Top Mistakes Using the Layering System – How to Stay Warmer and Drier

2020 Top Mistakes Using the Layering System – How to Stay Warmer and Drier

The layering system sounds attractive in theory. But as practiced by most hikers it is seriously flawed. It can be heavy, and expensive. And not used properly it could even make you colder. This article points out the major mistakes hikers make when buying and using a clothing layering system. And of course, it has tips on how to properly select and use a better and lighter layering system!

Lead photo: Southern Sierra in a “shoulder season” spell of winter-like conditions—daytime highs below freezing & nighttime low temps around +12 ºF.

2020 Shoulder Season Update – Keep Warm as the Temps Drop

Now that hard frosts are becoming common, but the trails are still in decent enough shape for hiking… this updated, seasonal version of this post contains:

Highlight – key layering pieces for cold weather hiking & backpacking

$89 to $169 at REI

Think of it as “fur for humans.” This is the warmest, comfiest baselayer and it works in an amazing range of conditions. It breathes well, stretches comfortably, and has a long cut to keep your heat trapped in. The arms are long with thumb holes to keep heat from leaving through the common wrist gap, and the hood fits well, and zips up with a full mouth cover, trapping all your heat inside, and piping warm air from your core to your head. Of course, it comes in Men’s and Women’s versions. While warm enough for winter, it works in one of the broadest ranges of temperatures of any baselayer!

White Sierra Baz Az 1/4 Zip sold out!

The North Face Men’s TKA 100 Glacier Quarter Zip

$13 – $35 at Amazon

A 100 wt fleece shirt is my go to favorite mid-layer—goes on every trip! Sadly it appears that 100 wt fleece shirts like this are a becoming scarce so it’s best to buy one now. The White Sierra Baz Az 1/4 Zip is currently sold out – hopefully it will be stock again. But it was an amazing deal on a fantastic layer!

Still in limited stock: Note that there is also a decent but diminishing inventory of the similar (and excellent) The North Face Men’s TKA 100 Glacier Quarter Zip on Amazon.

This is a lightweight, inexpensive fleece that blocks the wind reasonably well. With an appropriate layering scheme, this can replace the need for a wind jacket for me entirely!  I find that in cool weather (where a layering system is most useful) a fleece shirt is better. For almost the same weight of a windshirt (8oz), a light 100 weight fleece shirt has a greater temperature range for comfort — which means fewer clothing changes. And a thin fleece doesn’t trap moisture in the same way as windshirt.

Note: this only comes in a Men’s/Unisex version but Alison has happily used one for years and loves it.

$110 to 159 at REI

A light and compact rain jacket is key to staying warm and dry in intermittent rain. A small compact one that can fit into the side pocket of your pack or even your pants pocket is key to quickly getting it on and off quickly. That way you can put it on quickly to stay dry and take it off and stow it quickly to keep from sweating out when the rain stops.

At only 6.4 oz and frequently on sale for around $100 — the Outdoor Research Helium II is a great value for an exceptionally light and functional rain jacket (most in this weight range are $200 to $300+). While it weighs far less than most other rain jackets it still has a good feature set — drawcord adjustable hood, elastic adjustable cuffs, a waterproof interior pocket, and a chest pocket that can stow the entire jacket.

Note: Outdoor Research Helium Rain Pants are equally light and a good value. Both have trim fit so anyone looking to layer insulation under them should likely size up.

$299 at REI

Stay warm and don’t sweat out and freeze with this innovative jacket. Admittedly expensive, this is one of the most versatile cold weather garments for active people! The new highly breathable insulation garments like the Patagonia Nano-Air Insulated Hoodie or Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Insulated Jacket are a huge stride forward in staying warm but not sweating out for active pursuits like backpacking uphill, and fast hiking. Their exceptionally breathable fabric has tons of air permeability/ventilation (put your mouth on the fabric and you can easily breathe through it) yet provides just enough wind blocking to keep you warm. This is far better than the old school fleece + shirt combo which is not breathable enough to keep you from sweating out.

$220 at REI

A warm down jacket is critical to staying warm. From the article below:

In cold weather do try to “Minimize stops to essential needs, and don’t make them longer than necessary. You get cold quickly, and it takes a long time to warm up again. If you’re starting to chill it’s time to move.” But “If you really need to stop for a longer time (over 5 minutes), try to do it in a warmer, more protected area and put on warm down jacket as soon as you stop. Take your it just before you start hiking again, or even after you been walking for a few minutes.

REI Co-op Magma 850 Down Hoodie 2.0 is great value in a very warm ultralight jacket. This jacket is a favorite of ours and a great deal at $219 but when it’s on sale it’s a steal, especially compared to competitors jackets than can run $300 or higher. It offers easy movement and just-right warmth for backpacking, hiking and travel. And the Magma 850 Hoodie has all the features you want in a down jacket — the  lightest high fill power water resistant goose down, a hood critical to increasing warmth, a durable Pertex® ripstop shell, well articulated shoulders for free range of motion, and variable baffles that provide warmth where it’s needed and reduced bulk where it’s not. Finally it has pockets that aren’t blocked by a pack hipbelt, a gripe we have with a lot of jackets. [And yes, there are a few lighter jackets out there but you’ll pay a lot more $ to lose a few ounces]

REI Co-op Merino Midweight Half-Zip Base Layer - Best Hiking Gear

$62 to $90 at REI

Many folks like super soft, itch free merino wool for clothing. It feels less clammy than synthetics, still keeps you warm when wet, and it stenches far less than most synthetics — a big plus for long backpacking trips or travel where frequent washing many not be possible. This is our favorite and most versatile wool/poly blend baselayer that combines the best of both fabrics. It has a zip for temperature control and ventilation, thumb loops to keep your hands warm and for sun protection. Its ultra-breathable mesh panels deliver cooling airflow in key areas. Finally, it has just the right amount of warmth for most of the year but we’ve also used it with great success in the deserts of Utah.

