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The Best Layers for Winter Hiking Adventures

How to Choose the Right Layers for Cold Hikes

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Staying Warm...with Layers

When asking people about winter hiking one of the first concerns they bring up is…being cold. Because being cold sucks and winter is kind of known for its cold weather. No matter where you live your version of “winter” comes with cooler temperatures than your version of “summer”. However, being cold is something you can [somewhat] easily mitigate with the proper layers…used in the proper order and at the proper times.

Okay, so that doesn’t exactly sound “easy”…

It does take some time and practice to get your winter layers correct but you have to start somewhere, why not here?!

Keep reading to get a full break down of the three main layers of winter clothing. We’ll go into detail about why each layer is important, how to choose a layer that works for you, and link to a few of our favorite tried and true items.

We also share a little insight on the best accessories to keep your head, hands, and toes warm along with a few suggestions on the types of traction you may want to use when taking on the snowy trails.

The Three Layers of Winter Adventures

There are three main layers to staying warm — base, insulation, and outer. Each of these layers server their own purpose and have their own ideal materials to help them complete their basic function. On the coldest days you will wear all three layers together. On warmer days you will find yourself mixing and matching the layers, although we will always recommend you take all three with you on every winter adventure…just in case.

Why dress in layers? There are a few reasons for layering. First, each layer serves a purpose — controlling moisture, capturing body heat, and protecting against the elements. Second, the weather with change throughout the day [cold at dawn/dusk, warmer mid-day] and layers allow you to adjust your clothing to meet the needs of the current temperature. Third, with the added risk of exposure in the winter months it is always a good idea to have back-up gear available. With clothing that back-up gear can be your layers.

Do you always need every layer? This depends, but in short, yes you should be wearing [or have packed] at least one of each layer. If you are planning on a full day of adventure it is strongly recommended that you have all three layers with you. This is due to changing weather and risk of exposure if things to awry. However, you will learn to fine-tune what you need for the different types of adventures you take on [ie: forecast, duration, terrain, etc.] with practice. Keep track of what you do or do not use on various outings and use that information to narrow down future layering decisions.

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Base Layers

The primary purpose of your base layer is to provide moisture control. When you are out on the trail you are working and when you’re body is working it is producing heat…and sweat. A good base layer works to keep that sweat in check. There are a few features of base layers that make for good moisture control.

Next-To-Skin Fit: Generally speaking all base layers are fitted. How fitted varies by brand and style. A true next-to-skin fit feels like a pair of tights or very fitted top. You will also find more relaxed fit base layers, similar to a pair of sweat pants. Choose whichever you’re more comfortable wearing.

Quick Drying / Moisture Wicking: The fabric of a good base layer will be made with a material that is either quick drying or moisture wicking…or both. You will find more features in synthetic materials but the natural fibers are still very functional. You want the base layer to keep the moisture off your skin by pulling it away from your body and then quickly allowing it to evaporate from the base layer.

Natural or Synthetic Materials: There are three ideal types of materials used in base layers – merino wool, silk, or synthetic fibers. Within those three categories of materials there are many combinations and blends. The blend makes all the difference in fit, comfort, and function — take sometime to try on your layer options before you fully commit to ensure the material really works for you, your body, and your adventures!

Keep scrolling to see a few recommended base layers in each type of material!

Base Layer Tops

Base Layer Bottoms

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Insulation Layers

The insulation layer is all about providing…insulation! Your insulation layer traps your body heat near your body to keep you warm. It doesn’t produce heat, it simply keeps the heat your producing with your body nearby and useful. The ideal type of material for an insulation layer will depend greatly on the climate that you are adventuring in. Here are a few elements to take into consideration when choosing your insulation layer:

Dry vs Humid Climates: The primary climate of your adventures will help dictate which material is best for you. In a drier climate a down insulation layer is ideal as you can easily pack it down for stashing in your pack and there is less moisture in the air to dampen the down feathers [wet feathers = dysfunctional feathers]. For a more humid climate or a rainy adventure you may be better off going for a fleece or wool layer as they both withstand moisture better. A fleece layer with DWR [durable water repellent] treatment can actually repel water while a merino wool layer will quickly dry after getting caught in the rain.

