Layering for Winter – Everything You NEED to Know!

layering for winter

If you’re a novice when it comes to camping, backpacking, and hiking then this is the article for you because it has crucial information.

As you read on, it will soon become clear to you that what kind of clothes you wear and how you wear them can make all the difference.

You need to be comfortable, but also warm and safe. This article will enlighten you on exactly how you should prepare.

Why is it Important?

When going hiking, backpacking, and/or camping it is extremely important to dress appropriately. It can be very dangerous in winter if you haven’t layered properly.

You can’t just stick on multiple layers of clothes and hope for the best. It’s not that simple and doesn’t work like that.

This is because you don’t just need to wear a ton of layers to stay warm. You need to be kept dry from both the outside in and the inside out. Since you’re being active, you’re going to sweat. If you aren’t wearing something that can wick that sweat properly, you’re in trouble.

If you don’t choose the right materials and wear them in the right order, you could end up getting sick on your adventure. Hypothermia and frostbite are quite likely to happen if layering isn’t taken seriously in cold conditions.

How to Layer

Each individual has a slightly different body temperature and different preferences when it comes to how warm or cool they want to be. Because of this, there is no perfect or exact guide. I can only give you a general guideline, but then it’s up to you to adjust it how you see fit.

Simply put, there are three layers: the base, middle, and outer layers.

Also, there are three types of weight for each layer – Lightweight, which is for moderate to cool temperatures, Midweight for cold temps, and Heavyweight for below-freezing.

The Base Layer

The base layer, also known as the foundation layer, may very well be the most important one.

It has a large impact on how comfortable you’ll be whilst hiking, and it’s vital that this layer can wick sweat off your skin.

Even though it’s cold, while walking you’re still going to sweat. When we sweat in the cold, we are no longer able to retain heat and become hypothermic.

This layer sits right against your skin, and so it should be lightweight, quick drying, and soft.

There is a common misconception that cotton is the best material for everything. Even though this is true, especially with underwear, this is only the case in our everyday lives – not when hiking.

So, cotton should be avoided because it’s not good for wicking sweat, and it loses any insulating properties it had before becoming damp.

If you don’t wear wicking underwear and socks, you will quickly become uncomfortable on your hike. The base layer also includes gloves and the first top you would wear underneath everything.

Let’s go over the materials that are good options, and I’ll even tell you why.

The Material

In order to keep you dry the material you choose is essential. You should either choose synthetic fabrics, such as polyester and nylon, or natural fibers like silk and merino wool.


Synthetic fabrics have some good characteristics. They are durable and they remain dry – in fact, they give you the driest feel because they are the best for wicking and dissipating sweat.

The only downside is that they do tend to retain an odor. So, if you’ll be wearing them for several days without being able to wash, you need to be able to tolerate the smell.

Merino Wool

Many people tend to shy away from merino wool because they have the impression that wool will cause itchiness. Well, you can cast this belief aside. Merino wool, unlike traditional wool, has soft and ultrafine fibers that don’t cause any discomfort. Nowadays, wool is also often blended with other fabrics such as spandex to give it more flexibility.

Although wool doesn’t feel as dry as synthetic fabrics, and some moisture is retained in its core causing it to dry longer, it does wick well. If it happens to get warm suddenly, the fact that it retains moisture actually comes in handy to cool you off.

When worn underneath other layers, wool is very durable. Unlike synthetic fabrics, wool is naturally highly resistant to odor-causing bacteria.


Silk is known for being incredibly soft, and so it’s enjoyable and comfortable to wear. However, if you’re planning for a long and tiring hike then you should avoid it.

This is because silk is not great for wicking, it’s just okay, and it isn’t odor resistant.

It is incredibly lightweight, but not very durable. Hence, it’s only a good option for those more relaxed walks that don’t last for days.

The Middle Layer

Also known as the insulating layer, this one needs to retain your body heat to protect you from the cold. This can be done with a single layer or multiple, and it needs to be adjustable if the conditions change.

In order to stay warm during the coldest part of the day, but also not boiling and sweating in the noon sun, thin layers like vests and pullovers are ideal.

This layer also helps with the moisture wicked from the base layer through absorption and evaporation.


Both synthetic and natural materials are good, giving you a wide variety to choose from.

The thicker the clothing is the warmer you’ll be, but it also needs to be able to insulate well.

I’m going to give you a couple of good options for the material of the middle layer.