Our favorite shirt is the REI Co-op Merino Midweight Half-Zip Shirt. In this chilly weather we use it our “hiking shirt” and baselayer. This saves weight and and the complications taking on and off your baselayer.  The half-zip regulates temperature and the long sleeves and full neck are good for sun protection. Wool is warm when wet, does a good job of wicking moisture away from your skin and is naturally antimicrobial so it dramatically reduces stench. Finally soft merino wool does not itch. We also like the similar Smartwool Merino 250 Base Layer Quarter-Zip. And For those who can’t handle wool look at $45 REI 1/2-Zip Active Shirt.

Top Mistakes Using the Layering System

  1. People bring too many layers as well as the wrong layers. This costs a lot of money and it’s heavy. Try to find a minimal set of light clothing that will work in a broad range of conditions. It can be done!
  2. A good layering system is NOT about frequently changing layers. Quite the opposite, you should strive to minimize adding or removing layers!  A single set of well-selected clothes should work in a broad range of temperatures (e.g. from mid-20s °F to around 50 °F) without adding or removing layers.
  3. Keep Hiking When It’s Cold. Frequent stops to change layers can seriously chill you. And once chilled it can be exceptionally hard to get warm again. (In cold weather, constant but moderate movement is what keeps you warm.) Minimize stops to essential needs, and don’t make them longer than necessary. If you really need to stop for a longer time (over 5 minutes), try to do it in a warmer, more protected area and put on warm clothing (e.g. down jacket) as soon as you stop. Take your warm clothing off just before you start hiking again. Or even after you been walking for a few minutes.
  4. Overheating and sweating out clothes will get you very cold in the long run. Wet clothing is cold clothing and unhappiness. (And in cold weather it takes a very long time to dry, if ever.)
  5. A windshirt is not all that it’s cracked up to be. An inexpensive, midweight fleece jacket or (*Patagonia R1 Hoodie) is far more useful cool weather and saves weight. (Among other things, it helps minimize sweating out your clothes!)
  6. Finally, leave your shorts and short sleeved shirts at home. Long pants and long sleeved shirts are far better and more practical at protecting you from brush, sun, and disease carrying insects than sunscreen and insect repellents. [Note: this year will be a bad one for Lyme. See Best Ways to Protect Yourself from Lyme and Zika While Hiking].

A single set of clothes for the entire day: Here I am in late winter conditions at around 4,000 ft on the Appalachian Trail. It’s windy and about 25 degrees. But I’m warm and comfortable hiking at my own pace wearing just a 6 oz base layer, a 7 oz fleece shirt (mid-layer) , a 2 oz fleece hat, and 2 oz gloves. I can hike in this outfit from the mid-20s °F to around 50 °F – going up and down hill without needing to stop for a clothing change.

Why Use a Layering System?

A layering system is really just a set of good hiking clothes. It is supposed to keep you safe and comfortable in a broad range of temperatures and environmental conditions (wind, rain, sleet and snow). The layering system is most useful for cold weather (in warm weather, a light top and bottom usually suffice). Ideally, this layering system should be simple, light and inexpensive.

In cold weather the challenge for a layering system is to have you:

  • Not freeze when hiking in low temperatures and/or at low physical exertion levels (e.g. walking downhill)
  • But also not overheat and soak your clothing with sweat as temperatures get warmer and/or at high physical exertion levels (e.g. hiking uphill with a pack on)
  • To protect you from wind and precipitation
  • Finally, have a very warm layer ready (usually a down jacket) to keep warm at rest stops and in camp

A Layering System for Hiking and Backpacking

This clothing layering system is designed for 3-season conditions (spring, summer, and fall) and for temperatures from the mid-20s °F and up. It has withstood the test of time and many difficult environments. I’ve used this layering system for the past 5 years hiking in many places and many seasons in the US and on 3 continents. And with surprisingly little variation it has worked exceptionally well from the high mountains, to the desert and jungles of South America. (Note: to be very clear, this system is not for full-on winter hiking. But I have included some clothing adjustments (in blue) for brief periods of winter-like conditions of the shoulder seasons of late fall and early spring.)

The following layering system is slightly tuned towards cooler temperatures of the high mountains, or early spring and late fall at lower elevations (e.g. March on the Appalachian trail). But I’ve also added a few options in a subsequent table for warmer, more humid conditions (e.g. the Appalachian Trial mid-summer, or the tropical jungle).

This post is in four parts

  1. Layering System for Colder Weather, including the”shoulder season”
  2. Shoulder Season Gear Hacks Addendum Table. Non-clothing gear like shelter and sleeping bag to keep warm early season “winter-like” conditions
  3. Layering System for Warm Weather (also Lyme & Zika Protection)
  4. The Essential Techniques to Use these Layering Systems

1) Layering System for Colder Weather
Including the “shoulder season” – Spring or Fall with potential winter-like conditions

layering system

A light layering system while summiting in Scotland’s Highlands. I was ribbed by the Scots as “the Yank in trainers [running shoes] and yellow pants” for wearing virtually nothing given the winter conditions. Nonetheless, I summited just fine in my light running shoes and 4 oz shell pants—wearing the same clothing system without changes to the summit and back down.

