How To Layer And Dress For A Winter Hike Or Snowshoe: Families, Beginner Hikers

Category: Hiking 101, Newsletter

When Winter Hiking – Dress In Layers Using the 3 W’s: Wicking, Warmth and Weather

The key to keeping your family warm and dry when snowshoeing, winter hiking or any winter outdoor activities is learning how to layer with the correct clothes. I’ve written a mini-guide to how to layer for winter hiking.

1. Wicking – The Base Layer

  • This layer can be slightly insulating, but most importantly, it draws moisture away from your skin to keep you dry.
  • If your base layer doesn’t wick, moisture will collect in the fabric against your skin, leaving heat from your body to warm up your clothing, which will leave you feeling chilly.
  • If you get too cold, you could become hypothermic.

Suggested Wicking Fabrics Are:

Suggested Fit:

  • Should hug your body, yet not be tight and restrictive

100% Cotton is Rotten – NO Cotton!

When it comes to layering for winter hiking, this should be everyone’s mantra, particularly when dressing for winter activities. You should avoid wearing cotton underwear as well.

Why?
  • Cotton has a lot of air pockets with no wicking properties.
  • When the cotton fabric gets wet, the air pockets fill with moisture: sweat, rain, snow.
  • It stays wet, does not wick and provides no insulation.
  • It will draw heat away from your body to warm up the fabric, leaving you cold and uncomfortable.

Photos below: My pink Icebreaker 200 weight base layer top is ideal for all of my fall, winter and spring outdoor activities. In winter, I add a pair of my Icebreaker 240 weight leggings. The blue bottoms on the right are a pair of child’s Reima leggings.

2. Warmth – The Middle Layer

  • The heat our body naturally produces through activity gets trapped in the air pockets in the fabric.
  • This layer keeps you warm on those chilly early morning fall and winter hikes and keeps your core warm on those -15C snowshoes.
  • You may end up wearing two warm layers when you start your activity and then remove a layer as you warm up on colder days.

Suggested Warmth Fabrics Are:

  • Merino wool
  • Wool/synthetic blends
  • Down

Suggested Fit:

  • It should not be as tight as the base layer but not too big or baggy.
  • A big, baggy mid-layer will create a big air pocket, which requires extra energy to warm it up.

Below are a few examples of my mid-layers. Left to right, Marmot top, 20 years old and still warm! Marmot polar fleece vest is the same age as the Marmot top. My blue Arcteryx LT Jacket. Depending on the activity I’m doing and the temp outside, I will mix and match these pieces of clothing. The blue Arcteryx coat is a piece I use all year long. It packs down and is perfect for cooler fall, spring and the occasional summer hike. 

3. Weather – The Outer Layer

  • These winter hiking items are the top, most exposed layer; your coats and pants.
  • They keep you dry, warm and protected from the elements; wind, snow, and rain.
  • Windproof and waterproof winter hiking outer layers is best.
  • Water-resistant will work when there isn’t too much precipitation.
  • When the proper fabric is worn, this layer will continue to remove moisture from your skin to the air outside.
  • The small holes in the fabric allow moisture vapour to continue to wick yet keep the large rain droplets from penetrating the fabric.
  • Some jackets and pants have venting zippers that allow further ventilation and moisture exchange.

Suggested Weather Fabrics Are:

Suggested Fit:

  • The outer layer should be large enough to cover the warmth layer comfortably.

Below, left to right, is the Arcteryx Sentinel jacket (photo from the website, my jacket was too dirty to show), and my Arcteryx Gamma MX pants. I LOVE these pants. On cold days, I combine them with an icebreaker legging and I’m warm! Both of the puffy down jackets have a wind and water-resistant shell, which is ideal for dry snow conditions, but not ideal for wet snow/rain.