Thick vs Thin Layer: The amount of insulation needed in your insulation layer will vary by how you plan to use it and what your other layers will be. It is completely acceptable to have a thinner or lighter insulation layer if you are in a warmer climate, layering with thick base layers, or have an outer layer with some insulation. If you’re unsure you may want to lean toward a “mid-weight” insulation layer to get a bit of both options!

Room to “Loft”: When sizing your insulation layer do so with your other layers on [both base and outer]. In theory the insulation layers are sized to fit between two layers but it is always best to try before you buy. This is especially important if your insulation layer is made of down or a lofted merino wool. Both of these materials need room to “loft”, or puff up, to provide any insulation. This is similar to down sleeping bags — they are only warm if the feathers can puff up like a cold bird!

Keep scrolling to see a few recommended base layers in each type of material!

Insulation Layer Tops

Insulation Layer Bottoms

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Outer Layers

The outer layer helps provide protection from the elements. In most cases these elements are wind, rain, and snow. The best way to keep your inner layers dry is with an outer layer that provides a combination of water proofing, wind resistance, and breathability. Finding a single outer layer that does all of these things at once is nearly impossible [or incredibly expensive] so you will likely want to pick and choose what you need based upon your adventures.

Protection Against the Elements: The elements you are trying to protect yourself and your layers from will decide what type of protection to prioritize. In a humid or rainy environment focus on water proofing and breathability. If you’re exploring above treeline focus on wind resistance.

Breathability: Having a breathable outer layer is important if you are in an environment that requires this added layer of protection from the elements — ie: windy or rainy. While you hike and explore you will be working up a sweat and the base layer can only do its moisture control job if your outer layer allows for breathability. It is difficult to create something that keeps all the rain out while still letting your sweat out so added features like “pit zips” or “thigh zips” and various materials across “hot spots” help manage this delicate balance.

A Rain Jacket Works: Yes, a basic rain jacket does work! Investing in a good rain jacket covers a few bases — summer rain showers, winter outer layer, wind protection, etc. If you’re looking to cut down on gear or keep your budget in check a rain jacket is a great option for a go-to outer layer.

Keep scrolling to see a few recommended base layers in each type of material!

Outer Layer Tops

Outer Layer Bottoms

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Accessory Layers

Heads, Hands + Toes

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Snow Travel Gear

[details on base layer features + functions]

Snowshoes, Traction Devices + Poles

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Snowshoes

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Traction Devices

Trekking Poles

Avalanche Beacon, Probe + Shovel

[break down bottoms in greater detail? possibly list features worth looking at / what makes a product worth it?]

Avalanche Beacon

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Avalanche Probe

Avalanche Shovel

Get Your Adventure Packing List Today!

We’ve gone over all the little details about the clothes and gear you’ll need on your fall adventures…but how do you make sure you have everything with you when you leave the house? With a list, of course!

Tap that button below to get access to a complete list of items you’ll need for any fall trail-venture. It is a downloadable and printable PDF with space for you to add quick notes like “blue t-shirt” or “borrow rain jacket” do you’ll be sure to have everything you need!

Adventure Feet First - Fall Hiking

Heidi Berghammer

Heidi is the founder of Adventure Feet First and the Creator of Experiences. She is the brains and legs behind all of the adventures created here at Adventure Feet First. This means she thinks up the itineraries and when they’re even remotely close to home she is the one out there scouting the routes, campsites and local businesses. As a trail running, bikepacker and overall adventure seeker Heidi is definitely the person you want creating your adventures!

"I'd rather be hiking in the rain [or snow!] than sitting inside at a desk on a sunny day."

- unknown

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