Note: much of the following is from my top-ranked 9 Pound, Full Comfort, Lightweight Backpacking Gear List). Take a peek at it for an integrated set of gear that won’t weigh you down and break your back.

shirt and baselayer$45 REI 1/2-Zip Active Shirt 6.5 
Smartwool Merino Quarter-Zip 8.8
8.0Neck zipper key to warmth management
(for cold Wx)
Patagonia R1 Hoodie 12.5Think of it as “fur for humans.” possibly the most versatile cold  to very cold weather base layer. It works over an astonishing range of conditions.
Mid-layer top*TNF TKA 100 1/4 Zip Pullover  or
Amazon 100wt fleece w zipper
7.9Sadly it appears that 100 wt fleece shirts like this are a dying breed. You may still be able to find a few. Otherwise go for a 200 wt one, the Patagonia R1 Hoodie above or a Patagonia R2 garment
Midlayer active layer top (alt)Patagonia Nano-Air 13.0New highly air-permeable (super breathable) shell, synthetic fill jackets are a new alternative to fleece. More expensive and less durable they are lighter and more compressible for equivalent warmth, especially when it’s very cold and/or windy.
Rain JacketOutdoor Research Helium II or
REI Coop Rain Jacket $35-$70!
 6.4Light rain-jacket is just as dry as a heavy one
Use as “windshirt” only when very cold
Rain Jacket
3-layer tech
(for cold Wx)
Outdoor Research Interstellar
Montbell Storm Cruiser
Patagonia M10 Anorak  only 8 oz!
 10.9Given that I will likely be wearing my jacket more frequently (both for rain and as a “windshirt” when cold), I favor a more breathable & durable 3-layer construction for shoulder season (SS). Outdoor Research Interstellar is my current favorite.
Rain Pants
(bring them!)
Outdoor Research Helium (6.0 oz)
Zpacks Vertice Rain Pants (3.6! oz)
 6.0While I might not bring them on all 2+ season trips, I DO bring rain pants in the (SS). Vertice pants are super light and crazy breathable.
Warm jacket REI Magma Hoodie Down Jacket
REI 650 Down Jacket – great value
10.5For occasional rest stops. Moderate/consistent movement is key to keeping warm when it’s cold
For more down jackets and down pants see: Recommended Down Jackets, Pants, and Booties
Pants*REI Sahara Pants 14Ex Officio and many others make similar pants
Down pants
(for cold Wx)
West. Mtn. Flash Pants (6.5)
Montbell Superior Down Pants 8.4
FF Heilos Down Pants (13)
 6.5For colder weather. West. Mtn. pants light & warm!
Montbell’s a great value in down pants.
Helios crazy warm with side zips.
UnderwearExOfficio Give-N-Go M’s or W’s2.0Dry fast, will rinse/wash most days
GlovesDefeet DuraGloves (2.5)2.5Great liner glove. Light, warm, durable! (or similar)
Rain Mitts (bring them!)REI Minimalist Mitts or
MLD eVENT Rain Mitts (1.2)
 1.2Critical for keeping hands warm and dry in cold rain. Also work as great wind shells.
(for cold Wx)
RBH Designs Vapor Mitt 9.0My goto insulated mitts (I have a 4oz UL Version)
Gloves – cold & wet conditionsShowa Japanese fishing gloves 4.5Alternative hand-wear for wet & cold. Waterproof, breathable, with grippy rubber-like shell.
ShoesAltra Lone Peak Trail-Running or
Brooks Cascadia Trail-Runners
 18Altra: Light, huge toe room, super comfortable!
Brooks: tried and tru trail favorite.
SocksSmartWool PhD Light Mini or
Darn Tough 1/4 UL w cushion
1.8Key to keeping feet warm is to keep moving and NOT warmer socks
Camp footwearFeathered Friends Down Booties For those with cold feet. Put on with dry socks as soon as you get into camp!
Warm hatWarm watch cap/beanie (REI)
or OR Option Balaclava (1.8)
1.8Also note that a hooded down jacket is HIGHLY DESIREABLE. And the built in hood on the Patagonia R1 Hoodie is excellent
Cold hands and feetChemical hand warmer and foot warmer packetsCritical re-warming contingency/backup for hands and feet in case you blow it and get them too cold to warm up again on their own.

* Note: You only need one! Extra shirts, pants (and base-layers) are a poor choice to stay warm. And you only need single 6-12 oz fleece/wool mid layer garment.

2) Shoulder Season Gear Hacks Addendum Table

The following is excerpted from Why You Won’t Freeze or Starve Ultralight Backpacking. This gear (in combination with the clothing above) will keep you warm and protected with a minimal increase in weight over 2+ season gear.

