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How To Layer For Cold Weather Hiking

Staying Warm On Winter Hikes

Winter hiking can be an enjoyable way to stay active during the colder months, you just need to know how to dress in a way that will keep you warm on your hike.  In this article, you’ll learn how to layer for cold weather hiking using a 3-layer system: 

  • A baselayer that wicks sweat 
  • An insulating layer you can shed when you heat up 
  • And a shell layer to keep rain or wind out 


With the right layering system, you’ll not only stay warm and dry, but you’ll also stay safe in the cold.


Your baselayer helps to pull moisture (sweat) away from your skin. Here are the top things to consider when choosing baselayers: 

  • Layers should be snug so you can layer easily, but not so tight they cut off circulation. 
  • Synthetic baselayers are less expensive and more durable, but they can hold onto odors. 
  • Natural fibers, like Merino wool and silk tend to be more expensive, but have natural anti-odor and anti-microbial properties that keep your gear fresh 

 Usually, in the winter baselayers consists of long underwear, glove liners, a hat liner, and possibly sock liners. You want items that are snug, but not too tight that they might cut off circulation and make you colder. You might also consider bringing a second baselayer on a longer/harder hike in case you sweat a lot and need to change. 

The best baselayers for winter hiking are made from synthetic (nylon, rayon, spandex, etc.), merino wool, and silk. Avoid cotton (even underwear and bras) at all costs—there’s a reason they say cotton kills! Synthetic baselayers are going to be the most affordable and durable option, but they tend to hold on to odors. Whereas Merino wool is the pinnacle in anti-odor and anti-microbial properties, it comes at a higher cost.  

Insulating Layer

An insulating layer is important because it traps your body heat in the air spaces inside the fabric. When it comes to an insulating layer, you have three good options: fleece, merino wool, and a puffy (down or synthetic). 

Fleece is an affordable and easy-to-care-for material. It stays warm when it gets wet and comes in a variety of different weights. It tends to be heavy compared to other materials and doesn’t compress as well as a puffy. Merino wool stays warm even when it gets wet, but it can be heavy and take a while to dry.  

When it comes to a puffy insulating layer, you have two options. Down (made from goose and duck feathers) is very warm, compressible, light, and breathable which means it lets your sweat escape. Unfortunately, it collapses and loses its ability to insulate when it gets wet. Like merino wool, it takes a long time to dry and you might have to toss it in the dryer to regain its full insulating ability. Synthetic down (Thermolite, TechLoft, etc.) performs well in wet conditions and dries quickly. It also is cheaper than down, but it also weighs more, is less durable, and does not compress as well.  

Shell Layer

A shell layer protects you from the wind and rain (think rain jackets, rain pants, etc.). There are three types of shells that you can choose from: coated fabric, waterproof-breathable, and soft.  

A coated fabric layer is painted with a waterproof substance like polyurethane. It is water resistant, but it isn’t very breathable and holds in your sweat.  

A waterproof-breathable shell (Gortex, hard shell, etc.) has an added layer of laminate/membrane that repels rain but still lets your sweat escape. Hard shells are comfortable but tend to be expensive. You can usually find them in 2-layer, 2.5-layer, and 3-layer. 2-layer shells are affordable and repel rain/wind. 2.5-layer shells are the lightest and good at managing moisture. 3-layer shells are the most expensive, but the best at maintaining moisture.  

A soft shell layer combines water and wind resistance with insulation. They are light and comfortable but tend to offer less protection from the elements than a hard shell might. 

See more on choosing a shell jacket here.


Keeping your arms, legs, and trunk warm is extremely important, but what about the other parts of your body? You need to keep your hands, feet, head, face, and even your eyes protected from the elements when on a cold winter hike. 


Having two layers of gloves is a great way to keep your fingers warm and frostbite free during a winter hike. A liner glove (either synthetic or wool) will keep your fingers warm, while a nice pair of gloves that work as both an insulating layer and shell will provide additional warmth as well as keeping your hands dry. It might be worth trying an outer mitten since mittens allow your fingers to move more freely and stay warmer.  



Most hiking socks are made from merino wool blended with synthetic or wool by itself. Just make sure you size up your winter hiking boots to allow room for your thicker socks. If your boots are too tight, they’ll cut off circulation and make your feet more susceptible to frostbite. 



We lose a lot of heat out of our heads and neck. Just like the rest of your body, you can layer by using a hat to keep your head and the rest of your body warm. You can also opt for a buff or a neck gaiter that can also be pulled up over your face to protect you from the sun and wind. Another option is a face mask or balaclava. This can help protect you from frostnip on extra chilly days. If all else fails, having a jacket with a hood can help to keep your neck and head warmer if you don’t have a hat.  


Okay, you can’t necessarily keep your eyes warm, but snow blindness is a very real thing. Keep your eyes protected from strong UV rays with some good sunglasses or a pair of snow goggles. They can also help protect your eyes from the elements.  

There is no perfect layout for every hike, it is going to depend on where you are hiking and the types of hike you are doing. You will be warmest when you wear all your layers but if you are doing a lot of strenuous hiking, you might not need to have all three layers on at once. If it isn’t raining or snowing, you might not need a shell. You also might not need an insulating layer on your legs if it isn’t particularly cold. Just make sure to bring some extra layers with you because the weather can often be unpredictable. Check the weather where you are going, layer accordingly, and pack your extra layers and you should be good to go! Happy winter hiking! 

Sarah Kendal is a freelance writer and avid hiker located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. You can find her hiking adventures on her Instagram or TikTok @sarahwritesandhikes.