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Layers of fun: Winter hiking essentials

Your favorite peaks, like New Hampshire's Mount Adams, are open year-round, with proper planning and gear. (Photo: Dave MacLeay)

Hiking is a year-round activity, yet many hikers call it quits once the trees shed their leaves and spend their winter months indoors, awaiting spring. But winter hiking holds a beauty all its own, along with a level of exhilaration you can't find on the trail in the midst of a sweltering summer. The world takes on a different shape under a blanket of fresh snow. Cold temperatures sharpen senses, and chilly air makes those uphill climbs far more invigorating.

With careful pre-hike planning, the proper gear, a hearty spirit, and a warm drink waiting for you at trail's end, a snowy hike is a picturesque, satisfying way to experience the benefits of a season we tend to take for granted.


Cool and dry

Many who fear frigid temps think only of how cold it feels when they peek their head out the door in the morning — not how it'll feel when they're warmed up, carrying a bit of weight up a steep slope. The real concern on a winter hike is moderating your temperature and staying cool (and dry) while you're moving.

If you over-bundle when you're stationary, you'll overheat on the trail, creating a sweat/freeze cycle that puts cold, damp fabrics next to your skin. In the short run you'll feel clammy and uncomfortable; in the long run you could succumb to hypothermia.

In winter it's important to anticipate when you will warm up or cool down and shed and add layers as needed. If you feel yourself getting hot and sweaty or uncomfortably cold, don't wait. Stop and adjust your layers right away.

What you wear for those layers will depend on multiple factors like temperature, humidity, altitude, activity level, and your own thermostat and comfort level. But, an enjoyable winter jaunt is within any hiker's reach, it just requires dressing smart from head to toe — controlling moisture and cooling your body's tendency to overheat from exertion.


Feet first

“If your feet are cold, you're finished,” says Cathy Anderson-Meyers, a veteran snowshoe guide and REI Outdoor School instructor based near Tahoe National Forest. Having led snowshoe trips for the past 18 years, Anderson-Meyers knows that protecting your feet is paramount in winter, particularly choosing the insulating layer between your boots and skin.


Your feet are taking you into the backcountry and getting you back out, so they need to be in great shape whether your trip is five hours or five days. Leave your cotton hosiery at home and choose from the following fibers:

Classic rag wool: Some hikers prefer this old-school option (about 80% wool, 20% spandex, depending on the brand) because wool breathes well and insulates when wet. You'll want liner socks made from polyester, silk, or polypropylene to wick sweat and keep the wool from rubbing.

Synthetic blend: Take your pick from a rainbow of polyester, nylon, Spandex, acrylic, and/or polypropylene styles in a variety of thicknesses and heights. Some brands incorporate extra padding to cushion the heel and ball of your foot.

Wool blend: Merino wool is most often combined with nylon and some elastic for non-itchy, moisture-wicking comfort. Often they're the most costly option, but a good pair of socks can last years with proper care, so it's worth the extra bucks to get a thick, calf-high pair if you're heading out into serious cold.

Waterproof: A few companies manufacture waterproof socks made with neoprene, Gore-Tex, or a combination of nylon, polyester, and spandex. They are expensive and can be bulky; a good waterproof boot should make these socks unnecessary, though they could have a place in extreme cold.

Make sure your socks allow plenty of toe-wiggle room, and remember to pack an extra pair. You won't want to wear a soggy pair to bed if you're out overnight; yours may get dirty (more than the usual trail dirt); you might even lose your gloves and need to improvise. Extras always comes in handy.


Boots are your solid, sturdy barrier from ice, melting snow, and any other freezing things you don't want your toes to touch. Many people chose trail runners or low, sturdy trail shoes for summer hiking, but higher boots are a must for a winter walk. A waterproof pair is ideal, and many pairs have a breathable membrane like Gore-Tex or eVent. Dedicated, insulated winter boots and Pac boots are another option, but not a requirement.

When boot shopping, be sure to wear your winter hiking socks and your preferred insoles when trying on different models. Then tramp around in the store as much as you need to get a good feel for them. Waterproof material means a bulkier boot, so make sure the toe box is roomy and consider going up a half-size if that's more comfortable, but avoid going too large and getting heel slop. The heavier boot might seem clunky in the store, but you'll be grateful for its sturdy warmth on the trail.

If you'll be doing serious winter hiking and mountaineering, you'll want double plastic or leather mountaineering boots. However, sturdy, waterproof hiking and backpacking boots will be adequate for snowshoeing and less technical hikes.