When You Layer Correctly For Hiking In The Winter, You Will Be Able To:

  • Stay warm
  • Stay dry
  • Shed, or add clothing as needed to help regulate your body temperature

Dressing Infants and Non-Walking Toddlers For Winter Hikes

It has been 18 years since I dressed an infant for some outdoor winter fun. Clothing has improved, but the basic premise of layering has not. I only wish my young adult sons would listen to me now about layering! I’m not nagging, trust me.

You may see photos of people with their little ones out in weather below-10 ℃ sitting in the child pack carriers. I have seen that as well, and have had to provide hot-shots to the parents because the little one in the carrier was crying due to being underdressed for the cold.

Here Are The Key Points To Remember For Winter Hiking With Your Children:

  • Check the temperature combined with the windchill.
  • Infants and non-walking or slow walking toddlers are not building up their warmth, and they will require an added layer for warmth. 
  • Venturing outside with little ones when the temperature combined with the wind chill is below -10 ℃ is not ideal, as it increases the risk of frostnip, frostbite and hypothermia.

The following photos are suggested clothing used to dress little ones.

Wicking – Baselayer

The Reima onesie and pants are merino wool. Clothing articles from Glaciers Edge, Canmore

Suggested items for one extra layer.

Left and middle photo, from the Patagonia website, right photo from The Children’s Place.

Warmth – Middle Layer

Left photo from the Patagonia website. Middle and right photo – Reima warmth layers, graciously provided by Glaciers Edge in Canmore.

Weather – Outer Layer

Left photo, Reima snowsuit, provided by. Glaciers Edge. Right photo, from the Patagonia website.

Head, Hands, Feet

All clothing articles provided by Glaciers Edge, Canmore.

(thank you Jacob Forlin photography for taking photos of all the infant and toddler gear, some of my personal gear and the snowshoe photo)

Trail Tip:  On very cold days, consider taking little ones out in a covered stroller, such as a Chariot. This is a great solution for families that have a mix of children of different ages and stages. 
how to layer for winter hiking
My youngest, warm and cozy in the Chariot. Winter 2001.

Are You Hiking In Winter With Tweens And Teens?

Stopping to take a layer off or add a layer provides you with an excuse to stop and catch your breath. After all, you don’t want your children to know that you can’t keep up!

Trail tip: If you have taken a layer off during your activity, always put that layer back on when you stop. It helps retain the heat you have built up and prevents you from cooling down and becoming hypothermic.  Also, if you have room in your pack, bring along an extra puffy jacket for backup.
how to layer for winter hiking
This puffy Mountain Hardware jacket packs easily into my backpack. I purposely bought a large size, which allows me to put this jacket over my other layers, including my outer shell. This jacket stays in my pack all winter long.

Ladies, This Is Why You May Need That Extra Layer

Women are naturally colder than men.

Why? The University of Rochester Medical Centre explains it quite well. “The external temperature at which men’s and womens’ bodies begin convergence heat – called the set point temperature-varies by about 3 degrees. When surrounding temperatures drop to a certain point, your body will convert heat by shutting off the blood flow to the hands and feet, making them feel chilled. For women, that temperature is about 70, while men can hold steady until about 67 or 68.

Recently, I Have Started To Wear An Insulated Skirt Over My Cross-Country Ski Pants.

It provides me with that added bit of warmth for the winter hikes, is easy to take off and packs easily into my backpack.
When I’m done skiing for the day, I take my ski pants off, leave my wool leggings on and cover them up with the skirt.

how to layer for winter hiking
Warm and cozy with my Smartwool mid-layer jacket and skirt. It was a warm day on The Great Divide Trail, Lake Louise.

Layer With The Correct Fabric

Clothing keeps you warm by trapping heat in the material’s air pockets and allowing for moisture evaporation while maintaining warmth.

how to layer for winter hiking

Proper Moisture-Wicking And Insulating Fabrics Will Do The Following:

  • Draw (wick) sweat/moisture from your skin to the fabric’s outer surface to evaporate.
  • Dry quickly. If the material is effective, the result will leave you with a dry, non-sticky feeling, and your body will be able to regulate its temperature efficiently.
  • Keep you warm, even when wet.

