When the temperatures drop, it’s all about staying warm. Of course I can overcome the cold weather by simply throwing a coat on, like I would when at home, however, I found that by using a single coat/jacket to keep me warm is not the best idea while out on the trail. In order to account for the changing conditions, along with my level of exertion, I have found that (for me, as well as many others) using multiple layers as a system has been a much wiser, and more comfortable, choice. By layering multiple items of clothing/insulation, I have more control over how warm I am, and can more easily adapt my layers to match the surrounding environment and/or my activity levels.
So which layers work? We are all different: We hike in different areas and in different conditions, as well as have different expectations and needs. Then of course, to fill these needs, there are so many different brands and options/models available to choose from. Saying this, I have found that the best way to figure out which layers will work best for *you* is by simply trying them for yourself.
But, where to start? In my opinion, there are 4 basic layers to think about when it comes to layering clothing in cold weather to stay warm.
- Baselayer. For me, this is something that is close-fitting, lightweight, breathable and wicks moisture. This layer will begin moving perspiration away from my skin and keep me as dry as possible, which is a very important part of staying warm.
- Midlayer. For me, this is basically a lightweight, insulation layer that I can layer over my base layer, and, I would like to be able to hike while wearing this layer too. It should also be breathable (and preferably able to vent) as well as be able to wick moisture (to continue the transportation of moisture away from my skin and keep me dry).
- Insulation Layer. For me, this is my primary insulation layer that I go to in order to keep me warm. For the most part, I do not plan to use this layer while actually hiking (unless temperatures are extremely low), and just as with the base & midlayer, this item can be somewhat breathable, and able to continue passing moisture through (usually through venting). I find a slight DWR coating on the outside of this layer to be acceptable.
- Hard Shell. The hard shell is the last layer I put on, and needs to be able to fit over everything else, without compressing the layers beneath. This layer should be waterproof (or very water-resistant), should block wind, yet also be able to continue to transport moisture from the inside out (and honestly, venting is the best bet here).
So, what do I use for each of the above layers? At the moment, here is what I am using:
- Baselayer = Patagonia Capilene 2 long sleeve crew shirt
- Midlayer = Patagonia R1 Flash Pullover or Patagonia Capilene 4 EW 1/4 Zip Hoody
- Insulation Layer =
Montbell UL Down Inner ParkaMontbell Ex Light Anorak
- Hard Shell =
Dri Ducks Rain ShellMontane Minimus Smock
As of this year, I have also decided to add in one more layer in the above mix, and that is a windshirt. I found that the hard shells that I had been using was not breathable enough for me to use just to simply block wind on those cool mornings. With even a small amount of exertion, I found that I built up a nice, humid, climate under my hard shells. So, I decided to try out a windshirt.
The windshirt has been a great replacement piece for my hard shell when I just need a little something extra to cut a little wind while hiking. Of course, the hard shell will block wind, but the difference between it and a windshirt is that the windshirt will allow more of the built up moisture under the windshirt to move to the outside. The windshirt will allow me to stay drier, which is an important part of staying warm, especially in cold weather.
Other than this, there are a few other areas that need to be addressed as well…
Feet: There are a few different layers to consider when thinking about feet:
- Socks. I generally wear either a pair of low-cut wool hiking socks or a pair of medium weight wool crew socks, depending on conditions. Basically, if the temps are expected to constantly be below freezing, or I am expecting to be hiking through snow, then I will wear the crew cut socks, otherwise, I will wear the shorter cut socks.
- Shoes/Boots. I will either wear a pair of Inov-8 Rocklite 315 trail runners (or the RocLite 243’s) or a pair of Lowa Renegade GTX mid height boots, depending on the situations I am anticipating when heading out on the hike. If I plan to be hiking through much snow, then I grab my boots, otherwise I will wear my trail runners.
- Gaiters. I typically only carry gaiters with me whenever I am planning to be in snow. I don’t typically wear shorts to hike in, so I do not need to wear them to keep debris out of my shoes. However, I do like to use them in snow to keep my pants dry, which keeps my legs warm. Depending on the amount of snow I am anticipating on the hike, will help me to determine which pair to bring, my Integral Designs Shortie Gaiters, my Dirty Girl Gaiters, or my OR Rocky Mountain High Gaiters.