  • Your tent doesn’t keep you warm. The hard reality is that the temperature inside your tent, at best, will only be a few degrees warmer than the outside temperature.
  • Your tent just keeps the wind and rain off (very important!)—but so will a tarp or pyramid shelter.
  • What does keep you warm is a puffy down sleeping bag and jacket. Usually used in combo when it’s super cold. That is, down get you the most warmth for its weight.
  • So get a good down jacket and a down sleeping bag or quilt vs. spending extra bucks and weight on a bomber shelter. That is the difference in weight between a 14 oz pyramid shelter and a 3+ pound tent will get you some incredible warmth in down gear and clothing!
  • Don’t believe the dire warnings about getting down wet—it’s hard to do. In over 40 years of backpacking all over the world in all sorts of conditions, I have yet to get my down so wet that it didn’t keep me warm. (New water resistant shell fabrics and water resistant down only improve upon this.)
Tent/ShelterTraditional Lightweight Tent (see list) 
or a pyramid tent
Mountain Laurel Des. Solomid XL
HMG Ultamid 2 Pyramid Shelter
14.0Compared to a traditional tent, a Pyramid tent is light, strong, and able to withstand rain, snow and high winds at a fraction of the weight. Super easy to set up (faster than most tents!).
For more on Tents see: 2019 Best Backpacking Tents | Lightweight & Ultralight
Sleeping Bag
(a warm one!)
REI Co-op Magma 15 Bag (32 oz)
FF Hummingbird UL 20 (25 oz)
A bag rated +20 (or even lower) is best for the shoulder season. Consider using it in conjunction with a warm down jacket to increase its temperature range. Guide to Lightweight Down Jackets and Pants for Backpacking
Sleeping QuiltHammock Gear Burrow Quilt +1018.0I add +2 oz of down (to a +20F quilt) in the top vertical baffles to bring temp rating to around +10F. Great value! ~1/2 cost of sleeping bag.
For more on Sleeping bags and Quilts see: The Art of Sleeping Warm – A Guide to Sleeping Bags and Quilts
Sleeping Pad
(warm one!)
T-Rest NeoAir X-lite “Women’s”
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm
Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest 1/2 pad
12.1“Women’s” R3.9 lighter/warmer than Men’s. Best for for men too!  XTherm, R5.7, is warmer & heavier. For a light, low cost hack cut Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest pad in half & put it over the top of your current pad (shoulder to knees).

3) Layering System for Warm Weather (also Lyme & Zika Protection)

Note: Many of these layers are also perfectly appropriate for cold and temperate weather. As such, they bear serious consideration if you only want to buy one set of clothing for 3 seasons (Spring, Summer and Fall). In contrast to cold weather layering systems, this warm weather version also:

  • Protects you from Solar Radiation
  • Keeps you cool when it is hot
  • Protects you from bug transmitted diseases such as Lyme and Zika

And as stated earlier, long pants and long sleeved shirts are far better and more practical at protecting you from brush, sun, and disease carrying insects. Chemical sunscreens and insect repellent lotions take a lot of time to correctly apply to large areas of skin. And they don’t last nearly as long as the near-lifetime* effectiveness of long pants and long sleeve shirts against bugs and sun.

Note it’s going to be the worst year yet for Lyme Disease. For more detailed information on how to protect yourself see: Best Ways to Protect Yourself from Lyme and Zika While Hiking.

Hat (repellent)Exofficio Bugsaway HatBug repellent for upper head. And sun protection
Shirt hiking*RailRiders Men’s Journeyman Shirt w Insect Shield & Women’s OasisCool fabric, mesh side vents, sun protection, Clothing bug repellent lasts 70 washes (vs. sprays 8-14 hrs)
Shirt (alt)Exofficio Bugs Away Halo Long Sleeve Shirt Men’s and Women’sAlso good, widely available via Amazon and other retailers like REI. 70 wash insect repellent.
Pants hiking*ExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants Men’s and Women’sAvailable in both Men’s and Women’s. Light, cool, sun protection. 70 wash insect repellent.
Pants (alt)RailRiders Men’s Eco-Mesh Pant with Insect ShieldRailRiders pants have huge side vent on legs for cooling. 70 wash insect repellent.
GaitersDirty Girl gaiters (fun colors!) or
REI Co-op Activator Gaiters
Seals pants against tick entry. No ankle gaps. Can be treated with permethrin spray.
Gaiter trap shoe
Altra Lone Peak shoes or
Altra Superior shoes
Velcro “gaiter trap” permanently attached to heel of shoe. (adhesive ones that come with gaiters only work for a while)

* You can treat your own clothing with Permethrin spray (REI) or (Amazon). This lasts for up to 6 weeks or 6 washings. (For comparison: factory treated clothing is good for up to 70 washings, essentially “life-time” use). Both clothing treatments far exceed the 8-14 hours of skin applied repellents like Picaridin and DEET. And they don’t require the time/attention needed to properly apply repellents to large areas of skin each day

4) Essential Techniques to Use these Layering Systems

Keep Hiking When It’s Cold

In colder weather, you can spend far too much time stopping to adjust layers. This is especially true on hilly trails where you are consistently getting sweaty and hot going uphill, and freezing while on ridges and going downhill. Moderate but consistent movement, not stopping for layer changes, is the key to keeping warm when it’s cold.

  • Hiking to keep warm needn’t be at all tiring or strenuous.
  • Even walking 1 to 1.5 miles per hour should keep your internal, metabolic heater going, and keep your hands and feet warm. If you are getting tired you are going too fast!
  • Minimize stops to essential needs, and don’t make them longer than necessary. When you stop, you get cold quickly and it takes a long time to warm up again. If you’re starting to chill it’s time to move.
  • If you really need to stop for a longer time (over 5 minutes), try to do it in a warmer, more protected area and put on warm clothing (e.g. a high quality down jacket) as soon as you stop. Take your warm clothing off just before you start hiking again. Or after you have been walking for a few minutes. (note: I store the jacket as the topmost item in the main bag of my backpack so I can quickly retrieve it and put it back.)

