Camping Gear

How to Dress in Layers for Winter in the Backcountry

Posted On December 6, 2017 at 4:01 am by / Comments Off on How to Dress in Layers for Winter in the Backcountry

By Michael Lanza

If hiking, backpacking, and climbing from spring through fall teaches us the fundamentals of layering our clothing for comfort in variable mountain weather, heading into the backcountry in winter confers a graduate degree in layering systems. In mild temperatures, getting wet with perspiration or precipitation merely risks discomfort. In freezing temps, that can actually become life-threatening. Three decades of Nordic and backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, camping, and trail running in winter have informed my layering strategy, which goes beyond the usual advice, customizing clothing systems according to activity and body type.

Here’s how I stay comfortable and safe outdoors in winter.

A layering system is simply the clothing layers you wear outdoors, and we all understand that dressing in layers allows us to make adjustments—adding and removing layers—as needed for changing conditions. As I write in my story “10 Smarter Ways to Think About Your Layering System:”

“When I first learned the term ‘layering system,’ years ago, I thought I understood what it meant. But it wasn’t until I started seeing my layering system as a dynamic, interconnected whole consisting of pieces that should function together—rather than a static collection of individual apparel items—that I actually figured out how to move more comfortably, and safely, in any weather.”

But those tips, while relevant in winter, apply primarily to three-season conditions. Temperatures below about 45° F compound the challenge of dressing comfortably during exertion, when our bodies sweat, because damp clothing conducts heat from your body, and cold air rapidly accelerates that cooling effect—potentially to a dangerous degree.

In my “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter,” I offer tips on how to manage your activity level in combination with your layering system to minimize sweating. In this article, I’ll offer advice on how to choose a specific, personalized layering system for different exertion levels and body types in backcountry in winter.

For my top picks in shell and insulated jackets, base layers, and pants I’ve found for being active in winter, with products differentiated according to high-exertion and moderate-exertion activities, watch for my review of “The Best Clothing Layers for Winter in the Backcountry,” which I plan to post tomorrow. Use the recommendations in that review, along with the tips below, to help you make the best choices in winter outdoor apparel for your activities and your body.


Chip Roser backcountry skiing in Idaho's Boise Mountains.

Chip Roser backcountry skiing in Idaho’s Boise Mountains.

Choosing a Layering System

Three variables dictate the layers you need:

• The ambient conditions you expect to encounter—temperature range, wind, and precipitation—as well as how terrain and vegetation cover affect your exposure to the weather (i.e., you’re more protected from wind and weather in the forest than above treeline).

• Your level of exertion, whether moderate (downhill or backcountry skiing or riding, ski touring, or snowshoeing) or highly aerobic (fast Nordic skiing, trail running).

• Your body type and metabolism, or more simply, how easily you get cold.

Think of those variables on a sliding scale. As we all understand, you need warmer layers as temperatures and exertion level drop. But your choice of specific garments will also depend on your body and activity. Some of the apparel pieces I suggest below can crossover between the two types of layering systems, which is why you’ll see some overlap in my recommendations.


Backcountry skiing in Idaho's Smoky Mountains above the Wood River Valley.

Keith York backcountry skiing high above Idaho’s Wood River Valley.

Base Layers for Winter

Whatever your exertion level, you want next-to-skin tops and bottoms that do two things:

1. Wick moisture off your skin quickly.

2. Provide at least the minimum amount of warmth you need for the conditions and your body.

In winter, those two traits become especially important. A top that’s too light reduces your layering system’s versatility by forcing you to rely only on your insulation layer for warmth—and insulation that’s warm enough for the coldest temps you face, as it should be, may be too much at other times.

On the other hand, you also don’t want your base layer top to make you overheat, which can happen in the warmest circumstances you might encounter—such as skiing or snowshoeing uphill in sunshine, calm air, and temps around or above freezing. It’s also possible to overheat when skiing uphill in temps just below freezing and snow falling hard enough that it requires you to wear a shell jacket. In that situation, an insulation layer is often far too warm, so you need a base layer under that shell that’s warm enough but not too warm.

You can also combine two base layers, a lightweight one and a midweight, giving you another possible layering adjustment to deal with fluctuating temps. (Or you can moderate your pace, which is another of my “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter.”) But peeling off and putting on base layers is less convenient in winter than in summer—especially in falling snow or when you’re wearing an avalanche beacon. Better to have one base layer that does the job.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to sign up for my FREE email newsletter by entering your email address in the box in the left sidebar, at the bottom of this story, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


David Gordon finding powder in Idaho's Boise Mountains.

David Gordon finding powder in Idaho’s Boise Mountains.

Pants for the Backcountry in Winter

We swap out top layers in winter, but not our bottoms. Depending, of course, on the activity and conditions, we generally wear one or two bottom layers and do not change them while outside. Consequently, our pants or bottoms must be chosen specifically for the activity and conditions.

Here’s what I look for:

• For trail running, I prefer highly breathable, fast-wicking tights with some warmth.

• When Nordic skiing, I favor lightweight soft-shell pants that breathe well, block some wind (for skiing downhill), and offer a bit more warmth than tights. This type of pant crosses over well to three-season hiking and climbing in the mountains, too.