Merino wool has excellent wicking properties and provides excellent warmth even when wet. You can read about the benefits of merino wool here.

Winter Layers For Your Head, Face, Hands And Feet

To keep your extremities warm and dry when hiking in the winters, wear seasonally appropriate hats, mitts and boots.

Wear A Winter Hat/Toque!

We lose heat through heads, children more so because their heads are proportionally larger than their bodies.

  • Wear a warm hat/toque that covers your ears.
  • Ears are susceptible to frostnip and frostbite.
  • Merino wool, wool/synthetic blend, will keep the heat and wick moisture away to keep you dry.
  • The length and thickness of your hair, or lack of, can also determine heat loss from your head.
how to layer for winter hiking
The snow-covered hat kept my son’s head warm. Why? It is made of wool. Right after this photo was taken, he covered up his face with a polar fleece scarf as those rosy red cheeks were an early warning sign of frostnip.

Cover Your Neck And Face

  • On frigid days, wear a zipped turtleneck, which allows you to cover up the sensitive skin on your neck, and on warmer days, you can unzip to cool down.
  • The Jacket Collar should cover your neck and zip all the way up.
  • Wear a Buff or Scarf: For those frigid days, these are ideal for covering your neck, nose, cheeks.
  • Polar fleece neck tubes are inexpensive compared to a Buff, but both are very packable and versatile. If you have forgotten a hat/toque or lost one, you can turn either of these into a hat.
  • Neoprene face masks: They keep your nose and cheeks warm and wash well. However, they stink after one use.

Left photo: My husband and I at Grotto Canyon. It was – 32 with windchill, but we were warm. Right photo: My oldest when we lived in Calgary. I loved the MEC products for my boys. This red MEC Toaster suit was purchased second-hand, and it was passed down to my youngest, overall I think we used this suit for three or four winters. MEC has redesigned the Toaster Suit to be more waterproof and durable.

Mittens

My hands are always cold – except when I was pregnant with my boys, I could have gone without mitts! My husband, however, overheats in mitts.

Pros:
  • Your fingers generate more heat in a mitt because pieces of cloth do not separate them.
  • The air trapped in the mitt warms up and circulates around all your fingers.
  • Best for people with chronically cold hands.
  • They are easier for toddlers and young children to put on, as they don’t need to worry about getting their fingers in the correct place.
Cons:
  • They don’t provide as much dexterity as a glove.
  • Little ones may find it harder to hold onto a ski pole with a mitt.
  • Adjusting gear may require removing the mitt.
Trail Tip: When you need to take your mitts or gloves off, tuck them inside your jacket, don’t put them on the ground, this will keep snow out.

Gloves

Gloves are ideal for people who have warm hands.

Pros:
  • Provide more dexterity, therefore easier to adjust equipment without the need to remove the gloves.
  • An excellent choice for warmer weather activities.
Cons:
  • People with chronic cold hands will not find gloves warm.
  • They are never as warm as mitts.
  • My oldest son has Raynaud’s Phenomenon, yet he likes the dexterity of glovers, so he now wears heated gloves when he spends any length of time outdoors in the winter.

Suggested Fabrics For Mitts And Gloves:

  • Water-resistant or waterproof outer layer fabrics.
  • Synthetic, wool or a mix of synthetic insulation is best as it still has warming properties when wet.
  • Keep in mind, down compacts over time, when wet, stays wet and will not provide warmth.

Suggested Fit For Mittens And Gloves:

  • Both mittens and gloves should lightly hug your hands, providing enough space for the air to warm up.
  • A pinch of airspace should be at the fingertips for air circulation when your hand is in the mitten or glove.
  • When purchasing mitts or gloves, purchase elasticized mitts or powder cuffs to keep the snow out of the mitten or glove will help keep snow out and heat in.

