form. I know you want that mountain-top instagram snap to look bougie and it’s difficult to make waterproof jackets look stylish but your pic will be ruined anyway if you look like a damp rat.
  • Cotton kills. Cotton clothing is great in hot, dry sunny weather but garments made from these natural fibers are not suitable when layering for cold weather. Once wet with sweat, rain, mist or snow cotton stays wet and loses all insulation properties. Then you lose body heat and are at risk of developing hypothermia. Opt for merino wool, polyester or other synthetic insulation.

Protect Your Head, Face, Hands, and Toes

Layering up is a holistic exercise so don’t forget to protect your head, face, hands and toes, especially if you plan to be outdoors in extreme cold weather. Frostbite and hypothermia will ruin any hike.

  • Socks. Thick wool socks are perfect for keeping feet and toes toasty warm. Just make sure you allow room for thicker socks in your boots. If your toes are squished then your circulation can be affected and you might end up with cold feet anyway.
    Even mid-weight or lightweight wool socks should keep your feet warm, especially if you opt for merino wool.
  • Boots. Good quality, well fitting boots are a vital part of your winter wardrobe and this is one item you shouldn’t put on if you want warm, dry comfortable feet. Insulated and waterproof boots are perfect for keeping tootsies fresh, warm and dry even in bad weather.
  • Hats. You don’t want to layer up only to lose body heat from your head so choose a cold weather hat to top off your layered look. You can get creative with colors to make sure that hiking selfie is cute as a button but for ultimate warmth and moisture wicking choose a hat designed for outdoor pursuits more strenuous than walking the dog round the block.
    I love this classic wool blend pompom hat with a built in fleece ear band providing soft, itch free additional warmth. Ideal for snowball fights in the garden and winter hiking. For very cold days consider a ski mask for the ultimate head and face layer.
  • Gloves. I cannot bear having cold hands and let me tell you, not all gloves are made equal! Warm gloves are so important as your extremities are the first to get cold. Thick wool socks and waterproof boots and good quality gloves will help protect those fingers and toes. You can even layer up on gloves by wearing liner gloves under waterproof gloves. These liner gloves can be worn under gloves or mittens or on their own. They are touchscreen compatible so you don’t have to take them off to shoot your glacier TikTok vid.

Layering Based on Temperature

Layering for cold weather can be adapted depending on exactly how cold your expedition is likely to be.

Brisk Weather (40-49 degrees Fahrenheit)

At this kind of temperature you will get away with essential layers – maybe a short or long sleeved base layer or a light T-shirt with a long sleeved lightweight fleece you can remove if you get hot exercising.

Brisk Weather (40-49 degrees Fahrenheit)

Get the look:

Learn more: Hiking in the Rain? Here’s the Gear We Use (and Recommend)

Cold (20-39 degree Fahrenheit)

Think about the potential wind chill when deciding how many extra layers to wear in cold weather. Usually three layers will be needed, especially if you are expecting the temperature to be nearer 20 than 40.

Windproof or thermal running pants teamed with a long sleeved base layer to wick away moisture would be ideal along with a fleece insulating layer to preserve body heat and a shell layer to protect you from any inclement weather like snow or rain. Insulated jackets or raincoats would be the ideal choice when you dress for cold weather.

Cold (20-39 degree Fahrenheit)

Get the look:

Ready to Get Hiking?

So now you know how to layer clothes and how many layers to wear depending on the temperature. For more top tips about staying safe and warm while being a fearless adventurer check out Explorer Chick in the wild to learn more survival tips.

Meet the Writer

Afra Willmore

Afra is an award winning journalist who has enjoyed many adventures including swimming with sharks, crewing hot air balloons and canyoning.  She started creating online content ten years ago, diversifying after years writing for print publications. She loves travel, great food, and her family. Not necessarily in that order.

Favorite outdoor adventure: Snorkeling in the warm waters off the coast of Cyprus

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