Snowshoes and poles at Yosemite National Park You'll want snowshoes for snow more than 6 inches deep, but they aren't a requirement for all winter hiking, depending on terrain and trail conditions. (Photo: Tom Mangan)

You'll need a pair of these durable, waterproof nylon sheaths if you're tromping through snow that's at least calf-deep. Gaiters provide an extra layer of warmth and wind protection in addition to keeping your lower legs dry. Ankle-high gaiters are useful for very small amounts of snow; the knee-highs are a wiser buy. Better to have one pair that works in all snowy circumstances than to carry two pairs on the trail. And you can use gaiters year-round — they also keep out summer dust and spring or fall mud.

Like socks, make sure your gaiters fit with the footwear you'll be using, especially if you'll be wearing larger insulated boots or mountaineering boots.


Forget the rawhide-webbed antiques. Today's snowshoes are smaller, sleek collections of aluminum, nylon, and steel. Find out beforehand if you'll be traveling through deep snow, since snowshoes are bulky and not something you want to pack along just in case (though many are light enough that you can). If you're unsure of trail conditions, bring them along and avoid post-holing. Post-holing makes for very difficult hiking as your feet plunge through the upper layer of snow, and it ruins the trail for hikers who come after you.

What size snowshoes you'll need will depend on your complete weight (you plus your gear) and the type of snow you'll navigate (packed trails versus deep powder). Make sure your snowshoe bindings are adjustable with gloves on, comfortable with your preferred footwear, and provide adequate traction for your hikes. Heel lifts are very helpful on steeper ascents.


From her years of snowshoeing experience, Anderson-Meyers recommends using poles even if you're not carrying a pack. “They give you great maneuverability and come in handy if you step on yourself or fall in a hole,” she said.

Get fitted for poles at your local outdoor shop and learn to adjust and use them to their full advantage — telescoping models can be shortened to help you climb and lengthened for descending steep inclines, alleviating knee pressure. Try adjusting different models with your gloves on before buying. Your poles should have snow baskets. Most manufacturers sell basket accessories that fit on their poles.

Traction tools

On snow-packed or icy trails, some hikers prefer traction devices, which can help solidify your footing. Teresa Taylor, a longtime hiker and alpine trail runner who makes her home at a snowy 10,200 feet in Colorado, says a pair of heavy-duty metal spikes offer the best traction. “Here in Colorado, the trail's rocky and it eats up Yaktrax,” she said. “Kahtoola Microspikes are all chain on the bottom, and they stay on the boot and don't slide.”

Strap-on, flexible crampons can be used for steeper, icier hikes, but leave the semi-rigid models for ice climbing and technical mountaineering. If you'll be packing along crampons, be sure you have a boot with a rigid enough sole that accepts them. Pac boots and other highly flexible boots can be warm and useful for snowshoeing, but may not work well with your crampons.


Learning to layer

Cold weather adventures are about adaptation. Dressing in layers allows you to peel one or add one — easy, quick adjustments you can make when you're climbing a hill, taking a break, or settling into camp. Three light layers that allow you to move easily can be a better option than just one bulky, down-filled jacket, though you may want to bring that along for insulation during rest stops or if you'll be staying out overnight. 

And above all, there's one simple winter hiking rule, no matter how short the trip: avoid cotton.

“Cotton kills,” said Taylor, who performed 25 rescues for people lost on Colorado's Pikes Peak last year alone. “We get people going up and see jeans frozen to them — no wonder you're cold. Jeans and flannel shirts are nice if you're a lumberjack, but if you're climbing a mountain in flannel, a cotton T-shirt, and jeans, you're done for.”

Cotton is slow to dry and stops insulating when it gets wet. “I always, always say that your first layer needs to be wicking material," Anderson-Meyers says, "and you layer on out from there.”

Base layer

Like Grandpa's long johns, your base layer should be the first thing you put on after your skivvies. But unlike Grandpa's one-piece cotton getup, today's base layers are made from superior fabrics designed to do three things: insulate, wick moisture, and dry quickly.

Most base layers are rated from minimum to maximum warmth, and each brand has its own terms and rating system. For instance, REI ratings are light, mid, or heavyweight, while Patagonia has four base-layer classifications going from the lightest material (Capilene 1) to Everest-grade warmth (Capilene 4).

Whatever the brand or catchphrase (Capilene, Thinsulate, etc.), your base layer should be polyester with some lycra, a wool/polyester blend, or Merino wool. Silk is available, but typically only for lightweight layering. Base layers may seem costly, but the good ones last long enough to justify the investment. For instance, I've had my favorite Patagonia base layer set since 1999, when I spent several months living in a tent in Alaska. Ten years of cold-weather adventures later, it's still the first thing I put on. Just make sure you really like the color.