It has been a long time since I purchased toddler mittens, here is a great article by Family Travel Gear describing the 10 Best Winter Mittens For Toddlers ( That Will Actually Stay On)

putting on snowshoes for winter hiking
These Black Diamond mercury mitts are my favourite! Waterproof, warm and the split-finger liner provides extra dexterity for adjusting snowshoe bindings.
Trail Tip: Purchase gloves or mitts with pockets to add hot packs for warmth. If in the budget, consider purchasing a pair of heated gloves or mitts.

Wool Glove Liners

  • Wearing a thin pair of wool blend glove liners on freezing days allows you to remove mittens/gloves to adjust equipment, retain some heat in your hands and keep your fingers from sticking to cold metal snowshoe buckles.
  • Make sure the glove liners don’t make the glove too tight and constrict the airflow.
Trail tip: Keep a pair of wool blend glove liners in your dry bag all year long. It is incredible how higher elevation hikes can be cold in the mornings, particularly in late spring, early fall. 

Winter Boots – Not Dress Boots

Consider the following when purchasing winter snow boots for your winter hikes:

  • Your hiking boots must be insulated for variable winter temperatures.
  • Make sure you have wiggle room for your toes. The toe box should be roomy so that you can wiggle toes to keep them warm. A thumb width at the toes is also a good indication that your boot fits well.
  • Your winter hiking boots should not be too tight – you want to be able to wear a winter weight sock in the boot and create an air pocket to keep your feet warm.
  • Upper Part of the Boot – should go to the mid-calf or higher. You should be able to tighten the upper part so that snow can’t get into the boot.
  • Ideally, the upper part of the boot should fit under a pair of snow pants.
  • The lower part of the boot should be waterproof or water-resistant.
  • Removable Boot liners can be tossed in a dryer. When removed, the moisture in the boot will evaporate quicker.
  • If you are using the boot to snowshoe, make sure the bottom part of the boot fits into the snowshoe binding.
sorrel childrens boots for winter hiking
These Sorel childrens boots are warm, waterproof and have removable liners.
Trail tip: a pair of waterproof gaiters worn over winter hiking boots, combined with wool-blend socks, will add extra warmth to the boot and keep your feet warm and dry. My Outdoor Research gaiters are in my pack winter and spring. 

Winter Hiking Socks

  • Socks come in various thicknesses and padding
  • Proper fitting socks will compliment the fit of your hiking boot or shoe.

Suggested Fabric For Socks:

  • A mix of wool (for warmth), polyester (to wick) and LYCRA (helps keep the socks in place),
  • No cotton!

Suggested Fit:

  • Make sure your socks fit well with your hiking shoes or boots.
  • Make sure you can wiggle your toes.
  • Socks should hug your feet, not constrict them.
  • Loose socks will fall and bunch up. Your feet will get cold.
  • Loose-fitting or ribbed socks can lead to hot spots and blisters caused by friction from the socks.

Icebreaker, Smartwool, and Darn Tough are my family’s favourite brands.

Safety Tip: No rings on your fingers or toes
Rings may restrict blood flow, particularly if you tend to get swollen hands and feet when hiking.
Rings are metal, which conducts cold, making fingers and toes colder.
If you have an injury with that particular arm, hand or foot with a ring on it, it will swell, causing further blood restriction to the affected limb. You may need to have the ring cut off to allow proper blood flow.

Layer Up, Get Outside and Have Fun!

When you layer correctly for winter hikes and snowshoes, you will stay warm, and your day will be enjoyable … at any age!

This is my youngest son, 8 years old at Hogarth Lakes and 18 years old at Marble Canyon. He never gets tired of jumping in the snow. You can read my trip report about the Hogarth Lakes snowshoe trail.

Don’t Forget Your National Parks Pass

Remember that when hiking in the Rockies, and Canadian Parks, you require a national Parks Canada Pass. Prepare before you go! Please feel free to reference my blog post on national Parks Passes in Canada, and how and where to get one.

Pick Up A Copy Of Take A Hike With Your Children

My sold out book, Take A Hike With Your Children, is now available on Amazon as an eBook. Pick up your copy today, and begin exploring the Rockies!

Happy Hiking!

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