Winter Layering

Just because the temperature is dropping doesn’t mean you need to stay inside. In fact, winter is a beautiful time to hit the trails. Those same trails that you could never find a parking spot at in the summer suddenly become wide open. So, what are you waiting for? Oh, it’s cold you say. No worries, just layer up.


First rule of thumb for cold weather sports, “Cotton is rotten!” Stay far away from cotton in the colder months. Clothing made from cotton absorb sweat and tend to stay wet longer. That means when you stop to rest or are heading back downhill and aren’t working as hard you will feel cold quicker. No one wants to feel cold and wet. My go to fabric is wool. Wool is natural, sustainable, and does a phenomenal job at regulating temperature. The downside of wool is that it tends to be more expensive, so if you are budget conscious there are great polyester/synthetics out there as well.

mt washington

Why layer you ask? There are two good reasons for layering instead of just wearing one big thick layer.

  • When your body heat gets trapped between the layers it acts as thermal insulation
  • If you start to get too hot you can take a layer off and not overheat. In turn you can also throw a layer on if you are getting cold

So now, let’s dive into those layers.

stripping to my base layers

Base layer - Think next to skin

These are the form fitted layers that sit right on your skin. You want them form fitting because their job is to keep your skin dry. This is where wool truly rules. Not only is wool the most breathable of the fabrics, but it also does a better job retaining heat then polyester. Being a natural fiber, wool also has natural antimicrobial properties to help with odor control. Part of the reason for this is also that wool pulls sweat away from your body in the vapor form while polyester doesn’t pull sweat away until it’s in the liquid form. For base layers I highly recommend making sure the clothing is merino wool. Merino wool fibers are thinner than regular wool fibers making them much more comfortable and not itchy.

Mid layer jacketMid layer – Insulation

This is the layer that provides you with the warmth. Down use to be the “IT” fiber for insulating. Jackets, sleeping bags, and even booties were stuffed with down. Don’t get me wrong, down is still a great fiber for insulation, but recently there have been a lot of great synthetic alternatives such as fleece. The benefit of synthetics is that they dry much quicker if they get wet and continue to insulate when wet. If you hear terms such as PrimaLoft and Thinsulate these are synthetic insulations. But wait, that’s not all. Have you tried wool insulation? Sheep look pretty happy with their wool coats, so why not have a wool insulated coat as a human.

Amy skiing at Loveland

Outer layer – Your first line of defense

Here you have your barrier against wind and snow/rain. No matter how great your base and mid layers are, they will be worthless if they get soaking wet from it snowing on you. While you keep the bad weather out you want to make sure your outer layer is also breathable, so it doesn’t trap your sweat in. You don’t want to get soaking wet from the inside either. For a while the best way to go for this was a hard-shell jacket, but now companies are making soft shell jackets that are highly water resistant. If you know you tend to run hot you might consider outer layers that have venting zippers to help you regulate yourself even more. I personally rarely hike with an outer layer on because I warm up quickly. Even though I don't hike with one on I carry one in my pack for breaks, summits, and descents that are above tree line. On the flip side I seem to always wear an outer layer while skiing. 

winter snowshoe3

Now it’s time for you to go shopping and get those layers so you’re not stuck inside all winter and during shoulder season. Don’t forget your hat and gloves as well. Did you know you can layer gloves? Yup, I’ve got wool liner gloves that I can put nice ski gloves over on those really cold days. The most important thing to remember though is get what YOU are comfortable in. If you’re not comfortable you won’t enjoy your time outside no matter what.

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