A note about skivvies: ditch the cotton panties and briefs and opt for sweat-wicking fabrics. Know that no matter how well they wick, you still might feel wetness — particularly women. “Sports bras hold moisture under your breasts, so it stays cold around your core,” Taylor said. “I don't think a lot of women realize that.” Carry an extra sports bra and remove your damp one if you're stopping for a prolonged rest or making camp for the night.

Insulating and mid layers

As you dress, keep mobility, layers, and insulation in mind. You'll need far less insulation for very short, active hikes and snowshoes in mild temperatures, than you will on extended treks above treeline. In the first case, you can avoid overly large or bulky clothing, which would become a nuisance on your body or in your pack.

Fleece is a good mid-layer because it's lightweight, breathable, and retains heat well. A zip-up style is nice for added breathability. If you need another interior layer, a vest to warm your core works nicely. For your bottom half, Lycra tights will work over a base layer and allow for easy movement. If you tend to run cold, will be taking breaks, or just aren't sure if you'll be warm enough, consider bringing along extra or heavier mid layers.

If you'll be out above treeline, in very cold conditions, and/or for extended periods, you'll want—and need—far more insulation while you hike, but particularly during rest stops when you'll find yourself cooling off quickly. Depending on conditions, an insulated down or synthetic "sweater" or jacket and heavy fleece or insulated pants will provide proper insulation. Many hikers and backpackers prefer down over synthetic fill, because it packs down smaller than synthetics and provides more warmth per weight than other insulation, though it is more expensive. Down garments are sold in different weights for a range of temperatures and activity levels.

Outer layer

A shell jacket and pants are a necessity, and both should be water- and windproof. Both your outer jacket and pants should be large enough to accommodate all of your winter layers. Some hikers size up their winter shells, to allow adequate space for heavy fleece and/or down insulation. Nicely designed top layers will have adjustable wrists and ankles so you can block cold air seepage.

Always opt for a jacket with a hood; a visor shape to the hood will keep rain and snow from falling on your forehead. If you will be wearing a helmet, for skiing or climbing, get a helmet-compatible hood. Under-arm zipper vents are helpful for cooling down during hard climbs.

Head protection

Don't go for the cute hat that matches your jacket. For winter excursions, take the comfortable one that fully covers your ears and doesn't itch. Some hikers prefer to hike with a thin hat, then layer a heavier fleece one over the first when things cool off. Ponytailed folks can seek a hat with a pony hole to avoid feeling that weird lump at the back of your neck. Avoid scarves; they can be a bulky nuisance.

If you want more coverage than a hat and hood, go for a balaclava, which will seal in warmth. Choose one with an interior mask that you can pull up around your nose. Some balaclavas use a heavier material for more sensitive facial areas, and some have small ear openings so you don't have to strain to hear your hiking companions. Most are some combo of nylon, polyester, and Lycra; fleece is a good option if you plan to sleep in it. Remember — if you're too hot on the trail, vent your jacket or peel off a layer. Don't ditch your head covering.

Snow and ice reflect a lot of UV rays, and can even cause snow blindness, so sunglasses are necessary year-round. For larger groups or longer trips, consider bringing along an extra pair.

And if you're dealing with seriously frigid wind or temperatures, particularly above treeline, adding goggles will give you complete facial coverage.

Hand protection

You can layer hands just like the rest of your body. A thin liner or fleece glove with a waterproof overmitt or glove, allows for adjustments. Avoid big, bulky gloves or mittens that will consume too much pocket and pack space. Some people prefer open-finger gloves with a mitten that pulls over, so you can use your digits when you need them. Make sure hand coverings aren't too tight. Like socks, pack along extras that are just as warm as the originals.


Food and drink

In winter you may not see your perspiration, but you still need to hydrate regularly. If you're using a hydration bladder, keep your hose from freezing up with an insulator kit, which comes with a bite-valve cover and a foam/thermoplastic tube cover (many winter packs come with a hose insulator). If you don't want to purchase a kit, find a way to run your hose inside your top two layers, close enough to your body warmth that it won't freeze. Also, blow the water out of your hose every time after you drink so none of it freezes and blocks flow.

For water bottles, Anderson-Meyers recommends using the kind with a pullout tip and storing them upside down in an insulated sleeve to keep the tips from freezing. Hot beverages are nice, and energy drinks offer an electrolyte boost, but plain old water is still essential.

Don't forget to eat frequently too. You'll need more calories in winter and food helps keep you warm. Eat often and pack foods rich in protein and complex carbs. Good cold-hiking food options include cheese and crackers, peanut butter, Honey Stinger gel packets you can spread on a peanut butter sandwich, beef jerky, and a mix of nuts and dried cranberries and apricots, says Anderson-Meyers.


