I am no stranger to hiking in cold weather. I prefer it and have been hiking in freezing temperatures in Iceland, Minnesota, Arizona, Colorado, New York, and more. I often head out for sunrise when the temperatures are even colder, but I always stay warm because of my layering techniques and favorite cold-weather hiking essential, Hot Hands.
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Choosing what to wear when hiking in cold weather can be challenging, especially for new hikers who might be uncertain which clothes will be worth the investment. You also might be wondering, how cold is cold? Generally speaking, you should wear at least four layers to keep warm and dry in cold temperatures of 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which includes a weatherproof outer layer in case it rains or snows. Temperatures in the 40s can be very chilly, especially if the sun is not out and there is a wind chill. Anything below 40 degrees Fahrenheit is considered very cold, and many people will not be comfortable hiking in such cold weather. Therefore, it is important to know the risks and be prepared when hiking in cold temperatures, which includes knowing what to wear.
If you are new to hiking, I’d recommend not hiking in anything below a low of 30 F until you get used to hiking in the cold. For me 15 degrees to mid-20s F is extremely cold but still enjoyable if it is sunny and I have all my layers on; two bottoms, three tops, neck gaiter, wool socks, beanie, warm gloves, and hot hands.
At times you may be able to get away with two layers when the weather is in the 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit range, but weather conditions can change quickly, so it’s wise to be prepared with at least three layers even on a sunny day. Most of the time, the thickness of each layer will change rather than how many layers you wear. Too many bulky layers can be uncomfortable, make you sweat, and limit mobility which is important while enjoying your time outdoors. You may need some trial and error to get your perfect layering technique down, but it is always recommended to wear too much than too little. Just make sure to bring a day pack that is large enough to store what you don’t end up needing.
Tips for staying warm in cold weather while hiking
There are a number of things you can do to stay warm when hiking in cold weather. While practice makes perfect, here are a few things I always do to help me stay warm in cold temperatures.
- Do not hold your pee– There may not be a scientific explanation for this, but all of my guides for cold weather excursions have always told me not to hold my pee. They swear the mental and physical effort to hold pee in will make you colder. Whether that is true or not, one thing is for sure, having an empty bladder is much more comfortable, so pee away!
- Do not wear cotton baselayers– I wear a lot of cotton in hot temperatures but avoid cotton in cold temperatures, especially if I am doing a physical activity (like hiking) that may make me sweat. Cotton is a natural fiber that breaths well but also absorbs really well. If your body creates moisture, the material will absorb it, and in freezing temps, the moisture will freeze in the garment, and that coldness will be pressed against your skin, making you very cold and uncomfortable. Always wear synthetic base layers or wool.
- Dress in layers– Layering is the most important thing to remember as the temps change very frequently in most hiking situations. Each layer has a different job, and they all work together to keep you warm and dry on the trail (more info on the layers below). Layers are easy to remove and help you stay comfortable while hiking in cold weather.
- Use Hot Hands– Hot Hands hand warmers are a game changer for me. The packets are small so fit easily in gear pockets. Their heat lasts for 10 hours or more. They are also great for keeping batteries and cameras warm when placed in your backpack to help batteries last longer.
- Wear a neck gaiter -Besides the Hot Hands, a neck gaiter always does the in cold temps. This has been a lifesaver when hiking in freezing temperatures. It is incredible how much warmer I am with a simple piece of fleece around my neck. A neck gaiter helps protect my neck from wind and cold zippers; if it’s long enough, it protects against the cold wind on my face.
How to layer and wear your cold weather hiking clothes
When choosing what to wear for a cold-weather excursion, don’t choose bulky, thick pieces thinking the thicker, the better. While there is a time and place for thick outerwear, it’s not the most effective strategy to keep you warm on a long trek through snow and rain.
Being cold can be dangerous but being cold and wet at the same time is far worse. Water draws heat away from the body extremely quickly, making all the difference on a hike in freezing temperatures. That’s why appropriate clothing and especially the correct materials for different layers are so crucial for hikers. Before choosing what to wear hiking in cold weather, take a moment to learn about the different types of layers and why each is important.
- Base Layer
- This layer will touch your skin and keep the heat close to your body without making you sweat. The material needs to dry quickly to avoid trapped moisture, so it should be thin, lightweight, and not cotton. Wool baselayers are great for cold-weather activities.
