How to Layer Hiking Apparel

Utilizing lightweight layers allows you to adjust your wardrobe for anything nature throws your way. In this post, learn more about base layers, mid-layers and outer layers for hiking.

Fabric Types

When choosing clothing for hiking and backpacking, avoid cotton. When cotton gets wet, either from precipitation or from your body sweat, it doesn’t wick the moisture away and takes a long time to dry. This can lead to losing body heat and increasing the risk of hypothermia. Wool and synthetic materials that wick moisture away from the body while retaining body heat are a much better choice.

Wool, once hated for its itchy character, has been revived by the merino wool industry. This type of wool is softer and much less itchy. Wool has natural wicking properties, insulates well, and dries relatively quickly. It also doesn’t hold onto body odors as much as other fabric types. While it does tend to be more expensive, wool is available in varying thicknesses to suit differing needs.

Synthetic materials include nylon and polyester. Synthetics are excellent at moisture wicking, quick drying, durable, and they tend to be less expensive. A downside is that they have a tendency to hold odors more than natural fibers.

Base Layers

Layering clothing for hiking & backpacking

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. In cooler weather, long underwear-style base layers keep you warm and dry. In warmer weather, base layers can prevent sweat from making you feel sticky and clammy. Examples of base layers include underwear, bras, socks, long or short sleeve tops, and pants, skirts, or shorts.

My Favorite Base Layers for Hiking & Backpacking

Mid Layers

Layering clothing for hiking & backpacking

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 full zippers are handy for being able to get them on and off easily.

Features to Look for in a Mid Layer

  • Zippers: Half zippers on pullovers allow for venting when you get too warm, while full zippers are handy for being able to get them on and off easily.
  • Hoods: Instead of wearing a heavy hat or beanie that tends to make me sweat easily, I like to use the hoods on jackets when I need to keep my head warm. I can easily remove the hood without having to stow something in my pack, and I can wear a hat with a brim under a hood.
  • Length: I tend to like mid layers that are longer and cover my bum. This keeps me warmer and makes it easier to wear a hip belt on a day pack without having the hemline bunch up under it.
  • Thumbholes: A nice feature for being able to add a layer with having the sleeves get caught up inside each other. Depending on the design of the thumbhole, some allow you to wear it to keep your hand partially covered to stay warm without wearing gloves.
  • Insulation: Mid layers are available in varying weights – everything from a super light fleece to an insulated down jacket – so you can choose the type that works best based on the conditions you’ll encounter.

My Favorite Mid Layers for Hiking

Outer Layers

Layering clothing for hiking & backpacking

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, you can get saturated by sweating inside it. 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.

Additional options for outer layers:

Wind shells are lightweight and water-resistant, best for blocking wind and light rain. I tend to use rain layers instead for wind protection, but some people prefer a lighter and more breathable protection that wind shells can provide.

Soft shells are heavier than wind shells while still providing breathability and wind protection, but they are bulkier to pack so I tend to use them in dry and cold conditions when I’ll tend to need to wear them all day.

My Favorite Rain Layers for Hiking

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