How to Layer for Cold Weather Hiking and Backpacking
In the desert, I was a sweaty mess during the day and a human ice cube at night. When walking in the mountains, I hiked under clear blue skies, only to watch clouds gather with astonishing speed and douse me in rain and hail. In the snow, I woke up most mornings sincerely believing I would never be warm again, only to find myself sweating bullets an hour later.
For the unprepared, dramatic shifts in weather and body temperature are serious cause for concern. Hikers soaked in rain or sweat are more susceptible to hypothermia, while hikers wearing heavy layers can find themselves overheating during tough climbs in the snow.
The solution? Layering! Using a combination of clothing — a baselayer, midlayer, insulated jacket, and outer shell — provides protection and flexibility, making for a much safer and more comfortable experience.
Standard Layering for Warm Weather Backpacking
When the weather is warm, layering properly has the potential to improve comfort, but there is more leeway when it comes to managing moisture. Sweat happens in the summer, but it can dry quickly once you stop moving, and it’s easy to peel off damp layers at night. In the morning they might be dry, especially on the less-humid western trails. Even if you’re hiking on the humid Appalachian Trail, then warm summer temps can render damp clothing a non-issue (unless you’re particularly sensitive to serious funk).
Layering properly is always important, and warm weather is never guaranteed, even during summer, but getting sweaty isn’t a death sentence. Go ahead, work up a lather.
What Changes When Temperatures Drop?
When it gets cold, moisture management is the name of the game. Damp clothing draws away warmth, and finding yourself cold in a cold environment can be dangerous. If you’re damp and cold on a winter afternoon, then you can’t rely on the sun to warm you up and dry off your clothes. Hanging your sweaty shirt on a tree at lunch won’t help you out either. When it’s truly cold, backpackers are reliant on body heat to stay warm and it takes reasonably dry insulating layers to capture it and keep it around.
So what does that mean? When hiking in the cold, it is essential to maintain a warm, yet not sweaty internal temperature. This is accomplished through layering, and using more layers than you might during a summer day hike. This doesn’t just mean wearing warmer versions of your summer system. While this can be helpful, you don’t need to replace all of your hiking clothes — you can just add additional layers. Depending on the expected conditions, bring your lightweight fleece as well as your favorite heavy fleece. The important thing is to have enough layers — and use them — so that you can maintain that non-sweaty temperature sweet spot regardless of the ambient conditions and exertion level.
Layering for Cold Weather Hot Tip: Be Proactive
Yes, that means you, lazy hiker. As soon as you start sweating, or ideally just before, you need to stop and remove a layer. Even if you’re just 0.2 miles from the top of the climb, drop your pack and pop off that puffy. Avoid sweat at all costs. This is particularly important near the end of the day because there is less opportunity for you to burn off that dampness before stopping for the evening.
However, if you do roll into camp a little bit moist, not all is lost. You might still survive. As soon as you stop moving (i.e. sweating), change out of your damp layers into dry clothes which will ensure that you don’t use your precious body heat to evaporate that moisture.
Cold Weather Last Resort
If you find yourself damp and in a pickle, hand warmers can be an awesome little cheat code to get you out of dodge. Lightweight, cheap, and easy to find, they are a smart addition to any cold-weather kit.
Meet the Layers
Okay, so you know that moisture = bad. Now let’s meet the different layers that help trap all that precious warmth.
To start with, you’ll need baselayers: the clothes that are in direct contact with your skin. Baselayers should be made of breathable, moisture-wicking material to help you stay dry, and they should be snug so other layers will fit comfortably on top of them.
In the summertime, activewear makes a great baselayer — anything made from polyester or nylon will wick away sweat. Whether you opt for short or long sleeves depends on the level of sun exposure. Long sleeves will serve you well in the desert, in snow, or at high altitudes where you’re more likely to get sunburned.
For colder weather, lightweight merino layers work wonderfully and have the same moisture-wicking properties as activewear, with the added benefit of insulation. Merino wool also resists odors, making it perfect for multiday excursions.
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A midlayer is a jacket, pullover, or long-sleeved shirt that goes over your baselayer. When looking for a midlayer, you’ll want something that provides insulation even when wet. Fleece is a popular choice; it’s breathable, quick-drying, and comes in different weights. For this reason, it’s easy to pick an appropriate warmth level depending on the time of year you plan to hike. Just like with baselayers, wool is also a good choice.
Hiking pants are also considered midlayer clothing and fit well over baselayer leggings. They’re typically made from a combination of synthetic materials including nylon, polyester, and spandex, and are breathable and durable.
READ NEXT — The Best Fleece Midlayers for Thru-Hiking
Insulative Layer: The Puffy
No matter the time of year, a puffy insulating jacket is a hiker’s best friend. Lightweight and packable, puffies are easy to bring along and provide an indispensable source of warmth when needed. Puffy jackets should be loose enough to fit over your other layers, but snug enough to efficiently trap your body heat. When choosing a puffy, you’ll need to decide whether you prefer synthetic material or down, and there are pros and cons to each.
Of all insulating materials, high-quality down provides the most warmth for its weight. It’s also highly compressible, making it extremely easy to pack. The main drawback with down is that it loses its insulating properties when it gets wet — and it takes forever to dry. Conversely, synthetic insulation weighs more, but it retains its insulating properties even when wet. This makes it a clear winner in situations where it might be necessary to stay active in exceptionally cold conditions. Hikers are no strangers to sweaty backs and pits when carrying a backpack, so if it’s cold enough to warrant keeping your puffy on while moving, then a synthetic jacket is your best bet.
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The shell layer — which is your outermost layer — is a wind and water-resistant jacket. It’s the layer that protects everything else from getting wet. While few shell layers are truly waterproof, especially in persistently wet conditions, some types of materials, such as those treated with Durable Water Repellant (DWR), hold up longer than others.
Shell pants are an option as well and provide protection when you’re hiking through snow or wet brush. In rainy weather, it’s wonderful to arrive at camp and be able to quickly strip off wet shell pants instead of dealing with sopping wet hiking pants.
READ NEXT — The Best Rain Jackets for Thru-Hiking
Hat and Gloves
Keeping your core warm is important, but don’t forget about your extremities! You lose more heat from your head and hands than you do from any other part of your body. A wool beanie or balaclava works wonders in cold weather, as does a sturdy pair of gloves.
No matter what layers you bring with you on a backpacking trip, the number one thing to remember is that cotton kills. Once cotton gets wet, it stays wet, which can easily spell trouble in the backcountry. It’s important to avoid denim as well for the same reason. Again, choose quick-drying materials such as wool or polyester.
READ NEXT —
- Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Gear List
- Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hiker Gear List
- Continental Divide Trail Thru-Hiker Gear List
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