How to dress in cold conditions: how to hike in the cold using the layering system.

How to dress in cold conditions: how to hike in the cold using the layering system.


This is part 2 of “how to hike in the cold using the layering system”. You can find part 1 here. 

How should I cover?

How extensive your clothing should be will vary by conditions and person. If its a bit nippy outside you wont need goggles but when climbing mount Everest you might need a heavy duty thermal suit. Some clothing you might wear will be as followed:

  • Hat/hood/ear muffs

  • Scarf/buff/face mask, balaclava

  • Base layer (top and bottom)

  • Mid layer (top and bottom)

  • Shell (top and bottom)

  • Socks

  • Footwear

  • Gloves/glove liners

Neck should be covered as the large carotid artery runs through here. When the head and hands are being subjected to rain, snow, and wind water proof gear will help immensely. Glove liners or a hat will help create a good mid layer to the outer layer of these garments. Mittens work better than gloves. There are very sensitive areas on the head such as eyes and ears so ear warmers and ski goggles can help keep these areas safe from freezing over in windy, well below zero conditions. Legs, head, hands, etc should be treated the same way as the torso by having all three layers present.

Weight of the mid layer.

One topic not talked about in the layering guide is the the fill power, thread weight, or fleece rating for the thermal layer. These words represent how well a type of clothing will insulate one from the cold.

For down clothing fill weight represents the volume in cubic inches one ounce of fill material, such as  goose feathers (down) or polyester cotton (synthetic fill), will take up in the clothing. The higher the fill weight the more insulating that piece of clothing will be.

Manufactures do not follow a strict way of measuring fleeces thermal insulating property so usually what you will get is fleece weight rated as light, medium, or heavy or R1, R2, or R3 where R3 would represent heavy. Unless you have handled any two of these types of fleeces you wouldn't know the difference and because there is no standardization its not like it matters anyway. If I wanted to replace a down jacket I would go with a R2 or R3 fleece while if I wanted something light to layer I would go with an R1.

Sweaters, if they are wool, polyester, or acrylic, usually dont have a rating to them. They are sometimes described as light, medium, and heavy and on rare occasion companies will list a thread weight. Thread weight is the weight of a square meter piece of a garment. Because clothing can be made of so many different materials at any given quantity, any rating would not give a good representation of how well it insulates.

Light and easy to don or doff layers is key.

Buying the thickest coat you can find is actually impractical when it comes to keeping warm. While the weather can change throughout the day your jacket cannot change its insulative properties. If the temperature increases 10 degrees, a heavy down jacket will be too warm and taking it off may not be an option. If instead of a down jacket multiple thinner layers were substituted then a smaller layer could be shed to maintain equilibrium. There is more power in multiple easy to don and doff light layers than one big layer, hence the term layering system.

Think about it like this, sleeping bags come in different ratings, usually in 10 degree increments; 0c, 10c, 20c, 30c, etc. The reason for this is the same reason a thick layer is inflexible. Try sleeping in a 30c sleeping bag in 10c weather or a 0c sleeping bag in 30c weather. It would be very uncomfortable. But in the case of the 30c sleeping bag you could dress in layers under the sleeping bag to maintain your warmth. Essentially what you did there is create multiple thermal layers that can be changed in and out as the night went on.


Situations and how you should approach them.

Depending on the temperature, elements, and person present, the way you dress will differ. Here are a few scenarios and how you should approach them.

Lets say you are out on a slightly colder then a normal cold day with no rain, wind, or sun, besides dressing how you normally would you might want to build up thermal layers. If you normally wear a down jacket as a thermal layer, you might want to then add another layer underneath such as a fleece jacket or wool sweater.

If the temperature decreases you should build out your thermal layer even more. Wind can rush into your thermal layer and exchange warm air for cold air so shell layer is critical.

If you find yourself in a place where you are being bombarded by rain, wind, or snow then you should absolutely wear a shell layer, but if the the rain is really chucking it down your shell layer might give way and water will seep through. In this case you can either seek shelter, use an umbrella, or switch to a more water proof, yet less breathable, shell layer such as a rain poncho.

If you are in a situation where the environment changes temperatures greatly as the day progresses or your activity changes from heavy exercises to resting then light and easily removable layers are your friend. A good example is when trekking up a mountain, In the morning it may be very cold, as the sun comes up it will warm the body and the environment up, and as the sun goes down the temperature will quickly fall. If you are trekking up this mountain for hours you might get very hot and remove layers but if you take a break you will quickly become deathly cold.

Extreme situations

Lets take a look at two specific situations and how people have approached them, the first is climbing mount Everest.


Out of the most extreme environments in the world that humans frequent this is one of the top places. On top of Everest you are being bombarded by cold, wind, potent sun (due to the thin atmosphere), and snow along with the physically demanding thin atmosphere.

This section is not to tell you what to wear when climbing mount Everest but to give you an idea how the layering system can effectively be used to combat even the most extreme environments. I have never climbed mount Everest and all the information I will present is based on research I have done. The information is not specific to which side of the mountain you climb so temperatures at certain elevations will differ.

Temperature and conditions vary when climbing the mountain, the top being the most extreme, because of this hikers might wear different clothing at different stages of the ascent. The temperature will change rapidly when the sun gets obscured by clouds or at night. Multiple easy to change layers will help to keep up with the rapid shifts in temperature.

