What to wear hiking is very dependent on personal preference. However, when it comes to what to wear hiking in winter, there is definitely a basic structure to follow so that you stay warm and dry. And ultimately enjoy the great outdoors! Preferably in style! ;) While some of us already know what we like to wear hiking, it’s a question I answer quite a bit from visiting family and friends. So here’s everything you need to know about staying warm and dry while winter hiking!
What to wear hiking in cold weather is more involved than the summertime ease of throwing on shorts and a tank top. But once you have a system in place for what to wear, it becomes easier every time. And after you’ve done it a few times, it’s just about taking a few more minutes to grab more layers and make sure you’re prepared. So here’s what to wear hiking in winter for women. Jump ahead:
- Layering Basics
- Tops – baselayer, midlayer, waterproofing
- Bottoms – baselayer, midlayer, waterproofing
- Feet – socks, boots or shoes
- Head, Face, Hands – hats, gloves, sunglasses etc.
- Accessories – traction, poles, snowshoes etc
- Winter Hiking Checklist Examples
- Winter Hiking Tips & Safety
Layering Basics: Baselayer + Midlayers + Waterproofing
The basic strategy behind keeping warm in cold weather is layers. You have a baselayer, mid layer(s), and a wind/snow/water-proofing layer on top. You can apply this layer approach to each category of clothing – tops, bottoms, shoes etc. Base layers, followed by a mid layer or two, and then a weather-proofing layer on the top (rain jacket, winter snow coat etc).
The general rule of thumb for clothing material in cold weather is non-cotton, moisture-wicking fabric. With polyester and nylon being at the cheaper end of the spectrum, and merino wool being at the highest end.
And remember it doesn’t take expensive gear to get out and explore in winter time. But some of these items certainly help you stay comfortable and warm. So while I always say use what you have, or borrow, it’s also smart to think about a few key items that would upgrade your comfort for outdoor experiences and snag items during big sales! So use what you have, invest in a few higher quality items when you can, and save on some cheaper but still quality clothing. For example, you’re going to get more comfort and mileage out of splurging on a $20 pair of Smart Wool merino wool hiking socks (vs $8 Target thick wool socks) and saving with a $60 Uniqlo puff jacket (vs a $200 Patagonia nano puff).
Winter Hiking Checklist
Here are my winter hiking essentials, starting with tops, bottoms, feet, and then head and hands. Followed by a few examples of what I might wear in different temperatures from hiking in 30 degree weather to hiking in 40 degree rainy weather etc. and how that might look. Note: this post is about winter day hiking, not winter camping – which involves being out in the elements for much longer (check out REI’s post about winter camping essentials).
Tops: Baselayer, Midlayer, and Waterproofing
Base layer tops:
Your base layer is simply the layer closest to your skin. You want this layer to be moisture-wicking (polyester, polyester/spandex or merino wool) and not be sweating through it immediately (like you would with cotton). REI brand makes a lot of great budget-friendly base layers. SmartWool, Patagonia, and Icebreaker also have great baselayers. With hundreds of options to choose from, from cheapest to most expensive – the main styles are: activewear long sleeve crew ($30+), lightweight base layer ($40+), midweight base layer ($50+), merino wool base layer ($80+). Pick one! Costco also carries the 32 Degrees brand baselayer for $8 (these one thin but very functional for layering)!
For the ladies, remember that the clothing closest to your skin matters from a moisture-wicking and warmth perspective. So don’t forget about the material you choose for this layer! Personally, if you don’t need the extra support, a low impact seamless bralette (nylon/spandex) is nice and thin for wearing under all those layers. If you need the extra support or plan on running, go with a heavier duty sports bra, but make sure the material is nylon/spandex and not cotton.
Mid layer: fleece and/or puff jacket
Think of your mid-layer as your coziest layer (or layers)! For a 10 degree drop in weather, you often need another mid-layer or just a heavier duty top layer of a legit insulated winter jacket. Start with a fleece and then a puff jacket or puffer vest as your mid-layer pieces.
There are a lot of great fleece jackets brands. From Helly Hansen to Columbia to Patagonia. Just remember if you’re going to be layering up, to consider the thickness and weight of your fleece, so you don’t end up feeling like the Michelin man! Plus, if you’re going to be working up a sweat hiking, a lighter but still warm fleece is a great option. If it’s really cold and you won’t be moving fast or working up much of a sweat (or for post-hike hangouts), the polar fleece or sherpa fleece fabric styles are nice and toasty!
While Patagonia has the most popular puffer jackets in the outdoor space, there are many options – from Uniqlo to The North Face to REI brand. If you’re one of those people that is always cold, you really can’t go wrong with a Patagonia Nano Puff or Down “Sweater”. And for a bit warmer winter, a puff vest can be a good alternative to layer over your fleece. This also helps you not get as over-heated if you’ll be moving a lot and still want to keep your core warm. What I love about these lightweight puffs is how packable they are and can cross over all seasons for summer camping as well.
