Effective layering is key when hiking in winter, starting with long underwear. Quality base layers will wick sweat from your skin, keeping you warm and dry. All the experts we talked to recommended long underwear made from merino wool, which is exceptionally warm and breathable, even if it gets wet, and also fights odors. For overnight trips, REI’s virtual outfitting team lead, Forrest Jarvi, suggests packing a spare pair of long underwear for sleeping in if you can sacrifice the weight.
Chyla Anderson, founder of the outdoor representation company Outdoorism, calls her Smartwool base layers “much softer and cozier than others I’ve tried,” adding that they don’t itch either. The brand was mentioned by everyone we talked to and is a perennial Strategist favorite for cooler months.
If you don’t have the budget for wool base layers, our experts advised that synthetic ones will still work — just make sure that you don’t buy anything made of cotton, which dries slowly and doesn’t retain body heat.
Whatever you put on top of your base layers will act as insulation, and there are a variety of materials that can serve this purpose, including synthetic fleece, wool, and down. If you’re working up a sweat at a lower altitude and aren’t dealing with too much wind, rain, or snow, you might not want to wear a full puffer jacket while on the move — a lighter fleece option, or even a T-shirt, may be more comfortable. Just make sure you’re carrying something thicker for when you stop. “You can get cold really fast,” warns Herndon-Powell. “So it’s important to change your layers before you even need to.” Wilkinson agrees, adding that you should be constantly layering up and down while on the trail, to the degree that it feels like work. “It’s a hassle, it really is,” he says. “But just take the time; it will make the trip so much better.”
For those hikers who run hot, Kindra Ramos, communications and outreach director at the Washington Trails Association, suggests a fleece vest to keep your core warm but your arms “free and cooler” while you hike.
This jacket from Smartwool has all the benefits of merino wool, which our experts emphasized was the gold standard for winter hikers and backpackers. The full zipper also allows for temperature regulation while on the move.
As a reliable synthetic mid-layer, Jarvi recommends Arc’teryx’s Atom LT hoodie, which is lightweight and reliable even when wet. He says it’s probably “my single most-used piece of clothing living in Colorado.”
Whitman says the classic Patagonia Nano Puff, which is more windproof than other options mentioned here, is both warm and nice to walk in.
Whitman is also a fan of the Marmot Tullus, especially for mountain climbing, due to its tighter sleeves that allow for more dexterity.
Anderson recently traded in her bulky Columbia 3-in-1 for this puffer coat from Amazon Essentials and has been pleased with the results. “It’s reasonably priced, comes in a variety of colors and — surprisingly — it holds up in cold weather,” she says. “I’ve got the dark camel color and love how neutral it is. So far, this coat has kept me warm in the desert and in the mountains.”
Our experts advised packing a shell layer of clothing that will protect you from wind, rain, and snow. Because you’re already trapping heat with your base and mid layers, something light but waterproof will work here. “I like a thin, all-season raincoat that’s big enough to fit over a puffer,” says Herndon-Powell. Rather than waterproof pants, several of our experts favored leg gaiters, which allow for more flexibility on the trail.
Jarvi says your regular rain jacket will probably suit non-extreme trail conditions. If you’re looking to upgrade, the Patagonia Snowshot is beloved among winter hikers and backpackers because “it’s built like a ski jacket but without a ton of extra insulation.” The jacket is constructed with extra length, “which is great because you don’t have a seam riding up behind your backpack.” If you’re shopping around, Parker adds that any Gore-Tex jacket “is a great investment, as it will keep you from getting wet from falling snow.”
Wilkinson tells us gaiters are too frequently overlooked. He calls them “a fantastic piece of gear” for insulating your legs, keeping snow out of your shoes, and avoiding snags when heading off-trail. Ramos adds that they’re also “much easier to take on and off” than rain pants.
Winter hiking pants mainly come down to personal preference and the weather conditions at hand — especially if you’ve got a pair of gaiters to protect your boots. Some of our experts go winter hiking in their base-layer tights, perhaps with shorts and gaiters worn over the top, while others prefer to don trekking trousers over their base layers. If you do opt for trousers, Jarvi says to go for a “soft-shell pant that stretches and sheds snow really easily.”
Jarvi says these pants, which would suit all seasons, have “good stretch,” plus a snap at the bottom that you can clamp to your hiking boots to create a makeshift gaiter. They’ve also got plenty of snack pockets.
For more of a performance fit, Jarvi mentioned this slimline option from Arc’teryx, which “feels like a climbing pant.”
“It’s not necessarily always true that everyone’s going to need insulated boots in the winter,” says Wilkinson. “So much of that depends on temperature, weather conditions, whether it’s wet or dry, and the individual: Some people’s feet are always freezing, and they’re going to need more insulation.” Budget-wise, you’re better off investing in a quality waterproof boot that can be used in all seasons, like these Gore-Tex Salomons that Whitman uses in both winter and summer. Regardless of whether you’re wearing trail runners, light boots, or heavy boots, Wilkinson notes that “it’s absolutely critical” to maintain circulation in your feet. “The best way to do that is to be sure you get footwear that’s at least one size bigger than what you normally wear,” he says. “Toes need room to spread out and wiggle around.”
Contrary to what you might assume, thick hiking socks are less effective than slim insulating ones. The material your socks are constructed from is much more crucial than weight, and again our experts were evangelical about the benefits of wool. “Cotton socks in particular, if they get wet, they’ll stay wet forever and you’re going to be miserable,” says Ramos. “Material really does make a difference in winter conditions.” Parker agrees: “If there is only one wool item you’re going to invest in, make sure it’s wool socks.” Vermont brand Darn Tough, which advertises a lifetime warranty for its socks, was mentioned favorably by everyone we spoke to. Jarvi says it’s worth paying extra for the brand’s merino wool socks when embarking on multi-day trips, because they’re anti-odor. “Which is handy, especially if you’re sharing a tent.”
Gloves are an important item to pack on any winter expedition, especially if you’re using hiking poles and exposing your fingers to the elements. As with other winter hiking clothing, layering is key here. Herndon-Powell wears tight, soft-shell liner gloves while on the trail but keeps a waterproof pair handy to slip on top. Jarvi and Whitman do the same, but they opt for mittens as their second layer, for extra warmth. Just note that you won’t have much dexterity with these.
A warm hat makes all the difference when hiking in the cold. When shopping for one, our experts say, opt for something that fully covers your ears. As long as that requirement is fulfilled, a cute beanie that looks good in the photos isn’t actually a bad idea, Ramos says. “Because if you don’t like your hat, you won’t wear it.”
Jarvi says this beanie “has the most boring name imaginable but is extremely comfortable and fits well under a helmet if you’re backcountry skiing.”
While it’s probably unnecessary for many trips, a few of our experts said a merino balaclava or neck gaiter like this one from Smartwool would make a nice investment.
If you’re hiking in rainy conditions, do as they do in the Pacific Northwest and don a Seattle Sombrero. Ramos says these wide-brimmed rain hats are particularly useful if you wear glasses.
Polarized sunglasses are underrated if you’re hitting the mountains on a clear winter’s day. “Especially if you are hiking at a higher altitude, the sunlight can be incredibly powerful, particularly when reflecting off of the white snow,” Parker says. While you’re at it, don’t forget the sunscreen.