Gone are the days when we can simply wake up, roll out of bed, gulp down a fresh green juice, toss on yesterdays shorts while refilling packs with water and snacks before taking advantage of 16+ hours of daylight.
Now it seems like we have to decide between boots, shoes, shorts, pants, convertible pants, leggings, base layers, longsleeve or short sleeve, puffy jacket or fleece jacket, rain or wind jacket, beanie or simply just a trusty ball cap?
Seems like enough layering options these days to require a fist full of Ativan!
Where to begin, how can the adventurist possibly decide which is best, or what will keep them safe? Is there any magic combination that will ensure a safe trip into nature and back? Not really, but we can certainly aspire for darn close! So how can we make some sense of a 10,000 sq ft box store full of gear?
Be prepared for the worse, but hope for the best!
First, since this fits into each and every category as a “no, please don’t”.. cotton. Cotton soaks up moisture and takes too long to dry, some exceptions exist on a hot summer day, but I am stubborn in my ways: cotton has no place in a hikers backpack unless it is after the hiking and climbing is done for the day, perhaps for lounging around camp.
Layering for Summer
What should you look for when purchasing clothes for fair weather hiking? Lighter colors, breathable fabrics, if it was not apparent in the last paragraph.. cotton is not a great option for hiking in, so it is best to choose synthetics or light wool layers during the warmer months.
*Short sleeve vs long sleeve shirts – synthetic materials are the way to go these days, prices have come way down in synthetic materials since the 1980s, so we might as well put them to use! A snugger fit will help transfer sweat and moisture away from the body faster, while a looser fitting shirt will act like a wind tunnel and funnel wind right up and over the hikers back or chest.. while this may be refreshing after a good climb, sitting on a bare summit trying to enjoy a sandwich could have you reaching for additional layers sooner! Also, a longsleeve shirt gives a person the option of rolling the sleeves up or down as needed – and at least having the option of sleeves allows you to block UV rays from the sun.
My vote: a light longsleeve shirt with a zip or button up neck, collar to help cover the neck as needed, sleeves that can be rolled down to block the suns rays or rolled/pushed up to help vent sweat during an ascent.
*Shorts vs pants – shorts are lighter (typically) and breezier, letting that mountain air flow wherever you need it most! Pants help with UV protection from the sun, any extraneous sticks or pricker bushes a hiker may encounter while bushwhacking, but possibly most important pants offer protection from ticks and other biting insects found along the trails.
My vote: while I often hike in running shorts, if I know the trail is wide and I’ll be moving quickly, however.. my longstanding preference is for zip-off, or ‘convertible’ pants that offer the option of legs that zip off, switching into shorts on the fly, and most of the pant legs that zip off can even fit over boots without removing them!
A side note that can and should be applied to any garment while choosing clothing for layering is the color; keep in mind that lighter colors will help reflect sun rays, helping to keep the wearer cooler longer, but also lighter colors help deter ticks – while darker layers will soak up the sun rays, keeping the hiker warmer, darker layers have also been found to attract ticks!
*Buff – at least one of these stretchy fabric tubes can be found in my running pack, super versatile, these can be worn as a hat to absorb sweat and block the sun, around the neck for much of the same or even on the wrist like a fancy tennis player to wipe sweat before it gets into the eyes!
*Sunglasses – offering year round protection, and not just for sunny days – sunglasses offer eye protection from pointy sticks while bushwhacking and comfort while traversing snow or bright colored rock, I always have a pair of sunglasses on my face or in my pack – just in case!
*Hat – brimmed hats offer not only additional UV protection from sun rays, but can help block some glare.
*Boots vs trail runners – boots offer additional ankle support, especially beneficial while backpacking or carrying multi-day heavy loads into the mountains, typically boots are more water-resistant than simple trail runners while running shoes offer more flexibility in the foot, better range of motion, occasionally better grip on slab rock also! Some consideration will have to go into what the trail conditions may look like, how wet, eroded, grade/steepness all should be factored in when determining footwear in the hills.
*Gaiters – in some form or another, these are year-round for me. Whether they are ‘expedition’ style gaiters, more insulated and fitted for winter travel, or simple fabric ‘dirty-girl’ gaiters, some shoe companies like Altra are making gaiters specifically designed to fit their trail runners. Gaiters are just an additional form of protection, blocking sand, pebbles, twigs, pine needles, anything you don’t want falling into your shoe and inevitably under your foot while hiking!
My vote: gaiters year-round, heavier insulated gaiters are great for winter travel, keeping snow our of your boots while keeping warmth against your calves – but unfortunately a lot of the taller, knee-height gaiters are not terribly breathable and can trap a lot of sweat against the lower legs, quick fix? Unzip or loosen them for a minute when a snack break is taken, let your legs breathe too!
Layering for Spring or Autumn
The same applies as far as synthetic layers and zip-off pant options, but now begins the magic of layering –
+ Base Layer (wicks moisture away from the body)
+ Mid-weight Layer (traps warm pockets air next to the body)
+ Outer shell (repels wind/precipitation)
Often a debatable rule, but one that I have found to work well – I have found it is best to start hiking in a layer that will have you cool, but not chilled, definitely not actually shivering – knowing that the body will warm up gradually over the first 10-15 minutes, or during the initial 1-2 miles. If you are still cold after a mile, put light gloves or a hat on, still cold after that? Put an extra layer (shirt/fleece) on.
Like the saying goes: if your toes are cold, put on a hat.
*Long sleeve – wool is classically known for its ‘anti-stink’ properties, great for distance hikers! One longstanding downside to wool however, is its itchiness – but this has been somewhat remedied by treatments during production, but can also be achieved by washing wool gently with a bit of vinegar (google it.. to find how much vinegar to put in your laundry!), synthetic long sleeve shirts can become smelly faster – I find it easiest to just wash any of my tech layers by hand with gentle soap (Dr Bronner’s works wonders..for everything!), whatever you do – fabric softener cannot be used on synthetic layers, the chemicals will strip your clothing of all moisture-wicking properties!
