Dressing for cold weather can be a challenge, but with the proper winter layering, you can stay warm all season long. Dave and I have done our fair share of cold weather travel. We’ve faced -30 weather skijorring in Alberta and we’ve been winter camping in weather so cold, the temperature fell completely off the thermometer.
So when it comes to layering for cold weather, we know what we are talking about. We’ve been to both poles and everywhere in between and the most important part of our cold weather travels has been about dressing properly.
How to Layer for Cold Weather – A Winter Layering Guide
Table of Contents
Believe it or not, it is possible to stay warm and enjoy the outdoors during the winter if you follow a few rules. The first rule is that you have to layer your clothes. We’ve learned the hard way about how to layer properly. So we wanted to share our layering tips to dress for this latest cold weather from our years of trial and error. It’s easier than you think! Watch our video to see how to dress for winter layering
1. How to Choose a Base Layer
When it comes to learning how to layer for winter, the base layer is definitely the most important. Think of your cold weather base layer as a second skin. The key to a great base layer is to use a material that wicks the sweat away from your body. The more you sweat the colder you can get if it is not wicked away.
Best Base Layer Material for Cold Weather
For your base layer material, we recommend Merino Wool. It is lightweight, breathes, and doesn’t smell making it perfect for wicking away moisture.
You want to make sure that it fits snug and is comfortable. Try to avoid cotton, as it actually holds moisture and can leave you freezing. We prefer to go with natural fibers over synthetic ones like polyester. They both can accomplish the same thing but we find the Merino Wool works a bit better.
We use the Icebreaker brand of Merino Wool and have found it to be the best after trying quite a few different base layers. We have used our Icebreaker layers to train for dog sledding with Iditarod and Yukon Quest dog musher, Hank DeBruin, during our 100km trek into the Arctic watershed and when we went snowmobiling, ice skating, and snowshoeing.
Our Recommended Base Layer for Cold Weather
These Merino Wool base layers kept us warm and dry every time.
- Mid-weight Base Layer Merino Wool Bottoms Mens
- Mid-weight Base Layer Merino Wool Bottoms Women
- Mid-weight Base Layer Merino Wool Top Women
- Mid-weight Base Layer Merino Wool Top Men
- Heavy-weight Base Layer Merino Wool Bottoms Mens
- Heavy-weight Base Layer Merino Wool Bottoms Women
- Heavy-weight Base Layer Merino Wool Top Women
- Heavy-weight Base Layer Merino Wool Top Men
2. How to Choose a Mid Layer
The mid-layer is all about retaining heat. Most people think that you need to wear a huge parka to stay warm. But the key is actually to layer for breathability.
Best Mid Layer Material for Cold Weather
For the more budget-conscious fleece is a good alternative. Although it doesn’t perform so well when it gets wet. Down and wool work best for keeping heat in so this is what we prefer. We alternate between these two mid-layers depending on the temperature and the activity we’re doing.
We find the down can cause overheating quickly if we are doing vigorous adventures, but if we’re sitting on a snowmobile or tubing down a track, it’s perfect. When we’re working up a sweat snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, we prefer wool.
For layering pants, we suggest wool or fleece. You can pack heavier weights for very cold days or lighter weights for days that hover around the freezing mark. I love how wool keeps you warm but is also lightweight. It’s perfect for a walk on a balmy winter day.
Our Recommended Mid Layer for Cold Weather
3. How to Choose an Outer Layer
Having the right outer shell helps protect from the harsh elements like rain, wind, and snow. With the proper layers worn underneath, this top-layer jacket keeps the wind from robbing you of heat.
Best Outer Layer Material for Cold Weather
You will want to look for something that is waterproof and breathable. Nylon or Polyester is a good option. We use GoreTex and have for years. it is durable and is really waterproof yet it is breathable and wind resistant.
Remember that all of your layers should be breathable if this layering system is going to work. Don’t get fooled into thinking that bulkier is better.
Our Recommended Outer Layer for Cold Weather
- Waterproof Gore-Tex Shell Jacket – We’ve found that it worked for all outdoor activities. We wore this shell ice climbing, snowboarding snowshoeing and, skijoring.
- Gore-Tex pants -We currently use the Arcteryx Beta SL pants which are great. Durable, lightweight, and waterproof. Perfect for those windy days.
- Snow Pants – These are optional but if you want to skip a layer, you can wear these with your base layer.
Once again, make sure it has zippers and vents to let in air. Vents can easily cool you down without have to strip down right away.
Parkas for Cold Weather
Even when layering, you sometimes need something warmer than just an outer shell. When doing outdoor activities, we strip down to our base layer, but when we are resting or once we finish, a cozy parka is a must. We made the switch from Canada Goose to Triple Fat Goose and love it.
