Seasonal depression used to be very real for me – until I figured out how to get outside during the colder months. Once I figured out what to wear hiking in winter, I spent more time on the trails than in summer.
Figuring out what to wear on a cold hike is over half the battle of hiking on a winter day. When it’s really cold you want to make sure that you have the right winter hiking clothing for multiple reasons.
Safety is number one – you don’t want to get frostbite or hypothermia. You also want to be comfortable during your hike.
I had never realized that the reason I didn’t like being outside in cooler temperatures is that I wasn’t wearing the right clothing.
So hopefully this helps you and you won’t miss out on years of fun!
Just a note – this list does not include items that you’ll also need to bring along like the 10 essentials or your backpack. This is just about the clothes on your body.
Winter Hiking Gear – Upper Body
This one is no different than in any other season. I wanted to cover all the bases though. Pick your favorite one and you’ll be fine.
The only thing to look for is if it’s made of cotton. You don’t want to wear cotton in case it gets wet – even if it gets wet from sweat.
Upper Body Base Layer
Your base layers are one of the most important parts of your winter hiking outfit. Its main purpose is to be moisture-wicking so it pulls the moisture away from your skin.
You’ll want to look for polyester or nylon if you are on a budget, but if you plan on doing this often then I would invest in some merino wool.
You’ll see options for lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight. Generally, the heavier ones will keep you warmer so just think about the conditions you’ll likely be in.
This is your insulating layer and is super important for cold weather hiking. This layer helps you retain heat.
There are so many options for your mid layer so I won’t go into each one of them. The general categories though are polyester fleece, down insulated, or synthetic insulated jackets.
My personal favorites are the Columbia 3-in-1 jackets as they come with a mid layer plus your outer layer. I’ve had mine since high school and use it now for snowboarding.
The Omni-heat technology in their mid layer jacket keeps you so much warmer than anything else I’ve tried.
The Patagonia Nano Puff jackets are also very popular though. When you’re making your list of what to wear hiking in winter, the mid layer is a must.
Here is the part that protects you from rain, wind, and snow. This is so important as that winter wind will blow right through you if you don’t have on the proper outer shell.
If you plan on doing a lot of activity in snowy or rainy conditions then you’ll want to look at a material that is breathable and waterproof or water-resistant.
Otherwise, you can go with a softshell jacket but it isn’t recommended for rainy conditions at all and only provides light wind protection.
Again, I’m a huge supporter of the Columbia 3-in-1 jackets. I’ve definitely noticed though if you get a winter jacket that comes down past your butt you’ll stay warmer.
Check to make sure your shell layer has vents! This way if you do start to get too hot you can let all that steam out.
Winter Hiking Gear – Bottoms
Base Layer Bottoms
I’ll keep this short as it’s most of the same information for the bottoms as it was for the top layer. You’ll want to look for the same material.
My legs don’t typically get as cold as my upper body so I’ll sometimes use regular leggings (polyester material) as my base layer.
Unless it’s incredibly cold I’ll just wear a pair of leggings or wear hiking pants over those leggings. I don’t always do a mid layer plus the shell.
Many mid layers for your bottom half will be made of either fleece or synthetic insulating materials. These REI Co-op fleece pants should do the trick if you need them.
If it isn’t cold enough for three layers then just wear your hiking pants over your base layer. I also just wear leggings a lot though that’s not a great idea when it starts getting around 30 degrees or below.
Snow pants have an insulating layer as well as the shell layer together. I only recommend these for hiking in the snow though as they’ll be incredibly hot in normal conditions.
These will also protect you from the cold wind so you may consider wearing them in windy conditions.
Winter Hiking Boots & Footwear
I was introduced to Darn Tough socks a few years ago and that’s almost all I wear anymore when outdoors.
They are made in Vermont and have a lifetime warranty. LIFETIME.
Plus they are so comfortable and have many different lengths and weights. I would recommend getting a midweight pair for winter hiking. Use heavyweight only if you’ll be doing lots of hiking in the snow.
Winter Hiking Boots
I used to think that hiking boots were a waste of money. I have been converted though by the Merrell Mid Moab 2.
I have the waterproof pair and these things are perfect in every season. Best of all, my feet don’t hurt even after a 4-5 mile hike.
If you’ve never had hiking boots before then I highly recommend that you go to your local outdoor store and they will help you pick out the perfect pair for you.
Check out some insulated hiking boots if you only want them for winter and you’ll always be hiking in colder weather.
Cold Weather Hiking Accessories
Keeping your head warm will help to keep your whole body warm. I don’t know about you, but when I get too hot I’ll take my toboggan off and that helps to cool me down.
I don’t know all the science behind it but for me it works the opposite way too. If I’m cold and can get a hat covering my ears and head then I quickly warm up.
No one likes cold fingers. Mine will barely work if they get too cold! For cooler days when I’m hiking in 40 degree weather or so, I always bring my fleece gloves.
Neck Gaiter or Scarf
Every time I’ve taken a scarf on a trail I’ve gotten way too hot but it’s better to have it and not need it in my opinion.
If you know you’ll be dealing with windy conditions then something to cover your face and neck will be nice.
They also make warm neck gaiters that are fuzzy and will do a great job of keeping your face and neck warm and shielded from the wind. Love my Turtle Fur for this.
I live in North Carolina so I don’t use these very often. I’ve actually never used crampons. I’ve been snowshoeing in Vermont and Colorado though.
When I’ve gone snowshoeing, they’ve been easily available to rent so that’s what I’ve done in the past. Like when I went snowshoeing in Steamboat Springs, CO.
If you don’t snowshoe or hike in wintery conditions often then just rent these when you go.
What to Wear Hiking in Winter Tips
Cotton is just not good for any type of active situation. Instead of wicking the moisture away, cotton will hold it against your skin.
This means you’ll get colder faster even if the moisture is just from your sweat.
Wear More Than You Think You Need
Bring a backpack and if you get hot, put your extra clothes in there. It’s so important to be prepared when you are choosing what to wear hiking in winter.
The risks are higher if something goes wrong due to the elements so you want to make sure you have plenty of equipment to keep you warm.
Check the Weather
This may seem obvious but I’ve gotten in trouble with this a few times. Just because you check the weather a couple days before your trip doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check it again.
Check the weather the day of your hike and make sure you know what you are walking into. Again, all about being prepared.
After reading this you may feel a little discouraged because all these clothes can get expensive. There are plenty of secondhand stores where you can pick these up!
Check out local stores as well as online at the Sierra Trading Post where you can get new activewear for cheap.
Winter Hiking Outfit Inspiration
Here are just a few photos of outfits I’ve worn in the past in different conditions. You’ll see that I wear a lot of the same basics and just switch things up with my hats, scarves, and sometimes gloves.
The Columbia Turbodown coat has been a game-changer for me. I love mine and wear it constantly throughout the winter. It is so warm and super cute.
What to Wear Hiking in Winter Recap
There you have it – a complete guide on what to wear hiking in winter! Just because the seasons change doesn’t mean you should stop getting outside.
Just dress for the weather and you’ll be fine. You can see farther in winter since there are no leaves on the trees and usually there are less people on the trail. Win-win.
Now go out and have your own winter adventure.