If you you live in New England, or another similarly 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).
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.
Wicking Layer Examples
If you are someone who has an internal furnace that runs hot, go with a lighter weight and looser fitting layer such as these.
This is an example of a lower body base layer that would function great.
This upper body wicking layer will do a great job of keeping you dry and warm.
Inversely, if you are an individual who is always a little chilly, consider grabbing a thicker base layer such as these.
This is an example of a warmer lower body base layer.
This is an example of a warmer upper body base layer.
In addition, you may often find yourself on those more mild days opting to just wear a wicking layer on your torso, and that is totally fine! Your core tends to require the most heat since it houses the major organs and, as a result, the lower half of your body can do just fine adjusting to the external temperature.
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.
Warmth Layer Examples
Vests, both puffy and fleece, are quite versatile in the winter months. They keep heat close to our core, which in turn keeps our fingers and toes warm, while allowing us to shed excess heat from our armpits and arms. As an added bonus, they weigh much less than traditional jackets due to their lack of sleeves!
For your lower half warmth layer a standard pair of winter hiking pants, with a wicking layer beneath depending on the temperature, will suit many hikers on most outings.
The final consideration for warmth layers is the classic puffy jacket. This author is a huge proponent for the lightweight puffy (with a hood of course). Their weight is comparable to a fleece, but their insulation value is ten times more than that. In the winter you may rarely find yourself hiking uphill in a puffy, but when stopping for a snack or water, these layers can really keep the heat in. An 850 fill puffy is more than adequate when combined with other layers.
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.
Weather Layer Examples
As mentioned previously, snow pants are NOT acceptable to hike in. Even with full side zips, light weight, or minimal insulation, they trap to much heat for the user to effectively regulate temperature. Instead, carrying a pair of durable rain pants is a much better alternative. Make sure to get a pair that has a full-zip feature going up the legs, that way your don’t have to take your boots, snowshoes, and gaiters off just to get them on.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).