Waterproofing: Rain jacket shell or winter coat
Your last layer depends on how cold or wet it is. Here in Portland – and much of the Pacific Northwest – it’s usually rainy and windy in winter. So what to wear hiking in the rain, has a lot of overlap with winter. And a rain jacket can be a good outer layer as a wind breaker and waterproofing. Just make sure you get a rain jacket that has some venting and pit zips so you don’t just hotbox on the inside and get sweaty and wet. And really depending on how much it’s raining and how long you’re out… you’re gonna be wet.
Bottoms: Baselayer, midlayer, waterproofing
Baselayer: long johns base layer bottoms / tights
My rule of thumb for when to wear baselayer bottoms is if it’s freezing or below, I wear baselayer bottoms, and skip it for temps above freezing. For my personal comfort level, I’ve found I get overheated and it’s more difficult to remove bottom layers with shoes on, in rain etc. vs top layers are easier to take on and off! On a budget? Snag the 32 Degrees baselayer leggings for $8 (also at Costco).
Don’t forget about the material of your underwear for hiking. Just like a bra, you want to make sure the layer closest to your skin is also moisture-wicking. From polyester spandex to merino wool, there are tons of options here from ExOfficio, Icebreaker, SmartWool, and REI brand. And of course, the cut of underwear completely depends on your body type.
I’ve tried so many, and finally found the REI brand Active Brief to be the most comfortable cut as an under hiking layer. Pro tip: if you get a darker color, it can double as a hiking/backpacking swimsuit once summer comes back around! And it’s always a good idea to hand wash these, as the materials are thin and delicate!
Midlayer: leggings or softshell pants
What pants to wear hiking has two main mid-layer options: leggings or softshell hiking pants. While leggings can feel warmer on your skin (like a baselayer), they are also usually not as water resistant, and more difficult to layer a baselayer under (yay double leggings). But they are infinitely more comfortable layered under rain pants. While a baselayer and pants will keep you warmer, if you need to layer rain pants over, you are now up to three layers!
Waterproofing: rain pants
If you live in a rainy climate, it’s always smart to pack rain pants in winter, especially depending on how long you plan to be out in the elements. Wet clothes can feel cold pretty fast! However, if you’re on a budget, I would prioritize a rain jacket first. Then wear water resistant pants or leggings, and consider how long you’ll be hiking before upgrading to rain pants. I often find that I don’t put on my rain pants anyway on some hikes, if I’m only going to be out a few hours and returning to a warm car and change of clothes.
Since I find myself biking in the rain, more often than hiking in the rain, I have cycling rain pants*. And I also use them for hiking. The extra consideration there is that cycling rain pants have a tapered leg and often zip sides. Which is actually nice for hiking IMO.
*The 8 year old REI cycling rain pants I have are no longer sold, and current version appear to not be very waterproof according to reviews.
On Your Feet
Keeping your feet warm and dry is one of the most important factors of being comfortable on a winter hike. Even if some other layers have gotten a bit wet, warm feet helps you get where you need to go and ward off a chill.
The “baselayer” for your feet are of course, socks! Merino wool socks are the best option. And there are now many affordable sock options that are thin and not those huge bulky wool socks. From Smart Wool to Darn Tough, and even REI Coop brand. You can even layer up if needed, but I usually prefer to just pick a thicker cushioned merino wool instead. This is a great item to upgrade, as it’s one of the cheaper clothing items that makes a big difference. Wool socks will stay warm, even if they’re a little wet.
Winter Hiking Shoes, Trail Runners, and Hiking Boots
What type of shoe – waterproof trail runners versus full-on hiking boots is up to your personal preference and the conditions! Consider this your “waterproofing” layer, just like your raincoat is for the top. So whether you hike in hiking boots, snow boots, or waterproof trail runners is up to you.
Personally I’m on team trail runners instead of wearing hiking boots for non-snow hiking conditions. It’s what I wear in summer time, and for most conditions hiking in fall, winter, and spring in the Portland area waterproof trail runners do the trick. If I’m hiking in snow, which is more rare in the Portland area, I wear snow boots and I’m usually not going so far that I can’t manage just fine.
Head, Face, and Hands
My number one piece of hiking headwear is a Buff headband. You can use a Buff as a neck warmer/gaiter and also as a baselayer underneath a beanie depending on how cold it is. It’s the most versatile item, especially when it’s in that in between weather of not quite freezing but still too windy and cold for your ears. And since they’re thin, they layer great under a rain hood. It’s on my list for best gifts for outdoorsy women! And while the solid color acrylic beanies from Coal and Carhartt are super popular, I’ve found that when I really want a beanie, I go for my fleece-lined winter beanie from Roxy.
Gloves or Mittens
My glove strategy for hiking in winter is really about how cold or wet it will be and how quickly I’ll be moving. If it’s in the 40-50 degree range, I usually just want something light like a liner glove style to keep the cold or wet away. When it gets in the 30-40s or it’s windy, I go for something a bit thicker. One of my favorite new finds this year is the Outdoor Research Flurry Sensor Gloves. And if it’s well below freezing or I’ll be sitting around in the cold, I still prefer a legit ski or snowboarding insulated glove!
