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.

I learned to use lightweight layers to stay warm and dry on trail by adding or removing layers as needed. This method also means that I can utilize clothing and outerwear that I already have for hiking at other times of the year instead of using heavy and bulky winter outerwear. Make sure to carry a backpack large enough to stow layers so you can make adjustments as needed.

For each category of layer options, I provide a list of my favorite items that I own and regularly use.

Related post: What’s in My Pack for Winter Hiking

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.

Showers Pass Ridgeline base layer top

My favorite base layers

  • Showers Pass Ridgeline Half-Zip Long Sleeve Top (shown above): women’s
    This top is super light and comfortable, and the half zip allows for venting when needed.
  • Icebreaker Merino Wool Oasis Crew Long Underwear Top: women’s  men’s
    Made of soft merino wool, this top is form fitting and works well as a moisture-wicking layer.
  • Patagonia Capilene Midweight Bottoms: women’s  men’s
    Made from 100% recycled polyester, these base layer bottoms include wide waistband for comfort, and a heat-trapping grid on the inside.
  • Columbia OmniHeat leggings: women’s  men’s
    Synthetic leggings lined with silver dots to reflect body heat, these base layer bottoms are less bulky than most options, so they work well when wearing multiple layers.

Hiking pants for cold weather

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

FLEECE AND HOODIES

  • Outdoor Vitals Ventus hoodie (shown above): women’s  men’s
    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. For more info, see my review of the Ventus hoodie.
  • Appalachian Gear All-Paca Fleece Hoodie: women’s  men’s
    This hoodie is made with alpaca yarn, so it’s extremely lofty and warm yet maintains good moisture management. Available in a wide selection of gorgeous colors, it looks great off trail too.
  • Columbia Glacial Half Zip Fleece Top:  women’s
    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 for less than other fleece options.

Outdoor Vitals Vario jacket review

INSULATED JACKETS

  • Outdoor Vitals Vario Jacket (shown above): women’s  men’s
    Similar to the Ventus hoodie listed above, but has a full zip front and two hand pockets. The Vario jacket is designed to go over a light mid layer. Combine it with the Ventus hoodie for a versatile and lightweight layering system. For more info, see my review of the Vario jacket.
  • Enlightened Equipment Torrid Jacket: women’s  men’s
    An ultralight synthetic jacket, the Torrid is extremely warm for the weight and a favorite amongst long distance hikers. The no-frills design includes a fitted hood and hand pockets.
  • Outdoor Vitals LoktTek Jacket: unisex
    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. For more info, see my review of the LoftTek jacket.
  • Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer: women’s  men’s
    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.

Outer layers

rain layers for hiking

Outer layers are for rain, wind and snow protection. A waterproof rain jacket is a must for hiking 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 rain layers

  • Columbia OutDry Extreme NanoLite Rain Jacket
    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 (shown above): women’s  men’s
    At just over 5 ounces, this is one of the lightest rain jackets available. The low weight means it has less features and does not include hand pockets or pit zips, but for the weight, this is a great option.
  • Outdoor Research Helium Rain Pants (shown above): women’s  men’s
    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

trail running shoes in the snow

All feet are different, and what works for others may not be the best for you. I prefer to hike in waterproof trail running shoes or 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 will allow for crossing streams or hiking 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 for cold weather

  • Altra Olympus GTX trail running shoes – waterproof: women’s  men’s
    A waterproof version of my favorite trail running shoe, the Olympus offers maximum cushioning and grippy traction. 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.
  • Altra Lone Peak trail running mids – waterproof: women’s  men’s
    These mids by Altra are similar to their trail running shoes, but with above-ankle coverage, waterproof materials, and thicker padding.
  • Injinji Crew Liner Socks: unisex
    For cold weather, I use these liner socks with toes underneath a larger pair of wool socks.
  • Wigwam Merino Crew Socks: unisex
    I wear these socks in one size up from my normal socks so I can layer these over liner socks.
  • Hillsound Armadillo LT Gaiters: men’s and women’s sizes
    These waterproof and breathable gaiters provide coverage up to the knee.
  • Related post: Gear Basics: Footwear for Hiking & Backpacking

Hats, Gloves & Neck Gaiters

hats and gloves for cold weather hiking

Keeping your head and hands warm are essential in the winter.

Hats: A lightweight wool beanie or a fleece-lined hat work well when it’s cold and/or windy. I prefer hats that aren’t too bulky so I can wear them under a hood on a jacket.

Neck Gaiter: 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. A merino wool or fleece gaiter will be warmer than thin polyester gaiters meant for warmer temps.

Gloves: I like to take two pairs of gloves since it’s common to get one pair wet when it’s raining or snowing. I tend to use a lightweight pair most of the time, but keep a pair 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.

My favorite hats, gloves & neck gaiters

 

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