- Mid Layer
- Mid Layers are clothing items that go between your skin-hugging base layer and your insulated outer layer. Depending on conditions, hikers will often wear multiple mid-layers as part of their layering system.
- Top Layer
- The mid and top layers help insulate and keep your body heat from escaping. The top layer is commonly the thickest and sometimes even divided into several sublayers so you can regulate your body temperature if needed. It is a good idea to have a water-resistant top layer.
- Waterproof Outer Layer
- The waterproof layer creates the final barrier between the hiker and the elements. It should be lightweight but still durable to avoid possible leaks during heavy rain or snow. This layer can be taken off if required and could be stored inside your pack or in an outside stash pocket for easy reach.
Base layers for cold weather hiking
The base layer is the most important layer when talking about cold-weather hiking clothes. Its primary purpose is to keep moisture away from the skin while insulating the body from the cold. This layer needs to be light, comfortable, and fast-drying, making wool the perfect choice.
Make sure to avoid clothing made out of cotton, as cotton is very absorbent and tends to stick to the skin when wet and can take a long time to dry. The base layer is not necessarily meant to keep the body warm like thermal clothing is. Base layers create a foundation that allows for adding other layers on top to add warmth. Always double-check the base layer clothing materials to ensure they are mainly wool or wool blends. Merino wool is an especially popular choice but can be expensive.
For Her – Kari Traa Floke Base Layer Top and Bottom Kari Traa Floke Base Layer Bottoms
This merino wool blend top is an excellent choice if you’re looking for a base layer to wear hiking in 30 or 40-degree weather (or colder). Its long sleeves ensure you’re insulated from the cold, and the slim fit will adjust to your body, so you’re not left with bunched-up fabric. The top comes in two styles, a crew neck, and a 1/4 zip. It is available in a lot of colors and has matching bottoms.
I like the crew neck style because zippers can be cold if touching the skin. I like to tuck my shirt into my baselayer pants to add warmth and avoid bunching.
For Him – Smartwool Classic Thermal Merino Crew Base Layer Top and Smartwool Classic Thermal Merino Base Layer Bottoms
Cold-weather hiking clothes can be fashionable too, and this men’s base layer top is the perfect example. Made from a merino wool blend, it’s lightweight and soft with minimal seams to avoid chafing. It is the perfect base layer for hiking in cold weather and comes in many colors.
Mid-layers best for hiking in the cold
A lightweight fleece is the most common choice for hiking in cold temps, 30 degrees and below. Most options come in different thicknesses; some people may use two different mid-layers if they “run cold”. If you feel yourself warming up and sweating, you can always take off your mid-layer and store it in your pack. Fleece jackets are also very versatile and can be useful in everyday life, so why not invest in one you can see yourself wearing even when you’re not on a hike?
For Her – Craghoppers Miska Fleece Jacket
Layer up on your next cold weather hike and grab this soft, durable fleece jacket that makes for the perfect mid-layer. It has zippered pockets, and the polyester microfleece is made from recycled plastic bottles, creating a positive environmental impact- plus, it’s at a great price point!
I also love this Patagonia Better Sweater Fleece designed to keep its shape after multiple washes. It comes in a 1/4 zip style and a ton of colors. I love the pockets and how soft it is inside. The outer material looks like a sweater, so it isn’t as puffy as some other fleece options, but it’s just as warm and cozy.
My favorite mid-weight bottoms are these ZUTY fleece-lined thermal tights with thigh pockets from Amazon. I’ve bought expensive fleece tights before thinking they would be warmer and better in some way, but the truth is these Zuty ones work just as well for a fraction of the cost.
I also use these wind and water-resistant fleece-lined pants when temperatures are below 30F. They are advertised as waterproof, but they are not 100% waterproof. They absorb water when exposed for long periods of time but are very cozy and work great during early misty morning hikes.
For Him – Marmot Olden Polartec Jacket
This fleece is a reliable companion on any cold-weather hike and will keep you warm even in freezing temperatures as the perfect mid-layer. The material is breathable, moisture-wicking Polartec® Power Stretch fabric with 4-way stretch for mobility. The jacket comes with zippered side pockets and thumb holes on the sleeves for added warmth.
If you run hot, here are two lighter mid-weight options for hiking in cold weather that can be taken from the trails to a night out. You can even layer them both for added warmth.