When approaching base camp, which is the lowest camp to the mountain, one might wear base layer, long base layer, light weight thermal layers, shell layer, cap and sunglasses, hat, hiking shoes, sock liners, heavy hiking socks, and buff. If conditions change so will clothing. Temperatures at base camp are around 10c and drop to below freezing at night in peak climbing months. Think of this as winter in London or New york.

At the lower altitudes of the mountain, base camp to camp 2 or camp 3, a hiker might wear a base layer to begin, light weight long underwear, light weight down jacket and/or fleece layers, insulated or thermal pants, multiple layers of shells, cap or sun hat and goggles and sunglasses/glacier glasses for the sun, hat, glove liners, insulated gloves that are wind proof, climbing gloves, heavy pair of mittens, balaclava and face mask, climbing boots, sock liners, lightweight socks, and thermal socks. As condition change so will the clothing.

Once at C2 to the summit a climber might wear some of the clothing listed above but included is a one piece shell, heavy thermal layers, a heavy weight down suit with hood, and heavy weight balaclava. Because clothing will be subjected to constant wind, rain, and snow it is common to carry multiples of clothing such as heavy weight mittens. Temperatures at the summit are a yearly average of -40c but can reach -60c in colder months. Wind can blow up to 300 km/hr.

Now imagine being in these conditions for about 8 weeks. The layers and materials used are so important in this situation. Heavy down jackets layered over other thermal layers will provide the best warmth at peak temperatures. Quick and easy to remove layers will provide the flexibility when at the lower camps and when temperatures change. Shell layer is so critical here as the wind and snow pound ones body all day long. The low atmosphere means the sun is a bigger problem than at sea level. Sensitive areas such as skin, eyes, face, fingers, and feet can easily freeze over and be permanently damaged. You stop for too long on the submit and your body temperature can drop putting these sensitive areas at risk. If there is any activity where you need to dress properly or your life can be at risk, this is it.



What if the situation does not involve an extreme activity, contrarily it involved just living in your own home town. The last situation is living in the coldest inhabited place on earth, Oymyakon, Russia. Winter can be a harsh time in Oymyakon, sun is out for about 3 hours and temperatures can average about -55c. Summer is no better as the average temperature is 10c.

It can get so cold that the gasoline in the cars can start to freeze (really the components thatmake up gasoline start to freeze resulting in the gasoline mixture becoming too thick for the car to use) so residents will sometimes leave their cars on all day and night. As long as its over -55c, school is open. This is the cold that people live through all year around. How do they dress?

Fur from the top of their head down to their feet. The residents of Oymyakon only go out when necessary and when they do they use fur coats and hats. Like wool, fur (wool is technically fur) is natures insulator and shell layer. Wool is a great insulator and its waxy like fibers help repel water. Wearing fur is like wearing the thickest wool sweater you can imagine with a leather coat underneath. But fur is not the only clothing they wear, they also layer!

Of course you dont need to kill or hurt animals to get quality fur or down jackets, synthetic jackets like heavy fleeces are thermally equivalent and are sometimes made of recycled materials. Of course not all synthetic shirts, jackets, pants, etc are made of recycled materials, if this is a concern look for bluesign products, products made with ethical materials in ethical ways, such as some of Patagonias line of clothing.

Do not dismiss natural insulators, Patagonia claims that their down jackets are ethically produced and proclaim %100 traceability of where the feathers were produced and how they were obtained. Ethical wool can be produced such as the wool for the Fjallraven brand.

Moisture from both sides

As mentioned in the Layering Guide, humidity and moisture is your enemy. This is why a wicking base layer and water repellent and breathable outer layer is so important. A wet base layer will make the body cold while a wet thermal layer will become less effective. Moisture comes in two forms; sweat from the body and precipitation from the environment.

When the body gets hot it will attempt to cool ourselves down by producing sweat. Contrary to what one might think, being too hot will make you cold. Sweat will saturate your base layer and even your thermal layers with moisture and ultimately make you cold. The increased amount of humidity building up between you and the shell will also decrease the effectiveness at wicking and evaporating moisture of the base layer.

The thermal layer should avoid liquid at all cost. The way the thermal layer works is the material traps air between its fibers to use as insulation. Air is a descent insulator and is free and plentiful. Water, on the other hand, has a high thermal connectivity meaning heat can escape quicker from the mid layer into the cold environment. It is so important to keep these other layers dry that the layering system has a specific layer to do just that, the shell layer.

There is no such thing as a water proof layer. While not completely true, even the best shell layers will give when subjected to harsh rain or left damp for many hours. When I travel in the winter I will always bring a shell layer and sometimes even an umbrella. If it had been raining, when I get to my destination I will carefully dry my shell layer. It is always best to know the limitations of your gear before you go out and do something extreme.

Try to maintain a comfortable level of warmth. This is why the layering system is so important. As you change the level of activity or as the environment changes around you the layering system allows you to adapt with it.


 Know your gear, use the layer system and its different layers to their advantages, layer with light and easy to remove and don layers, and dont get to hot. If you follow these guidelines any cold day where you live or out on the trail will be a simple breeze on a chilly summer day.

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