What to wear when you’re winter hiking?

I’ve been seeing this question coming up a lot in the various Michigan hiking Facebook groups that I follow. Dressing for cardio when you’re out in the cold is a lot different from bundling up for just sitting around, but you might end up needing to plan for both when hiking. A lot of the things you need you probably already have; it’s just a matter of using them in the right combination.

When you’re a newbie, your first instinct may be to bundle up like crazy, but that can be a mistake. What you want to think about is being adjustable–how can you stay cozy while walking a cold, windy lake shore, but pare down so that you don’t get overheated (and then chilled) while climbing a dune? Staying warm, but not getting sweaty, is the goal.

Getting ready to take off after a dispersed camping overnight last March. I’m wearing a smart wool base layer, merino wool sweater, hiking pants, and a synthetic hoodie.

First, start with a base layer. For day hiking, I love my Cuddle Duds. They’re cheap, silky, and dry quickly. You can buy them at Kohl’s and other inexpensive department stores. I’m a big fan of merino wool for multi day trips because of the no-smell factor, but that gets pricy. Fleece leggings are another cozy base layer option. If you’re day-hiking on a 20-30 degree day, a relatively inexpensive synthetic is adequate. Think about a base layer for socks, also. Blisters happen in winter, too. Polypro, silk, over even men’s poly dress socks can all be good liners. 

On top of your base layer, wear an insulation layer. For me, this is usually a fleece, wool sweater, or synthetic hoodie. The more loft the fabric has, the more warm air it will trap around you. Make sure that your insulation layer has a pocket that will fit your electronics, because the batteries will last longer if they are both insulated, and close to your body. The cold saps battery power fast. For my legs, I usually go minimalist–wind pants with a liner, or regular hiking pants over my base layer.  I know some people wear snow pants for hiking, but I would be a sweaty mess if I did this. I do like to have snow pants for sitting around in camp if it’s an overnight, though. Wool socks will help keep your feet warm. Whatever you choose for insulation, it should be breathable and quick-drying (not cotton).

Smartwool glove liners with my Smartwool long-sleeve t-shirt provide plenty of warmth in a no-wind, steadily moving day hike.

For my hands, I love my fleece glove/mittens (the kind where the top of the mitten comes off, but your fingers are still in half-gloves) because I can use my phone camera and check navigation without completely baring my hands. I can also open them up if my hands start to get too warm. Sweaty, damp mittens are not good. In wet or windy situations, a mitten overshell would be a good idea, too, but for day hiking when I’m moving a lot, light synthetic gloves or my glove/mittens are sufficient. 

I like to bring a Buff (neck gaiter) to cover my neck, face, or head/hair, depending on how hot I get moving. I also carry a knit cap with me, to wear if we stop moving and I get chilled. 

Easy on/off hats, neck gaiters, pit-zips, and various layers provide lots of options.

In my day pack, I carry a puffy jacket, and a raincoat or windproof shell (depending on conditions) that’s large enough that I could put it on over the puffy if I got really cold.  I also bring rain pants to go over my bottom layers if I know there will be sitting around, where I might get chilled. While rainwear usually doesn’t breathe well, it does a great job of blocking the wind, and retaining heat, if that’s what you are looking for. I don’t wear my rainwear when I’m moving, because I’ll get sweaty, but to throw on over a base layer or insulation layer while I have a snack, it’s great.

Carrying a day pack on your excursions allows you to remove layers but not have to occupy your hands with them. (Carrying some snacks and safety gear in your day pack is also a good idea!) 

Most hikers I know don’t wear dedicated winter-insulated hiking boots, but rather use waterproof hiking boots, or waterproof socks, like Sealskinz, with their hiking shoes. Make sure that your feet aren’t packed too tightly into your boots–lack of circulation leads to cold feet. Yaktraks or microspikes to go over your boots can make icy trails a much more pleasant experience–I don’t think I’ll ever winter hike without having mine in my daypack, just in case. If you’re hiking in deeper snow, gaiters can help keep the snow out of your boots.

If you are a new hiker, it’s a great idea to start close to home to test your clothing. What works for someone else might not work for you–some of us just run hotter or colder than others. What will keep you warm while hiking, but not too warm? Shoveling the snow from your driveway is a good simulation of the cardio level you may exert while hiking, so that’s a great instance to test your clothing combination. 

You may also wish to consider whom you’re hiking with–if you have to struggle to keep up, you’re going to get sweaty, and then cold if you stop. If your hiking partner is slower than you are, you may need to bundle up more.

While hikes in your local county park or state park might not seem all that exotic, they can be great places to try out different combinations, so that when you’re someplace you’ve dreamed of going, you’re not side-tracked by clothing issues. 

Published by lovesmichiganoutdoors

Hiking, backpacking, kayaking, stand-up-paddle boarding, sailing... exploring Michigan is my passion!

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