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The Complete Winter Hiking Clothing Guide


Article Categories: Hiking Tips
Article Tags: Hiking Tips | Winter Hiking

If you live in a cold climate, you may have noticed that winter tends to be our longest and most robust season. As outdoor enthusiasts it can be hard to stay motivated and engaged in the pursuits we love best when it is constantly below zero. Not to mention the added risk and larger gear list that winter brings with it. Perhaps you are a seasoned three-season hiker, or perhaps you are looking for a new activity to break up the cabin fever. This article will help gear up with the proper winter hiking clothing.


The Importance of Layering

Winter hiking requires lots of layers and materials. When starting out I like to think of dressing myself according to the three W’s, both for top and bottom (wicking, warmth, weather).

*Click to scroll to each of the below sections.
Wicking | Warmth | Weather | Gloves | Hats | Footwear


Wicking Layer

A wicking layer is often something form-fitting that keeps body heat close to, well, your body. It disperses sweat into the atmosphere and away from your skin allowing you to stay warmer, longer. Keeping a spare set of long underwear for both your torso and legs in the bottom of your pack is always a good idea in case you sweat through your original layers on the hike up. They weigh very little, but provide lots of comfort.

Wicking layers, or base layers, have a variety of materials, sizes, and uses. Wicking layers are most often comprised of either wool or polyester, if it is made of cotton then by definition it cannot be a wicking layer. Wool tends to cost a little more, has limited durability, but has superior comfort and odor repelling abilities. Synthetic or polyester blends are often cheaper than their wool counterparts, last a little longer, but tend to hang onto odors after repeated use. They function the same, but it just boils down to your personal preference as to which to use.


Base Layer Materials

Here are some common base layer materials.

  • Bamboo
  • Cotton Blends
  • Hemp
  • Merino wool
  • Nylon
  • Polyester
  • Silk

For more information, check out our guide to base layer materials.


Warmth Layer (Mid-Layer)

The warmth layer is truly the star of the winter gear lineup, and you should have anywhere from 2-4 pieces that fit into this category in your winter pack. Typically, a winter hiker can expect to bring 2 fleece jackets, a vest, and a puffy jacket. Ski coats, snow pants and insulated jackets are NOT a good substitute for layers as they are bulky and hinder temperature regulation.

Fleeces, puffy jackets, vests, long sleeve shirts and any combination of the like are excellent for providing warmth. Start your adventure by wearing the minimal amount of warm layers as you feel comfortable and allow your metabolism to heat you up. When you stop moving or gain more elevation, stop and put another warm layer on to trap all that hard earned body heat, taking it off again when you stop moving.

Every winter hiker should have at least one thick fleece in their kit. While many vary wildly on their claimed benefits, patterns, and professed warmth, all fleeces are ultimately more similar than different. When purchasing a fleece or warmth layer consider purchasing one with a hood. No hiker should ever forget their hat, but we are all human, and if you do lapse a hood is a hat you can never forget.


Mid-Layer Options

Select mid-layers that strike a balance, being sufficiently lightweight to prevent overheating yet adequately warm to ward off the cold. Make thoughtful mid-layer selections tailored to the prevailing weather conditions. Options for mid-layers encompass, but are not confined to, the following:

  • Down insulated jackets
  • Down insulated vests
  • Long-sleeved flannel shirts
  • Long-sleeved fleece shirts
  • Microfleece or polar fleece vests
  • Soft shell jackets
  • Synthetic insulated jackets
  • Synthetic insulated vests
  • Puffy or fleece vest.


Mid-Layer Materials

Mid-layer materials can include the following:

  • Down or synthetic down filled jacket
  • Cotton blend or poly flannel
  • Down insulation
  • Microfleece
  • Polyester fleece
  • Synthetic insulation
  • Wind fleece
  • Wool and Merino wool


Water-resistant mid-layers are relatively uncommon, unless the fabric has inherent water-resistant properties, such as wool.

Weather Layer (Outer Layer)

The Weather layer is the last in our lineup, and arguably the most important. Winter can bring snow, sleet, rain, hail and sunshine, sometimes in the span of several hours. Having a sturdy shell jacket and pants can be the difference between turning back or keeping on. Make sure your jacket is a little bigger than you would otherwise wear to accommodate the additional warmth layers you may have under. A weather layer that provides gore-tex, or a similar type product, are preferred as they still allow the hiker to disperse of body heat while repelling water/snow.


Outer Layer Options

Typically, the outer layer isn’t the initial layer shed when you feel too warm. Since the outer layer serves as a protective barrier, it’s advisable to first remove the mid-layers when overheating, as these layers primarily contribute to insulation.

