By Zach Lawrence
Proper clothing in any season is essential for staying comfortable, but in the winter it is also essential to keeping you safe.
Being cold and wet are obvious concerns in winter, and the clothing you wear needs to be designed to mitigate those hazards. Getting too hot will also lead to issues since sweating a lot when it’s cold out can be dangerous. To keep your body temperature regulated, bring along plenty of the necessary layers.
Why it’s important
Keeping yourself warm enough in the winter but not too warm is the goal. Being too hot can end up being just as dangerous as being too cold. After all, the purpose of sweat is to cool off, which can create some serious problems when it’s already cold out.
High Peaks Information Center Manager Bobby Clark urges hikers to “minimize sweating.” “All that sweat is going to freeze,” he adds.
This will take some effort. Taking layers off and putting them on continuously throughout the hike as needed will keep you safe and comfortable. “Hiking in the winter requires constant changing,” says forest ranger Robbi Mecus. She emphasizes “having the patience to stop and take a layer off or put one back on.”
What to wear
The tried-and-true basic layering system for both torso and legs has three essential parts.
It starts with a sweat-wicking base layer that will get the sweat off your skin and dry it quickly. Typical materials that will keep you dry are polyester, Merino wool and nylon. You’ll want to bring a complete change of base layers, according to Mecus.
The next layer is your insulation. Down, wool, fleece and synthetic blends of these are the most popular and effective materials for the job. This layer will help trap the heat produced by your own body.
The third essential piece is a breathable wind- and precipitation-resistant layer since your insulation won’t work as well if it gets wet. There are different levels of water resistance to choose from, but more resistance often means a higher price.
Make sure you have extras of each of these layers.
Some supplemental layers to add to your basic system are recommended. A thicker base layer or a light fleece to wear between your base and insulation could help on especially cold days. National Outdoor Leadership School Instructor Kim Covill urges hikers to have a large puffy coat available for breaks too.
You’ll need clothing to cover up everything else as well. A few types of gloves, a hat, something for your neck and face, and a few pairs of socks will take care of the rest. Avid Adirondack hiker Laurel Rosenthal says hikers “must have insulated mittens with a water-resistant lining.” To keep the cold off your neck and face, Jacqui Baker, student guide for the St. Lawrence University Outdoor Program, says “a buff is key.”
Do not wear cotton in the winter. Cotton will get wet when you sweat, and it won’t dry out, which will leave you damp and cold. That can be extremely dangerous in the winter. Clark echoes the common saying: “Cotton kills.”
When to wear what
The time to have all your layers on is not at the trailhead. You’ll be cold without them at first, but you’ll be sweating too much five minutes down the trail if you’re already warm at the register.
Mecus says her goal “is to always start out cold.” You’ll heat up faster than you think. With that being said, don’t hit the trail with your teeth chattering. “You want to start off comfortably cool, not comfortably numb,” Clark emphasizes.
Be actively assessing your temperature as you go. Mecus stresses that “the goal to staying warm is to actually stay cool.” To achieve this, she says you want to be adding and taking off layers as needed throughout the entire day. If you’re getting too hot, ditch the insulation for a while. When the wind is picking up, put your shell on. If you sweat through your base layers, change into that extra pair. Rosenthal remembers a time she had too many clothes on and became overheated. She took off too many layers at once and was entering hypothermia by the time she got to the car as a result. Staying on top of your active layering can keep problems like this at bay.
To make your winter hiking exploits go a little smoother, here’s a few additional hints from some experienced folks.
If you need to take your gloves or similar items off for a moment, “unzip your jacket halfway and put them in there,” St Lawrence University Outdoor Program Assistant Director Devin Farkas recommends. Doing this will help you keep track of them, keep them from blowing away, and keep snow out of them.
Teton trail worker and avid Adirondack hiker, Caroline Starace, stresses that your eyes will need layers too. “Ski goggles could be helpful if the wind is intense,” she says. They’ll help if the sun is bright, too. She also keeps dry clothes and shoes to change into in the car for a more comfortable ride home.
Hand and foot warmers will “make the difference between stiff, unusable hands and comfort,” according to Dr. Rosenthal. These are a great item to have plenty of.