What To Wear Hiking In Cold Weather

Hiking in the cold is like doing any physically-challenging activity in the cold.

You’ll get warm quicker than you think.

But, unlike activities that keep you closer to civilization, hiking in the cold has a unique set of risks and challenges, and the clothing you wear isn’t just about comfort and movement; it’s about survival.

When it comes to dressing for a cold-weather hike, you have to think on two levels, the “immediate activity” level and the “what-if” level.

Here’s what we recommend putting on your body (and in your pack) for cold-weather hiking.

What To Wear Hiking in 40 Degree Weather (Immediate Activity)

Once you drop below 50 degrees or so (comfort varies by person), you should consider yourself on a cold-weather hike.

Though, some hikers won’t necessarily need cold-weather clothing yet.

Depending on the thickness of your hiking pants, you may not need to add more than a light- to mid-weight jacket to your warm weather hiking wear (make sure it’s waterproof if there’s a chance of rain or a lot of humidity in the air).

If you run a little colder, you may want to switch your light to mid-weight base layer to a heavy thermal base-layer and to wear a base-layer pant (long underwear) under your hiking pants.

You can also just switch to heavier hiking pants.

It really depends on how easily you chill or overheat, where you’re hiking, and what conditions are like. (You’ll need warmer clothes if you’re rising in elevation or hiking in humid, windy conditions, for instance.)

What to wear from the top down:

  • Brimmed hat (unless you’re fully in the shade and there’s no chance of rain)
  • Sunglasses
  • Light- to mid-weight hiking jacket
  • Long-sleeved mid- to heavy-weight shirt
  • Sports bra
  • Light- to heavy-weight hiking pants
  • Non-cotton socks
  • Lined hiking boots

Potential additions:

  • Light- to mid-weight base layer pant
  • Waterproof outer layer/jacket
  • Neck gaiter (to protect neck from the sun and keep warm)

What to Wear Hiking in 30 Degrees and Below (Immediate Activity)

As you drop nearer to 30 degrees, the key words are “freezing temperatures.”

At this point, most hikers will need a warmer jacket (heavy-weight) and a base-layer pant under their hiking pants (though, lined hiking pants are another good option).

Hikers will also need to cover exposed body parts, such as hands, necks, and switch to warmer hats.

If there is wind or humidity, water-resistant outer layers become essential.

What to wear from the top down:

  • A warm (mid- to heavy-weight) hat that covers the ears (brimmed if it’s sunny or there’s a chance of rain)
  • Sunglasses
  • Neck gaiter
  • Mid- to heavy-weight hiking jacket
  • Long-sleeved heavy-weight shirt
  • Sports bra
  • Gloves
  • Light- to heavy-weight hiking pants
  • Mid- to heavy-weight base layer pant
  • Non-cotton socks
  • Lined (warm) hiking boots

You can always opt for a pair of thermal/fleece-lined hiking pants as opposed to double layers (as mentioned above), but many hikers prefer layers because they can be easily put on or removed to help regulate body temperature.

Extra Clothing To Bring Cold-Weather Hiking (What-If)

The above hiking wear lists assume you are out on day hikes in well-trod territory with little risk of getting lost.

For longer hikes further from civilization in cold-weather, hiking clothes aren’t just about what you have on your body, but also become integral parts of your survival gear.

When you are hiking longer distances, or at all in the backcountry, in colder weather, you need to consider more than the day-time temperatures.

You need to consider the night-time temps in the area and what you’ll need to survive them if you get caught outside.

What you’re already wearing is part of that survival gear, but here’s the extra clothing you should bring along in your pack any time you’re on an extended wilderness hike in cold weather:

  • A lightweight beanie that can be worn under your warm hat
  • A spare thermal neck gaiter
  • An insulated, waterproof jacket
  • A heavy-weight base layer shirt (if you’re only wearing a mid-weight)
  • Insulated, waterproof gloves (if you are wearing lighter gloves)
  • Shell pants (if your hiking pants aren’t fully waterproof)

If you are hiking in the backcountry (or any time it’s very humid or there’s the potential for rain) you should also be wearing fully waterproof hiking boots.

In fact, waterproof hiking boots are never a bad idea in cold weather.

Rules for Dressing for a Cold-Weather Hike

Other than layering up and packing extra clothing, the rules for cold weather hiking wear are the same as for warm weather hiking wear. So:

  • Opt for synthetic (or Smartwool) fabrics.
  • Choose clothing with UPF if you’re wearing only a single layer and the UV level is three or higher.
  • Wear sunscreen on exposed parts if the UV is three or higher.
  • Wear sunglasses and brimmed hats even on cloudy days if the UV is three or higher.

Just because it might feel like a blessing on a cold day doesn’t mean the sun isn’t doing it’s damage.

So, when bundling up for your cold-weather hikes, remember you still have to guard against it too.

Looking for more general information on what to wear hiking? Check out What To Wear Hiking.

Going to be hot on the trails where you’re headed? Check out What To Wear Hiking In Hot Weather.

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