31 Jul 20

How to layer clothing for a long-distance hike

Amanda Thompson Training and Preparation

Nothing can ruin an outdoor activity faster than being shivering cold and wet or overheating and wet from your own sweat. Layer clothing for a long-distance walk for complete comfort (and in some instances, safety) requires some planning. Wearing several layers of thin clothing is more comfortable than wearing just a raincoat or warm jacket.

Think of layering as simply a way of dressing that allows you to adjust to a wide range of weather conditions to enhance your enjoyment of the great outdoors. Before setting off on your trip, take the time to think about what you need to pack and choose your fabrics wisely.

Here are my top tips on how to layer clothing, which I’ve written for mountain regions during spring, summer and autumn. Weather in the mountains can change quickly; layers allow you to adapt quickly.

If you choose the right layering system you can pack ultra light, look good and have all you need to be
comfortable, warm and dry while hiking outdoors.

The best way to stay protected from any weather and temperature changes is to use a 3-layer clothing system. Each layer has a function. The base layer (against your skin) manages moisture; the middle (insulating) layer protects you from the cold; and the shell layer (outer layer) shields you from the wind and rain. With this system, you simply add or subtract layers as needed.

Base Layer: Moisture management

The base layer helps regulate your body temperature and wicks moisture away from your skin when you are hiking, keeping you dry and warm in the cooler regions. Let’s talk materials for the base layer.

Wool versus synthetic

Both wool and synthetic t-shirts or long sleeve tops provide the moisture wicking function we need when hiking. Wool fibres are so fine that they won’t itch or scratch while walking, which also means no chaffing. Wool also helps to neutralise body odour, but will not dry as fast as its synthetic competitors and can be slightly more expensive. Synthetic base layers are a great alternative to wool as they dry even faster than wool, but do tend to hold body odour. So if you are considering multi-day hikes and do not have access to washing facilities, wool can be a much nicer choice for your fellow hiker.

Beware cotton!

There is one base layer fabric that must be avoided – cotton!  Cotton soaks up sweat like a sponge, and when cotton is wet it draws heat away from your body, and this can lead to hypothermia. Hypothermia can happen in even the mildest of conditions.

Middle Layer: Insulation

The middle layer is designed to trap body heat and allow sweat vapour to continue moving through the layering system. The most popular mid-layer fabric is fleece as it is affordable, durable and quick drying. The thicker the fleece the more heat it traps. Depending on conditions you’ll need a mid-weight fleece or a light-weight fleece.

Synthetic versus down

Both are great for the added layer if the weather is cooler at a higher altitude when you stop for a break. Think of them as mini sleeping bags with arms. As you gain altitude the temperature drops, so remember to pack the extra layers even though it’s warmer down in the valleys.

Shell Layer: Weather protection

The outer layer, known as the shell, blocks wind and rain, it also allows the sweat vapours to leave the final stage of the layering system. There are two types of shell: membrane and coated nylon. Both do a great job of keeping out the elements but vary in how quickly they allow sweat vapour to escape.

Gore-text versus coated nylon

Gore-tex is top of the line when it comes to keeping out the elements and being comfortable while active. You know that you will be dry all day in a waterproof/windproof Gore-tex jacket! Coated nylon shells are designed for passive activities, like short walks with a day pack. This option is less expensive compared to Gore-tex and less breathable than other membranes on the market, so they can feel sweaty during arduous activities.

Layering your legs

The layering system can also be used on your legs by adding leggings made from base layer fabrics underneath your wind-resistant trekking pants. You can also add a soft shell pant to your kit, depending on where you will be hiking and how high.

Accessories for hands and feet

To keep your head and body’s vital organs warm in cold conditions, the heart reduces blood flow to the extremities (hands and feet). These areas do not generate much heat on their own, so some insulation and protection from the elements is needed. Add a beanie and gloves to your kit, even in the summer months. Merino glove liners will additional warmth at high altitudes and an extra layer of comfort. Remember that in the European Alps the temperature can drop significantly overnight.

Happy hiking!

sign up to our newsletter

explore the world with Raw