Triple F.A.T. Goose, is much more affordable. Second, I think it is more stylish and you won’t look like a poser wearing Canada Goose like everyone else. I always hate being trendy. Triple F.A.T. Goose makes down jackets “For Arctic Temperatures” that has evolved into a direct-to-consumer brand, offering luxury outerwear with technical performance features.
4. Anticipate your body temperature
Having the right layering clothes is just the first half of staying warm in the winter. The second part has to do with actually knowing how to regulate your body temperature by adding and shedding layers as needed. The most important part of outdoor adventures is to never work up too much of a sweat.
The biggest mistake people make is waiting too long to shed their layers. A good rule of thumb is to start off with all 3 layers on, then as you START to feel a little too warm, shed a layer. As the activity increases and you are working harder, you should be taking off more layers.
Don’t be afraid to hike with just your base layers on. We have done this on several expeditions and it kept us warmer in the long run. Just remember that when you stop, to get those layers back on as soon as you can, or throw on a parka to trap in the heat so you don’t get a chill.
If you wait until you start shivering, it’s too late. You want to get those warm layers on before you start to feel cold. When we are on an expedition or multi-day winter trek, we always carry a parka for these instances. Being able to throw on a heavy parka during lunch stops and rests helps us keep our energy up.
5. Protect Your Head, Face, and Toes
We were all guilty of it as kids. We never wore hats and we rarely wore gloves, but keeping those extremities covered will help keep you warm. It’s not a myth that all your heat escapes through your head, feet, and hands. And these parts of your body are often the first things to feel the cold.
Headwear for Cold Weather
This is where you lose the most heat if you don’t cover it. We have found the best way to do this is to have 2 different types of hats. One ultra warm to put on when resting at camp or lunch and a light hat to wear when doing an activity.
- We love Aviation or trapper hats with earflaps are our favorite for keeping us warm and a merino wool beanie is excellent for activities.
Keep your Face Warm
I used to always wear a dickie but the fleece always caused me to break out. I chose a Merino Wool Neck Gaitor from Minus33 and it feels soft on my chin but keeps my neck warm.
I tend to really feel the cold in my neck and need that extra layer to finish off my layering wardrobe.
2 Buffs – We always bring two sets of buffs. They can be great for keeping the next warm and to be used as a light hat or headband.
Footwear for Cold Weather
Keeping your feet warm can be the biggest challenge in winter, especially on those really cold days. That is why the best solution is to layer your socks.
- Layer 1: Liner socks – Liner socks are lightweight and small, but perfect for wicking away moisture. It’s important to keep feet dry to keep them warm.
- Layer 2: mid-layer socks – The mid-layer socks are thick warm wool socks that insulate our feet. Usually, this is enough and we don’t have to add any more, but when the temperatures get really cold, another outer layer is great.
- Heavy Socks – As you can see we like layering everything. If you are going to be in some extreme cold weather, the third pair of heavier wool socks will keep your feet toasty warm.
- Winter Hiking Boots – For trekking and other activities a good set of Gortex hiking boots will fit all your needs.
Make sure to buy a size that accounts for the extra layers of socks. Tight boots will freeze your toes. But you also don’t want floppy boots either. Wear the socks you intend to wear on your adventures when trying on your boots.
Packing Suggestions for winter travel or Expeditions
Icebreaker may be more expensive than other brands, but you will have it for years. It wicks away moisture and it is odor resistant. With this high-quality wool, we can do 10 days to 2-week trips (with no shower) using only two sets of our merino wool base layers (wool usually makes me itchy, but not this stuff) and they worked like a charm. Icebreaker is made of Merino Wool from New Zealand and you can wear it day in day out without odor.
- We bought the 260 weight for extremely cold temperatures.
- Sprite Ultralight 175 is an excellent addition to our gear list for weather that is not so cold. It will wick away moisture if we are Ice Climbing or skiing, but keep us warm too.
We suggest having two so that you can change it up for fluctuating temperatures and if you happen to get very wet one day. Even though wool dries fast, it’s nice to hop into a fresh warm and dry pair.
Once again we bought the Icebreaker brand. It’s expensive, but it’s all we’ll need for the next decade and we’ll be able to use it on any mountain treks or winter trips to come. It’s important to have a base layer that wicks away moisture and we like having two pairs with us because we can change if anything is damp, if it needs to be cleaned or if we just want to change it up.
We’ve recently added merino wool T-Shirts to our packing list. These are perfect for any kind of weather and can act as a base layer in a pinch. I love their colour choices and they look so great I wear them all the time.
So as you can see, it’s important to layer when you are going outside to face the elements for an extended period of time. Make sure to think about everything from head to toe. If one spot on your body is cold, it can ruin your day. You may think, “I have a good jacket” but just because your chest and shoulders are warm, doesn’t mean everything else will stay warm.
You have to think about the whole package.
Check out our Video of How to Dress for Winter
Do you have any layer tips to stay warm in this winter deep freeze? We’d love to hear.
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