Sleeping tips

Once you're comfortable with winter hiking and snowshoeing, you can move on to winter camping and backpacking and extend your snowy stay. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Bag liners: Can't sleep if your feet are cold? Good thing you've brought those extra socks. Cold sleeper in general? Invest in a bag liner for your heaviest sleeping bag. Sweaty sleeper? Rely on your clothing and basic winter bag. Know your own cold tolerances, experiment in safe conditions (like your backyard), and plan accordingly.

Your standard three-season bag won't cut it for nighttime winter temps. Most bags in the cold weather category are suitable for a range from zero to minus-20 degrees. You can find the minus-40s too, but they're spendy and probably unnecessary unless you're planning an extended alpine stay. Prices vary greatly depending on whether you want down or synthetic insulation.

Down is lighter, more expensive, and packs smaller, while synthetic bags are a bit heavier, bulkier and generally cost a bit less. The most versatile option might be a standard zero-degree bag with a liner you can add if necessary. Visit your favorite outdoor shop to test out several bags, and once you've made your choice, head out for a one-night test run before tackling a longer outing.

Bag liners can accomplish a lot — you may not need to run out and purchase a new $350 down bag if a liner can add eight to 10 degrees of warmth to your current bag. Liners come in silk, polyester, or light- to mid-weight fleece, ranging from about $40 to $65. Avoid cotton “travel sheets” that provide only about five degrees of extra warmth.

A liner also comes in handy on vacation if you bed down in a less-than-spotless hostel or hotel. And if a new liner seems too costly, just measure yourself, head to the local craft shop, and scout out some nice microfleece. Sew a couple edges together and you've made your own liner. (If you haven't touched a needle and thread since junior high home ec, request a crafty companion's help.)

Sleeping Pad: Your winter sleeping bag set-up won't keep you warm without proper insulation from the cold, snowy ground. Get a winter sleeping pad with a higher R-value. Many winter campers double up and use two pads on top of one another.

Bandanas: Appalachian Trail thru-hiker Jeffrey Hunter says one of his favorite discoveries was a 24-hour use for his bandana. “I put it over my mouth when I sleep,” he said. “When you're sleeping in freezing weather, you lose a lot of moisture through your breath. A bandana will dampen that effect.” Or keep your balaclava on while you sleep, especially if it has an interior mask that can be pulled over your nose. Buff makes a lightweight wool version of its headgear, as well as fleece models.

Warmers: Another helpful discovery that Taylor made from years of prolonged winter on the mountainside is the creative use of hand warmers. “If you put them in your pants pocket and your pockets go over your femoral artery near your groin, it will help a lot,” she said. “It warms the blood, not just your palm.” A couple hand warmers in your pockets would help warm up any chilly sleeping bag.


Winter hiking is well worth the extra gear, preparation, and care. (Photo: Dave MacLeay)

Why the cold?

Whatever extra time and gear it takes to hit the winter trail safely and comfortably, you'll discover why it's worth it once you're out there among the smell of fresh pine and tree branches decorated with pristine white powder. Cold temperatures are invigorating in a way that sweaty summer hikes can never be.

“The woods are so insulated and quiet and peaceful and beautiful,” said Taylor. “It's the magic of winter.” The right planning, tools, and care can take you there — just don't forget that extra pair of socks.


Some winter hiking tips

  • Be prepared: Check trail conditions and the weather forecast before you head out. Winter weather can leave you with a smaller margin for error.
  • Tell someone where you're going and when to expect you back.
  • Allot more time to cover shorter distances than on three-season hikes. Be conservative and work your way up.
  • Use the clothing and gear that works for you. Other experienced winter hikers and backpackers can give valuable advice, but what will work for you is individual and not identical to your hiking partner. Everyone has her or his own internal thermostat.
  • If you're unsure of what to bring, pack the extra layers. You're far less likely to rue the extra jacket versus the absent one. On your hike, note what worked in what conditions and what you wish you had or hadn't brought along.
  • Carry some form of emergency shelter.
  • Put on that puffy jacket, extra fleece hat, overmitts, or other layers as soon as you stop for a snack or lunch break, and retain the heat you already generated while hiking.
  • Cover exposed skin in extreme cold and wind. Frostbite and frostnip occur when skin becomes frozen; hands, nose, feet, ears, and toes are common sites. Signs and symptoms include coldness, firmness, stinging, burning, numbness, clumsiness, pain, throbbing, excessive sweating, and skin discoloration.
  • If someone in your group starts exhibiting the "umbles" — stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles — they're showing signs of hypothermia, a very serious conditions. Get him or her warm and dry, give them food and drink, get them moving toward safety, and seek medical attention, if necessary.
  • Consider taking a winter mountaineering course. You will learn how to travel safely in winter, use an ice axe for self arrest, and be aware of avalanche terrain (you don't need to be a backcountry skier or climber to end up in avalanche terrain), among other skills.


