Winter hikes can be really cool – hiking out in the cold isn’t the most pleasant thing in the world, but it can be fun and challenging. However, if you want to prevent your trip from turning into a disaster, you should consider clothing very carefully.
If you’ve ever participated in any outdoor activity in winter, then you should already have a good idea of how you need to dress for cold-season hiking. But if this is going to be your first low-temp experience, then read on to find tips and recommendations as to what to wear for winter hikes!
Layers Are The Base Of Your Hiking Attire
First things first, you should wear multiple layers of body clothing while hiking. The logic of wearing layers is to be able to easily remove and add clothes throughout the hike as you feel cold or hot. It’s better to have more layers than you need but have the ability to take them off than lack clothing and risk freezing.
Layered clothing is actually used not only in hiking but also in any other cold-weather outdoor activity. Within hiking or not, cold-season outdoor clothing consists of 3 following layers:
- Base layer. The purpose of this layer is to wick sweat away from your skin.
- Middle layer. This is the layer that actually keeps you warm. The middle layer serves as insulation, keeping heat close to your body.
- Outer layer. The outer layer keeps external wind and moisture away from the inner layers.
Typically, 3 layers are worn both on the upper and lower body. However, depending on the weather and on what you have, you may wear fewer layers.
Additionally, lower body clothing is usually limited to just 2 layers. If you keep moving most of the time, you don’t need to wear 3 layers on all body parts.
Keep in mind that although you don’t always need to wear 3 layers for cold protection, you should pack some extra clothing items. In case you get cold, this would allow you to “upgrade” your clothing on the go.
We will now talk about the 3 clothing layers and what should be worn at each a little more in-depth. Though it might seem that you can throw anything on your body to achieve protection from cold, there are some subtle yet important details that you must know about.
As mentioned earlier, the purpose of the base layer is to wick moisture away from your body. With that in mind, you should wear merino wool or synthetic fabrics as a base layer. The base clothes should fit against your skin snugly to do their job.
No cotton should be in the base layer – though cotton is warm, it absorbs rather than wicks moisture and takes forever to dry. If you stay wet on a cold day, you are likely to get hypothermia.
You may play around with the thickness of the base layer based on outdoor conditions and your own preferences. If you sweat a lot, then you should put on something lighter.
The middle layer traps air close to your body, forming an insulating layer that prevents heat from escaping. Air is a great insulator because its thermal conductivity is very low.
Good insulating clothing for the middle layer can be made of down, fleece, or wool. You may opt for synthetics as well, especially if the area is humid.
Note that middle layers made of down lose their insulative properties when wet, so you should avoid this material in snowy weather.
The outer layer’s main purpose is to protect the inner layers from moisture. When raining or snowing, the shell layer will shield your insulative middle layer, allowing it to retain its heat retention capabilities.
The outer layer clothing should be water-resistant, breathable, and windproof. Some insulation may be present as well.
Note that if the outer shell has good insulation, then you may not need to wear a middle layer. This will depend on what you are wearing and how the weather is outside though.
What To Wear On The Extremities
Above, we’ve talked about upper and lower body protection. With legs, feet, and your head, things are a little bit different. Here’s what you should do to protect these areas from cold:
- Hands: Wear light or mid-weight fleece gloves. Your gloves should be waterproof from the outside and moisture-wicking from the inside. If you can’t find moisture-wicking gloves, then you may wear a glove liner beneath the gloves.
Pack at least two pairs of gloves – if your first pair gets wet, you should immediately switch to the other one.
- Feet. Wear moisture-wicking socks made of wool or synthetics. Again, avoid cotton and opt for moisture-wicking fabrics. You may wear moisture-wicking sock liners too for added protection.
Your socks may be thick, but not so thick that they make your boots sit tight. This could cut off blood circulation.
For footwear, wear waterproof boots to keep snow and moisture out. You may want to wear gaiters as well to keep snow out of your boots. On really cold days, you may want to opt for boots that have their own insulation too.
- Head. Wear a winter hat to cover your head and ears. To protect your nose and cheeks, you may wear a neck gaiter paired with a face mask.
Keep in mind that your clothing should not sit tight on your body. It should just fit you properly. Tight-fitting clothes may impede blood circulation, which could lead to frostbite.
If you’ve never traveled in the wild in cold seasons, then you may struggle to get yourself an optimal attire set for winter hiking. And in practice, until you go out a few times, you won’t know what’s right for you.
To stay on the safer side during your first trips, do two things – pack spare clothes and do not hike for long. Your initial few trips are going to be test runs, if you will. And once you figure out what roughly works for you, you may do more “serious” hikes.
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