Autumn’s first chill often brings a welcomed reprieve from the dog days of summer. But as cold weather sinks in for the season and temperatures drop further for winter, you may be wondering the best way to layer clothing for cold weather to keep your adventures going.

Below, we’ll help answer your cold weather layering questions, including:

  • Why Cold Weather Layering Is Important for Winter Hikes
  • 3 Basic Elements of Cold Weather Layering
  • 4 Things That Can Impact Your Warmth While Hiking in the Cold

Knowing how to layer clothes for winter means that you can keep enjoying your hikes in comfort! Because, as the saying goes: there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.

Why Cold Weather Layering Is Important for Winter Hikes

Being cold while in the outdoors is unenjoyable in the best of circumstances and dangerous in the worst of them. Proper cold weather layering helps prevent hypothermia and other cold-related injuries, such as frostbite. It also keeps you cozy enough to actually appreciate beautiful winter views and quiet snow-dusted forests without being tempted to curl up into a cold little ball and never move again, forcing your hiking companions to begrudgingly haul you and your poorly chosen cold weather hiking outfit out of the backcountry.

When you layer your hiking clothes, you create pockets of air between your body and the layers. The body heat you let off warms up these air pockets, which, in turn, help you stay snug as a bug. As you exert more energy, you trap even more heat. The beauty of layering means that if you trap a little too much heat, you can remove one of your layers to help regulate your temperature and cool off a tad. This is better than relying on one super-duper power layer, where if you get too hot and remove it, you’ll be kicking it in the snow in a tank top, quickly losing all that wonderful warmth you produced.

3 Basic Elements of Cold Weather Layering

While your personal hiking outfit may vary a little, adding additional layers or components based on the conditions you’re in, there are three basic elements to cold weather layering: base, mid, and outer. You may not always wear all of them on all your hikes, but it’s always a good idea to at least carry each of them in case conditions change.

Once you’ve selected these layers, you’ll want to remember the other “bonus” layers that can keep you warm while hiking, such as your socks, beanie, mittens, scarf, and boots.

1. Base Layer

The base layer is sometimes also referred to as the “underwear layer” or “next-to-skin layer.” Its key role is to wick moisture, like sweat, away from your body to keep your skin dry. Wet skin is a recipe for hypothermia when cold weather hiking, so this is an important layer.

Since you want a moisture-wicking base layer, avoid cotton. Cotton gets wet and stays wet and keeps that wetness on you. Not a good approach. Instead, opt for either synthetic fibers or natural ones like wool or silk. Each of these materials have their own pros and cons. Synthetic materials are often more affordable and dry quickly, but tend to hold in odors and don’t feel as cozy on your skin. Natural fibers retain less odor, don’t shed microplastics, and have a cozier feel, but may be more expensive and less durable over time.

A base layer should have an active fit, meaning not too loose that it’s falling away from your skin but also not too tight that it’s inhibiting blood circulation. You may also choose to opt for features like thumb holes to keep cold drafts from sneaking in.

Base layers come in lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight depending on the temperatures you’ll face on your hike. When making your selection, however, remember that the primary function of this layer is sweat management, not warmth, so avoid overdoing it. You can always have a beefier mid-layer, if needed.

2. Middle Layer

The middle layer is also referred to as the mid-layer or insulating later. It goes on top of your base layer, sandwiched between it and the outer later. Its key role is to retain your body heat. A good mid-layer will keep you warm while you’re out playing in the cold.

Middle layers are bulkier than base layers and come in many different material options. Your middle layer could be fleece, down, synthetic “down,” wool, or alpaca, to name a few. When it comes to mid-layers, think: your favorite puffy or wool sweater.

A good mid-layer should be easy to take off and put on as your body heat changes. Its thickness and temperature rating will vary based on the conditions where you are. In some situations, it may even include a puffy vest if it’s either not too cold out or if you need a little extra core warmth due to the chill.

3. Outer Layer

The outer layer is also referred to as the shell or exterior layer. It goes on last, over your middle layer. Its primary function is to shield you from wind, rain, and snow. It keeps these elements from penetrating your other layers and leaving you chilled to the bone.

A good outer layer will be both waterproof and breathable. This helps prevent moisture build up coming from both the outside, such as rain, and the inside, including sweat and condensation

An outer layer may consist of a long poncho or rain jacket and rain pants made from a waterproof material, such as Gore-Tex. The exact features and durability you need will depend on your particular trip. A deep snow expedition will call for a burlier outer layer than a walk through the frosty woods. You may want to consider features like brimmed hoods, waterproof zippers, or armpit zippers that allow some extra breathability.

4 Things That Can Impact Your Warmth While Hiking in the Cold

As you select your cold weather hiking layers, there are a few things to consider that can impact your warmth while on the trial.

1. Your Personal Temperature

Some people run hot and some people run cold. Keep your personal thermometer in mind when deciding which layers to wear and when to put them on. If you know you run cold, layer up earlier on to avoid letting yourself get cold in the first place. If you know you run hot, consider opting for a lighter base layer.

2. Activity Level

Exercising increases the amount of body heat you release, which gets stored in those air pockets between the layers that we mentioned earlier. If you’re hiking uphill, moving at a fast pace, or otherwise exerting yourself more than usual, you may notice that you need to remove a layer. Remember that sweating too much isn’t good when cold weather hiking, as it leaves you wet and more prone to hypothermia when you stop moving, especially if there is wind. Take off a layer if you notice sweat build-up.

3. Weather Conditions

Simply looking at the expected temperature for the days when you’ll be hiking isn’t enough for determining the right cold weather layers. Remember to also see whether you can expect much moisture through rain or snow. You’ll also want to check the wind forecast, as windchill can lead to much colder temperatures overall. If it’s going to be particularly sunny, remember sunglasses and an outer layer with a brim to help protect your eyes.

4. Trail Conditions

Trail conditions can also impact your warmth while on trail. Look at your route as you choose your cold weather layering system. Consider whether you’ll be mainly hiking in the shade of dense tree canopies where it will likely be colder. See if you’ll have any stream crossings and plan for how you’ll keep dry after them. Explore how the temperature changes at different elevations along your hike. Know whether you’ll have a lot of bushwhacking or other strenuous activity during your hike that could warm you up more or that requires layers that let you move with more ease.

Cold Weather Layering Means Adventure Doesn’t Stop With the Change of Seasons

When preparing your cold weather layering for your next hike, aim for quality over quantity. Extra layers don't always lead to greater warmth, especially if they inhibit your ability to move. Remember to zip up your pockets and other closures while in the backcountry to limit cold airflow to where you don’t want it. And protect your head, hands, and feet with their own snuggly pieces of warm gear.

Hungry for more backpacking gear and planning knowledge? Check out some of our other articles on the Light Feet blog:

And, if you’re looking for a super stylish beanie for keeping your noggin’ warm, make sure to snag a Gossamer Gear beanie for your chilly hikes ahead!

Shop the Gear