With the Fall in full swing and the winter months drawing ever closer, I thought it would be a good time to do a post on the simple but necessary process of hiking clothing layers. Layering will help ensure you stay warm, dry and comfortable on all your hikes.
It isn't by any means a complex thing but it is worth reviewing, especially for people who are new to hiking. While I am specifically thinking of the colder months here, the same process applies all year round. For example, it only gets colder as you hike further up mountains and you get more exposed to high winds, etc.
What are Layers?
In a nutshell, all of your clothes are layers. When hiking, you want to be sure that you have enough layers with you to ensure you can stay warm and dry.
In the first instance there are base layers. These are the ones that are directly next to your skin. These need to be warm but they also need to have wicking ability to let moisture, like sweat, wick away from your skin. A handy example to use when thinking of base layers is to think of Long Johns but in two pieces so a bottom part for your legs and a top part for your torso. That is where the illustration stops though as Long Johns are made of cotton which is a big no-no when hiking. I should also add that I have never wore leggings on a hike, but in really cold temperatures, you may need them.
Hiking Base Layers can be made from synthetic materials like polypropylene, polyester, etc. They can also be made from natural fiber like Merino wool, a very popular material that not only has excellent wicking capability but will keep you warm. Most of my base layers are made from Polypropylene but I do plan to venture into the wonderful world of Merino wool this Winter as I hear great things about it.
Once you have some good base layers on, you then move up to the next layer. Here you’ll be thinking of a good hiking tee or shirt. Again, wicking capabilities are preferable. I tend to stick with polyester tees over my base layer top. It has worked well for me over the years so I am unlikely to change. Shirts can be good too though but I don't really use them.
For hiking pants, you need to again be thinking of breathability and wicking as well as some element of water repellency and general protection. Again, man made fibers like nylon are good as they can offer flexibility which is a plus on the trail. I know I'm stating this again, but pants made from cotton are out. In general, avoid cotton for hiking gear, it isn't a good material for outdoor gear. Some features hiking pants should have is the ability to dry quickly and, if you can get them, ventilation zips on the sides at thigh level are excellent to have. When opened, they allow air to easily circulate around your legs as required. You can check out some decent hiking pants options here.
The next layer up, you will want to have a warm hiking top of some kind to go over your base and second layers. I usually use a fleece jacket but a thermal jacket is also a really good option that works well for warmth.
Waterproofs, Boots and Accessories!
Finally, as you’re now up at the outer end of your layers you will need to have a waterproof hiking jacket and waterproof pants. These should ideally be breathable, water repellent, windproof, easy to put on and remove, as well as stow away in your pack. I use the Berghaus Helvellyn Pants and they're excellent. There is a whole range of things to consider when buying waterproof gear so check out the waterproof hiking jacket buying guide and the hiking pants (external waterproofs) buying guide. It covers everything you need to consider for this outer layer set.
On your feet you want to ensure you have comfortable hiking socks and appropriate hiking boots that have been adequately broken in (I can’t emphasize breaking your socks and boots in enough, see this post!)
Finally some clothing accessories are also crucial for hiking in the colder month's. You will need a good pair of waterproof gloves that will keep your hands warm, dry and, ideally, also allow you good hand and finger movement. The last piece of the puzzle is of course a good hat. While a good hiking jacket or fleece may have good hoods attached to them, I personally like to have a good beanie cap too to keep the noggin that bit warmer.
It's worth pointing out that there are a whole range of hiking hats that are good to use at different times of the year, in different environments, etc. Check out the hiking hat buying guide to learn more on this subject.
So there you have it, a quick synopsis of all the main layers of clothing you should have for hiking in the colder months!
So what Exactly is the Importance of Having all these Layers Anyway?
Well, the main reason for having all these layers is to enable you to stay warm and dry. The inner layers stay close to your body all the time and are designed to keep heat in and let moisture out. As you move further out, the next layers start to move to keeping heat in, with some breathability, to finally, at the external layers, letting moisture out but keeping the elements at bay too.
The beauty of layering is that it is quite easy to adjust your layers to the needs of your environment as it changes. For example, if it starts to get colder as you ascend up a peak you can take out your fleece and slip it on over your hiking tee and below your rain jacket for some extra warmth. Or, if the rain starts pelting down you can quickly get your waterproof pants out of your pack to keep your legs dry. You get the general idea.
Two Tips I will add here …
Firstly, which I cover in this post on what to take with you on a day hike, it is a good idea to take a spare set of clothes with you on all your hikes regardless, just in case you get wet or have some kind of incident that renders your clothes problematic. In particular, you need to be able to replace the lower layers that are closer to your skin as you need to get those off fast, if they get wet, in cold weather.
Now, I should say that I don't always pack a full set of clothes with me on a hike but I will always have a few extra layers and a full change of clothes in my car. It really depends on the hike I'm taking on as well as the conditions. Sometimes a full set of gear should be in your pack with you on the trail, you need to use good judgement. I review that further in this post.
Secondly, aside from the extra set of dry clothes, I think it’s always a good idea to have a second long sleeved base layer as an extra safety net. The reason for this is just if it gets really cold very quickly or if you get injured and can't walk, having another skin tight garment to put on will really help keep your core temperature good. Also, you never know if someone in your hiking crew might need a spare so it’s good to have an extra just in case!
With the right gear both on and with you, you will have done all you can to ensure maximum comfort and enjoyment while hiking in the colder months. Always be sensible and check the weather before-hand and remember, if the weather is looking really bad just leave it for another day. The last thing you want is to get into difficulty and have to call mountain rescue just because you were too Gung-ho!
If you're totally new to hiking, I suggest you start here where I walk through all the key points you need to consider to get started hiking. There are plenty of links from there to, among many other relevant topics, posts about the different bits of gear you should have. If you want to get straight to business with it, check out the complete day hiking checklist which covers everything you need to consider in terms of gear and a bunch of other stuff.
OK, that's it for today 🙂 I really hope you found this useful. Any questions on any of this or of you're unsure about anything, feel free to leave a comment and I'll get back to you to try and help as soon as possible. Don;t forget to like and share this post 😉