Got your own cold weather hiking tips? Share them below.



there have been a number of threads in the Trailspace forums on this topic. I think this is an area where everyone learns their own preferences and limits through experience. As you note, some people move and sleep "warmer" or "cooler" than others. Thanks for a comprehensive, common-sense article.

This is a great article, thanks for putting it all together!

I love reading these articles on Trailspace.

While many of us have a good bit of experience, these articles re-enforce what we have learned. Sometimes we need a refresher course, and I think that's especially important for winter trekking.

Here's a little experimental project I participated in several years ago at my local outfitters, and found most telling & helpful concerning the true warmth value of the clothing you plan to use. You guys might find this interesting, although this is not a perfect test.

1 - Gather the different socks & base layers you plan on using during your trip. Just for fun through in a pair made of cotton.

2 - Try them on (dry) while standing in front of a fan.

3 - Now try the same garments on damp, while standing briefly in front of a fan. Note which ones felt warmer, you will of course, find that the cotton is horrible in this test, but you may also notice some performance differences in your other types of fabrics.

You can also do this test with your insulating layer.

Price isn't everything, nor is advertising, so for those on a budget this is one way to determine how well some of the cheaper stuff will perform. I have found the cheaper stuff to be less durable generally speaking, but a good way to get started!

Thanks again for the article with numerous tips and tricks we can all use.

Stay warm, dry, and have fun this winter!

Sounds like great fun... I am going to refer to this as I work on my kit.

I have two objections/comments otherwise this is a good article. First off a down jacket can provide more warmth per weight than anyother insulation for your upper body. While layering and the ability to vent and control sweat is very important, the difference between active wear and the amount of insulation required when you rest especially when tired is dramatic. Only a down jacket can provide the required insulation. Be sure that your outer shell layer is large enough to put on over your down jacket, and do not get a down jacket with 4 ounces of down, your comfort and core warmth is more important than saving half a pound. A down jacket with a storm shell built in is well worth the money.

Secondly I was very upset at the suggestion of tights over long underwear as being adequate for anything but active use. You need either 300 fleece AS A MINIMUM or down pants. Insulating your legs is somehow just not part of modern outdoor thought. Cabelas sells down insulated long underwear for $60. Again be sure that you can wear your legs shell layer over the down pants. Bibs are much better than pants and bibs or pants with their own water proof shell is worth the money.

Jim - who has many many cold experiences and now owns the right gear.

P.S. Have a plan. If you are in a blizzard and stop for ten minutes, how will you put on your down and then remove it in such a way as to have it still be dry the next two or three times you put it on?

Jim: would you consider synthetic (a la primaloft) because of the issues caused by getting down wet?

Jim S, thanks for the comments and suggestions, which I think are very good points. I'll work them into the article for clarity.

You've left out Polypropylene, the best base layer material. Lighter than Polyester and more hydrophobic - it dries quicker. Regarding the Mid layer, fleece is usually made of polyester and is thick, absorbs moisture generating cold and added carrying weight - your own sweat. Experience has proven so. I wear fleece around town, not in the hills. Your torso area needs to remain relatively dry for you to remain comfortable, not cold. My mid-layer is polypropylene mesh, lighter than my base layer - it provides trapped air. Used alone or over my polypropylene base layer for torso or longjohns, depending on the temperature and activity. My outer layers are a light, breathable, water-repellent hooded shell and wind resistant, breathable and water-repellent nylon pants. I wear a polypropylene balaclava and fleece socks as my feet don't appreciably sweat. Polypro liner and outer glove are also worn. As an example, I'm able to walk, not run in eleven degrees F and a 10 mph wind with just a light coolness in my upper chest with a single layer of longjohns, torso base and mid layers, outer layer, balaclava, fleece socks and double glove layers. My hiking/running shoes are not insulated. You can argue the stink factor of polypro. Why not get a better deodorant.

Pack a spare base layer, balaclava, mittens, gauntlets and socks. Tied to my pack is a down parka, not just for periods of inactivity, but also survival. Additionally, I pack a poncho-tarp for wet weather, an emergency space bag and bivy. Food, water and other essentials are also packed. As noted previously, down pants apply depending on the temperature and gaiters depending on snow depth, providing added warmth and wind protection. Chemical toe warmers are advisable if you haven't enough foot area insulation or activity to support warmth and should be available for potential survival. Frostbite loss of toes is the first on the list of body damage.

