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Cold Weather Layering Basics

By: Bryan Wolf

The common phrase is “dress like an onion.” But I’ve never seen an onion in clothes before.


Understanding a clothing layer system for your next outdoor adventure is critical. This includes having both the understanding of what makes an appropriate layering set but also how to use that layer set. I can barely dress myself for day to day life, but here are my 2 cents on being a well-dressed adventurer during a cold weather pursuit.

Why is layering so important in my outdoor pursuits? Being in the elements for a prolonged time, often with unpredictable mountain weather can be risky business. We want to stay warm but cool, dry but not sweat, and move but not over heat. Anytime we fail to control the above we subject ourselves to greater consequences such as hypothermia (or to lesser consequence chaffing).

A layer system traditionally consists of 4 layers. By layering correctly, we control our body temperature and protection from the elements. Each layer is intended to provide a unique purpose. We combine our layers and accessories to those layers, making changes as often as is necessary to assure that we are sweat free, warm and comfortable moving.

  1. A base layer is primarily our wicking layer. Taking moisture from the skin and dispersing it to more quickly dry is one of our most important goals. Moisture expedites heat loss by up to 20 times, so controlling evaporation is key. Try a polyester or wool for best performance. Keep your base layer well-fitting so that there is no bunching as you add additional layers. In cold conditions also consider the next to skin warmth potential of your base layer.

My Picks:

Cold Weather: Rab Merino+ L/S Crew.

Frigid Weather: Patagonia R1 Fleece ¼ zip

  1. A mid layer is added to help retain heat in cooler environments, but since you’re moving it is critical that you have some breathability to this piece as well. Typically, a heavier wool or fleece jacket works perfect. The addition of a quarter or half zip and thumb loops help add function to this piece as you can make micro adjustments to control your temperature. This piece is still best utilized without pockets and a smooth face fabric to make additional layers fit easier.

My Picks:

Cold Weather: Sherpa Karma ¼ zip

Frigid Weather: Rab Paradox

  1. An insulating layer is the third in the set. At this point we are not focused on breathability but more so maximizing our heat retention. A high loft synthetic or down jacket helps hold the heat radiating out. The amount of insulation being more dependent on your trip. This jacket needs to layer with the other two pieces. In more bitter cold trips this will be at the top of my pack for quick layering on snack breaks, summits, or even down hills. If you plan to wear this piece more while active a synthetic is preferred for its loft retention when wet.

My Picks:

Cold Weather: Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisper

Frigid Weather: Rab Positron

  1. The final and fourth traditional layer is your outer layer, or shell. This piece is responsible for both being waterproof and windproof. We already know that being wet from sweat, or rain makes for a dangerous scenario. The additional element is controlling convection, the rapid stealing of heat from with-in your layers. An adjustable hood, drawcord at the hem, and pit zips all help to make micro adjustments to my body temperature.

My Pick: Rab Latok Jacket

An important distinction is that these four pieces should work in unison but also in any lesser combination. Here are a few examples for you. It’s 40 degrees and raining; I’m going to pair my outer shell with my long sleeve base layer top. At a dry 20 degrees I’ll use my base layer and fleece pull over. At camp when I stop moving for the day, I’ll switch to a new completely dry base layer with my down jacket. You can treat your leg wear the same way.

The most versatile and frequently changed pieces to the system however are your accessories. With mittens, gloves, beanies, and a buff or balaclava I can make quick and easy changes to my body temperature. Having these accessories in a pant pocket or pack hip belt make them a no brainer to add and subtract as the day’s temperature fluctuates or the terrain alters my exertion and heat output.

If I could just turn off my sweat glands for a fall or winter trip that would be easier (and terrifying) but until then I have the perfect collection of clothing layers to assure, I am comfortably and safely travelling in even the coldest or wettest of adventures. Winter continues to be my favorite time to travel to the mountains and backpacking remains the only time I care much of what I’m going to wear that day.