Cozy Top Layers to consider while hiking in freezing weather
Warm top layers are very important to consider when hiking in cold weather. Anything 40F and below is considered extreme cold, and many people may not be comfortable hiking in temps that low even with multiple top layers on.
Lightweight puffer jackets are highly recommended for hiking in cold weather. Puffers will keep you warm and insulate you against cold winds. Insulated puffers have a natural down fill, synthetic fill, or a combination of both and pack down nicely. Down is a bit warmer and packs smaller for the same warmth as synthetic fill but synthetic is best for wet conditions. Down is also more expensive.
Adding the top layer is essential if you’re hiking in cold weather as the down feathers or similar synthetic materials trap air close to your body, ensuring you stay warm. Stay away from extremely heavy puffer jackets, which will be bulky and could cause perspiration. Instead, opt for thinner, lightweight options that are designed for hiking and can be stowed away quickly if necessary. Most puffers are not waterproof so make sure to pick up a waterproof outer layer as well for ultimate comfort.
I typically do not wear a 3rd bottom layer. I stay warm in a base layer and mid-layer unless temperatures are well below freezing, but in that case, I usually use waterproof snow pants as my top layer. I always make sure to have thin waterproof and windproof pants with me that I can easily throw on just in case.
For Her- Patagonia Radalie Insulated Jacket
The top layers must be made from high-quality materials to insulate effectively. The Patagonia Radalie Insulated Jacket is lightweight but still wind-resistant and water-repellant, although it’s most effective when paired with an additional waterproof layer. Its quilted shell is made of nylon with a durable water-repellent (DWR) finish and insulated with warm 150g synthetic Thermogreen® fill.
For Her- Arc’teryx Cerium Down Hoodie
For a warm goose-down option try the Arc’teryx Down Hoodie. It is lightweight with RDS certified down fill and adjustable hood making it a fantastic companion on your next cold-weather hike.
For Him – Patagonia Down Sweater Hoodie
This packable, warm jacket will keep you cozy in cold weather on your next hiking trip. It has a water-repellent outer shell with real down fill and intelligent details such as a wicking interior storm flap around the center front zipper.
For Him –Outdoor research Helium Down Jacket
Another down-fill option this top layer comes complete with a carabiner loop, high-quality drawstring, and internal pockets. The Helium Down Jacket prioritizes functionality without adding unnecessary weight.
Waterproof Outer Layers important for cold-weather hiking
The waterproof layer sits on top of all your other layers and protects you from the elements when hiking in cold, wet weather. You should choose an outer shell that is windproof and completely waterproof. Gore-tex is a fantastic waterproof and breathable material that will keep you dry on the trail for years to come. There are many other “waterproof” options out there, but many do not deserve the label. Make sure to read reviews and do a few water tests before using to make sure what you are buying is waterproof.
Look for jackets with waterproof seams, zippers, and adjustable hoods. If it’s not raining or snowing, you might want to take off your waterproof layer to allow for airflow so you don’t sweat too much during your hike. Waterproof layers are not known to be breathable but oftentimes have underarm zippers to help with breathability.
For Her- Outdoor Research Aspire II GORE-TEX Jacket and the REI Co-op Rainier Rain Jacket
These two options are windbreaker-meets-rain-jackets that create a top shell that can resist winds and keep you dry. The hoods can be adjusted, and hidden zippers in the armpit region of the Rainer help with ventilation and prevent you from overheating. Both jackets are thin enough that they can easily be stowed away and won’t add unnecessary weight to your pack.
These waterproof bottoms are perfect for hiking because they have full side zips, making them easy to take on and off without removing your boots. They are simple with no frills but do the job well.
For Him- REI Co-op Groundbreaker Rain Jacket 2.0 and Bottom For Him- REI Co-op Rainier Full-Zip Rain Pants
Combining waterproof materials with a breathable finish, this jacket will keep you dry while keeping out wind and water. It comes with elastic cuffs, zippered pockets, and an adjustable hood to keep the moisture and wind out. Wear this jacket as your top layer, and you’ll be good to go when hiking in cold weather.
The Stormhenge Hybrid Jacket is a great option if you want to combine two layers into one. The 2-layer waterproof, breathable nylon HydroWall shell comes with fully sealed seams to provide strong weather protection in harsh conditions. Its down-filled lining is warm and compressible and treated with water-repellent technology.
