Cold Weather Hiking Clothing & Outerwear

While we tend to think of needing bulkier outerwear in cold weather, wearing lightweight layers allows for more options for different types of conditions encountered. This is my approach to layering clothing and outerwear.

clothing and outerwear fro winter hiking

Lightweight layers are key

I used to think that the hiking season was over once the colder rainy season began. And when I did get out in the winter, I tended to wear a heavy coat that had me sweating after hiking for more than a mile or so. It doesn’t take long to warm up, especially on hikes that have elevation gain. Then I’d be miserable for the rest of the hike since I didn’t have options for making adjustments. Plus, getting too wet from sweat can lead to hypothermia. So, I learned to use lightweight layers to stay warm and dry on trail and now I hike (and camp) year round. This method also means that I can utilize clothing and outerwear that I already have for hiking at other times of the year. Make sure to carry a backpack large enough to stow layers so you can make adjustments as needed.

Base layers

Base layers are for moisture management. A next-to-skin layer, they work by wicking moisture away from your skin and can also help to prevent chafing as well as adding a layer of warmth. When temps are at or below freezing, I start with wearing base layers under a mid layer top and hiking pants. My preference is to wear a merino wool long sleeve top paired with synthetic base layer pants.

My favorite base layers

Mid layers

Mid layers are for insulating. They work by trapping your body heat to keep you warm. The type of mid layer to use will vary based on the conditions. Fleece and wool are good options for breathability and their ability to insulate even when wet. Down or synthetic insulated jackets are the most popular choice for mid layers. Down has the best warmth to weight ratio, and it compresses smaller than synthetic insulation for packability. For rainy conditions, synthetic might be a better choice since it insulates better than down when wet. Mid layers with half or full zippers are handy for being able vent when needed.

My favorite mid layers

  • Outdoor Vitals Ventus hoodie (shown above)
    One of the lightest weight synthetic mid layers available, this hoodie has active insulation that expands when you are active, and contracts to keep you warm on breaks. It vents well too, with perforated fabric under the arms and a half zip on the front.
  • Outdoor Vitals Loktek Jacket (shown above)
    This synthetic jacket is feature-packed at a low price: it has an adjustable hood, pit zips, hand pockets, thumbholes, and a DWR finish to resist rain. And it’s roomy enough to allow for wearing multiple layers underneath.
  • Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer
    Although I tend to prefer synthetic insulation over down in the winter, this hooded down jacket is extremely lightweight, provides a lot of warmth, and layers well with an outer shell due a trim cut.
  • Columbia Glacial Half Zip Fleece Top
    Most fleece tops are too heavy work well in a layering system, but Columbia’s Glacial fleece is made from a lighter fabric and wicks moisture while providing extra warmth.

Hiking pants for winter

  • REI Co-op Activator Soft-Shell Pants (shown above)
    Made with a heavier soft-shell fabric, these hiking pants have zip pockets and durable water resistant finish.
  • Prana Halle Straight Pants
    These slim-fitting hiking pants are made with a light stretchy soft-shell fabric that allows for ease in movement and resists moisture.

Outer layers

Outer layers are for rain, wind and snow protection. A waterproof rain jacket is a must for backpacking in the Pacific Northwest. Even if it’s not raining, a rain jacket can help to block wind and retain body warmth. Add rain pants or a rain skirt (yes, they exist!) when the forecast calls for wet or cold weather. Breathability is important in rain gear, otherwise, condensation can build up inside and get your layers wet. The most breathable options tend to be expensive but are often more durable. Look for items with vents such as pit zips, and sealed seams to keep rain out.

My favorite outer layers

  • Columbia OutDry Extreme NanoLite Rain Jacket (shown above)
    Columbia’s OutDry technology puts the waterproof membrane on the outside, eliminating the need for coatings that need to be replenished. This jacket is the lightest in their line and features an adjustable hood and hand pockets.
  • Outdoor Research Helium II Rain Jacket
    At just over 5 ounces, this is one of the lightest rain jackets available. The low weight means it has less features, such as hand pockets and pit zips, but when you want a light option this is a great option.
  • Outdoor Research Helium Rain Pants
    Rain pants are good for more than protection from the rain, they also provide a barrier from wind, and are great when adventuring in the snow. These rain pants feature 2.5 layer Pertex-Shield+ fabric, have ankle zippers, an elastic waist, and they stuff into the back pocket for storing in your pack.

Footwear

All feet are different, and what works for others may not be the best for you. I prefer to hike in waterproof trail running mids in the winter, but you might prefer a more traditional hiking boot with a stiffer sole. The higher coverage of a mid versus a shoe allows me to cross streams or hike in a light layer of snow without getting wet. When trails are icy, I wear microspikes over my shoes.

Since my feet tend to get cold easily, I wear two pairs of socks: a thin liner toe sock and a pair of wool crew socks that are one size larger than I normally wear. It’s important to make sure wearing double socks won’t be too tight in your shoes. I loosen the laces a bit to accommodate the thicker socks.

When hiking in snow, gaiters that are worn over your hiking pants and attach to boots or shoes will keep you drier and provide an extra layer of warmth.

My favorite footwear

  • Altra Lone Peak trail running mids – waterproof (shown above)
    These mids by Altra are similar to their trail running shoes, but with above-ankle coverage, waterproof materials, and thicker padding. Altras are known for their wide toe box, which allows your toes room to spread out, and for their zero drop feature, which keeps your heels and toes at the same level instead of raising the heel. For me, this eliminates pressure on the balls of my feet.
  • Injinji Crew Liner Socks (shown above)
    For cold weather, I use these liner socks with toes underneath a larger pair of wool socks.
  • Wigwam Merino Lite Crew Socks – Women’s (shown above)
    I wear these socks in one size up from my normal socks so I can layer these over liner socks.
  • Hillsound Armadillo LT Gaiters
    These waterproof and breathable gaiters provide coverage up to the knee.

Hats, Gloves & Neck Gaiters

Hats and gloves are essential in the winter. For gloves, I like to take two pairs: one that’s lightweight and one with thicker insulation for keeping my hands warm in frigid temps and high winds. For both types, I prefer gloves that work with touchscreen devices so I don’t have to take them off when I need to check the GPS app on my phone. For hats, wool beanies work well but most of the time I wear a trucker hat to keep the sun and rain out of my eyes and wear the hood from one of my jackets over it. For an extra layer of warmth and to keep drafts off my neck, I prefer wearing a neck gaiter (wool or fleece) instead of a scarf.

My favorite hats, gloves, and neck gaiters

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