Your outer layer options include, but are not limited to:

  • Rain jackets
  • Heavy zippered sweaters and sweatshirts (for dry conditions in spring and fall)
  • Long-sleeved, lightweight shirts (summer only)
  • Softshell jackets
  • Water-resistant jackets
  • Waterproof shell jackets
  • Windbreaker jackets
  • Winter coats and parkas


For virtually any outdoor expedition, it’s a safety precaution to ensure you always have a waterproof outer layer with you.


Outer Layer Materials

Outer layers are crafted from a variety of fabrics, typically treated to enhance their performance. The construction of your outer layers may incorporate a range of materials, including:

  • GORE-Tex
  • Materials with DWR coatings
  • Nylon
  • Polyester
  • Coated cotton canvas (highly wind-proof!)
  • Down insulation (with a waterproof layer overtop)
  • Synthetic insulation (with a waterproof layer overtop)


Modern windproof, waterproof, and breathable jackets often adopt a two-layer or three-layer system. Therefore, the seemingly single “outer layer” of a thin jacket consists of multiple layers, facilitating breathability while maintaining water resistance.



These three W’s do not just apply to your body, however. Often times hikers are slowed down by losing feeling due to frostnip in their fingers. Similar to your body, your hands should be dressed in layers. Starting with a wicking liner glove, then a larger mitten/insulated glove, and a gore-tex overmitt. Mittens obviously provide more insulation that gloves, but offer less dexterity.

Start your hike by wearing thin and waterproof gloves. Depending on weather, and your natural heat, thin gloves may work through your entire hike.

When expecting to be in cold conditions, or above treeline, hikers should also pack a thicker layer of gloves to make sure your hands can stay warm.

Under extreme conditions, it is possible to need extremely thick gloves or overmitts.

View Gloves On Amazon


Hats & Face

Wearing a hat is often essential in winter months. A large portion of your body heat is lost through your head. Beanies tend to work great for keeping you warm, and allow for you to easily take the hat on or off.

On windy days, balaclavas are great for preventing wind burn on exposed areas of your face. Ski goggles are great on windy days as well.

It is absolutely essential to bring some type of eye protection. Sunglasses work for most situations. The windiest and coldest days require ski goggles, especially when above treeline.

View Hats On Amazon

View Balaclavas On Amazon



Hiking boots make winter hiking far more enjoyable and safe. Selecting a waterproof pair that is insulated will greatly reduce the risk of getting wet and cold. With this being said, most of the time, there is no need for special winter hiking boots. Your normal boots will do just fine.

It is important to get insulated socks made of a wicking material as well.

View Hiking Boots On Amazon


Winter Hiking Gear

It is often said that if you use every layer in your pack on a winter hike, then you did not bring enough! Winter requires much more gear, and time, constantly shuffling in and out of assorted layers. The most obvious (and understated) first piece of essential winter gear is a larger pack to hold all those additional layers and gear. I like to line my pack with a trash bag to make sure that the stuff I want to stay dry, actually does stay dry.

Once you have selected a pack with a hip belt, 28-35 liter capacity for day hikes, 65+ liter for overnights, it is time to start considering what to fill it with. Please refer to our article Ultimate guide to winter hiking.


Final Considerations

Getting up is optional, getting down is mandatory- The mountain will always be there, so don’t get summit fever when the odds start turning against you. Days are a lot shorter in the winter, so plan itineraries that are realistic and seasonally appropriate. Furthermore, for every 1,000 feet of elevation you gain in New England, you can expect the temperature to drop 3-5 degrees Farenheit and the annual moisture to increase. This means the higher you climb, the colder and snowier it gets. Bring snowshoes and microspikes for hikes that may take you above 3,500 feet as it may be packed at the bottom, but covered in windswept snow drifts feet deep at the top. Nothing saps your energy more than postholing for miles.

Be bold, start cold– No one looks good with pit stains in their puffy. Wearing the minimal amount of clothing to start off is the best way to ensure that you can avoid this fashion faux-pas. Beyond starting out, make sure that you stop for layering breaks to adjust to the changing conditions. Five minutes spent changing out a puffy for a fleece may mean the difference between freezing and comfort.

In short, winter hiking is one of the best ways to stay active in the colder months. The rocks and water bars magically disappear beneath a smooth surface of snow, the bugs are gone, and you are more often rewarded with the solitude we hikers crave. Always remember to to take extra steps and precautions, do your research, but most of all, have fun.

Dhane Knakkergaard

Dhane Knakkergaard

Dhane Knakkergaard is a New England enthusiast based in the Mount Washington Valley. He loves exploring the wild places of the Northeast in all seasons and by all manners of locomotion, but is partial to the fall and rock climbing given the choice. By day, and often night, he is a full-time wilderness guide for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) and Recreational Equipment International (REI).