Hiking Clothes – Layering

Hiking Clothes - LayeringLayering your hiking clothes is extremely important for both your safety and comfort.  When planning your hike, consider the range of temperatures that you will be traveling through.  Rain, snow, wind or other weather conditions should also be taken into account.

Layers: (“I am like an onion, I have multiple layers”, Shrek)

On any hike that is going to have variations in weather or temperature, your hiking clothes should consist of four layers.  The inner layers keep you warm and dry, while the outer layers help to protect you from the elements; rain, wind and cold.  By wearing multiple thinner, lightweight layers instead of two thick heavy layers, it gives you a larger range to regulate the temperature of your body.  You can take layers off or put layers on as needed in order to keep you from sweating and overheating as well as keeping you from freezing or getting too cold.

Base Layer: (underwear) The material type for this layer is probably the most important, because it is next to your skin; socks, underwear, long underwear and t-shirt.  You want to select material that will wick (pull) the moisture away from your skin.  Keeping you dry and warm is very important.  What are your material options?

  • Cotton: Wrong answer.  Cotton collects moisture.  When it absorbs your sweat, it retains it for a long time.  Having this moisture up against your skin can cause discomfort.
  • Polypropylene, ecoSensitive™ polyester, MTS 2 ®, HeatGear® and Capilene ®: All of these are synthetic materials that are great at wicking moisture away from your skin.  Polypropylene was the first on the market.  It is elastic and provides a lot of freedom of movement.  MTS 2 ® is the next generation of material with a more comfortable feel.  Capilene ® adds a warmth factor for colder weather hiking.  These are great choices for the base layer. (Everyday there are new synthetic materials being manufactured, so this list is not extensive)
  • Silk: A natural alternative that is great at wicking.  It’s lightweight, but not extremely durable.  A good choice, but for my money, I would go for one of the synthetics above.

Middle Layer: The middle layer of your hiking clothes is basically your normal everyday hiking apparel, pants and a long sleeve shirt or shorts and a short sleeve shirt.  Some of the same rules apply here as for the base layer with respect to their materials:

  • Cotton: Can be worn on warmer days, but it’s inability to wick away moisture does not make it a great candidate.
  • Wool: A natural fabric that has wonderful insulation properties.  It can be on the bulky side and, after getting wet, it can take a while to dry.  Some people find it itchy and uncomfortable.  There are newer styles of wool, like SmartWool®, that state they are more comfortable and extremely durable.
  • HeatGear®, ecoSensitive™ polyester and Capilene ® : Back to the wicking synthetics.  These become a good insulator and again are pulling the moisture away from your body.  This is important for keeping you warm.
  • Nylon: It’s a great comfortable fabric that comes in styles for warmer and cooler weather.  Nylon is very durable, extremely lightweight and will not absorb moisture.  It’s a good choice for the middle layer.

Insulation Layer: This hiking clothes layer helps keep you warm.  Sometimes, on colder days, another layer can keep you warm without making you hot.

  • Fleece: Fleece is my favorite material to wear.  Its weight to warmth ratio is superior to most other fabrics.  The drying time for fleece is rather short as well.  Fleece is very breathable as well, which may not keep you as warm during cold and windy conditions.
  • Wool: Our old friend wool is a good choice for the insulation layer.  My choice is still for fleece for this layer because of the drying time and the weight.

Protection Layer: This is the “extreme” layer.  It protects from the bad weather conditions; rain, snow, wind and bad music (well, maybe not bad music).

  • Wind: These hiking clothes are made of breathable water resistant materials.  When a cold wind is blowing or a light rain starts, a lightweight shell should be adequate to keep you dry and warm.  Because they are breathable, you won’t overheat.
  • Rain: When I am talking about rain, I mean RAIN.  This clothing can keep you warm as well as dry.  They are made of water proof materials.  Because of this, their breath-ability is going to be low or nonexistent.  They also can be heavy.  Click for more information about Packable Rain Gear
  • Cold: So, it’s not raining, it’s snowing or it’s just cold enough to snow.  You need a very well insulated layer and maybe some protection from a stiff wind.  These can have a down or synthetic fill or no fill at all and be a thicker fleece.  The fleece can also have a lining that will repel the wind.  These items can be a vest or a full jacket.  Also, don’t forget the headgear.  A nice winter cap will go a long way in keeping you warm.


  • You also need protection from the sun.  There are a lot of hiking clothes made today that offer sunscreen protection:  Sunblock Clothing
  • When purchasing new clothing, make sure that you pick the correct size as if you were wearing all of the layers below.  (i.e. if you are selecting a protection layer fleece jacket, make sure that it is sized so that your first three layers of clothing fit underneath)

The great thing about multiple layers is that you can easily adjust what you are wearing to the changing weather conditions.  Air is trapped between each layer and this creates insulating properties.

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