It appalls me to read gear trip lists posted on a number of sites that ignore preparation for survival, usually due to weather, accident or getting lost. There are limits to going light and ignoring basic survival gear. I've had my share of accidents and saved a fellow hiker's life that wasn't prepared. Learn winter survival, primarily fire, shelter, insulation and wind protection. Energy conservation and attitude are also important. Keep your water close to your body, not your pack to prevent freezing and/or add some salt to reduce the onset of freezing. It's an electrolyte. I could go on and on, but enough. You're not taking a walk in the park.

Tom and Alicia,

There certainly are other adequate insulators, the problem being weight and stuffability. The great thing about most synthetics is that they do not compress a lot, thus keeping some thickness under pressure. I happen to have down and good quality garments at that. I have had friends wearing long underwear and 300 fleece with cold feet while wearing minus 60 boots. After putting on my spare down pants, (they were'nt really spare - I knew they would be cold) their feet warmed up. The important thing is that down pants often provide over an inch of insulation and few synthetics can do that at a weight that modern people would consider reasonable. Leg insulation IS critical and too often bypassed.

Jim S


The stink factor with polypropylene is a real problem. After a day or two wearing it I can't stand being in a sleeping bag with my self. The main problem is that it melts so you can't wash it and dry it at high heat. Its the heat of the dryer that ultimately destroys the smell in other garments - evaporates the BO. Melted crusty poly is just not nice. Its probably ok for midlayers. Since I live in Oregon and its cold here in winters, and because I save my expensive clothes for skiing, I wear a cotton wool blend long underwear mostly around town. It doesn't stink, washes well and is both comfortable and cheap - I do not ski in it though.

Jim S

Thanks for the comments. I expanded the insulating/mid layers as well, with the benefit of Jim S's comments.

On a personal note, I'll reinforce the point that while there are some very important basic principles to follow in dressing and layering properly, which I hope are communicated above, you have to get to know your own personal thermostat.

I know that with reasonable clothing and gear I have no (or few) worries about getting cold while moving. But, my circulation is not stellar, and once I stop I need to layer up immediately, eat something, then get moving again.

I've also learned not to dress according to my husband's layers. I can check out what he's bringing along, but I better bring more and warmer versions if I want to be comfortable, and that's okay. We're different people.

If I'm not sure, I throw in the extra and/or heavier version of something. I don't think I've ever regretted doing that.

Great read. Was just what I was looking for!


I have Capilene which I think is a superior product. I've had mine for more than 20 years and it's still in good shape with moderate use over the years. Also in spite of the claim by Performance about polypro, there are a lot of people who believe that Merino wool is far superior. Several companies, including Icebreaker, make Merino base layers.

I like wearing fishnet underwear. I have a set from Byrnje . I like to wear a close fitting, but not snug, light weight wool shirt over that. I feel I can close the shirt up tight to hold in heat or loosen up as needed. I usually wear a wind parka over the shirt. A wool watch cap style hat and mitts with liners top it all off. If it is really cold, I wear a wool sweater, and have a down parka in my sack. I also use a NF softshell, but it does not have a hood.

I have worn about everything in cold weather and "cold" to me is 0*F and lower. I have pitched all of my synthetic layers and now wear merino wool exclusively, prefering Icebreaker and MEC models over the others I have.

Cotton is VERY useful in REAL cold and most people in northern Canada use it as a shell over a blanket duffle coat, especially the aborigines who no longer will make Caribou and MuskOxen clothing. I often used my "Black's of Greenock" Ventile Anorak or my "Synergy Works Expedition Parka" with merino wool and a down vest or sweater in cold weather snowshoe camping, to roughly -30*F. I found this was more comfortable than any Gore-Tex parka and wish I could buy another.

I like a GOOD down jacket, I have a "Richard Egge" double duvet from Switzerland that is now 35 yrs. old and has kept me toasty at -40*F,over just my merino longjohns. However, a mediocre down jacket is inferior to my synthetic Integral Designs "Dolomitti Parka" and my two "Rundle Jackets" from ID, these are insulated with Primaloft. They compress well and are far tougher than a down jacket and work better in all but extreme cold, so, I have bought my last down jacket and I have had several.

I prefer layers, I don't like a down or synthetic parka with an attached shell and now only use eVent shells and prefer the ID "Pullover" type. I had Evan make this to my specs., which he is kinda grumpy about doing, but, with a merino layer system, my Rundle and this, I can handle any weather I will ever see, even in the Yukon.

