Winter can be one of the most enjoyable times of year for exploring the hills and mountains. The crisp, clear air of a beautiful cold, sunny morning – combined with the tranquility of a world that’s not overrun with the usual numbers of ramblers and hikers – can make it extremely rewarding… as long as you’re dressed for it!
As the temperature plummets, we’re looking at how to layer clothes for winter hiking, so you don’t get cold when you take to the trail. Check out our rules for layering clothes to keep you warm and cosy when you’re venturing out.
The best way to layer clothes for cold weather
When the cold weather hits, you might feel like simply wearing a thicker jumper is the answer to keeping warm. But if you’re heading out on a hike, you won’t remain comfortable for long. As soon as you get active and your body temperature increases, you’ll begin to perspire leaving you damp. Instead, the best way to stay snug is by layering clothes to keep warm.
But why does layering clothes work so well when it comes to keeping the chill out? It’s all down to creating insulation. Insulation works by trapping air in tiny pockets, such as the gaps between layers of your clothing. These then warm up to create a ‘bubble’ of warmth around your skin. The more air pockets you can create (i.e. the more layers you wear), the warmer you will feel.
And of course, the beauty of wearing plenty of layers is that you can pull them off and on again whenever you wish.
Let’s look at how to layer clothes for winter hiking.
1. Choose a base layer to manage perspiration
Hiking up a hill is hard work. Even in freezing weather, the exertion will get your heart pumping and your temperature rising. When your body gets warm, its mechanism for cooling itself down is to sweat or perspire. Which, if you’re not wearing the right clothes, can leave you feeling damp and cold. That’s why it’s not necessarily about finding just the warmest base layer for cold weather, but one that is able to help keep your skin dry. When layering clothes to keep warm, choose a base layer that is naturally able to wick away moisture, i.e. transfer it away from the skin to the surface from where it can evaporate. The most comfortable options are merino wool, for its natural wicking ability and antibacterial properties, or polyester.
If you opt for polyester, be aware that it can start to smell if you’re hiking for more than a few hours – check the polyester used in your base layer has been treated for odour-control and you should find you don’t have a problem.
2. Add a mid layer for insulation
Remember the thing about creating warm air pockets? That’s your mid layers’ job. Like your base layer, your chosen mid layer should be breathable: able to trap in warm air while letting moisture escape. A good quality fleece is perfect for this. But you could also go for a thicker merino or down top. Mid layers come in a range of different thicknesses. You should decide which you need based on the temperatures you expect on your hike. Most outlets will provide you with a guide to help you choose.
3. Finish with an outer layer to keep out the wind and rain
If it’s a dry day with a bit of warmth in the air, you might get away without a jacket, particularly when you’re hiking at a lower level. But as soon as you get up high or a chill wind whips up, you’ll be glad of the extra protection that winter layering gives. Your outer layer is the one that offers you protection from the elements. But once again, you have plenty of choice.
Hard shell vs. soft shell: how to layer clothes for winter
Wondering what’s the best insulation material for clothing? When it comes to layering, you’ll need to consider the two main types of jacket: hard shell and soft shell. Hard shell includes well-known GORE-TEX® or similar. When choosing this kind of jacket, look for taped seams as well as a high level of breathability. Soft shells, on the other hand, are more flexible than a full waterproof. The fabric generally feels softer and has a bit of stretch.
Check carefully what you’re buying though, as many styles are not designed to be fully waterproof. This type of jacket is usually windproof, however, and may be more breathable than a traditional waterproof. That makes it ideal if dry weather is forecast.
Don’t forget to pack your waterproof in your rucksack though – you never know when you might come across a cloudburst. If you’re dressing for extreme cold weather, consider a down jacket for extra padding and natural insulation.
How to layer clothes for winter hiking and keeping your extremities warm
Nothing ruins a hike more than freezing fingers and toes. So, when you’re looking at layering clothes to keep warm, it’s vital you don’t overlook your extremities. Carrying a spare beanie, pair of gloves and socks in your kitbag can be a great idea. If your hands or feet get damp, they’re more likely to get cold, and in the case of your feet, this could lead to blisters. You could even double up if you start to feel the chill.
Find the right layers for you
When you’re looking for warmer options for cold weather adventures, layering clothes is your best option. Use our guide on how to layer clothes for winter hiking, and make sure to listen to your body and add or remove layers depending on activity levels, altitude and temperature. Go prepared with extra layers in case those you are wearing become sodden. And choose lightweight styles for easy packing and carrying.
Learn the tricks of winter layering and you’ll enjoy many a comfortable walk in the frozen countryside. And if you’re not preoccupied with how cold it is, you might find you’re able to stop and appreciate the view once in a while!