How to Layer Clothes for Warm, Dry Winter Hikes

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As the old Scandinavian saying goes, “there is no bad weather, only bad clothes”. Sure, the air outside is freezing cold and hot chocolate is calling your name, but if you know how to layer clothes correctly, you can withstand some of winter’s worst conditions. You should dress to stay mobile, dry and sheltered from the wind. With these tips, you won’t be afraid to check the weather before your winter hikes; layering clothes properly will become second nature.

Layering clothes for winter

For polar explorer Eric Larsen, the golden rule of winter hiking is to stay dry: “Your biggest problem is not getting cold,” he says. “It’s actually too hot and sweaty because once you stop moving, hypothermia can set in within five minutes in cold, windy weather.” No matter how hard you work, you have to manage how much sweat you sweat. Learning how to layer clothes is a big part of that. If you start to sweat, immediately pour a layer or slow down.

Here is the breakdown of the four essential layers.

Layer 1: base layer

No matter how freezing the weather gets, wear a lightweight, long-sleeved base layer close to your skin. Thinner layers wick away sweat better and dry faster. Opt for shirts with thumbholes to prevent drafts from sneaking between your sleeve and your glove.

Layer 2: middle layer

This layer must be made of wool, polyester or a mixture of the two.

Layer 3: hooded jacket

This puffy jacket with zipper should have a hood to act as a heat trap in freezing weather. If the wind blows your hood back, lock it in place with a headlight strap or goggle band.

Layer 4: Outer Shell

When you’re dressing new, you need a protective outer layer: a waterproof/breathable fabric shell with taped seams. Size it large enough to fit over everything else. And avoid white jackets and gear, which get lost in the snow.

Avoid cotton in the winter. It absorbs water and sweat and can make you hypothermic. (Photo: Manuel Sulzer via Getty Images)

Layering Tips

Stagger your zippers

Avoid piling them around your neck and chin. Otherwise, you might have three to four zippers rubbing you. Consider combining a crew neck base layer with an insulated T-zip midlayer, then layering them with a neck warmer.

Also, close all your pockets. If you don’t, “they can fill up with spray when it’s really windy,” says Brian Clark, a meteorologist who works at Mount Washington, one of the windiest places on earth.

Aluminum Fog

If your glasses fog up, it’s probably because you’re too hot. Unzip clothing, manage your body temperature and keep anti-fog wipes in a handy pocket.

Keeping your balaclava out of your nose also helps; but be sure to protect your schnoz from frostbite. Balaclavas and face masks should be windproof and have vents to prevent condensation and moisture. If you have long hair, some balaclavas have holes in the back that accommodate ponytails.

Test your gloves

When layering, you always have to be mobile. Your fingers are exposed to the cold every time you take off your gloves to tie a knot, take something out of your bag or open a package. An excellent test of dexterity: Dress and undress while wearing gloves. If you can’t, keep shopping.

Gaiter up

They’ll keep the snow out and keep your cleats from slicing through your pants. When buying gaiters, focus on waterproofing, ease of donning and a strap system tailored to your own needs. If you are hiking in deep snow, pack knee-length gaiters. If you just want to protect yourself from debris or rain, mid-calf gaiters will do.

some hikes in the snow in the middle of the mountains
Even when the temperatures are low, the sun shines. Don’t forget to put sunscreen on any exposed skin. (Photo: Westend61 via Getty Images)

Avoid These Layering Mistakes

When you figure out how to layer clothes, you might make some mistakes. Here are some of the biggest mistakes you should avoid:

  • leaning on a big jacket to keep you warm instead of two or three middle layers. What should you do when you start sweating? Take off your only jacket and freeze? Layers protect you from temperature-related whiplash; the goal is to stay comfortable and dry all the time you’re outdoors.
  • Forget face protection. Of course, you remembered to protect your hands, feet and head with gloves, gaiters and a balaclava. But when the wind whips your face, you won’t think how hot your toes are. Provide a gaiter or a balaclava to avoid frostbite and keep everything warm.
  • Overlay too much. You want to be warm, but you don’t want to saturate your base layers with sweat. The humidity cools you too much during breaks or when you arrive at the campsite. Three to four coats are essential. Don’t worry if you get cold at the trailhead; after you start moving, you’ll warm up in no time.
  • Wear cotton or cotton blends. When you sweat, cotton absorbs moisture and no longer seals the air around your skin. They say “cotton kills” because it can easily leave you cold and hypothermic. It doesn’t matter if you’re a master at layering clothes if those layers include cotton; to be avoided 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. (Photo: Half Point Images via Getty Images)

5 tips for winter hiking on the move

  • Keep food close at hand. “Tear the corners off several energy bar wrappers before you go, then store the bars in warm pockets,” says Larsen, “so you don’t have to fumble with the seals or pull off the gloves on the go.” For a quick energy boost, stash hard candy in a pocket or belt.
  • Snuggle up when talking to your partners. It will keep you warm and carry sound better.
  • Practice sign language beforehand. It’s hard to lip-read or enunciate under layers of balaclavas or face shields. Establish certain signs, such as hiking poles on the sides signifying “All is well”.
  • Take an emergency bivouac. Ounce for ounce, they offer the best 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 skydiver. Load everything in reverse order. You won’t need your bag or tent until the end of the day, so they’ll go to the bottom of your bag first. Your down jacket, which you will need at each stopover, is placed on top for easy access.

Elizabeth J. Harless