Layering for Hiking Made Simple

Hiking with Layers
From Sun to Shade. Dry to Snow. Layers are Needed

The best way to stay warm and to keep your body temperature regulated on a hike is with the layering system.  This may sound complex at first, but really is simple.  The basics of the system are that you wear multiple layers of clothing that you can take off or add as needed.  When you’re hiking and generating heat you remove layers to stay cool.  When you stop for a break or camp for the night you add layers to stay warm.  Below are the basics to know for each layer.

Inner Layer – This is the layer next to your skin.  This layer is most often thermal underwear (top and bottom) that is designed to wick moisture away from your skin to keep you dry.  If you are wet it is very difficult to stay warm.  The best thermals are usually synthetic and are specially designed to pull moisture away from the skin to the outside of the thermal where it evaporates.  Avoid cotton, as cotton doesn’t dry well or wick.  A t-shirt can be included in this layer.

Mid Layer – This layer traps air and is the layer that keeps you warm.  This can be fleece or any synthetic.  Look for windproof fleece.  You can add several layers to your core (chest) if needed.  Be sure to bring something very warm to wear at night around camp.  Any insulated tops or warm shirts can be added to this layer as needed as well as fleece pants.

For pants I like convertible pants that have removable legs so they turn into shorts.  For hikes in areas that are cold in the morning and warm or hot later these convertible pants save you space in your pack and are easy to convert without removing your pants.

Outer Layer / Shell – The shell is the outer layers that protects you from wind and water (rain, snow).  It must be breathable or your body will turn into a sauna.  I know this because the rain gear I used in the Army was not much more than a rubber suit and when we wore it and the rain stopped the rain suits turned into sweat machines.  A good rain top will have zippers under the armpits and other zippers to allow you to get fresh air when the rain slows.

Gloves – Keeping your hands warm and usable is essential to enjoying your hike.  Remember that your gloves may get wet from cooking so consider a waterproof outer glove and a thinner inner glove liner.  Again you can remove one or both of these as needed.

Headgear – A chunk of your body’s heat escapes through your head.  By keeping your head warm you protect your body and increase your comfort.  With layering you can adjust your head warmth as needed.  A good hat to protect from sun and rain is an easy luxury, and a scarf for your neck protects from wind that finds its way around your clothing.  I have a balaclava that covers my face for very cold conditions.

As you can see the name pretty much explains the system.  There are many synthetic materials (and now improved wool even) to choose from.  Any reputable outdoor shop can help you create an excellent layering setup for your hiking trips.  You might even be surprised to find that you already have many of the items needed.

What to Do When Lost

Lost in the Rocky Mountains - Scott Thompson

It’s easier than you think to get lost in the wilderness.  In fact, people often get lost on short trips when they didn’t plan for a big excursion.  This, of course, can be the worst time to get lost because you probably don’t have many supplies with you like you might have on an overnight backpacking trip.  Here are some tips to remember if you get lost.

Stay Put – One of the biggest mistakes made when lost is to continue moving.  Once you establish that you are truly lost it’s best to stop and wait for help.  If you call for help (via 911 or other method) moving will make it more difficult for rescuers to find you.  At the least stopping allows you to calm yourself and get your thoughts together.  When we realize we are lost fear often keeps us from thinking clearly.

If you Must Travel

If no help is arriving or no one know where you went you may have to travel.  Some say follow water and I like this idea, but it’s still no guarantee that it will lead to civilization.  If it’s dark you can find high ground and look for lights or the glow of a community in the distance.  In daylight signs you can look for are squared off farmland, power lines or railroad tracks, or other signs of humans like campfire smoke.

Before you move leave a message stating:

Who you are (include your number so someone can call if they find the message later)

How to contact loved ones 

Where you are going

When you left

Bring all the important supplies possible and plan your path and track your bearing using trees, rocks, or other items that will keep you traveling straight.  Many times those that are lost simply walk in circles.  Obstacles like water or large rocks can cause you to get off track as well.

Overall, the most important tip when lost is to remain in one place and to remain calm.  The biggest danger we face when lost is often our own fear and the mistakes we make when scared. Try to stay calm.

What tips do you have that might help others?


Vasque hiking boots

My favorite boots of all time are my Vasque Sundowner hiking boots. I bought my first pair back in the mid 1990s and wore them on the trail in all conditions and loved the support the provided. I also wore my Sundowner boots with jeans and Khaki pants as they looked great when cleaned up. The Gore-Tex insides kept my feet from overheating and the leather kept my feet secure and dry. I would wear a pair of Thorlo hiking socks and dominate with comfort.

Tough Boots Near Emerald Lake, Colorado

At $200 bucks they were expensive boots. As I was a struggling college student this was a huge investment, but one I made after a lot of research. I bought my second pair of Sundowner hiking boots a few years ago and had to search to find them. The style had changed so I bought what was labeled as “Sundowner Classics.” They are great boots too, but will never hold the place in my heart that my first pair held. I guess your first pair of great hiking boots is like owning your first car.