Sunglasses & Sunscreen
On some Pacific Northwest hikes the sun might not come out all. But it’s still nice to have sunglasses as a backup option for eye protection for wind. Especially if your hike will be hitting a summit or lookout at some point! And don’t forget sunscreen and SPF chapstick for the tiny patch of your face that will actually be exposed to the sun. Ha! Especially if you’ll be in the snow which is reflective and can give you quite a winter sunburn.
Accessories: Hiking Poles, Microspikes, Gaiters, Snowshoes
If possible, I would recommend renting or borrowing things like hiking poles or snowshoes the first time. This will not only help your budget, but also give you some perspective on what you do and don’t want, before purchasing! That said, if you find a great deal on an item you’re pretty sure you’re going to be getting some major use out of, then it can make sense to just put that rental amount toward the real thing.
As for snowshoes, here in the Portland area, most hiking trails you don’t need snowshoes for. But if you’re after a snowshoe adventure, you can definitely find places to snowshoe in the Mt Hood area! But depending on the season and snow level, the snow can be so packed down that it’s just easier to tromp around in snow boots or hiking boots. Another consideration for more extreme snowy weather, is adding hiking gaiters over your boots to keep snow out of your boots.
Backpack and Rain Cover
While a smaller 20L daypack works great for summer hiking, for winter hikes, it’s definitely a tighter fit to get more layers and supplies in your pack! The REI Trail 40 is a perfect size for winter (and doubles as a minimalist overnighter summer pack). And don’t forget a backpack rain cover! It’s also useful to use as waterproofing for setting it in the snow.
Rainy cold vs snowy cold
There’s a big difference between rainy cold and snow cold. Add in humidity levels and wind chill, and there can be quite a few factors involved to determine how cold it really feels. It’s also important to remember how active you will be, as this will impact how much you’re sweating and need to take layers off. A casually paced, flat 3 mile hike in cold, dry weather, is different than working up a sweat on a 7 mile rainy hike with higher elevation gain and muddy trails. Just like cross country skiing or snowshoeing can work up quite a sweat. You want to have layers, but not so much bulk that you get overheated and sweat through your clothes.
What to Wear Hiking in 40 Degree Weather
Here’s my winter hiking outfit for hiking in 40-50 degree weather and rain. Welcome to Portland winters! So for Portland hikes, I skip the base layer bottoms for 40 degree weather hiking, and just wear thicker leggings. Especially if I know I’ll be keeping up a pretty good pace and if I’ll be adding rain pants over the top.
- Top: baselayer, fleece, rain jacket, (puff jacket in my day pack)
- Pants: thick leggings, (rain pants in my day pack)
- Feet: wool socks, waterproof mid trail runners
- Head & Hands: Buff headband, liner gloves
- Backpack: 22L day pack & rain cover
What to Wear Hiking in 30 Degree Weather
Winter hiking clothes for 30-40 degree weather, is more like going on mix of rainy hike and a snowshoe type adventure. For Portland, that means heading toward Mt Hood or wintry waterfall hikes near Portland, or some snowy winter waterfall hikes in Bend.
- Top: baselayer, fleece, puff jacket, rain jacket (or insulated ski jacket)
- Pants: baselayer leggings and thicker leggings or hiking pants (rain paints in my day pack)
- Feet: wool socks, waterproof mid trail runners or snow boots
- Head & Hands: beanie, Buff, gloves
- Backpack: 22L day pack & rain cover
Winter Hiking Tips & Safety
Beyond what to wear to stay warm and dry on a winter hike here are some tips for winter hiking.
- Research the latest trail condition via (AllTrails) or another hiking guide or even Instagram Explore Location Tag Recent Pictures section.
- Tell someone where you’re going – where you’re parking, what trail and turnaround point, what time to expect you back, and what to do if they don’t hear from you at that time.
- Be mindful of daylight hours and hiking at a slower pace in winter conditions.
- Consider your elevation and exposure and how the weather changes and is colder at higher elevation.
- Bring hiking essential items. Summer time feels like you can be a bit more low-key with gear. You have a snack, water, trail runners, and you’re bound to see a lot of people. For winter hikes, an emergency situation can be much higher consequences if you get hurt or lost. Bring emergency essentials – headlamp, extra snacks, etc. And even consider adding in hand or foot warmers to your winter hiking gear.
- Insulate your food and water situation. If it’s freezing, your water bladder hose might freeze, so consider using water bottles instead. And a warm drink or food (in a Thermos) is always a delightful mid or post-hike treat.
- Count on no cell service. Depending on where you’re going, cell service might be spotty. If you do a lot of backcountry or off-grid exploring, one option is to bring an emergency satellite messenger like the Garmin inReach Mini or the new Mini 2 with 2 way messaging, SOS, and tracking.
- Reliable transportation. For cold weather hiking, it’s also good to have backup emergency supplies in your car in case you get stranded. You can also get a car battery portable jump starter to keep in your trunk, for about $100 (NOCO Boost Jump Starter).
I hope this post has given you some ideas on what to wear hiking in winter! It’s a bit more effort than summer hiking, but you’ll also have the trails to yourself!