Gear List: Winter Layering
Updated: Oct 22
What's the number one excuse people give for why they don't hike in the winter? Because it's too cold. What they don't know is that if you're prepared with a great layering system for winter hiking you will hardly ever be cold! Don't believe me? Here's how!
Layering is one of the most important skills needed for winter hiking. Everyone has a different system with different brands and types of clothing, but they're all based on the same principles. Here's a basic outline of a good layering system with a few examples for each. The numbered items are what I usually start a hike wearing, and the bullets are what I keep in my pack and add if I get cold.
1. Baselayer: This is the layer that goes directly on your body. It should be warm and moisture wicking. Try to look for synthetic or wool materials, NO COTTON! Cotton takes an extremely long time to dry, so when it gets wet in the winter from sweat or snow it will freeze and cause hypothermia, potentially leading to death. My favorite baselayer combo is the Patagonia Capilene Midweight set. If you don't want to spend a bunch of money on these, leggings or other long underwear are usually good as well! As long as you have some sort of warm, moisture wicking layer you'll be fine in most conditions. I had to include my dad in his "union suit," a Patagonia thermal weight onesie that he's been wearing since the 70's. I guess their gear is made to last!
2. Midlayer insulation: This layer will be a more insulating layer that can be taken off easily if you get hot while you're moving. I usually start with this layer on and end up shedding it in the first 15 minutes of the hike. Fleece is usually the fabric of choice for this one because it's light but very warm. I can't say enough good things about the Patagonia R1 Fleece Pullover in the half zip because it's super warm but so light.
3. Hard shell jacket outer layer: This could be a rain jacket or anything similarly waterproof and windproof. The more breathable the better! Pit zips will be your friend because contrary to popular belief, you will get hot in this layer! I use the Outdoor Research Interstellar rain jacket, but the REI Rainier is also a great option. Be sure to look for some sort of hood adjustment (bungee, velcro, ect) because the hood can sometimes make it hard to see. If you plan to use this for climbing or skiing as well, make sure it can fit over a helmet!
4. Soft shell pants: I love soft shells on top of my baselayer leggings because they're so breathable and water resistant. I use the Patagonia Simul Alpine pants but I've also tried the Kuhl Klash pants and they were great. I like something a little more form fitting especially in the ankles because if they're too baggy they'll catch on crampons. They are completely not water or wind proof, but below treeline they're great!
5. Winter hiking boots: Footwear is one of the most important things when it comes to winter hiking. In the Whites you should have at least 200 gram Thinsulate insulated boots or at least 400 grams if you plan to go above treeline. I love the Oboz Bridger 8" boots but many other brands that make great winter hiking boots as well. If you plan to spend a lot of time above treeline, mountaineering boots may be a better option because they are superior when used with crampons. When you're trying on any boot, remember to bring a thick pair of socks and think about going up a half size. In order to keep your toes warm, there must be some space so that the extra air can heat up and further insulate your feet. I know winter boots are pretty pricey, but this is not the item to try to save money on. There are many better places to cut costs if you're on a budget.
6. Glove liners: I usually wear these from start to finish on a winter hike. They keep your hands warm but are breathable so they're not sweating in your waterproof layer. The only drawback to glove liners is that they're not waterproof, so once they get wet from the snow (which they will), you'll be left with chilly hands. I usually throw an extra pair in my pack so that when I decide to put on the waterproof mittens on the descent my hands will be warm and dry.
7. Wool socks: The right boot plus some warm wool socks will be sure to keep your toes toasty! Darn Tough is by far my favorite brand because their lifetime warranty guarantees that they'll last as long as your passion for winter hiking. I also love Smartwool, but find that they wear through too quickly to justify the cost. REI also makes some great socks for all different types of activities. If you're worried about blisters, think about trying sock liners for an extra layer of protection and warmth.
- Hooded puffy down coat: This will likely stay in your pack until you stop for a break or descend. On the ascent you'll be working hard enough that you'll be doing your damnedest not to sweat. Make sure whatever you get has a hood included because this will lock in extra heat around your head and ears. I love my L.L. Bean Ultralight 850 Down Jacket because it's extremely warm and weighs next to nothing. The Patagonia Nanopuff jacket is also a great option.
- Waterproof mittens: Grab a pair of big cozy mittens to make sure your fingers stay warm! The trick with your waterproof mitten layer is getting them a little extra big. The extra air around your fingers will warm up and further insulate your hands. If you love gloves you can try those too, but make sure there's enough space in each of the fingers for you to have an extra layer of air in there. The reason why so many people get cold in gloves is that they're too small and don't leave enough space to create that extra insulating layer. This goes for any situation whether it's your toes in your boots or your whole body inside a sleeping bag.
- Hat and neck warmer: This is pretty self explanatory. Any type of fleece or wool hat will work as long as it covers your head and ears. I personally despise hats, so I often wear a warm headband that covers my ears with the hat in my bag if I get too cold. The neck warmer is for covering your neck and face in extremely cold or windy conditions.
Extras to Keep In Your Pack: Make sure you have one extra set of the items listed below just in case a water crossing goes wrong or you sweat through the set you start out with! I keep them in a little waterproof compression sack so that they don't take up too much room. Above is everything in the compression sack I'm holding on the right.
- Baselayer Top
- Baselayer Bottom
- Glove Liners
When you start your hike, you should be a little chilly in the parking lot. This is because as soon as you get moving and start burning calories, you'll get too hot if you're wearing all of your layers. The most important part of winter layering is trying to keep yourself right on the brink of sweating. You don't want to be cold, but you also don't want to be too hot because once you start sweating it could lead to hypothermia (as mentioned above). For me this means often hiking in only my baselayer or my midlayer fleece and sometimes just the baselayer if it's above 20 degrees. At the beginning it will feel like you're stopping every few steps to adjust your layers, but as soon as you get the hang of what works for you you'll know what to start with and keep on hand as you go.
As I mentioned above, wearing more is not always better. To keep your extremities warm there must be pockets of air in between your layers to further insulate you and keep your fingers and toes warm. This goes for sleeping bags as well! Putting three pairs of socks on your chilly toes won't help you past a certain point. Having extra air (within reason) in the toebox of your boots will keep you much warmer!
I know that this seems like a lot of expensive clothing, but layers can really make or break your hike. I've bought most of these items on sale or at outlets, which has brought down the cost significantly. I would start with a good pair of boots and a down coat. You can get by with work out clothes and fleeces you already have as long as your bottom layer is moisture wicking. Prioritize what you buy and eventually you'll accumulate all of these things for a combination that works for you! REI also has a membership program as well where you get 10% back on every purchase in dividends, so at the end of the year that makes a big difference.
For info on all of the other gear you'll need for winter day hikes below treeline, check out this post! These posts don't include the extra clothing or equipment you'll need for above treeline travel, so stay tuned for an article about that coming soon. I'm also working on an article about the gear needed for winter hiking with your dog, so that will be coming soon!
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