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How To Layer For Cold Weather Hiking

There is a large gulf that separates our normal, daily lives and life out in the woods. This is, of course, part of the appeal; getting away, changing pace, gaining some perspective. But on the same token, it is part of the challenge. Everything you do while out on a backpacking trip or while out on a long day hike is radically different from a normal day at work or home. What you eat, the pace of the day, and even the type of sleep.  One of the most important differences, however, is the kind of clothes you have to wear.

Spending hours, days, or even weeks exposed to the elements requires a completely different way of thinking about clothing and the manner in which it is worn. The best method that has been devised to strike the ideal balance between comfort and protection is called layering.

This seems simple enough; throw on more clothes rather than less. But in order to really get the most out of this method (and by extension your trip out into the great outdoors) hikers need to understand the purpose of each layer. For those who aren’t familiar with how to layer for cold weather situations, we broke down the ideal winter hiking layering system in to five parts. Take a scroll through our comprehensive guide below.

Synthetic Vs. Natural Fabrics

Choosing between natural and synthetic fabrics is like choosing two different routes to the same destination. Both are more than capable of doing what you need – staying dry, wicking sweat, providing insulation – but they go about it in different ways and have a slightly different set of tradeoffs. For those who are not familiar with the basics of the two types of fabrics – we’ll lay them out here.

Synthetic Fabric

Quick Drying and Durable

One of the biggest benefits to synthetic fabrics is the weight. For the most part, polypropylene based materials are going to be much lighter than more organic fabrics. In addition to shaving weight off of your load (something that makes a difference if you are going on longer treks into the back woods), they’re quick drying and great at wicking moisture. If you are looking to gear up for a trip in the winter, this can be a literal life-saver. Wet, water-logged clothes add a huge amount of weight and can pull a lot of heat from your body, risking hypothermia. Hiking around in the heat? Synthetic fabrics are awesome at pulling water from your skin and keeping you cool. To top that all off – synthetic garments are just more affordable, no matter what brand you are buying from.

Essential Winter Hiking Gear

You need more than just a solid understanding of layering if you’re looking to strike out on the trail in the throes of winter. Check out our picks for the best winter hiking gear.

There are, however, some downsides to consider. Primary among which is this; synthetic can smell rather unpleasant. Look at most any synthetic item of clothing and they usually include some kind of branded technology that is supposed to ‘kill-odor’ or ‘stop odor causing bacteria’. That is because polypropylene based fabrics don’t naturally have this property and need a little help in order not to stink up the place. Another downside that maybe fits better into the category of preference is its feel. Synthetic fabrics don’t…well…feel natural. That bothers some, and then others don’t really pay it any attention.

Natural Fabric

An Organic Feel All the Way

For the most part, the organic fabrics you’ll find being used by different brands are made from Merino. The reason? Merino has a lot of the qualities you wouldn’t usually find in natural fabrics. It can keep you warm even when wet, wick sweat just as well as any synthetic fabric, and, despite what you think when you hear ‘wool’, it is good at regulating temperature even when it is warm out. Merino is also naturally odor resistant, so after a week on the trail you’ll smell bad, but not really bad. Gotta take your wins where you can. For these reasons, Merino wool in recent years has become a favorite of most outdoorsman and hikers. But it isn’t without its downsides.

Across most all brands, Merino is going to run you a bit more. Secondly, it isn’t really ideal for warm weather use. Sure, it is fine for when you are out on the trail at 60, or even 70 degrees Fahrenheit – but if it is hot out enough it can be a little much. Another point worth mentioning is that Merino requires a bit more attention and care from wearers. It can pill on abrasive surfaces, and if improperly washed, it loses some of its comfort and technical ability.

Base Layer

Your First Line of Defense

The first thing you have to consider when putting on a base layer is first, what fabric you want to use, and secondly, what type of weight you’re going to require. The colder the weather, the heavier your base layer should be.

This is your first line of defense against the cold – it should be able to hold warmth close to your body, keep your skin dry, and keep you comfortable throughout your trip. Due to the fact that most brands have easy to understand ratings for their layers, finding the right one isn’t difficult at all. Patagonia, for instance has an R1-R4 rating for both their Merino and Capilene base layers, Icebreaker has a 200-280 rating that runs from lightweight to midweight, and Ibex has a 1-3 rating for their layers cut from wool.