Polyester Fleece

You can find lightweight, midweight, or heavyweight fabrics for this one. Fleece dries quickly and can keep you warm even if damp. It’s also really breathable, so you won’t overheat.

Since it is so breathable though, this can be a negative feature if it’s windy. Wind blows right through and can steal warmth. This is why, if you do opt for fleece, the outer layer becomes even more important.

Down Insulated Jackets

There are some which are very compact, so they don’t take up much space when packed. They offer a lot of warmth, so much so that there is no other insulating material of the same weight that can provide as much warmth as these jackets. Down also offer some wind and water resistance, but it doesn’t insulate well if damp.

Synthetic Insulated Jackets

Even though synthetic insulated jackets don’t pack up as small as down ones, there is one thing that makes them better. These jackets are a much better option in wet conditions because even when damp, synthetic ones can still retain warmth well.

Like down, they also provide water and wind resistance.

The Outer Layer

Also commonly known as the shell layer, the outer layer is meant to shield you from wind and rain. It also adds more insulation, but protection from the elements is the priority here.

You need something that is weather resistant/waterproof, breathable, and tough – all in one.

Toughness comes in handy just in case you trip and fall, so this layer needs to be able to handle any scrapes.

Water resistant shells are lighter, cheaper, and often more comfortable, but there is the risk of water getting in. If you want a waterproof shell that is also comfortable and light enough to hike with, you’ll have to spend a bit more.


There are actually multiple different categories when it comes to shells, so let’s see what they are and the differences between them.


There are actually two subtypes of waterproof shells – breathable and non-breathable ones.

Waterproof and breathable shells are the most functional and expensive choice. The more expensive it costs usually means the more efficient it is at keeping you dry.

They are often more durable too, making them the best option in squall conditions.

Non-breathable ones are typically made of a coated nylon, which is what makes them water and wind proof. These shells are best worn when you aren’t doing anything active, like fishing or bird watching, otherwise you’ll saturate the layers underneath with perspiration.


These are better for breezy and drizzly conditions and are much more affordable than waterproof shells.

Typically made out of polyester fabrics or tightly woven nylon that can block light rain and wind.

Soft Shells

Soft shells are much more breathable than the other options, and often have stretchable fabric for extra comfort while being active.

In a way, they are two layers combined into a single jacket because they have light rain and wind protection and some insulation.


I have to remind you once more that there is no perfect guide. I can only give you a guideline that you can perfect for yourself.

Having said that, let’s get into it. If you’ve never been hiking/backpacking before, you might be at a loss as to how much to pack. Sure, you’ll have the clothes you’re wearing, but we’ve already said extra is best. So how much is that exactly?…

I’m going to give you a rough checklist of what clothes you should have for about a week of hiking. This list includes both packed and already wearing.

Two undershirts, two long-sleeve shirts, two pairs of pants, two pairs of underwear, four pairs of socks, jacket, gloves/mittens, a scarf, a hat (preferably both a cap and a beanie), sunglasses and/or goggles, a sweater, two sports bras for a woman, and your hiking boots of course.

You want both a cap and a beanie so that you’re prepared whether you need to protect your head from the sun or keep your ears warm from the cold.

There is the possibility that you might want to pack even more socks, some prefer a pair of socks for each day of hiking. This depends on you as a person. It is really important that your feet remain dry to prevent frostbite, so it really isn’t a bad thing to take so many pairs of socks.

That also goes for underwear, as some prefer to have a clean pair for each day. Again, this entirely depends on you.

Do remember that it’s always better to be able to shed layers than to not have enough, but find the right balance between being cautious and overdoing it.

If it’s very cold, a face mask isn’t a bad idea either. All and any skin exposed to freezing temperatures and cold wind is prone to frostbite. Do not forget about your nose, cheeks, ears, fingers, and toes.


Here are just a few quick tips that I didn’t want to leave out.

Firstly, don’t forget to pack some plastic backs to protect your socks if your boots get drenched. This is often forgotten or overlooked but it is quite important.

Also, avoid tight clothing, as this can cause poor circulation and increase your chance of getting frostbite. Make sure everything fits just right – not too tight or too loose.

If you know there will be snow on your hike, invest in getting some gaiters. They’ll keep snow out of your boots and provide extra warmth.


I truly hope that this article has helped you and shed some light on everything you need to know when it comes to layering for winter.

I wish you a fantastic adventure on your hiking/backpacking/camping trip! Stay warm, dry, and safe. For more information I recommend this guide by REI.

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