As far as my legs, I have been wearing my Columbia Silver Ridge Convertible Pants for the past few years and have loved them in all conditions, whether it be rain or shine, snow or ice, hot or cold, wet or dry… These pants just fit me really well, and are made from a lightweight nylon mini ripstop material that is breathable and dries quickly, which has allowed me to wear them comfortably in all conditions I have been in. They are convertible pants, however, I have kept the legs attached about 99% of the time…this is just my preference. (The zip does allow a nice way to vent when I get warm though.)
When it gets cold outside I also always make it a point to carry a pair of rain pants. As I have mentioned in this article already, being dry is a very important step to staying warm. For a little over a year now I have been carrying the Dri Ducks rain pants that came with my jacket. They are light weight and big enough to fit over both my Columbia pants while I am hiking, or my thicker GooseFeet Gear down pants when I am wearing them around camp. These are not the most durable rain pants on the market, but considering the weight, cost and the amount of time I actually use them, they have been a great option!
As well, I have been wearing either a pair of Ex Officio Give-N-Go boxer briefs or a pair of Under Armour boxer briefs while hiking. I like the boxer briefs for the simple fact that they help prevent chaff.
Head & Neck. The head and neck areas are also very important areas to consider when thinking about heat loss. It is an old saying that “A person loses XX% of body heat through their head.” I am not sure what percent it is, but I will say that it can be a significant amount. Another popular saying is “If you have cold feet, put a hat on.” I can also say that there is some truth to this, although, I will admit, it is not as instant as it may sound, or that I would like it to be…
Some of the clothing items that I listed above come with hoods on them, which help to keep both my head and neck warm, however, I also carry a few other items to keep these area’s warm and protected.
- Head Buff. The Buff is one of those items that are so simple and effective, that it’s just crazy (at least to me). The Original Buff is essentially a tube made of microfiber polyester material and is open at both ends. I can pull the Buff straight over my head, down to my neck and use it as a neck gaiter, which I do when the temps are quite cold, or when I am sleeping. As well, the Buff can also be twisted around in a number of different ways to create some useful, effective head wear when not used as a neck gaiter. (I generally twist the Buff a couple of times at the center, fold it back over on itself and use it as a lightweight boggin.)
- Boggin. A boggin, or hat, is the best way to keep ones head warm when it is cold outside. Sometime back I picked up a Black Rock Gear Down Hat to use while backpacking in the winter, and I have been exceptionally happy with it! I have also used a few other boggin’s, but the Black Rock Gear down hat has been the best choice for me. It fits well, is lightweight, warm and breathable. A great combination!
- Face Mask. For those cool mornings with a brisk breeze, I have found myself wanting something to cover my face… my nose gets cold and starts dripping snot, my lips get chapped, or numb and my cheeks burn from the cold. So, earlier this year, I picked up a Seirus Neofleece Comfort Masque. This mask has a nice fleece lining on the inside, which in my experience will do an ok job of staying dry, but this will vary in certain conditions. (Although, I will admit, I actually plan to use this more at night when I sleep rather than when I am hiking.)
I would like to note that the above 3 items can also be bought as a single item, called a balaclava. However, for my needs, I prefer to have all 3 individual items, which in my opinion is a bit more versatile, despite the (possible) weight penalty. (Of course, YMMV.)
The last thing I would like to talk about are my hands & fingers. Being a bony extremity, when my fingers are exposed to the elements, unprotected, they can get cold easy and fast. So, to keep my fingers warm, I have been using a similar layering system as I do on my torso area, except for this I just use 2 layers: an insulating layer and a water/wind proof outer layer. (I should note though that many choose a 3 layering approach here: A thin, liner glove, then a thicker insulating mitt, and then a waterproof outer.)
- As far as the insulating layer, mittens seem to offer the best heat retention, however, at the cost of a bit of dexterity. Gloves on the other hand offer the most dexterity, and while they do keep my fingers warmer than not using anything at all, they are not as warm as they would be with mittens.
- Concerning the water/wind proof outer layer, these can also be found as either gloves or mittens (although, it seems like mittens are a more popular option for a waterproof option, that I have found). And just as with the hard shell mentioned above, these need to be able to breathe and transfer moisture from the inside to the outside.
