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What to Wear on a Winter Hike

Tips for dialing in your layering system and staying warm during your cold weather outdoor adventures.

With the right gear and some extra planning, there's no reason to confine your hikes to the summer season! Winter in Washington is a wonderful time to get outside and explore trails in a new light. Although our unpredictable winter weather can make dressing for a hike feel a bit more challenging — once you get your layering system down, you'll be ready for (nearly) anything.

A guide to layering

Layering is the art of combining multiple articles of clothing to create a cohesive system that wicks moisture away from your body while keeping the elements at bay. By combining a base layer, insulating layer and outer layer, you can stay comfortable in just about any type of weather you're bound to run into in Washington.

Base layer: Your base layer will sit next to your skin and is responsible for wicking sweat. This layer will stick with you for the duration of your hike, so make sure to choose one that feels comfortable (see our recommendations for base layer materials below.)

Insulating layer: This layer is in charge of retaining your body heat. Common insulating layers for hikers are down or synthetic jackets, fleeces or even wool sweaters.

Outer layer: Your outer layer works to protect your base and insulating layers from the elements, and may vary depending on the conditions you're hiking in. If it's wet or stormy out, a rain jacket will likely be your outer layer. If it's dry but a bit windy, you might use a windbreaker as your outer layer.

Combining breathable base layers with a shell will keep you dry. Photo by Erik Haugen-Goodman.
A zipped up insulating layer covered by an outer layer. Photo by Erika Haugen-Goodman.

Figuring out your layering pieces — as well as when and how to wear them — is key for a comfortable winter hike. Sweating heavily in the winter can create miserable or even unsafe conditions for your hike or snowshoe outing. Keep these layering tips in mind while you're out on trail:

  • Start out cold and build up your layers if you need to. By starting with fewer layers, you allow your body to warm up naturally and it lets you find the optimal temperature once you get into a rhythm.
  • Stay dry. If you start with too many layers, you’re likely to start sweating early on in the day and soak your clothing. In cold temperatures, it becomes nearly impossible to dry them out after the fact, leaving you with wet, cold clothing for the rest of your trip. This can be not only uncomfortable but also dangerous if temperatures dip lower and you’re miles from your car or if you’re camping for the night.

MATERIALS MATTER for cold weather hiking gear

Wool and synthetic base layers both work, but come with their own advantages and disadvantages. Choosing between them comes down to personal preference and the type of activity you'll be doing. Check your tags and try both out to see what you like best. (Getting to know the fabrics you prefer can also help guide your shopping choices for new or second-hand gear.)

Wool: Wool base layers are generally made from merino wool, which stays warm when wet and offers a good warmth-to-weight ratio. Wool is great for longer day trips or weekends where you won't be changing clothes, as it naturally avoids odors. There are also some wool layers that weave in synthetics to get the best of both worlds with faster drying while staying warm when wet. The biggest downside to wool is that it takes longer to dry than synthetic materials, but most hikers find it more comfortable to wear, especially when wet.

Synthetic: Synthetic layers are a fairly modern invention compared to wool. They are generally lighter than wool, faster-drying, and are highly breathable. The downsides to synthetic layers are that they tend to run colder when they're wet and they can attract odor quickly. Most synthetic blends are made up of polypropylene, nylon, rayon, or spandex. The biggest advantage to synthetics is the fast drying time, and with new advancements in these products, they're becoming warmer when wet to mimic wool.

Cotton: Cotton is the one fabric you should avoid when hiking in the winter. Cotton loses all of its insulating warmth when it gets wet and takes an extremely long time to dry. When it becomes wet, it cools to the temperature of the air and chills your body. Common garments made from cotton include sweatpants, denim (jeans), and flannel.

Testing the waters in a pair of leather waterproofed boots. Photo by Erik Haugen-Goodman.
Thick socks and waterproof boots are great additions to your winter hiking wardrobe. Photo by Erika Haugen-Goodman.

Dry feet and warm toes

In addition to your layers, you'll need to think about how to keep your feet warm and dry on a winter hike. Beyond picking out the right boot, you’ll also want to consider these extra factors to take care of your feet — so they can continue to take you to amazing places all year long:

  • Wear gaiters: Waterproof gaiters are key to keeping your feet as warm and dry as possible in cold, wet weather. If you’re snowshoeing, they’ll keep snow from collecting in your boot, melting and getting your feet wet. If you’re hiking in the rain, they’ll provide an extra layer of protection to keep rain from slowly soaking in from the top. If you need to do a creek crossing or pass through a mud puddle, gaiters offer an extra layer of protection. They’ll also help keep your pants dry, keeping you warmer and cleaner overall. You can choose what height gaiter works best for your use, but calf-height gaiters are going to keep you drier in particularly wet conditions, while ankle-height gaiters could be more comfortable and less likely to cause overheating.
  • Wear warm socks: For winter hiking, you’ll probably want warmer, thicker socks than you use in the summer. Keep this in mind when buying boots for winter — you’ll want room for those socks. If your boots are too tight, they’ll restrict circulation and you’ll end up with cold feet. Wool socks are warm and will still insulate even when wet. A wool-synthetic mix will be a little lighter and dry faster. (And as always, stay away from cotton which will stay wet and cold if it gets wet.) If you’re backpacking, you’ll definitely want a pair of dry socks for camp. 
  • Think carefully about stream crossings: If you have a pair of waterproof boots and high gaiters, you’ll be able to handle minor stream crossings and probably still have dry feet. But at some point, water will eventually seep through all boots. The more you dunk them in water, the sooner you’ll end up with wet feet. If you can do so safely, try to cross streams on logs or rocks — trekking poles may help here. If in doubt, however, it’s safer to simply splash through the water if it’s shallow or turn around if it’s deeper than you’re comfortable with. One thing to keep in mind: It’s better to walk through mud puddles on a trail rather than going around them, which can trample vegetation and widen the trail.
  • Stay warm: Your feet will stay warmer if your whole body is warm. Make sure you layer appropriately and add layers back on when you stop for breaks. Chemical hand or toe warmers are useful on particularly cold days.
  • Start dry: Consider changing into your socks and boots at the trailhead. If your feet are in your warm socks and shoes while you drive in your cozy car, you might end up with sweaty feet before you even start hiking. Wearing a separate pair of shoes solves that problem — and gives you something clean to change into after your hike.
  • Care for your boots: If your boots are starting to wet out quickly, it’s probably time to refresh their waterproofing.

An open thermos lets off steam during a brisk winter hike.
Warm drink on a cold hike? Yes, please. Photo by Erika Haugen-Goodman.

    Bonus: pack a warm treat

    There is nothing nicer than having a hot beverage or soup on hand when you take your lunch break on a cold day. If you have room in your pack, bring a thermos that can keep liquids warm and bring hot water for tea or hot chocolate, or consider heating soup up before leaving home and bringing it along.

    Even with a good thermos, freezing temperatures can chill your beverage, so wrap it in an extra layer (a glove, a beanie, your insulating layer) to keep it warm in your pack. You may even consider bringing a small stove along so you can prep a hot lunch on trail.