My vote: a brightly colored (think..hunting season), collared long sleeve that has the option of rolling or pushing the sleeves up to block sun rays, fitting just snug enough to not waft air up my chest and become drafty, but not tight enough to be constricting or overly noticeable to the hiker!
*Mid-weight/fleece – some can be found with a laminated outer layer, or DWR (durable water repellent) coating from the factory, but I have been relying on a fleece shell for years! Why fleece? I grew up hearing my parents say “your fleece is made from recycled Coca Cola bottles!”, which I thought to be fascinating.. many fleece jackets are manufactured from recycled materials, which I love to support! Fleece jackets are moderately breathable, allowing sweat to vent out but adversely letting that pesky wind tear through right down to your base layer. Another downside to fleece is that it does not pack away as easily as other options, remaining a bulky layer from start to finish.
*Mid-weight/”Puffy”/insulated jacket – first off, I love these jackets.. but not so much for during the hike. So far in my short history of owning a down/synthetic insulated jacket I have grown to prefer them before or after climbing or hiking, but not during. Why? Many reasons.. they are not as durable as other options (like fleece), one snag on a branch and there goes all your filling! Insulated jackets are not all created the same, here again, there are also synthetic and ‘naturally occurring’ fills (goose, duck, or other waterfowl). Both variations take quite some time to dry once wet or sweat-through, but synthetic fills are raved for retaining their loft when wet. However, over the longhaul – synthetic insulation looses its ability to re-fluff after being wet, while natural down can go through a wet-dry cycle many more times, lasting much longer than synthetic in the long haul!
*Mid-weight/”Puffy”/insulated vest – same as above concerning the fill, fabric and durability, but some prefer the puffy vest to keep warm air against the core while allowing free-range of motion for the arms. Once again though, I would save an insulated vest for a snack break while on trail or for back at camp, but not while actually hiking or climbing due to its ability to simply soak up sweat easily.
*Mid-weight options: hood vs no hood – natural instinct tells me it would be better to have a hood and not need it, best to have it right there if it is needed, but what if your outer shell has a hood – would that become too cumbersome and restricting to have two hoods? Will the hood fit over a hat, beanie, or helmet for climbing? Will a second hood run the chance of getting in the way, or blocking your view when you need to see your rope while belaying? All of these questions must be asked when purchasing layers.
Layering for Winter/colder temps
Now that we have the basics of layering down, what can be done to help protect our base and mid-layers? Another layer or two, of course!
*Outer shell/wind jacket – often can be packed up to the size of an apple when not needed, but can be tossed over a long sleeve or fleece layer in seconds to add a layer of light water-resistance. The wind jacket will keep your hard earned heat trapped and close to the body, for a short period a simple wind jacket will help light rain or snow bead up and fall away – while it doesn’t take long for these layers to become saturated, they typically do dry rather quickly.
*Outer shell/rain jacket – typically just a bit heavier than a simple wind jacket, these shells are usually treated with DWR from the factory or contain a GoreTex layer (as durability and water-resistance increases, often so does price!). While these layers work great to keep rain and snow on the outside of your layers, they often times work just as well at retaining heat and moisture inside of the jacket – but now-a-days better jackets can be found with arm pit zippers and vents of all sorts to help breathability.
My vote: base layer + fleece + thin (easily packable) GoreTex (seam sealed) jacket. Highly versatile and can be combined with a plethora of other layering options, a good rain jacket can often times double as a wind shell. The only drawback to a treated rain jacket that I have found is the maintenance (hardly troublesome as far as gear goes..), a treated layer must be kept clean, free from oils (sun tan lotion, grease, etc), dust and dirt, scratches and tears as small particles easily enter the pores of the jacket that are designed to allow the hikers sweat to escape while being too small for fallen water droplets to penetrate. A bit of gentle soap and cool water can help keep your rain jacket working like new – and for DWR treated layers, another coating can be store bought and applied at home, or sometimes a quick trip to the dryer, tumbled on low heat can help revive the DWR treatment!
*Outer shell/winter jacket/parka – basically a one-use type of layer, these are not stowable, winter coats do not collapse and fit easily into a pack, they often times are heavy and do not breathe, and what’s more.. parkas are typically expensive. So when should they be used? In extreme conditions, cold and wind – or when the hiker is just not moving much, such as belaying or in between strenuous activity, they are also great for lounging around camp.
Of course, by now combinations of these layers can be found – companies trying to come out with the next best idea, zippers in new locations, features that guarantee you’ll stay cooler and dryer longer. Endless amounts of money can be spent on layers and a hiker these days will probably not feel as if they have “everything for every situation”, the key is being able to use what you have and adjust layers for varying weather conditions; build up a small arsenal of quality clothing that can be utilized.
The key to layering is just knowing that heavier is not always better, knowing that a hiker will have to add or remove layers throughout the day or week-long backpacking trip.
As one famous adventurer stated: “You sweat, you die.”
Basically what they meant was.. once you get soaked with sweat and you are forced to stop mid-hike without dry clothes to change into on a windy or chilly day, you will become hypothermic extremely quickly.
Pack smart, think ahead, hope for the best but plan for the worst conditions, and always dress in layers!
A fantastic company who has been helping modern climbers, hikers, boaters, skiers, get their layering down correctly since 1938, REI has a great selection, frequent sales and discounts, and a membership program that offers real cash back rewards on all your outdoor purchases!
Simply click any of the REI links and images around here and REI will kick us some loose change, it costs you nothing other than one click on the link so they know who sent you!
Cheers and happy trails!