Choosing the right winter hiking clothes is important for comfort and safety out on the trail. But layering properly for cold weather is a fine balancing act. If you overdress for a winter hike, you end up hot and sweaty (which ironically can leave you cold). Read our breakdown below of clothes and gear so you'll know what to look for your new adventure.
Reading Time: 3-5 minutes
The Basics of Winter Clothing
Learning how to dress for a winter hike is essential if you want to stay warm and protected from the snowy conditions. To help you know what to look for, we've broken down different layers and types of winter clothing.
This often misunderstood concept is the basis for how to dress for every winter outdoor activity.
You want to be able to adjust your layers to match your current level of exertion.
Start with a base layer, which traps a thin layer of heat against your body and wicks away any moisture if you do begin to sweat. Synthetics or Merino wool are ideal materials. Cotton needs to be avoided as it holds onto moisture.
Next is a mid-layer which provides the bulk of your insulation, trapping your body heat to keep you warm. Common mid-layers are down or synthetic puffy jackets. You can also break your mid-layer into two parts: a fleece and a light puffy jacket. This will give you more layers to progressively scale through as your body temperature changes throughout your hike.
Finally, you should have a waterproof and windproof external shell. This will keep external moisture out and block the wind—wind rapidly accelerates cooling the same way that water does (even more so if there is moisture present). If it’s a calm clear day, you might not need to wear it at all, but it’s always recommended to have it with you.
It’s also always a good idea to throw more than you think you’ll need into your hiking day pack. If you end up walking mostly in the shade with the sun behind the mountains or the wind picks up, you’ll be happy to have extra layers.
For winter layering, the main layers you’ll need on your upper body are:
Next-to-skin base layer
You may choose to wear your next-to-skin base layer and your insulating layer or maybe just your base layer and your weatherproof shell. Or you may wear all three. It just depends on the conditions and your body temperature.
Ideally, you want to choose layers that are light and packable so you can stuff them in your backpack if you decide to take one off.
On your lower body, the layers you’ll likely need are:
Next-to-skin base layer
Weatherproof shell pants
Warm hiking socks
Waterproof hiking shoes
You’ll also want to pack some winter hiking accessories like gloves, a warm hat, and possibly micros pikes or snowshoes.
Avoid These Layering Mistakes
As you figure out how to layer clothes, you might make some mistakes. Here are some of the biggest mistakes that you should avoid:
Relying on one big jacket to keep you warm instead of two or three midlayers. What are you supposed to do when you start to sweat? Take off your only jacket and freeze? Layers protect you from temperature whiplash; the goal is to stay comfortable and dry the entire time you’re outside.
Forgetting face protection. Sure, you remembered to keep your hands, feet, and head protected with gloves, gaiters, and a hood. But when the wind is whipping at your face, you won’t be thinking about how toasty your toes are. Pack a gaiter or balaclava to prevent frostbite and keep everything warm.
Layering too much. You want to be warm, but you don’t want to saturate your base layers with sweat. The wetness will chill you too much during rest breaks or when you get to the campsite. Three to four layers is key. Don’t worry if you’re chilly at the trail head; after you start moving, you’ll heat up in no time.
Wearing cotton or cotton blends. When you sweat, cotton absorbs the wetness and no longer insulates the air around your skin. They say “cotton kills” because it can easily leave you chilled and hypothermic. It doesn’t matter if you’re a master at layering clothes if those layers include cotton; avoid it for all winter hikes.
Man and woman walking on mountain ridge wearing many layers.
Your outer layer should be waterproof and protect you from the elements.
5 On-the-Move Winter Hiking Tips
- Keep food handy. “Tear the corners off of several energy bar wrappers before heading out, then store the bars in warm pockets,” says Larsen, “so you don’t have to fumble with seals or remove gloves while on the move.” For a quick energy boost, stow some hard candy in a pocket.
- Huddle up when talking to your partners. It’ll keep you warm and carry sound better.
- Work out sign language beforehand. It’s hard to read lips or enunciate under layers of balaclavas or face protections. Establish certain signs, such as trekking poles out to the sides means “All OK.”
- Carry an emergency camper van. Ounce for ounce, they offer the most weather protection if a storm, whiteout, or injury traps you in the field for the night. Consider it one of your 10 essentials for winter hiking.
- Pack like a parachute. Load everything in reverse order. You won’t need your bag or tent until day’s end, so they go in first to the bottom of your pack. Your puffy jacket, which you’ll need at every rest stop, goes on top for easy access.