Natural: Arc’teryx Satoro Top Long Sleeve ($120)
Synthetic: Arc’teryx Phase AR Zip Neck ($91)

Mid Layer

Zip Up and Roll Out

Mid layers are intended to be lightweight but warm sweater-like items that help help keep all the warmth you are generating close to your body without completely stifling you. You’ll find that while there is a clear choice in the types of fabrics and materials used for base layers, most mid layers are made from synthetic material. Whether it be fleece, or polyester jackets with synthetic fill for insulation, there are a bevy of different options to choose from – each with their own unique benefit. Some layers are geared at providing more breathability for a dynamic fit throughout the day, while others boast a windproof layer. If you still just can’t stand synthetic, one can just as easily go for a heavier base layer made from Merino to pull on top of a lighter base layer where it will function just as well as a mid.

Natural: Icebreaker Half Zip Tech Top ($91)
Synthetic: Patagonia Men’s R1 Fleece Hoodie ($159)

Wind Layer

Cut Through It

If your mid layer isn’t wind resistant – it is important to include out a lighter wind jacket. Usually weighing very little, these jackets can help protect from cutting gusts while also serving as a water-resistant shell. Outside of using for longer hikes, they serve as great outer layers for those going on day hikes or rock climbing trips in more moderate temperatures.

Salomon: Fast Wing ($75)
Rab: Windveil Jacket ($215)


Stay Puffed

Insulated, or, ‘puffy’ jackets are absolutely key to keeping you nice and warm even while the temperatures dip. For this layer, you’ll be picking between a synthetic or down insulated jacket. Like merino and synthetic base layers, there are benefits and drawbacks to both but for the most part they accomplish the same thing; keeping you warm.

Down lofted jackets are made from the undercoating that waterfowl have under their feathers to keep them warm. This material is stripped from the birds and piped into polyester jackets to gain loft and trap air to help keep you warm. You’ll find these types of outer layers rated in terms of the amount of ‘cubic fill’, starting from 500 and going all the way up to 800. For the most part, these down jackets will have the best weight to warmth ratio, and are easy to fold down into your pack without taking up much room.

Every serious outdoorsman understands this fact; you can’t beat nature – you have to find ways to work with it.

Down jackets are not, unfortunately, effective in wet weather. Water can cause a jacket to lose its loft, rendering the jacket flat and useless. If you’re caught out in the open unprotected from wet weather with one of these jackets on – you can end up in a serious predicament. This is in part why outer shells are so important, and why synthetic insulation has been developed.

There is no one way to do synthetic insulation. There are a handful of different methods and proprietary technologies out there that clothing companies use – but they all broadly offer the same benefit – warmth and breathability through inclement weather. It is hard to get to specifics on this form of insulation given how many different types there are – but it is a sure bet for those who often find themselves out on the trail in wet environments. The drawback to these, however, is that they take up more room, weigh more, and their insulation can break down over time.

Synthetic Fill: Black Diamond First Light Hoodie ($175)
Down Fill: OR Transcendent Hoodie ($186)

Outer Layer

Bearing the Brunt

Much more than just a rain jacket, your outer shell both protects you from gusts, rain, and whatever else you come across on the trail while also providing a degree of breathability and dynamic fit. This is really your only layer of defense against the rain or snow when it starts coming down, and as a result is maybe one of your most important layers.

Depending on the type of weather you’re going to head out into, you can choose from two different types of outer layers – soft or hard shell.

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Soft shell, as one can maybe intuit, is going to be a lot more forgiving to bigger movements and will be on-the-whole more breathable. Yet, with that being said, it won’t provide the same tough protection from rain or snow even with taped seams and water resistance. Your hard shell, on the other hand, will slick off precipitation like it’s nobody’s business while also cutting through wind with ease. Unfortunately, outside of zippable vents in the armpit or along the pockets, it won’t be too breathable.

This is the beauty of layering. Each different item of clothing you put on has its own discreet task, and can easily be shucked off once they’re no longer needed. Wearing your clothes this way allows for you to be as dynamic and adaptable as nature itself. This is a key point that every serious outdoorsman understands; you can’t beat nature – you have to find ways to work with it.

Soft Shell: Patagonia Kniferidge Jacket ($360)
Hard Shell: Arc’teryx Alpha Jacket ($280)