Your base, mid, top, and waterproof layers will protect your body when hiking in cold weather, but you’ll need to add some accessories to make sure your outfit is complete. While you might own gloves already, it may be wise to invest in a pair specifically designed for outdoor activities. This will help you avoid frostbite and allow you to use your hands as much as possible during your excursion.
A durable pair of socks and a warm hat are just as important, and choosing the right materials will be crucial to ensure you’re staying warm and dry. Gloves, socks, and a hat might not seem like the most significant factor when choosing what to wear hiking in 30 or 40-degree weather, but they’re actually more important than you think.
Socks to keep you warm
The best material to use for socks during cold weather activities is wool. Wool and wool blends do a great job of wicking away moisture and keeping your feet dry. Always avoid cotton base layers and underwear (including socks) when cold weather hiking. Instead, look for a material that is proven to wick moisture away from your body.
For Her and Him- Darn Tough Hiker Boot Sock Cushion Socks
These fine-knit merino wool socks will keep your feet warm and dry even on the most strenuous hike. They’re designed to avoid blisters and chafing with strategically placed cushions along the sole and heel.
Gloves perfect for cold weather hiking
Choosing the right gloves is important to keep your fingers toasty while enjoying the outdoors on a cold day. My fingers and toes are two areas that always seem to catch a chill. I always look for gloves that are waterproof and windproof, have a removable liner, and a pouch for a hand warmer. Although it’s tougher to use your hands, mittens are known to keep hands warmer over five-finger gloves.
For Her- Burton GORE-TEX 3-in-1 Mittens
These GORE-TEX gloves are the perfect cold weather accessory with Gore Warm technology and Thermacore insulation perfect for harsh weather conditions. They have a removable liner which means they can be worn in different ways easily adapting to various weather conditions. The small zipper pocket is perfect for hand warmers, the #1 thing I use to keep my hands comfortable when hiking in cold temperatures.
The Trekmates Codale Gloves are not fully waterproof (even though their specs say they are) but are lined with soft fleece, making them comfortable to wear when hiking in cold weather. You won’t have to compromise on functionality as these gloves are touchscreen compatible and have a durable gripping surface on the palms.
For waterproof gloves try the DAKINE Titan GORE-TEX Gloves. They have all the features you need in a cold-weather glove including removable liners and a stash pocket for a hand warmer.
Wearing a hat is another great way to help conserve body heat and is the best way to help prevent frostbite on your head and ears. I usually opt for a simply lined beanie since they pack lite and are so cozy, but on the coldest of days, I love wearing a thick fleece-lined sherpa hat with ear flaps.
For Her and Him- Sherpa Adventure Gear Soni
Your head loses a lot of heat in cold weather, and this fleece-lined beanie prevents just that. The merino wool is quick-drying, and the lining adds another layer of warmth and help prevents cold air from breezing through. The material is warm, thin, and not bulky. These beanies are made from pure lambswool with a cozy Polarfleece® polyester lining for cold-weather comfort mixed with a fun knit design in flattering colors.
Hiking boots made for hiking in cold weather
Good hiking boots need to be sturdy and have a grip, so you don’t slip or twist your ankle. Waterproof or at least water-resistant qualities are also important when choosing a hiking shoe. While they should be warm, it’s important not to choose a pair with too much inner lining, which might cause you to sweat excessively. Instead, add warmth with a good pair of hiking socks. Always try on hiking boots along with the correct pair of socks to make sure the fit is correct. You might want to break in new shoes on a few shorter hikes or wear them throughout the day to allow your feet to adjust and prevent blisters before heading out on a long trek.
These winter hiking boots are sturdy but still lightweight, with high-quality soles that provide optimum grip even on slippery ground. They’re waterproof and designed to combine comfort with functionality.
For Him – KEEN Revel IV EXP Mid Polar Boots
Keep your feet dry with these waterproof hiking boots, ideal for cold-weather excursions with a -40°F rating for comfort in extreme cold. They’re breathable and will stabilize your ankles effectively to make sure you can be on your feet all day without sweat, chafing, or unnecessary injuries.
Hiking outdoors in the freezing cold might not seem fun to everyone, but a winter hike is something you should try at least once to enjoy nature in a new way. In most cases, your body will warm up from hiking in no time, and you won’t even notice the cold. During winter you’ll find fewer hikers and mosquitos which adds to the enjoyment of hiking in colder weather, so grab your cold-weather gear and try a cold-weather hike!
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