Clothing Adjustments

  • When starting to hike, I put on just enough clothing to keep me warm when moving. (It might take 5-10 minutes at a brisk pace to get fully warm. Then I can back-off to my normal hiking pace.)
  • Overdressing, getting hot and then sweating out is a great way to get wet and then really cold. It’s very easy to get clothing wet, but it takes a long time to dry it out in cold and damp weather. Wet clothing is cold clothing and unhappiness. [Note this is where the better venting fleece jacket outshines a windshirt, allowing sweat to pass through your clothing and evaporate!]
  • Temperature adjustments are made without stopping or changing a top or bottom layer. Too hot? take off hat and gloves (put in pants pockets). To further cool unzip fleece jacket and/or your base layer, and possibly push sleeves up. Too cold? reverse the procedure.
  • I only add warmer clothing when I can no longer stay warm walking at a comfortable pace (and with a good clothing system, this is a rare).
  • If you do need to change layers do it quickly. What most people don’t realize is how much time it takes to stop, take your pack off, put-on or take-off a layer, put your pack back on and start hiking again. It’s plenty long enough seriously to chill!
  • If it’s extremely cold and windy, I will use my rain jacket as a windshell (note: unzipping your rain jacket all the way is a major cooling force when needed).

Keep your Clothing Dry

  • At the risk of pointing out the obvious, put on your rainwear before you get wet. Have your rainwear readily available on the outside of your pack so you can put it on quickly and without opening your main pack bag and exposing your pack contents to rain. (I like to keep it in the large rear pocket.)
  • When wearing your rain jacket pay special attention to not sweating out your clothing.  Adjust and ventilate your clothing and/or slow your hiking pace as necessary. As above, it’s very easy to get clothing wet, but it takes a long time to dry it out in cold and damp weather.
  • And if it’s going to rain for a long time you are going to get wet—it’s inevitable one way or the other. Just try to do your best to keep warm and minimize it. [A discussion on how to deal with long periods of rain (like days), is another whole topic and beyond the scope of this post.]

A Fleece Jacket is Better than a Windshirt?

I find that in cool weather (where a layering system is most useful) a fleece shirt is better. For almost the same weight of a windshirt, a light 100 weight fleece shirt has a greater temperature range for comfort — which means fewer clothing changes. And a thin fleece doesn’t trap moisture in the same way as windshirt. Yes, against common perception, windshirts are not all that “breathable!” Try running on a warm day in a T-shirt and then in a T-shirt with a windshirt over it if you don’t believe this. (Note: many cheap fleece jackets in the $20 range may work fine. I’ve been using one that was a giveaway at triathlon I did. It works great!)

  • A light 100 or 200 weight fleece shirt or jacket is far warmer than a windshirt and more versatile It is an excellent insulating mid-layer, and it does a surprisingly good job of slowing down the wind. (Sadly many major brands are discontinuing their 100 wt fleece shirts. You may need to make due with 200 wt/mid-wight fleece OR buy a thinner “cheap” fleece at stores like Target. Oh, and the Patagonia R1 Hoodie is still a great option albeit a bit pricy.)
  • Note: this is for inexpensive fleece that has a much tighter weave and is far more wind resistant than more open weave, high tech fleece like Patagonia R2. As such, the fleece does an a decent job keeping wind from penetrating your clothing. BUT it is far less clammy and more breathable than a windshirt, allowing sweat to pass through your clothing and evaporate.
  • By the time it’s cold enough and windy enough to warrant a fully windproof shell like a windshirt, my rain jacket does fine. By then it’s cold enough that condensation from the rain jacket is not a huge issue.
  • Finally, it’s lighter. Since you’d bring a fleece layer anyway, you save the weight of a windshirt and simplify your layering system.
  • That being said, a good windshirt is only 3 ounces, so bring one if you want! (I just find that I end up in a taking it on and off scenario to control heat and prevent sweating out. And this ends up with extra stops and lost time.)

Enjoy Your Hike!



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86 replies
  1. Joe
    Joe says:

    A single set of clothing good without adjustment from temps in mid 20s to 50F? This assumes calm wind?

    The idea may be viable for some — given the notable variability of individuals in this matter. But its pretty exotic advise — probably needless and to my thinking, harmful to your credibility. On another matter, I used a windshirt a lot for 20-25 years. It worked really well! I lost it and haven’t used one in 10 years. I don’t really miss it. Like a lot of this stuff, it’s just not important an important matter.

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Joe. I might suggest taking another read thru this piece, as I think you might have overlooked a few key things. 1) This system works over that temp range because you are always moving to keep yourself warm. Rest stops are short, and in sheltered areas. Movement is your friend to keep warm. 2) In addition, there are a number of thing you can do to regulate temperature (up or down) before you have to change layers. These include taking off hats and gloves, opening zippers, rolling up sleeves and otherwise dispersing heat, or the reverse when getting cold. 3) you can also speed up or slow down your pace to regulate temp. Using all of these it is quite possible, arguably not even difficult, to use a single set of clothes over a very broad temperature range. Wishing you a great year of hiking. Warmest, -alan & alison

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Yup, that is always a valid approach. And weighs less than bringing some super warm bag that is not needed 98% of the time. Warmest, -alan

  2. Kevin Guzda
    Kevin Guzda says:

    Great article Alan! I live in Connecticut and backpack and three season hike mostly in the White Mountains of NH. That being said, I want to get my feet wet doing some half day winter hikes locally here on CT when the temps will be in the 20’s to 40’s..I’m gonna research what I need for winter hiking boots, poles, snowshoes, and microspikes etc..

    For clothing layering, I’m still a bit confused to be honest. I have a fleece/wool hat, liner gloves, a 800 fill Montbell Down hooded jacket, and a long sleeve Patagonia Capilene mid-weight 1/4 zip shirt already.

