A lot of people have a lot of questions about how to dress to stay warm in the cold months. Especially during active days on trail or in the backcountry. And it definitely is a tricky thing to find that perfect balance between too many layers and too few. Sweating yourself into hypothermia or freezing from the get-go. It seems way more complicated than it actually is. Of course, every body is a unique snowflake, so definitely play with what works for you. But the aim here is to give a general guideline that works for most.
The main goal of layering is to stay dry. Everything else is secondary. Because yeah... you want to be warm, but if you’re wet, that cannot happen.
It took me a while to get layering right. And I still adjust the way I do it sometimes. I am the kind of lady who likes to be hot when I am aerobic, so sweat is a pretty real threat at any given time in the wild. Because I don’t really notice that I am dripping wet- I just feel nice and hot. But that’s super dangerous. So to help with this issue, I always carry a second set of clothing with me. That way, if I do a terrible job delayering and staying dry, I can undress, dry off and redress. It’s not ideal. But everyone should be aware that it is in fact, an option. It’s important to know yourself and your body so you can take precautions like this. It’s very easy to say “do this, this and this and youll be perfectly fine.” But we all know that’s a pretty pretentious line of thought. There are basic rules of thumb, but from there, you must fine tune for you. And there is nothing wrong with that!
Another thing to note about winter layering is that it’s winter. It’s cold out. You will feel cold sometimes. It’s normal and healthy and invigorating. The goal is to know what is good-cold and what is bad-cold. When you’re cold, it should never be uncomfortable or numbing. It should be crisp and fun. The second it gets uncomfortable, you must assess why that is and make appropriate adjustments to correct it.
Go grab a warm drink and something yummy to eat. Do it, you want to. Then come on back and learn about layering for winter. Then go play outside!
Basics, basics, basics.
Layer #1: next to skin. The main purpose of this layer is to wick sweat away from the skin and to dry out quickly. Whatever you do, do not make this layer cotton. Cotton is literally the worst choice. It will never dry. My favorite choice is wool. Wool is warm in the cold, cool in the heat and doesn’t smell bad, even when you wear it for 10 days in a row without washing it. The downside of wool is that it takes a little long to get dry. Which can be uncomfortable, but know that even when wet, wool will keep you warm. The other common option is synthetic polyester. Synthetics are moisture wicking and fast drying. But they are typically not as warm as wool. Synthetics also smell terrible and hold that smell once you’ve worn them for a while. There are also blends, which can be a great option. This layer needs to be snug. Or tight fitting. It needs to sit flush with the skin, so it can wick sweat. If this layer is too loose, the sweat will sit on your skin and will only dry by evaporating, which will make you so fucking cold. So choose which material works best for you and make sure you get a snug fit on both top and bottoms.
A note about layer #1: what about bras and underwear? They make bras and underwear in wool. So that’s an option for some. Personally, I use a synthetic sports bra and then my base layers are wool. I definitely would prefer a wool bra, but they don’t come in very supportive or large sizes for us busty ladies.
Layer #2: insulation. This layer is meant to trap your body heat. And what you choose can very tremendously based on weather and activity. We’re talking fleeces to sweaters to down jackets. And everything in between. During highly aerobic times, this layer will be removed and stored in your pack. You don’t want to get this layer all wet with sweat. When you stop moving or slow down, youll toss this layer back on so that as you’re sweat dries, you stay nice and warm. Generally, I use a fleece and a down jacket as my insulation layers. That way I can play around with “do I need one or both?” Options here are good. Very, very good. I also carry an extra fleece with me that I know I probably won’t use. For two reasons. Reason one is if I get way colder than expected. Like if I need to unexpectedly stay overnight in the wild. Reason two is if I accidentally get my first fleece full of sweat. A soaked second layer is really bad.
Layer #3: shell. This layer cuts wind and keeps you dry. Think of it as the protection layer. You want this layer to be waterproof and breathable. Which typically will put you in a Goretex or eVent shell. To quickly clear up some confusion, a shell is what many think of as a rain jacket. Typically a thin and crunchy jacket with zero additional insulation. You want it to keep water out, but let sweat vapors escape, so you don’t sweat out the inside. Nice hardshells often have pit-zips. Pit-zips are amazing and I highly recommend this as a feature. Don’t forget, this layer means pants too in many cases. Gotta keep those legs warm and dry.
Keep in mind, a big part of layering is removing and adding layers constantly to keep your body’s temperature even. It is normal and good to be adding and removing on a frequent basis. I always start off hiking with insulating layers, only to remove them in a short period of time. And as I get higher and the temps drop, I throw them back on. Play around with what works for you!
A little more technical.
Layer 1 should be light and long sleeved/full legged. Layer 2 should be long sleeved and legged as well. Layer 2.5 should be a down jacket or synthetic jacket, something with a hood. This layer is so important for when it’s frigid out. Layer 3 needs to be waterproof and it needs to be sized up enough to fit all the other layers under it. This means sizing up at least one full size.
If you have goggles or sunglasses on and they keep steaming up, there’s a good chance you’re too hot. Delayer or unzip your jacket for a bit. If you have a Buff over your nose, pull it down.
Be sure to stagger zippers. The last thing you want is to be poked and annoyed by a massive pile of zippers under your chin and on your chest. Be mindful of this when purchasing layers. A Buff worn around the neck can make this situation a bit more comfortable.
Speaking of Buffs, get a wool Buff. You’ll use it as a face mask, neck warmer, headband or even a shirt for changing quick. I live my Buff as a chin warmer and nose warmer.
Find gloves that fit you properly- the test for this is to get dressed and undressed while wearing them. Sometimes it’s too cold to take your gloves off for a task- make sure you still have full use of your gloved hands prior to adventuring.
Keep your pockets zipped when you aren’t using them- they could fill up with snow.
Use gaiters. Your hardshell pants may have these, but if they don’t, grab a pair. You’ll keep your feet dry. Without them, snow can very easily get inside your boots. Especially if you’re postholing.
Keep a snack or two close to your body, so it’s warm to eat and doesn’t freeze. I recommend a couple bars of some sort- something you can eat really fast if find yourself running on empty.