Winter Hiking Clothes & Cold Weather Layering Basics

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Interested in winter hiking? Learn what clothes to wear for cold weather hiking and how to layer appropriately for snow and chilly temps.

WINTER HIKING CLOTHES & COLD WEATHER LAYERING BASICS

Being prepared for frigid and wet weather conditions is critical when exploring the outdoors in the winter. Staying warm and dry while hiking in the winter is important not only for your comfort but also to keep you safe from more serious issues like hypothermia. In this new blog post, we talk about winter hiking clothes and the cold weather layering basics for your winter adventures.

For our other top winter hiking tips, head to this blog post.

Winter Layering Basics

The key to winter hiking clothing is wearing layers that will keep you both warm AND dry – and that means from the elements as well as your sweat. You’ve probably heard that it’s better to shed layers than to not have enough? That’s especially true when winter hiking. It’s always a good idea to throw in your daypack more than you think you’ll need. Once you have a few winter hikes under your belt, you’ll see how much heat your body generates, and then you can adjust your cold weather hiking clothes accordingly.

For winter layering, you’ll want a next-to-skin base layer, a mid-weight insulating layer, a fleece or puffy, and a weatherproof shell. On the bottom, you’ll want a next-to-skin baselayer, as well as an outer layer. In the sections below we discuss the details of each layer and include recommendations for each item.

Winter Hiking Next-To-Skin Base Layer

You next-to-skin cold weather base layer is all about regulating your body temperature, while also wicking sweat. You sweat when you’re active, and in winter months it’s extra important that this perspiration is removed from your skin so you stay dry, rather than damp and cold. Base layers should be made of synthetic fabric or merino wool that wick moisture and dry quickly. Avoid anything cotton (t-shirts, cotton sweatshirts) because cotton stays damp and heavy and loses its insulating properties when it’s wet.

The thickness of your next-to-skin baselayer depends on how cold it is outside and is also based on personal preference.  I tend to sweat a lot, so I prefer a lighter synthetic layer next to my skin, and then I wear a mid-weight layer over it.  If you know you usually run cold, then you might start with a mid-weight base layer, like the SmartWool midweight layer recommended below.

  • Recommended Hiking Base Layers for Women

  • Recommended Hiking Base Layers for Men

Winter Hiking Insulating Layer

The middle layer is critical for maintaining body heat by trapping air close to your body and providing insulation. Generally, a warm insulating layer will be made of wool, down, or fleece. Keep in mind that down isn’t warm if it gets wet. If you live in a wet or humid climate, you should opt for a synthetic alternative to down, like the Patagonia Nano-Puff listed below.

  • Recommended Insulating Layers for Women

  • Recommended Insulating Layer for Men

Interested in winter hiking? Learn what clothes to wear for cold weather hiking and how to layer appropriately for snow and chilly temps.

Winter Hiking Outer Shell

If it’s sleeting, snowing, raining, or windy, you’ll want to add an outer shell to your winter hiking clothes. This will protect you from the elements and keep your other layers dry.  Look for an outer layer that is water resistant but still breathable. You don’t want a super heavy ski jacket for instance.

You’re either looking a simple waterproof shell, or an outer layer with a light layer of insulation (like there is in the Patagonia Nano-Storm Jacket I’m wearing in the picture below). If you choose a shell with light insulation, you might not need one of the previously mentioned layers. Make sure to take into account the layers you’ll be wearing underneath when figuring out what size you need.

It’s also important to note that high-quality outer layers can be very pricey. For years I wondered why Arcteryx jackets were so expensive…but then I finally tried one. I took an Arcteryx shell to Alaska where we had everything from sun to pouring rain and snow, and I was always warm and dry without being sweaty. You certainly don’t NEED to spend so much though, so I’ve also included a great value REI-Brand shell.

  • Recommended Shell for Women

  • Recommended Shell for Men

Interested in winter hiking? Learn what clothes to wear for cold weather hiking and how to layer appropriately for snow and chilly temps.

Winter Hiking Pants Shell

You’ll want to layer a second pair of pants on top of your next-to-skin base layer, and what outer layer pants you wear depends on whether or not it’s raining or snowing. If it’s dry out, you can get away with a warm pair of fleece pants. If it’s wet, you’ll want something waterproof.

  • Recommended Pants for Women

  • Recommended Pants for Men

Interested in winter hiking? Learn what clothes to wear for cold weather hiking and how to layer appropriately for snow and chilly temps.

Hat & Gloves

Durable hats, gloves, shoes, and socks are just as important as the rest of your cold-weather layers for keeping you comfortable. We’ve included our favorites here as well as other necessities for winter hiking. A hat is especially important because you lose a significant amount of heat through the top of your head.

  • Recommended Winter Hiking Hats & Gloves

Interested in winter hiking? Learn what clothes to wear for cold weather hiking and how to layer appropriately for snow and chilly temps.

Get our top 10 tips for winter hiking.

Winter Hiking Footwear

Do you really need special boots to hike in the winter? Not really. The major difference between a pair of winter hiking boots and regular hiking boots is that winter boots are going to be warmer and will likely hit higher up your calf to help keep the snow out. If you are going to be hiking through knee-deep snow or if the temps are REALLY cold, you are going to want formal winter hiking boots with gaiters. Alternatively, if you are hiking on a trail with little or no snow you’ll be fine with normal waterproof hiking boots.

  • Recommended Winter Hiking Footwear for Women

  • Recommended Winter Hiking Footwear for Men

Final winter hiking clothes considerations

  • A buff is always a good idea for keeping the wind, cold air, and sun from hitting your neck and face directly. In winter, I prefer the Polar Buff which is fleece lined or the Merino Wool Buff which is a little bit lighter. Either can be pulled up to cover your face and protect your skin from cold wind. It’s easy to breathe through and most jackets will zip up over the buff.
  • Sunglasses are important when hiking in the winter and sometimes are a forgotten necessity. Sunlight reflects off the snow and it’s important to protect your eyes from this strong reflection as well as the sun itself. 
  • Don’t forget sunscreen and lip protection! Some of my worst sunburns have happened on sunny days of skiing.
  • Hiking poles provide added support when hiking in the snow and on other slippery surfaces. We wrote an entire post on how to choose trekking poles which you can check out here. Make sure yours have baskets if you plan to use them in the snow. Ski poles also work. 
  • Simple winter hiking crampons improve your traction for walking across ice and snowfields. We like Yaktrax ICEtrekkers for hiking when surfaces are slick. 
  • In cold weather, make sure you have the basic essentials like maps, a headlamp, and a first aid kit. We always recommend traveling with a communication device just in case. Read more in our detailed review of the SPOT Gen3.
Thanks for checking out our winter hiking clothing guide. Have you been hiking in the winter?  Leave a comment below and let us know your favorite winter layering tips.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. Any purchases you make help to support this blog at no added cost to you. I only recommend products that I stand behind, and if you ever have any questions about any of the products featured on my site, please email me. Thanks! Kristen

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About the author

Hi! I'm Kristen....blogger, hiker, sunset-watcher, and dance floor shredder. I feel most alive in the outdoors and created this website to help you enjoy the best that the West has to offer.

1 Comment on “Winter Hiking Clothes & Cold Weather Layering Basics

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  1. Awesome list! We have been looking for suggestions for what to buy for our winter hikes – thanks for sharing these!

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