    What do I need to get further? What kind of pants? A Patagonia R-1 Hoodie or Nano Air insulated hoody ? Or just a 100 g fleece shirt?

    I’m planning on just doing 3-8 mile hikes to start, Patagonia is my favorite brand as well but I’m just not sure what to wear from 1st layer next to skin to last layer over everything else.

  3. Bret
    Bret says:

    I like long sleeve base layer light or medium depending on temps + cheap fleece and/or down jacket for most conditions 3 season. Down jacket is my goto, but may bring only fleece for warm summer or both when really cold. I need these mostly when not hiking – evening, sleeping, and morning. R1 looks nice but can’t bring myself to pay $160 for a fleece. :) Somebody needs to make a cheaper 100 fleece with a hood! White Sierra fleece are mostly sold out. Also check out Lands End about 8oz around 100 thick and tall option.

  4. Cheyenne
    Cheyenne says:

    Hi Alan & Alison,

    First, I must say your website is incredibly helpful! I’m a beginner to multi-day hikes and am hoping to do the Cerro Castillo 4 day hike (thanks for your guide! i’m hoping the lack of information online is a sign it’s not highly trafficked) in mid-December. This feels like a very dumb question but I have to ask, for a 4 day hike to you bring a change of clothes or do you just stick it out? Is a change of clothes for everyday necessary? I want to pack light but not unrealistic for my needs. Thanks for your help.


    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Cheyenne. Just out of the backcountry guiding clients for a couple of weeks. So apologies for the late reply. I would imagine that mid-December is slightly before the peak season. There will definitely be people at the Torres themselves either day hiking or overnighting from V. Cerro Castillo. But peak season will be from late Dec (Xmas) to late January.

      For the next section you might want to read Top Mistakes Using the Layering System – How to Stay Warmer and Drier

      The hike, like all trips in Patagonia can be a bit wet (rain and wading rivers). We personally did not take any backup/sleep clothes (we can keep our clothes fairly dry while hiking, and can dry out a bit of dampness in our sleeping bags at night — yes we sleep in our hiking clothes). Nonetheless taking a light pair of sleep/camp clothes would not be out of the questions, especially if you are unsure about keeping your hiking clothes moderately dry to just damp while hiking in the rain. One could get a lightweight pair of long top and bottom base layers for around 8 oz (250g) for the the pair — e.g. patagonia capilene base layer. That being said you will still have to put on your cold and wet hiking clothes in the morning. Definitely doable but not fun! Wishing you a great trek. Warmest, -alan & alison

      • Bret
        Bret says:

        Get Capilene lightweight asap if you still can! Regrettably Patagonia is phasing “lightweight” out for “Air” and prices went from $50 to $130 almost 3x! Crazy! Have lightweight top and regret not getting bottoms before realizing they’re gone! Grabbed 32 Heat for now at Costco $8 4oz work ok for the price. They’re poly/acrylic/rayon instead of all poly – don’t know of that’s bad, but no cotton.

  5. Steve
    Steve says:

    Thanks for the great information in the article as well as the discussions. I bought the R1, non-hooded, years ago in a shop near the Wind Rivers. Wish I’d gone for the hooded, but got convinced otherwise since they said I was one of the few they had seen that had the layering “almost right”. I use the R1 as a mid-layer (my Montbell Thermawrap was not sufficient alone). One thing I’ve found very helpful is to use my GoLite windshirt over my baselayer (I prefer loose fitting nylon shirt like Columbia or ExOfficio). The R1 just glides on vs a lot of time-consuming pulling. With the wide temperature variations in September in the Winds, sometimes just having the base+windshirt works fine. So, for me, it’s worth the extra 3-4oz.

    Your points about down vs synthetic jackets are well made. I upgraded from the Thermawrap to a RAB Strata (which has a hood) a few years ago. Maybe I can afford to upgrade to down sometime. I do carry it + the R1, but it keeps me warm. What steered me to synthetics was an episode where I woke to a WM Versalite soaked at the foot. Contacted the single wall of a 6 Moons Trekker during a night of hail/snow/sleet. No way to dry it out it with the weather getting worse, so I bailed and did 22 miles back to the car. Learned many lessons there!

    What I don’t have solved yet is the bottom system. In camp, it gets cold fast. Usually, it requires adding thermals. Be nice to strap on down pants, but they are expensive and don’t have zippered options. So, thermals for the same weight, albeit less warmth and more time to put on.

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Steve, all good info. Take a look at our Guide to Lightweight Down Jackets and Pants for Backpacking. It might give you some inexpensive options. For instance, the Montbell down pants are quite nice and reasonably priced. Down pants in camp are bliss on a cold night or morning. And paired with a down jacket they keep you out of “sleeping bag jail” in cold weather. That is, otherwise the cold drives you into your sleeping bag as it is the only way to stay warm. In addition, they can significantly boost the warmth of a sleeping bag or quit if you wear them to bed. Hope this helps. Warmest , -alan & alison.

  6. Rebecca Litterell
    Rebecca Litterell says:

    Do you a bring different set of clothes as part of your sleep system or do you sleep in the clothes you hike in?

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Rebecca, good Q. No sleep clothes, just wear the ones you hike in. If they are slightly damp when you get to camp, they will dry out by morning. The only exception to this is packrafting where your paddling clothes are so saturated at the end of the day that a light pair of camp/sleep clothes is a huge mood lifter. But even then top and bottom should weigh no more than 8 oz. Wishing you a great year of trekking. Warmest, -alan & Alison

  7. jared Faulkner
    jared Faulkner says:

    Hi Alan,

    Your articles and reviews are very informative. I am new to Lightweight hiking and wanted to dial in my clothing options.

