How to Layer Clothes for Winter Outdoor Activities

Learning how to layer clothes in the winter can be a royal pain. It’s freezing outside so the tendency is to overlayer because who likes to be cold? But, that can backfire in a major way, too.

Will has this ridiculous story from his younger years leading wilderness trips in California. A crew of friends went on a multi-night snowshoeing trip, and the group was a mix of novice and experienced outdoorsman. After an hour or two of hiking, they stopped to check in with each other and realized that one of the novice hikers had tried to combat the chilly outdoor temps by putting on every single layer he had brought on the trip.

Whoops.

As you can imagine, this poor guy sweat through everything he was wearing; his base layers, his insulating layers, his socks, and his underwear were all sopping wet with sweat. The group called an audible and pitched their tents on the spot so the now-sweaty guy could get out of his wet clothing. Of course, no one thought to tell him that he should stash his saturated clothing in his sleeping bag overnight, so he carefully hung everything from the hooks inside his tent, just like you would with laundry back at home.

Do you hear where this is going yet?!

How to Layer Clothes for Winter Adventures

As it does in the winter, overnight temps got much colder and our now-naked friend awoke in the morning only to realize all of his previously-wet clothes were frozen solid. As in, crunchy and hard and hanging from the ceiling.

Will and his friends spent three days and two nights in the woods on this trip, and the poor friend spent the entire time in his tent since his clothes never thawed. Not only did he miss out on all the fun, but he had to stare at nylon walls for 36 hours. How boring.

Fortunately, he is now an outdoor guide so he obviously learned from the experience. Hopefully he laughs about it now!

How to Layer Clothes

My points is this: knowing how to layer clothes in the winter takes some trial-and-error, but it’s truly a simple process. In the most basic sense, you’re looking at three layers: the base layer, the mid layer, and the exterior layer. Once you have your system dialed, you won’t have to worry about your underwear freezing overnight!

Note: Many of the links below are affiliate links which means I get a small commission if you purchase items. As always, I appreciate the support!

Base Layer

This is your next-to-skin layer, cleverly named since it sits….well, right against your skin. The idea behind this layer of clothing is to wick sweat away from your body. You know how you are cold when you are standing at the trailhead but then sweat starts dumping after 15 minutes of hiking on the trail? This layer of clothing will swoop in and transfer that moisture from the inside of the fabric to the outside.

Why is that important? Because you really, really don’t want all that sweat sitting next to your skin. In winter conditions, sweat cools quickly and having cold moisture on your skin can lead to hypothermia. Obviously, that’s no bueno, but it’s where the expression “Cotton Kills” originated. Cotton retains moisture which means your favorite cotton t-shirt is going to hang onto your sweat all day long. Having that cold fabric against your skin is less than ideal, so do yourself a favor and leave the cotton at home.

How to Layer Clothes for Winter Adventures

PC: Will Rochfort

If not cotton, what type of fabric should your base layer be made from? These days, you’re looking at two options: merino wool and synthetic material. Synthetic materials are cheaper, but can retain smell LIKE WHOA. Anyone who has shared a tent with someone for a week knows that smelly tights do not a friend make. Merino wool is a popular choice but it’s pricier and not vegan friendly.

My Favorites: Arc’Teryx Satoro shirt or the Patagonia Midweight Capilene

Budget Option: Terramar Half Zip 2.0

Insulating Layer

The next step in your layering system in the insulating, or mid layer. This layer goes on top of your base layer but still underneath your exterior layer.

This layer of clothing serves one purpose: to keep you warm. It does this by trapping air close to your body. On most high-cardio activities {like backpacking or ski touring} this layer stays parked inside your backpack until you stop moving. It may be tempting to wear it while hiking, but then you’ll end up like our friend at the beginning with sopping-wet clothing!

There are so many types of insulation on the market, but a few of the most popular include wool, fleece, or down/synthetic insulation. Each type of materials has its pros and cons, but you can’t go wrong with any of them. Fleece can be bulkier but down insulation becomes useless when wet. Merino wool retains heat when wet but won’t keep you as warm as down insulation will. It’s up to you to weigh your options and choose the best insulation for your trip.

My Favorites: Patagonia R1 Fleece Hoody, Icebreaker Helix Vest, or the Canada Goose Hybridge Lite Down Jacket.

Budget Option: Mountain Hardwear Monkey Women Grid II Fleece

Exterior Layer

The last piece of the layering trifecta is your exterior shell. As you likely guessed, this goes on the outside, on top of your base layer and mid layer {if you are wearing it.} The purpose of your exterior, or shell, layer is to protect you from the elements. When you’re first starting out, you may not realize how important this shell is but as you learn more about how to layer clothes, you’ll realize its an integral component of your system.

How to Layer Clothes for Winter Adventures

Featured: the Canada Goose Hybridge Lite insulated jacket, mentioned above

You know that Mother Nature? She gets sassy. Wind, rain, snow, and hail are all the norm in the winter months, and a quality shell will keep all of that mess out and away from your body and your warming layers. There is a trick to your shell, though: you want it to be breathable.

Otherwise we’d all just wear trash bags.

Cheaper shells are frequently missing this component. You can find a basic rain jacket for less than $100, and it will keep rain and snow out. That said, it is likely that you will hot box yourself while hiking because the shell won’t allow your body heat to escape. This may not sound like a big deal, but it’s important since trapped body heat will turn into condensation inside your jacket. Once again, we’re back to that whole frozen clothes thing from the beginning.

My advice? Spend the extra cash on a breathable shell. A quality shell is going to cost you significantly more money, but I suspect you’ll be happy with your investment in the long run.

My Favorites: Arc’Teryx Beta LT

Budget Option: REI Rhyolite Hard Shell

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There’s a lot that goes into the perfect layering system, and truthfully, there is a fair bit more than I mentioned here. If you’re curious in learning more about how to layer  clothes for backpacking in particular {What is the difference between down and synthetic? What is sustainable down? Can you find an odor-resistant synthetic base layer?}, consider snagging a copy of my book when it hits stores in the spring. Due to infringement, I can’t include everything in this post that I included in the book, and trust me. There was a lot! I wrote an entire chapter dedicated to these three layers, and if memory serves, I think I included a whole paragraph on how your shell is similar to human skin.

Gross. I know.

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4 Comments

  • Reply Danielle L February 14, 2017 at 2:31 pm

    Hello Heather! Have you ever tried any of the ‘loft’ or ‘down’ merino versions of mid layers? I’m pretty interested in trying out something, maybe from icebreaker or smartwool when my budget opens up to it, do you have any input on the subject?
    Thanks for your time!

    • Reply Heather February 15, 2017 at 7:16 am

      Hi Danielle! So, funny enough, the Icebreaker Helix Vest that I list as one of my favorites under insulation is a a merino loft product. I have both the vest and the jacket by Icebreaker and really like them, although I tend to wear the vest more due to movability (and because I love vests!) That link goes through to Backcountry.com where it’s on sale, too (since I know they can be expensive.) Hope that helps!

  • Reply Jessie @ Chasing Belle February 15, 2017 at 7:44 pm

    These are great tips! I live in Southern California so have to travel up some of our bigger mountain ranges to access snow, but with these clear suggestions on how to dress appropriately, I look forward to playing in the snow now that we have had more rain in our state as of late!

  • Reply 2017 Survey Results: Analyzed -Just a Colorado Gal February 23, 2017 at 12:00 pm

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