What to Wear for Cold Weather Hiking
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 for cold weather.
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.
My layering system for hiking in cold weather
For each category of layer options, I provide links to my favorite items that I’ve used and recommend.
Base layers with wicking properties 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 and hiking pants. My preference is to wear a merino wool long sleeve top paired with synthetic base layer pants.
Mid layers are for insulating. They work by trapping your body heat to keep you warm.
I wear up to two layers of mid layers in the winter, depending on how cold it is. I start with a pullover hoodie or fleece layer, then add an insulated jacket over it if needed. With higher levels of activity, I keep the insulated jacket in my day pack to wear when taking a break on trail.
Outer layers are for rain, wind and snow protection. For winter hiking, I use rain layers even when it’s not raining for the extra warmth and wind protection that they provide. 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.
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.
Hats, Gloves & Neck Gaiters
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.