    We are going to be hiking some trails in Scotland, France, Pyrenees, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Dolomite’s and Corsica from May to October next year. I am not sure if i need a Down jacket as it will be in their shoulder seasons to summer months. I was tossing up between a Patagonia R1 or a Down jacket. I am unsure of the temps as i am from Australia and wanted a bit of guidance to get it right before i buy. Also for sleeping quilts my wife sleeps cold and i was going to get her a 22 degree and myself a 30 degree

    What would you suggest?

    Cheers Mate

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Jared,
      Apologies for the late reply. Just back at a computer after a month of guiding Alaska’s Brooks Range and then some personal trips in Alaska. Now digging out of the backlog of being away from the internet for a considerable amount of time. I think that this layering article has most of the gear that would would want to consider. I would take both the White Sierra Baz Az 1/4 Zip (as your active layer when hiking in cold), and a fairly warm down jacket. You can pick from Guide to Lightweight Down Jackets and Pants for Backpacking. The ideas is that the down jacket (possibly in combo with down pants) does double duty in colder shoulder seasons — it keeps you warm in rest stops and in camp, and it supplements a +20 or +30 degree bag to give you that extra boost of warmth on cold nights. Yes, a +20 and +30- quilt supplemented by a WARM down jacket (and possibly down pants) should be good for shoulder season, provided that the quilt has enough with to drape down and form a good seal below you. With the following caveat: that you should be fairly proficient at using a quilt or know that you can keep warm in one. There is a bit of technique required. If you are unsure of this, the safer bet would be to get a down sleeping bag of the same temperature rating. Hope this helps. Wishing you some great trekking in in Scotland, France, Pyrenees, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Dolomite’s and Corsica. Warmest reagards, -alan & alison

  8. Slim
    Slim says:

    If you are looking for light fleece, Adidas has a nice option: the Tracerocker fleece. Light grid fleece, trim fit, available in hooded full zip and collared 1/4 zip versions, at far lower prices than Patagonia.

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Slim and apologies for the late reply. I’ve been guiding Alaska’s Brooks Range for the last two weeks and will soon head back in to Alaskan mountains for another two weeks. Yes, the Adidas the Tracerocker Fleece is inexpensive. But as far as I can tell from the spec’s it is a light gridded fleece similar to R1. As such it will likely be more wind permeable than non-gridded fleece like the White Sierra or The North Face jackets here. As such, they will be warmer. And the White Sierra is far less expensive. Wishing you a warm year hiking. Best, -alan & alison

  9. Sean Taylor
    Sean Taylor says:

    Hello Alan,
    1st I must say I applied your recommendations for staying warm whilst traversing a portion of the AT and several other hikes in GA. I stayed warm, light and saved much money :) not buying unnecessary gear! Thank you. Wanted your opinion on my Iceland trip coming up. Would you personally wear your hiking sneakers or pull out the gusto hiking boots? Given Iceland’s diverse terrain and propensity to rain often, i was curious. Thanks for all you and your wife do for the hiking community to educate.

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Sean, thanks for the kind words about the site. We were in Iceland a few years back and only wore our trail runners. Feet get wet, that’s part of life in a wet environment like Iceland or Alaska. Wet trail runners might dry out during a dry section of hiking during the day or overnight, but wet boots never will. Just make sure you have dedicated pair of sleeping socks you always keep dry. (And in wet environments I usually have three total pair of socks — all the same for hiking or sleeping). Thinner socks are better than thick socks because they retain less water and dry faster. Wishing you a great trip in Iceland. Warmest, -alan & alison

  10. Ed C.
    Ed C. says:

    Alan, another great article. I was intrigued by your mention of 100wt. fleece. I have several ‘fleece’ jackets and pullovers but have no idea what weight they are.

    concerning the White Sierra fleece. Do you know if they make a full zip version in the same weight. I looked at the items on Amazon and some other vendors and none of them say 100wt or what weight any of the fleece are. And they aren’t in the name (well, except for the old North Face fleece which is hard to find and 2-3x more money).

    The reason being is that while expensive I tend to use outdoor clothing for work. 1/4zip fleece are a pain to remove when I’m trying to retain some level of professionalism. Yes, I could add one of these to my arsenal, but my wife has also been commenting on my wardrobe size (which is still only about 1/2 of hers…but I digress).

    Anyway, if they have a 100wt full zip that might fit the bill for work and play.

    Thanks again.


    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Ed. Good Q. The White Sierra that I have has a deep zipper. It’s 1/2 length or 12″. As such it is super easy to take on and off. I just pulled it on over my head with full sized pair of over the ear headphones, no problem. The TNF shirt is definitely 1/4 zip and much harder to take on and off. And to my mind it looks good and comes in nice colors. Hope this helps. Best, -alan

  11. m haffler
    m haffler says:

    When I give instruction to beginners I make the statement “CLOTHES AND SLEEPING BAGS ARE NOT WARM”. That is what you said in essence. Put a thermometer in a pile of clothes and it will read ambient temp. There are 5 ways a body loses heat and clothes address one or three of them. Evaporation, convection, conduction, radiation and respiration. The only SOURCE OF HEAT IS YOUR BODY releasing energy from food or drink. Protect it rather than lose it and try to get it back. You may not have availability of external heat like fire, chemical packets or another warm body.
    Anyone may include this version of information in whatever format they want. It is not original info but the wording may get the right attention.

