How to Layer Clothing for Hiking: A Beginner’s Guide

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The secret to having an incredible experience in the outdoors is not taking in a spectacular view, feeling utterly alone after hiking for miles into the mountains, or having a chance encounter with rare and majestic wildlife. Making the most of your time in the outdoors is much more straightforward and attainable than that. 

When you establish a personalized system to keep yourself comfortable and safe when hiking, the outdoors will soon become far less intimidating and may even begin to feel like home. 

Proper layering is the foundation for comfort and safety when on the trail, and if you have ever wondered how to layer clothing for hiking, this guide is for you.    

While every hiker is different, the principles of effective layering are all the same. Once you have established a reliable layering system that works for you and guarantees personal comfort in the outdoors, there should be nothing holding you back from uncovering the countless mysteries awaiting beyond every trailhead.  

how to layer clothing for hiking

The Layering System

While there are many different strategies to layering, the basic system generally remains the same. In short, all hikers should have an outer layer, middle layer, and base layer when exploring the outdoors, each serving their purpose. 

Outer layers shield you from the elements, middle layers help retain body heat and keep you warm, and base layers wick moisture away from your skin as you break a sweat on the trail. 

This system allows for hikers to adapt on the fly to changes in both weather and exertion level. While conditions may not demand wearing all three layers at the onset of your hike, it is always wise to hope for the best, yet plan for the worst. 

Weather can change in the blink of an eye, and you never know when something may go array on the trail. When you layer, you can always take clothing off if you overheat, but without extra layers in your pack, you may be out of luck if conditions worsen. 

There is a lot to consider for each layer. While the climate and personal preference in layers and materials play a significant role, the three-layer system is widely accepted as the best way to ensure comfort while on the trail.  

how to layer clothing for hiking

Base Layers

High-quality base layers are the foundation for quality layering for outdoor adventure. No matter the climate, base layers serve the critical purpose of pulling moisture (sweat) away from your skin. 

Lightweight, quick-drying materials are best. It is widely accepted in the outdoor industry that “cotton kills” – meaning, cotton materials get wet fast, take a long time to dry, and do not provide enough insulation. 

Alternative options for base layer material include Merino wool, polyester, polypropylene, nylon, or silk. Each of these materials has its pros and cons when it comes to durability, wicking capability, and odor retention. Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference.  

Base layers also come in different weights, and this should be taken into consideration when looking at where you are hiking. Thicker fabrics will keep you warmer, but remember that the base layer’s primary function is to wick moisture away from your skin, not necessarily to provide warmth. 

Upper Body Base Layers

When choosing base layers for your upper body, consider the season and climate. 

There are short and long sleeve options for summer weather, both of which can offer the wicking capabilities and promote evaporation off of the body which will help keep you cool. Additionally, some summer base layers will offer UPF ratings that provide additional sun protection. 

Long underwear can be an excellent option for an upper-body base layer in colder temperatures or winter months. No matter how cold it is though, the primary function of this material still needs to be moisture wicking. Having dry skin is as important in staving off hypothermia as the insulating layers we will address below. 

Lower Body Base Layers

The same basic principles should be followed when selecting base layers for your lower body as you did for your upper body. 

All of your underwear (briefs, boxers, and bras) should have wicking capabilities when on the trail. 

In hot summer months, hiking in shorts is fine, but depending on the adventure, it can be wise to throw an extra set of pants in your pack. Synthetic hiking pants can also be an excellent option for hiking in warmer months. 

As with your upper body, thermal long underwear (using heavier options for colder temperatures) should be the go-to choice for hiking in colder rainier weather or winter months. 

Insulating Layers

Insulating layers can be considered the warmth provider. 

This layer retains body heat, allowing for warm air to stay close to the body while simultaneously keeping cooler air away. The best insulating layers will strike a balance between letting moisture from the wicking layer escape from the body and absorbing it into the material itself. 

There are many different options for choosing materials for insulating layers ranging from synthetic to natural and ultralight to heavyweight. While it all comes down to personal preference, you should always carry some level of insulating layer in your backpack. 

Upper Body Insulating Layers

Down insulated jackets are one of the warmest options available and will pack down the smallest. While these jackets offer some wind and water resistance, they are not totally waterproof and lose much of their insulating ability once they get wet. 

Synthetic jackets are meant to simulate down, but are not quite as warm and do not pack down as small.  However, they still do a reasonably good job insulating in damp or wet conditions. 

Fleece can also be a good option as it retains heat when wet, dries quickly, and breathes well. While fleece doesn’t compress the best, it does come in a variety of weights allowing for you to pick and choose for climate and conditions.

Lower Body Insulating Layers

Insulating layers on your lower body are only typically needed in sustained temperatures below zero. 

In these conditions, down pants can be an absolute game-changer. In most winter weather conditions, however, thermal long underwear and a weather-resistant outer layer should suffice. In cooler fall or spring temperatures, synthetic hiking pants are enough.  

Outer Layers

While base layers and insulating layers are focused on keeping you warm from the inside out, outer layers are needed to shield you from the elements. 

Like insulating layers, you should always have an outer layer in your backpack as these can spell the difference between being miserable in the bad weather and being able to comfortably wait out a storm. 

Outer layers are built to protect you from wind, rain, and snow and vary in many ways. These layers should be waterproof in the most demanding climates and, at the very least, be water-resistant. 

Further, you should seek out quick-drying, durable, and breathable layers, so you do not overheat. If an outer layer fails, it can quickly compromise the effectiveness of your insulating and base layers, which, in turn, will compromise your safety and comfort.

Upper Body Outer Layers

When choosing an outer layer for your upper body, there are many options available. Waterproof and breathable hard shells are the most expensive option on the market, but you get what you pay for. These shells are undoubtedly the best choice for inclement weather and demanding climates and are the most durable outer layers on the market. 

Water-resistant shells are suitable for high exertion hikes in somewhat demanding environments. If you are hiking in light rain or wind, or are concerned about the weather changing on you after a sunny departure, these more breathable jackets are a great choice to throw in the pack. 

One step down from hardshell jackets are soft shells. This type of outer layer is the most breathable option. Yet, it still offers some protection from light wind and rain. Many softshell jackets also provide some insulation, making them a great choice for fall or spring hikes where heavy rain or demanding weather is not expected.  

Lower Body Outer Layers

Your options for lower body outer layers are virtually identical to those for your upper body. 

From ultralight, softshells to heavy-duty hard shells, outer layer pants cover the full spectrum. Consider a breathable hardshell option if you plan on doing a lot of winter hiking or live in rainy coastal environments. If you plan on exerting yourself in warmer regions where bad weather is less likely, a water-resistant or soft shell pair of pants should suffice.  

Layering Is The Key To Hiking Safety And Enjoyment

Learning how to layer clothing for hiking can be an intimidating task on the surface. Using the three-layer system outlined above is a simple and foolproof solution to help ensure you are comfortable and safe when on the trail. 

This approach provides a foundation. Soon, you will develop your preferences that cater to your specific wants and needs as they pertain to climate, material, level of exertion, and cost. 

Remember, comfort is key when making the most of your time on the trail, and learning how to layer clothing for hiking is the first step in thoroughly enjoying your time outdoors!

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