How to properly layer for your winter backpacking trip

Winter layering basics

Shelter is not always available in the winter, and while some of us really love the wintertime, no one really likes to be miserably cold. Whether you are backpacking, camping, day hiking, skiing, working, or doing anything else in the cold, wearing the proper layers is key to relieving some of the most harsh temperatures that winter can throw at us. This guide will give you a brief idea of how to take on that winter cold.

Layer your clothes as follows:

▪️Base layer: This layer touches your skin and is otherwise known as underwear. This could be briefs or panties and a shirt or bra to long underwear. All of this depends on how cold it is and what you will be doing. Always avoid cotton in every layer, and as this layer directly touches the skin, it must be moisture-wicking. This will pull sweat away from the body allowing you to dry. Cotton is the worst thing that you can use and can actually lead to cold injuries under certain circumstances.

My base layer includes:

▪️Middle layer: This layer is for insulating. This could be a fleece, synthetic blend, wool or wool blend top. These come in light, mid, or heavy depending again on your activity level and temperatures. This should include synthetic pants as well. One thing to consider about wool is that it can get wet and still keep you warm. The downfall is that wool takes longer to dry out.

My Middle layer includes:

▪️Outer layer: This is your shell. This layer should be breathable if you are doing any sort of activity and dependent on the weather. Consider a down jacket and rain gear.

My outer layer includes:

▪️Gloves: I carry two different pairs of gloves. The first is a Smartwool glove liner. While these do not dry as fast as other synthetic blends, wool provides the benefit of warmth even when wet. Liners are also good when heavy gloves are too warm. The second pair that I carry are heavy gloves by Outdoor Research.

▪️Head gear and neck gaiter: Use fleece or wool beanies. I also carry a sweat beanie for the rain. It helps hold heat and drys quickly, while saving my beanie for when I’m trying to get warm and dry. I also use a Turtle Fur neck gaiter. The neck gaiter can also be pulled up to help cover the ears, mouth, and nose for added warmth. If you have never used a neck gaiter, you are missing a vital layer for keeping warm.

▪️At camp: If you are backpacking, you want to have a separate set of dry clothes that you only use at camp. I use heavy-weight wool socks, a midweight base layer bottom, and a heavyweight base layer top. On occasion, I will use this heavyweight top while hiking if it is brutally cold. I specifically use the Rothco Gen III waffle tops and bottoms (pictured below). They are fast drying and the top can still be used as a layer at camp even if it is wet from sweat. Slip it over the top of something dry.

Rothco Gen III waffle tops and bottom
Rothco Gen III waffle tops and bottom

Much of this is what specifically works for me. While I know others who wear similar layers, you need to know you. Some people are more cold-natured than others and require heavier weights for their base layers. However, do not assume that because you are cold-natured you should carry all heavyweight layers. If you have never been backpacking, for instance, your body warms up significantly once you start moving. Always carry at least one pair of wool socks. If it is cold and rainy, these socks will help keep your feet warm.

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