Jim S, apparently you don't use a good deodorant - Ha. I wash my polypro in warm/warm and air dry it. I've worn polypro for decades and modify crew neck long sleeve Duopro's to zip turtleneck capability for torso base layer. Compare the price and durability of polypro against merino wool - big combinatorial difference. Duopro includes odor resistance. You cannot lead a horse to water and such is not my intent. Polypro works for me. As individuals we require comfort and resolve in our decisions. We select ideas, philosophy, products, etc. to meet our personal needs. To each his own.

Performance, Dewey

It really does matter where you use the stuff, any stuff, AND how your body chemistry works. I have heard that the Finlanders wear cotton in their extreme weather winter army gear. At those temps liquid water does not exist and I know canvas is great at minus 20. But I'm like Tom D, I like my capalene and Montbell Drion. I tossed all of my polypro. I once had fish net, but I found it uncomfortable and I had octopus bite looking marks all over me. I had a polypro "hoodie" once that I really loved - by Royal Robbins, but it melted.


Excellent article Bobbi and thanks for Trailspace for publishing it.

As mentioned above, so much of this is personal choice and what makes you comfortable. Best to test, I reckon, before a long trip.

Thankfully our winters are quite mild and snow hard to get too!!!

I don't have the experience of Jim, Dewey, or Bill in real cold climates, my trekking is done above 0*F. I do however go wade fishing during the winter in real windy river gorges with water temps below 50*F and after using different materials I now prefer Capilene and micro fleece for use under my waders, with Capilene and wool my choice for hiking & backpacking. I also like all my tops to be quarter zips so I can regulate my body heat better.

sabino and Jim S, You'll eliminate octopusing and increase your freedom of motion by wearing a base layer first and then the fishnet. Fishnet alone binds as you described as octupusing. Polypro has "sensible warmth" - you fell comfortable just as you put it on, not like polyester which feels cool. Lightweight, hydrophobic and quick drying clinches it for me. I tried capalene during warm weather. I didn't know that it was recommended for winter. I'll look into Montbell's Drion. Jim, you're too close to the fire if your melting!!

I'm with trouthunter. I don't hike in extreme temps. Nor am I prepared to pay the price for additional insulated parka, pants and boots which would limit my performance - fluid motion.

What a terrific refresher course! This is very useful information. Thanks for the great article.

I have a pair of the Byrnje synthetic fishnet bottoms and merino wool fishnet tops and have never had any problems with them. I prefer the Brynje over the wool fishnet, the only instance where I prefer a synthetic over wool for long underwear. A base layer of fishnet covered by a layer of merino wool works very well for me.

Excellent article. For stop time I also highly recommend down. I also suggest the hood on your shell be non - zipoff. It fits much better and there is no gap at the front of your neck. I have an old 3 - layer Goretex mountain jacket with a zipoff hood and have never liked it, but my 2 - layer one with attached hood is more comfortable and fits perfectly.

For some odd reason when I read "Layers of Fun" this comes to mind... Hmmmmmm.....

Just add a 85L pack...


Just figured I would throw a lil fun into the conversation. :)

Great stuff~

And I thank you so much for the valuable information. Past January, I went on a winter camping along with my buddies. I was thinking that my 3 season sleeping bag (Vaude Sherpa) would hold. but it wasn't a comfortable sleep.

The temperature was about -10 C plus wind chilled factor (currently i'm Seoul, South Korea) and i was wearing several different layers for both bottom and top. The only thing kept me warm during my sleep was two 32oz hot water in my Nalgene bottles. Yet, this method is really good way to keep your self warm while you are sleeping.

The sleeping bag liner idea sounds good to me. I would most definitely try the liner on my Fall or early Spring outings. For my winter outings, I'm going to purchase me a winter sleeping bag. Any good recommendation for the winter sleeping bag? Any particular brand? I'll probably go for extreme condition perhaps... cold(-20 C).


In extreme weather you are much better off with clothing designed specifically for that use, rather than layering a lot of stuff never intended for that usage. For example there are "ski jackets" for everyday use but real ski jackets have more specific features and Randonee jackets will have waist level ties and snow skirts, bottom ties, zip pits, adjustable cuffs, serious hoods, double zippers with large flaps over them, etc, they are expedition gear and they were designed for places where clothing failure can mean death. My winter bag has two pieces of 1/8" elastic sewn inside to keep the bag snugly against my body and to cut draft inside the bag, this may make a 10 degree difference in the warmth of your bag, or help you to feel warm at it lower rating vs surviving but feeling cold.


