What to Wear to When Hiking in Cold Weather

What to Wear to When Hiking in Cold Weather to Stay Warm

I’ve done a lot of hiking in cold weather and I have to say, when you know what to wear for the occasion, it’s very easy to stay warm (without sweating too much or overheating) and in this post, I’d like to give you some simple tips on that.

One thing you should note though is that depending on the type of hike you do and how cold it is, depends on what you should wear for it.

What to Wear to When Hiking in Cold Weather

For example:

  • Are you doing a regular walk in the woods or are you trail running?
  • Is it a high elevation hike?
  • Is it a trail run on a high or low elevation?
  • How cold do you expect the weather to be the day you go? Is it chilly or literally freezing?

It’s very important to know ahead of time what to expect and if you find yourself on a hike where you don’t really know any of this stuff, the good news is that it’s still pretty easy to dress properly in a way where you’re prepared no matter how cold it gets, what hike you do or at what elevation/pace it’s at.

Here’s what I usually wear when I go hiking in cold weather:

clothing for cold weather hiking

What I follow is a layering process. First, for my body:

  1. Layer one (on my body): Rash guard. Here is a good one.
  2. Layer two (on top of the rashguard): A more insulated rash guard (I recommend the Kanu Surf Boys Platinum rash guard).
  3. Layer three (on top of that): A good winter jacket. I wore the REI Co Op 850 Down Jacket.

And for my legs and feet:

And for my hands and head:

For your upper body, you will add/remove layers depending on how warm you feel. The goal is to always feel warm, but not get to a point where you’re either freezing or sweating.

For your lower body, you don’t need to add or remove any clothing. For more experienced people, you can change the pants (layer 2) to shorts if you’re feeling warm enough, but I wouldn’t recommend it on extremely cold hikes.

Anyway, the beauty of this getup is that it adjusts very well to this idea. It’s very simple, light and easy to adjust to depending on the weather changes. It’s also a very weather proof getup in case it starts raining or snowing too.

An example of how wearing this protects me from the cold weather (and keeps me warm):

Just last week I went on an 11 mile hike with a buddy of mine to Harriman State Park. You can see a picture of me getting on this hike here:

list of things I wear when hiking in the cold

At the starting time of the hike, it was 27 degrees cold (-2 Celsius). I started the hike wearing all 3 layers of clothing (1 rash guard on my body, a more insulated rash guard on top of that and my winter jacket).

As we got higher and higher into the mountains, it got to a point where I was feeling very hot from all the incline (nothing gets your body temperature up like incline hikes people). And so as soon as I felt the sweat coming on, I took the jacket off, stuffed it into my backpack and continued the remainder of the hike with just my 2 layers (the rash guards).

The first layer incubated my heat and the second layer basically held it in. Thus I was able to walk, hike and trail run very comfortably through this hike without ever really feeling cold.

In fact, people who saw me do this hike on Instagram thought I was crazy for wearing so little, but once you understand layering and how well good rash guards insulate heat, it makes perfect sense.

At any point in time, if I were to sit down or take a break, my body would cool down and I’d likely get the jacket back out to stay warm, but once I’d start moving again, it would come off again.

In other words, like I said before, I’d simply use these 3 layers and adjust my hike in the cold so that I would stay warm, but at the same time not sweat too much or feel overheated. Believe me, the last thing you want is to sweat a lot or overheat on a cold hike (that’ll get you sick).

For the lower part of my body, I didn’t need as much to keep me warm and in this case, 2 layers of pants (one rash guard, the other regular sports pants) were enough. The waterproof socks I typically wear, are very insulated and at no point in time did I ever feel cold. Even if I stepped into a puddle, they’d protect me.

How to adjust your clothing layers according to the hike and weather:

It’s really simple:

  1. Again, go by how you feel and how you SHOULD feel is comfortable at all times where you’re not sweating or overheating. If you feel like you’re overheating, remove a layer (or two).
  2. If you’re feeling very cold, add a layer (or two).
  3. Now like I said, the type of hike you do, how cold it gets, and at what pace you go at also highly depends. Let me explain:
  4. If you’re just doing a regular walk in the woods, there’s a good chance you’ll be wearing all 3 layers (on your upper body) throughout most of the hike.
  5. If you’re jogging or trail running in the woods and the elevation is pretty flat with mild inclines and declines, you’ll work up more of a sweat and likely have to remove your top layer (winter jacket).
  6. If you’re walking up a high elevation, this is where you’ll likely heat up the fastest. Nothing gets me sweating like incline hiking, so be prepared to remove a layer if that happens.

The good news you don’t have to remember all this stuff, because again, your body will let you know what’s going on. The important thing is that you listen to it and adjust the layers so you stay comfortable.

With these 3 layers on you, and the ability to remove/add them, you can pretty much hike comfortably in any kind of cool, cold and even freezing weather.

What about thermal clothing and heating pads? Do they work?

Yes, but that’s a bit much for a hike (other than the gloves). Let me explain:

Typically this type of clothing is meant more for people who ski or snowboard. With those sports, people go at high speeds down a mountain but don’t move their body as much as they would on a long hike, and in hiking cases, you’re already wearing the necessary clothing to stay warm and it’s easy to adjust when you feel colder or warmer.

You can certainly bring some of these accessories on your hike, but in my case, I don’t even bother. I’d pack my bag with warm tea, some spicy snacks if anything over these heating pads, but if you want to play it safe, and there’s space in your backpack, you can bring these too.

Related posts: See what to wear when hiking in the summer (different layout).

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  1. Love the idea of the layering, and with good quality clothing, you can make sure that the material will be both warm and keep you from overheating at the same time. This is the first time that I have heard of a rash guard, and why would you need that in a top and not pants?

    Waterproof socks are a must on any hike, and I have learned this the hard way as there is nothing more uncomfortable than walking with soaked socks, and there is a higher chance of getting blisters on your feet.

    1. You can wear a rashguard beneath your pants, but they are referred to as leggings in that case Michel. 

  2. I am heading to Alaska with a friend to visit my dad. We plan on doing some hiking, so this is great information. My dad says he has all I need, but ummm he’s not the same size and I really want to do this right.  I plan on checking into your recommendations. Since my dad lives in Alaska, I can leave the gear there and reuse on my next visit !  Thanks for the great information.

    1. I think if you buy layered clothing that fits you according to this post’s guidance, you should be totally fine in Alaska Lea. Enjoy your trip!

  3. I have been looking for more hiking gear to keep me warm during the winter season. Last month, I was going to buy winter hiking pants by Froggtoggs, but waited to do further research. 

    Now that you’ve explained the layers and how to adjust, I’m excited for my next hike. I’ll be sure not to don’t forget a spicy snack, another great tip! Thank you for this post.

    1. You’re welcome! I’ve never heard of the hiking pants you mentioned, but if they’re good and affordable, I would get them. Personally you don’t need to buy expensive gear to stay warm and layering is a great way to make sure you feel great when it’s cold.

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