“Layered clothing” the secret to staying comfortable while hiking

A breathable waterproof shell is necessary to keep you dry and warm when the weather gets awful, like here in the tundra.

What is layered clothing?

Layered clothing is basically a way of dressing that will make you more comfortable outdoors. The idea is to have multiple “layers” or items of clothing that you can put on or take off depending on the conditions. 

When you understand the concept of layered clothing, it’s much easier to shop for hiking clothes. To make it even easier I have a post titled “A complete list of all the clothes you need to go hiking” – read that and you are super well prepared.

Do you even need to go shopping? Why not just go out there with your normal city clothes or sportswear? Well, I have a post about why you need special hiking clothes to stay safe and comfortable in the outdoors – I suggest you check it out as well and then make up your mind.

You need layers because conditions change

The weather can be unpredictable. Especially in the mountains.

You need layered clothing while hiking because conditions change during the hike. It’s usually colder in the morning, gets warmer during the day and then cooler again in the evening. It can be warmer one day and colder the next. 

Wind, rain, humidity can make a big difference in how you feel. So will trail conditions. 

When you’re hiking in the mountains, you can be knee deep in snow wearing only your base layer if the sun is shining. Or vice versa, even a hot summer day can be much cooler in the depths of a valley or the shadow side of the mountain. 

As you move, especially with a heavy backpack you will feel warmer than during resting stops along the way or in the evenings as you prepare for the night. 

Because of these changes, you need to have layers that you can put on or take off. 

Base layer, shell and insulation

There are three main layers. These are: the base layer, the shell and the insulation layer.  

The base layer

Long sleeves are better, even in the summer.

The base layer can mean simply your underwear and a shirt when it’s warm or a warm base layer (long underwear) in colder conditions.

Base layer needs to fit your body comfortably. It needs to be against your body but not too tight – when you try it on, make sure you try sitting, squatting and moving around in it. Make sure you can reach with your hands freely.

Merino wool is absolutely the best material. There are synthetic options available as well but they are usually not as efficient.

On a hiking trip you need at least two sets of long underwear – one for wearing during the day and another one for sleeping.

The separate pair for sleeping is important because you might get wet during the day – when it’s raining or walking through snow. You need to be dry and warm to sleep well during the night.

The shell

Female hiker wearing waterproof poncho
In heavy rain a waterpoof poncho will keep you dry, warm and comfortable.

The shell are the clothes that are exposed to the elements, so waterproof breathable jacket, your hiking pants and rain pants make up your shell. 

The purpose of the shell is primarily there to protect you from the wind and the rain.

Rain and windproof materials that breathe are expensive but it’s worth the investment.

As you move, your body generates heat. Cheaper jackets don’t breathe, so you’ll end up feeling damp and clammy and cold. 

In winter, your shell might be a parka that is also insulated to keep you warm.

Not all parkas are made equal. Some are sold with marketing images of Nordic nature, hikers and mountain climbers but are very heavy so they are more suitable for the city. A heavy parka will make you feel hot and uncomfortable. 

Beaches can be very windy but the sun can be warm at the same time. A breathable shell protects you from the wind but allowes your body to “breathe” at the same time.

Hiking pants are sometimes also rain- and windproof but for heavier downpours you will need rain pants and you might need an additional rain poncho as well.

Breathable materials are never 100% waterproof – if you get a lot of rain, they will let water in at some point.

By the way, the same applies for hiking boots – since your feet need to breathe, they are not 100% waterproof and at some point, your feet will get wet. If your hiking boots were 100% waterproof, your feet would sweat and that sweat would have nowhere to escape.

Bring extra socks, even on a day hike. 

Insulating layer

Female hiker wearing down jacket
A down jacket is a common insulating layer. It’s lightweight and warm.

The insulating layer is worn between your base layer and shell when you need extra insulation to stay warm. The most common solutions are fleece jackets or down jackets. 

They are both lightweight materials and will keep your body warm. 

Hiker in flannel shirt
I personally find flannel shirts vert comfortable. They don’t dry fast but breathe well.

Wool and cotton sweaters are not good options for hiking because they don’t breathe as well and are heavy. Wool and cotton also take a long time to dry, if you do get wet. 

In the winter, you need hiking pants with insulation. 

How to use layers?

The main idea is to anticipate changes in conditions so that you will feel relatively comfortable throughout your day. 

So, for instance, you might only wear your base layer and shell when you are walking with a heavy backpack but add a fleece jacket as an insulating layer when you make a stop – before your body cools down and you feel cold. 

In the evening, when the temperature drops and you are done walking for the day, you might add a down jacket as well, so you are wearing four layers (base layer, two layers of insulation and your shell).

This should keep you warm until you go to sleep in your sleeping bag. 

Layered clothing is good for every day use as well

You can actually use the same principles during your day in the city – especially if you walk or bike to work or when you are travelling. 

How to keep your clothes dry and clean during a hike?

I hope you enjoyed this blog post. There are two more I think you would enjoy. First, on long hikes you need wash garments that are in contact with your skin. I have a whole post called “Hiking and hygiene: how to stay clean and comfortable?” – I hope you will find that one useful as well. 

Sometimes your clothes will get wet and you need to get them dry quickly. This is why I wrote a post that explains how to dry your clothes and gear while hiking? Have fun out there!

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