Layer for the Cold: stay comfortable hiking and camping

January 19, 2020

So you, like many of us, resolved to get outside more in 2020 – but now it’s late January and it’s actually chilly. How do you layer for the cold? I have a few strategies I use to stay comfortable no matter what the temperature is.

But why layer – why not just buy a heavy jacket and put that on over whatever? The advantage to layering is that you can tailor your level of warmth precisely, and adjust as needed while you’re active. I once bundled up my kids and myself in full snow gear with light base layers for sledding, reasoning that we were basically going to be sitting around in light wind and would need the warmth. Then I decided to pull them on the snow tube to our sledding hill, rather than drive, and arrived at the hill red faced and sweaty. I supervised our sledding with my snow coat fully unzipped to reveal the T shirt I had on underneath, and only cooled down in time for the ride home.

The other advantage is that many layering pieces do double or triple duty. Your base layers can be used as workout gear, your midlayers are casual outerwear – there’s no need to go out and buy expensive pieces that serve only one purpose when you can have an entire wardrobe of mix and match. What’s already in your closet will take you far!

Layering Step 1:

Your first step should always be to gather data: where are you going? What are the high and low temperatures expected for the time you’ll be out? Will there be rain or snow? What about wind? Any elevation changes that will affect your temperature?

Next, assess your planned activity. Are you hiking at the speed of toddler? Plan to dress more warmly than you would if you were trail running.

Final part of step 1 is to know yourself and your history. What parts of your body tend to run cold and hot? My ears are always cold under 60 degrees, so I tend to double up on ear protection, but my hands run hot if I’m running or hiking at a reasonable pace. I tend to forget gloves etc and try to keep a spare pair stashed in my car just in case.

CampRents Founder Jenny Owens with her husband on a mountain
Layers visible here at elevation. I’ve got a down jacket over a fleece over a technical base layer, with a headband on for my ears.

Step 2 is to pick the right gear.

I don’t do sponsorships or affiliate links, if I’m mentioning something here it’s because I’ve paid for it with my own money and personally tested it. Let’s start from the ground up:

Feet: Wool socks are a must, no matter the weather. They stay warm when wet and are less swampy than cotton. (I am tremendously loyal to Darn Tough because of their lifetime warranty) Thicker knit socks are going to take up more space in your boots, so when I lace up for winter hikes I unlace entirely and relace my boots more loosely around my socks. You don’t want numb toes, from cold or compression!

Legs: For legs, you’ll want a few options in your closet. A tight fitting legging made of tech fabric or wool can be a base layer or your only layer, if it’s not too cold. Your base layer’s main purpose is to wick sweat away so you don’t get chilled – if you need extra warmth, you can slip a warmer knit legging over a base layer, like the Patagonia thermal capilene knit. You’ll also want to keep your hiking pants handy, and have a pair of waterproof or water resistant pants. I have both a rain shell pant and a pair of insulated snow pants. I reuse my running tights as my base layers, and keep an extra thermal layer just for frigid days.

Torso: Keeping your core warm is the highest priority – but too warm and you’ll overheat while somehow also having freezing fingers. You’ll want to have close fitting tank tops, short sleeved T shirts, and long sleeved T shirts in wool or technical fabric for your base layers – again, their main purpose is to keep you sweat free, so you want a snugger fit. Over these, you can wear a midlayer of synthetic fleece or wool (in a pinch, your merino sweaters for work can also work!) to provide warmth. I like a midlayer with a zipper at the neck to adjust air flow into my core – as I heat up I often loosen up a bit so I don’t get too warm. For our outer layers, you’ll want a rain shell and a warmer jacket (down or synthetic).

Hands: Synthetic and/or wool is the way to go here – I have very thin synthetic gloves that I use as a base/only layer, and then a pair of fleece-lined Gortex mittens that go on top for super frigid/wet weather.

Head: I prefer headbands to hats, because I have a lot of hair that makes hats hard to wear – ponytails create spaces for air to sneak in, and buns make hats ride up so they don’t fully cover my ears. Braids are an outdoor long-haired person’s best friend! Here again, you want synthetic or wool. I would recommend a headband, a fleece lined hat which will break the wind and retain heat better than an unlined knit, and a close knit balaclava. Having a layer you can pull up over your face is important – a scarf would also work here.

Jenny Owens, CampRents founder, and son on a winter hike, layered for the cold
Layers for everyone!

Step 3: It’s time to get dressed!

Think about how you felt the last time you were out – were you too hot? Did you wish you’d remembered your gloves? I’ve got a few example temperatures, activities, and gear lists below, but chime in with yours!

Scenario 1: Trail run, 40 degrees, light rain. This weather is both my nemesis and the most common weather in Ohio. For this situation, I’d wear: regular wool running socks, trail runners, Underarmor Cold Gear leggings, a technical lightly insulated long sleeved T, and a wool headband. The leggings and T will keep sweat moving away from me while drying quickly from the rain, leaving me mostly dry and warm enough, as long as I keep moving. I know my hands will stay warm so I skip the gloves.

Scenario 2: Family hike, with children 6 and 4, 25 degrees, snow. I love a snowy hike, and so do my kids, but the miles don’t tick by very quickly while we investigate tracks, make snowballs, and talk about moss. For this, I’d wear (and encourage my kids to wear, with varying degrees of success): Darn Tough insulated wool hiking socks, waterproof hiking boots, Underarmor Cold Gear leggings, Patagonia capilene thermal weight leggings, hiking pants, thin technical T, 1/4 zip fleece, down jacket, fleece headband, fleece lined hat, thin gloves. If the snow is really wet, I’d add a rain shell on top of the down, but this outfit will keep me warm even if we’re taking a 20 minute break to throw rocks in the river. The base layers will pull sweat away while we’re actually hiking, and if I get too hot I can open up the neck of my jacket and fleece to dump some heat. (more on hiking with children here)

Scenario 3: Camping, 30 degree low, wind. I’ve gotten into camp, dinner is made and eaten, and the sunset has been admired. It’s time for bed but the temperature is dropping fast! In this case, my sleeping bag and tent are going to take the place of my outer layers to block the wind and provide the majority of my insulation, so I need to focus on sweat wicking and making sure none of my extremities are too cold. I’d snuggle down in my bag wearing dry (aka not the ones I’ve been hiking in all day) wool socks, Patagonia capilene thermal weight leggings since they breathe so nicely, a technical T, and a fleece headband. (more detailed notes on packing for a backpacking trip here)

A final note: if you’re building a cold weather closet from scratch, this is a lot to buy at once. I have called out brands here that I’ve tested not only for performance but also for longevity. I have running tights form Underarmor that are still doing great, 5 years later. My running jacket is almost 10 years old. I’m not particularly easy on my gear – I need stuff that will last.

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