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10 Hacks for Winter Backpacking

So you’ve decided that your love of backpacking is so great that not even Old Man Winter himself can keep you cooped up when the temperatures drop. Good. Welcome to the club, fellow maniac. Whether it’s the beautiful, snowy vistas, the refreshing chill of the air, or the solitude of the trail during the winter that draws you out, here are a few things that you can do to make your excursion into the cold even more enjoyable (and safe!)

1. Flip your water bottle upside down.

Water at the top of a bottle freezes first (due to the fact that ice is less dense than liquid water) effectively shutting off your access to the water below. If you flip your bottle, the ice will then form at the top of the upside down bottle, meaning that when you go to drink it, and flip it right side up, you are still able to access the liquid, drinkable part of your water.

2. Keep snacks in a warm pocket

There’s not much liquid in most snack bars, but what little there is will freeze and become tooth-shatteringly hard to eat. Figure out your snacks before hand and keep anything that you plan on eating on the trail that day in a jacket/pant pocket. Your body heat will do the rest.

3. Less is more when it comes to  sleep wearDSC_0495

The best thing to wear to bed inside of your bag in the winter is a dry base layer. And that’s it. Wearing too much clothing is counter-effective in that the extra clothes can compress the insulation of your bag and cut off circulation to your extremities. A sleeping bag is designed to work as a single unit, the warm parts of your body heat up the cold parts of your body. If you wear your warmest coat then there is no passage of warm air to travel to your toes. Also, if you’re wearing damp clothes inside of your bag, this moisture will get trapped in your bag and make you colder.

4. Warm your clothes before getting out of your sleeping bag

If your hiking clothes are moist, take them off before bed and change into something dry. In the morning, your moist clothes will be cold if not frozen. You can avoid a chilly start to your morning by placing your hiking clothes in a plastic bag (to keep moisture out of your sleeping bag) and warming them up inside your bag before putting them on.

5. Don’t hold it all night

I won’t go too far into this, but having a full bladder impedes kidney function which is important in keeping your organs (and thus your whole body warm.) Added to this, if you can’t sleep because you have to go, then just go and get it over with! Being well rested is important on any hike. We won’t talk about the other option, but let’s just say that a wet bag is a cold bag.

6. Warm up before crawling into your bag

Right before you get into your bag, its good to have your blood flowing. This will help in creating heat for your bag to trap, which will make you warmer more quickly once inside. So go for a short walk or do some jumping jacks before turning in. Don’t get sweaty, of course, but get the heart pumping and the heater going.

7. Calories = Energy = Warmth

Most hikers don’t need the encouragement, but: don’t forget to eat! Keep in mind that you’re not just replacing lost calories from the hike, but that you are also adding fuel to your inner furnace. Bring extra snacks for the hike and make sure to eat something filling and warm in the evening (preferably not too long before lying down for the night.) Carbs and fat work best to keep the fire going. Plan on an extra 500 calories at least when the weather gets cold.

8. Bring an insulated buDSCN1601tt pad

Cutting a piece off of an old insulated foam pad to use as a seat in the winter will save you from a wet, cold bottom when you stop for a pack break halfway up the mountain, not to mention keeping you warm as you eat around camp in the evening. It can also double as extra insulation under your mat, pillow, or even as a sleeve to keep dehydrated meals warm as they cook inside of their bag.


9. Layer, layer, layer (and pack your layers intelligently)

If you’ve been backpacking in the cold before then you know that layering is the only way to go: a base layer under a mid fleece layer under an insulating layer under a wind/waterproof shell layer (or some combination that works for you.) As you warm up, you ditch layers. When you stop or when the weather turns, you put them back on. Just remember to pack your layers in a way that they are easily accessible while on the move . This includes, of course, hats and gloves.

10. Add traction to your shoes

You won’t always need full crampons, but on slippery, steep surfaces, some sort of after-market traction added to your boots can keep you moving vertically without ending up horizontal, face down in the snow (or, worse, creating a giant snowball by rolling down the side of a mountain.) This is obviously terrain dependent, but on any winter hike where the elevation changes, you can bet that the amount of ice and snow on the trail is also going to change.

So don’t let the weather keep you down! With proper gear and smart planning, you too can be pointed at by folks from the comfort of their cars as you head out on the trail into the beauty and serenity of the winter landscape.