Layering Basics For Winter Hiking

winter layering

“Layering” is a strategy for dressing for all types of outdoor activity in all seasons of the year. The idea is to stay comfortable by keeping your body as close to a constant temperature as possible. If you understand layering basics for winter hiking, you’ll be able to apply the same basic principles to other outdoor activities at other times of the year.

There are 3 layers for winter hiking.

  • BASE LAYER wicks perspiration away from your body and provides some insulation
  • MID LAYER insulates you by retaining body heat
  • OUTER LAYER protects you from the elements – wind, rain and snow.

Let’s look at these layers one at a time with links to one or two specific examples of clothing for each layer so you can actually see what the layer looks like.

Base Layer for Winter Hiking

The base layer goes next to your skin and may also be referred to as long underwear or thermal underwear. It’s main purpose is to draw perspiration away from your skin and disperse it while providing some insulation. The base layer is available in light, medium and heavy weights. The most experienced outdoors people gravitate toward the thinner fabrics because they do a better job of wicking and dispersing moisture. The fit should be snug to insure maximum contact between your body and the base layer. A handy feature of base layers is a zip neck so that you can increase or decrease ventilation easily, possibly eliminating the need to add or remove an entire layer.

The best fabrics for the base layer are SYNTHETIC FABRICS, MERINO WOOL and SILK. Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages.

  • SYNTHETIC FABRICS Wick sweat efficiently and are quick drying. The downside is that they collect body odors fast and tend to be smelly. Synthetic are the least expensive material for your base layer. The Patagonia Capilene Mid-Weight Crew is a good example of a synthetic base layer
  • MERINO WOOL Merino wool insulates better than synthetics when it’s cold and is more comfortable when it’s hot. Wool takes longer to dry than synthetics, but it compensates for that by insulating even when wet. Thin-fibered Merino wool is lightweight and is less itchy than traditional wool. The downside is that wool doesn’t wear as well as synthetics if it’s rubbed against rough surface so it’s not as good for a sport like rock climbing. But for winter hiking, it’s ideal. It’s more expensive than synthetics. The Smartwool NTS Mid 250 Crew is a good example of a Merino wool base layer.
  • SILK is soft-textured and comfortable next to your skin. Its vulnerable to abrasions and not as durable as synthetic materials. Terramar Thermasilk Crew Neck Top is a good example of a silk base layer.

Avoid cotton for a base layer and really for all outdoor activities except for hanging out around the campfire after the hiking is done. Cotton retains moisture rather than dispersing it and can produce chills and even hypothermia.


Your mid layer is the insulating layer. It keeps you warm by trapping body heat. At the same time, it should be breathable so that it’s not causing you to perspire. Some experts say that your mid-layer can be a fleece OR a down or synthetic jacket. Some say that there are actually 4 layers instead of 3 – the second layer being a fleece jacket and the third layer being a down jacket, and that you have an option of hiking with three or four layers. But, in fact, a fleece jacket and a down jacket work together to make up an efficient second layer.

Here’s how Kristen Hostetter, the Gear Editor of Backpacker Magazine describes her layering basics for winter hiking. Note that she treats her fleece and down jacket as one layer.

“I start off on a chilly morning hike wearing my base layer and a light fleece. As my body warms up, I stop to remove the fleece. At lunch break, on a breezy ridge, I immediately put the fleece back on, and possibly my down jacket. After lunch, it all comes off (except the base layer) and I start hiking. Afternoon thunderstorms roll in. I throw on my shell and open up the pit zips (underarm vents) and continue hiking. I make sure my extra layers are conveniently located in the outer pockets of my pack, so I can always reach them.”

Outer Shell

Your third layer is a hard shell, breathable, waterproof or water-repellent jacket with enough room to fit over the other layers and not impede movement. It protects you from wind, rain and snow. Two high-quality examples are the Arc’teryx Alpha FL and the Outdoor Research Axiom. These are the gold standard outer shells. Other types of outer shells include: water-resistant breathable shells, soft shells, waterproof non-breathable shells, and insulated shells. All are suitable for different weather conditions. You can evaluate the merits of each as you expand your layering wardrobe.

The real secret to successful layering is as much technique as it is specific pieces of clothing. Keep your layers accessible and keep adding and removing layers depending on your level of activity and the changing weather conditions.

With these layering basics, you’ll be equipped for winter hiking and can adapt your layering experience to other outdoor experiences and other seasons.