So, what did I choose? I went with a pair of Outdoor Research PL150 gloves for my insulating layer. These have been all that I have found that I need for the conditions I have been in, so at the moment, I am perfectly happy with them. As well, I like the amount of dexterity that gloves offer since I use them as “pot lifters” during the winter time… and I need all the dexterity I can get lifting a pot of boiling water off of a fire…
As for the outer layer, I decided to go with a pair of ZPacks Waterproof Breathable Cuben Fiber Rain Mitts. I will admit, I picked these up mainly due to the weight. However, from experience, I know that cuben fiber is indeed 100% waterproof, but I wanted to try the newer waterproof/breathable cuben fiber. (I actually need to write-up a report on these mitts, but for now I can say that I have found that they do indeed transport moisture pretty well, are waterproof, and light!)
UPDATE: As of January 2015, I will be trying out a pair of Enlightened Equipment Insulated Mittens (with 4 oz/sqyd Climashield Apex) with a pair of MLD eVENT Rain Mitts that I’ve actually had for a few years now. I am also thinking about carrying a simple pair of nitrile gloves which I can use as a VBL in case my fingers get cold even in the mitts. I will try to remember to update this post later in the year after using these items…
So, that is pretty much it concerning my layering system that I use when the mercury finally drops. As I said, I know that there are a number of other options out there, and I am quite certain that others will use different items than what I have listed. That is fine with me though because the items in this post is what works for me, and that is the point of this post. The items I have listed above have kept me comfortable in temperatures as low as 9 F at camp and 16 F while hiking (not counting wind chill or other times that felt just as cold, but temperatures were not measured).
Here is a video I made earlier while at Big Hill Pond on a small day hike in which I show off each layer and briefly talk about them…
But… there are other items that I would like to try. As I said, this system works just fine, but I want to try out other items too…you never know if something is better or not until you try it…
As I mentioned in the video, I am trying out an Icebreaker GT200 Chase 1/4 zip shirt this winter as my base layer (it was on sale for $50!) I like the idea of trying a wool baselayer simply for the fact that the smell will not be as bad as with my synthetic Capilene shirts. I wore the Icebreaker shirt on our most recent hike to the Roan Highlands and I feel like it did good, however, I did realize that it takes a good while longer to dry out than my Capilene. So, I will try it some more and see what kind of results I get with it…
UPDATE: After using the Icebreaker shirt a couple more times, I decided that it wasn’t for me. The shirt was a little itchy, and as I mentioned, drying it out was tough. In fact, it didn’t really get dry until I brought it home and dried it. I have gone back to using my Capilene 2 shirt, and absolutely love it.
I also have the Patagonia Capilene 4 Expedition Weight 1/4 Zip Hooded shirt on my Christmas list… It is a bit lighter weight than my R1, but it seems to get some good feedback on a few sites. So, if I get this I will try it in place of my R1… What do I like about this as compared to my beloved R1? The thumb loops and the hood… So, I am crossing my fingers.
UPDATE: I did get the Capilene 4 Hoody for Christmas, and it is AWESOME! I love this piece. It is not quite as warm as the R1, but it is warm, and versatile. Since using it, I have decided that if I am expecting routine temps above 20 F, it goes with me. However, if I plan to be hiking in temps less than 20 F, I will carry my R1. I definitely recommend this piece though… layered over my Cap 2 shirt, it is a most excellent system!
Also, I would like to try out some of the Possum Down gloves in place of my OR PL150 gloves. These gloves also get really high marks from many light weight backpackers, despite the fact that they can wear out faster than other gloves. Either way, I would like to get some of these to give a try sometime soon…
UPDATE: I never did get any of the Possum Down gloves, so I cannot comment on those. However, they seem to be tough to find in the States… So, for now, these are not high on my list, but if I happen to come across a pair, I will pick them up to try out…
Anyway, that’s about it for now, so thanks for stopping by and reading! Feel free to leave your layering system in the comments section below and discuss them. I appreciate the feedback!
Disclaimer: All items mentioned in this post are mine and were not provided to me. I paid for each item with my own money. I am not affiliated with any of the above mentioned companies and have no obligations to write about their products.