• For backcountry skiing or snowshoeing, I want more substantial pants that still breathe well, but are designed to keep snow out of ski boots (with a feature like an internal gaiter) and deliver a bit more warmth and weather protection.


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Backcountry skiing into a quiet forest of ponderosa pines in Idaho.

Backcountry skiing into a quiet forest of ponderosa pines in Idaho.

Two Types of Layering Systems for Winter

When it comes to a shell and insulation, most people will employ one of two different types of layering systems in temperatures from just above to well below freezing:

1. Layering for moderate-exertion activities of anywhere from an hour to all day, or even multiple days if you’re staying in a backcountry cabin or yurt or winter camping. That demands a versatile system, with three or more layers, that allows adjustments dictated by changing conditions.

2. Layering for high-exertion activities, which are usually of shorter duration—a few hours or less—and often do not involve making adjustments, such as when Nordic skiing or trail running.


My “Review: The Best Gloves For Winter” covers gloves for both high-exertion and moderate-exertion activities.


Backcountry skiing high in Wyoming's Tetons.

Backcountry skiing high in Wyoming’s Tetons.

The Best Moderate-Exertion Layering System

If your primary winter activities are backcountry skiing or ski touring, snowshoeing, or hiking, you need a layering system with great versatility, which usually means three types of layers: base, middle or insulating layer, and shell.

This could consist of just three pieces, and at times, you might only wear one layer over your base top: insulation for warmth when it’s not precipitating, or a shell to fend off falling snow when you’re working hard enough to stay warm without insulation. You might, of course, wear two base layers (one lightweight, one warmer) or even a combined vest and insulating jacket as “middle” layers, with or without a shell.

Insulation The classic middle layer is critical because it provides most of your layering system’s warmth. It should also breathe well, because your outer/shell layer will already be the least-breathable piece of the system; more than one layer with limited breathability can quickly start feeling clammy. The good news is that there’s an ever-expanding array of options in insulating layers that breathe well, some of which also cut some wind. Your middle layer will many times pull double duty as an outer layer when you don’t need a shell.

Shell In winter temps from above freezing down into single digits, I want a shell jacket with superior breathability, because I can overheat skiing uphill in the backcountry, but also built to repel hours of falling snow and block most wind, with an adjustable, brimmed hood that keeps wind and precipitation off my face. While even just a few years ago, these fully technical shell jackets fell on either side of a fine line between soft shell (highly breathable but not fully waterproof) and hard shell (fully waterproof but not quite as breathable), today you’ll find shells that blur that distinction, with the supple feel and breathability of a traditional soft shell while delivering fully waterproof performance.

Lastly, for multi-hour or multi-day adventures deep in the backcountry in winter, far from the nearest road, you need a warm puffy jacket both to prevent you from rapidly cooling off during short rests, and in case of an emergency. The best are stuffed with enough insulation to keep you warm when stationary in temps well below freezing; have a hood that closes snugly around your noggin; and have properties that help them repel moisture and falling snow, like a DWR (durable water-resistant treatment) on the shell, and synthetic or hydrophobic (water-resistant) down insulation.


See my reviews of insulated jackets and “Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?


Penny Beach skate-skiing in Idaho's Boise Mountains.

Penny Beach skate-skiing in Idaho’s Boise Mountains.

The Best High-Exertion Layering System

If your winter sport of choice involves sweating and breathing hard, like running and Nordic skiing or even power hiking, fabric breathability becomes the top priority in your outer layer—you need to dump as much of the moisture your body is producing as possible, to avoid getting too wet. Your jacket should also have enough water resistance to not soak through in light rain or snow, but a fully waterproof-breathable jacket is typically overkill, because it’s not nearly as breathable as a water-resistant shell and usually heavier. Besides, in temps below freezing, you don’t need a waterproof jacket; a water-resistant shell can shed falling snow.

This layering system usually consists simply of an adequately warm, often midweight base layer and a lightweight jacket. Occasionally, I’ll wear a lightweight base layer under a midweight, when I need a little extra warmth, because for these activities, I’m not wearing an avalanche beacon or likely to make layering adjustments.


Backcountry skiing in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.

Scott White making cold smoke in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

A Tip About Hoods

Most of the time, I like having any kind of hood on a jacket—and I definitely want an adjustable, full-coverage hood on a shell for multi-hour activities like skiing or snowshoeing. But understand the pros and cons to having a hooded middle layer.

Hoods come in basically two styles:

1. Very close-fitting, non-adjustable, usually elasticized hoods intended to just provide some added warmth and good breathability, but little to wind and weather protection. They are usually found on insulating layers or lightweight jackets that are worn alone, and designed to fit under a ski or climbing helmet.

2. Adjustable, “fully technical” hoods on a shell that deliver complete weather protection and fit over a helmet or any hat.

While there are advantages to having an insulating layer with a close-fitting hood for warmth (type 1 above) as well as a fully technical hood on your shell (type 2), if your system has more than one hood, make sure they fit well together when on and off your head. For the most part, insulated jackets have either a close-fitting hood or none; but some insulated hoods are bulky and don’t fit compatibly with all shell hoods. Two high-volume hoods are too many. Test them together.

Be sure to read my “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter.” And see all of my reviews of outdoor apparel at The Big Outside.


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