Jim, thanks for your info. i'll try to remember what you've said and i'll do more research on my winter gears.

never less, i really enjoy winter backpacking and hiking. i believe that winter season offer so much more than any other season. for that reason, i hope to prepare best i can to enjoy the nature even better. yes, i do realized that i must be cautious... never to mess with the mother nature.

again, thanks for your tip and i hope find more information from you and

I read that article and have two comments:

1. ALL winter boots excepting military "Mickey Mouse" boots need a Vapor Barrier Liner (VBL).

2. For extended winter camping sleeping bags, especially down bags, need a VBL to prevent the gradual buildup of frost in more and more of the insulation, thus getting you colder and colder each night. (Read what happened to Scott's men & their sleeping bags on their fatal attempt to be the first to the South Pole.)


Well, maybe three comments:

3. Gloves should be Gore-Tex shells with REMOVABLE liners. Extra pairs of liners of pile and fleece should be carried to replace sweaty, damp liners. (And carry mitten shells for when the temperatures REALLY drop. Put the thick pile glove liners inside them.)

I have no vapor barrier boots and have never felt the need for them. Maybe my feet don't sweat.

Jim S

Note 10 to the article, congratulations!!!

Campinas - São Paulo - Brazil...

I never thought winter hiking would be enjoyable either, but somebody asked me if I ever tried it, and of course I said no. That person told me it was ten times better-and they were right. The scenery is beautiful times two, at least, and 90% of the time you have it all to yourself.

I was very upset at the suggestion of tights over long underwear as being adequate for anything but active use. You need either 300 fleece AS A MINIMUM or down pants.

..down pants.. ..with their own water proof shell is worth the money.

I’ll take exception to these two views, but other wise generally agree with the advice posted so far on this thread. I have owned just about every kind of item one could wear in a layering system. I have spent weeks in sub zero winter conditions, as well as snow and rain storms lasting for days. I have been camping since the mid 1960s, so have decades of experience to pull from.

My experience has demonstrated two pairs of cycling tights are equal to one pair of heavy fleece pants. In fact last fall I was in the Sierras with the night time low in mid 20s, comfortable with my bottom covered in one pair of long johns, two tights, and jogging shorts. If I wore my heavy fleece instead of tights in this situation, I would also require a wind shell. (May I also comment: I am by no means tollerant of the cold.) While fleece traps lots of air space, I think the tights retain the air space they trap more effectively, and hold it closer to the skin. Thus I find the tights system warmer than fleece, and as a bonus, lighter and less bulky too. The draw back to tights, however, is you must remove your boots to change this layer.

Likewise I question the need for down layers to be equipped with their own water proof shell. My shell layer is only a shell; it provides no insulation. My down layers use the lightest weight fabric coverings I can find. I never wear my down without also donning the shell layer, so any protective properties afforded by the down layer having its own shell is redundant, unnecessary weight. I guess I haven’t had any problems exposing my down layer to the elements, perhaps because I don them while inside a tent, or under the protection a forest canopy that limits the amount of water that ends up falling on my stuff in mid change.

I read that article and have two comments:

1. ALL winter boots excepting military "Mickey Mouse" boots need a Vapor Barrier Liner (VBL).

2. For extended winter camping sleeping bags, especially down bags, need a VBL to prevent the gradual buildup of frost in more and more of the insulation, thus getting you colder and colder each night. (Read what happened to Scott's men & their sleeping bags on their fatal attempt to be the first to the South Pole.)

I never owned a pair of VB boots, nor used a VB system, and have camped to low temps below -20F. The only time I had problems with my feet was a trip where weather trapped part of the team mid-mountain on Mt St Elias, with insufficient food reserves for the duration involved. Most of the team suffered at least mild frost bite. Energy reserves and inactivity, not wet boots, were the contributing cause to our privations.

Likewise VBL sleeping bags are unnecessary. Note what happened to the South Pole trekkers occurred over a period of months, in weather conditions few of us will ever see. I have found exercising three techniques virtually eliminate loss of loft in down bags in cold weather:
1. Make sure the tent is well ventilated. The bag will retain more water if the air inside the tent is trapped, and as a result becomes humid.
2. Take you bag out when taking a break on the trail, and place it in a black plastic trash bag, set on top of a blue pad. The solar energy heats the bag and evaporates retained moisture. Squeeze and re-fluff the bag to expedite moisture removal.
3. Sleep under the stars whenever possible. Air freely circulating around your bag will wick off retained moisture.


No one mentioned using a scarf? I have an Alpaca wool scarf I use to fill up the neck area in my parka hood. I wrap it around my neck, then pull my balaclava over it. Eliminating this air gap acts as a cork to preclude your warm body air from rising up and out your hood face. It is also a utility item you can use to warm hands around camp, etc.

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