  12. Randy Clark
    Randy Clark says:

    Hi Alan
    Really like your article on layering! I got caught in a rain storm at the bottom of our beloved Grand Canyon. Soaked, changed into my lightweight base, vest and rain pants, jacket fleece hat and gloves. Halfway up it started snowing. Walked out warm and happy. I believe in layering. But heading to the Superior Hiking Trail the last of August and into September for a thru hike. Would you suggest a jacket instead of the vest? It is cooler and I am older. (Darn) Thank you

  13. Victor Paulson
    Victor Paulson says:


    Forgive this novice, but why does no one seem to address the lower extremities in the 100s of “layering” articles I’ve read? Is the principle not the same? Base + Insulation + shell? Further, I seem to be unable to find a decent pair of fleece leggings or pants; what are the experts using in cold weather, i.e. < 30 F? Please enlighten me…and thanks!

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Good question Victor. Apologies for the delayed reply but we’ve been out trekking in Patagonia for a few weeks. In general, legs do not need that much insulation so long as you are moving (feet are another issue tho). We were just out on the Southern Ice Shelf in Patagonia and never wore anything more than thin nylon pants and our rain pants even in raging winds and temps below 30F. If you feel that you need something warmer for moving then I would suggest some power stretch tights (6 to 8 oz) under your pants. The problem with this tho is that it is very time consuming and chilling to take them off during the day if you get too warm. So full side zip rain pants might be a better choice to add another more wind resistant layer. This is what we do when it is very cold and windy. Hope this helps. Warmest, -alan & alison

      • Gordon Victor Paulson
        Gordon Victor Paulson says:

        Hey! Thanks for your prompt reply. I will look into the gear you suggest, as well as the method. Please note that I am insanely jealous of your current geographic location! It’s been a weird winter here in NYC so far…8 F this past Tuesday, and currently 62 F and pouring rain! Tell me again how the climate’s not CHANGING!!??!!

      • Jeff
        Jeff says:

        Hi Alan,

        Can you recommend base layers that can be left on for those outdoors who cannot dictate how often they start and stop moving (search and rescue for example), that would auto regulate body temp? I believe the Patagonia Nano Air and similar OR Ascendant hoodies are marketed as such. Are these claims mostly true and can you recommend something similar for the legs?


        • Alan Dixon
          Alan Dixon says:

          Yes, the Patagonia Nano Air and similar OR Ascendant hoodies are excellent and do what the claim to do. We used the Nano Airs on a 350 mile November bikepacking trip with snow and temps into the 20’s. And OR Ascendant hoodies recently on the Southern Ice Shelf in Patagonia a week ago. There we had temps into the 20’s, were traveling across a glacier with winds gusting to well over 80 kph. They do indeed handle a broad range of temps and activity levels, but if it’s very cold and windy you may want to layer your rain shell over them. As to bottoms, I have spent a lot of time waiting around in the cold with 100 or 200 wet fleece pants under my nylon hiking pants. Works fairly well, it’s moderately breathable and it is a lot lighter and less expensive than most insulate cold weather pants, say for hunting. So this would be your first option. Otherwise the Montbell Superior Down Pants are your next warmest and lighter option. They have the disadvantage of being more delicate, more expensive and somewhat less breathable. Hope this helps. Warmest, -alan & alison

          • Jeff
            Jeff says:

            Hi Alan,

            I’ve been waiting for updated colors for the OR Ascendant but the Ascendant isn’t even in the latest catalogs. The new Refuge jackets seem to be similar? Have you tried these and how do they stack up to the Ascendant and Patagonia Nano Air?


          • Alan Dixon
            Alan Dixon says:

            Jeff, OR has discontinued the Ascendant, unfortunately. Too much trouble sourcing the fabric from Polartec. A better analog than the Refuge, would be the Refuge Air, which is more like the Nano Air or the older OR Uberlayer than the Ascendant, because it’s not polartec alpha direct. The Refuge Air is warmer and 50% heavier than the ascendant, so not an exact replacement, unfortunately. I haven’t worn it personally, but it feels and looks nice. Not really an ultralight backpacking piece, but likely a great layer for cold weather active pursuits where you intend to have it on most of the time. Hope this helps, best, -alan

    • John
      John says:

      The muscles in the legs, filled with your warm blood are the main reason you may notice people hiking in cool weather while wearing shorts and are “layering” above the belt. A lot of heat is created and disipated through the legs working.
      But, yes the layering “idea” would be the same for the upper and lower body.

      Being a NOVICE please DO NOT follow this article. It is misleading and fails to truly explain what layerings fundimental purpose is..





      • Alan Dixon
        Alan Dixon says:

        Hi Victor. Yes, blood flowing through the legs is the reason that they need less insulation than top layers. The reason for the differential between legs and upper body is that for hiking legs are doing almost all of the work, thus they have the most blood flow and warmth. But when moving at a tempo pace, your whole body benefits from the warmth of increased blood flow. Thus the encouragement of this post to move at a tempo pace. I think this post is pretty straightforward that moderate/tempo movement is the key to warmth in cold weather. That when you are moving you are moving with just enough layers to keep you warm but not sweat out. And when you are stopped you are stopped with your warm jacket on and hopefully in a sheltered area. I think this is a fairly simple concept that most hikers and backpackers novice or not, can easily understand and execute. The only personal variance will be people determining the correct clothing for the temperature and their personal tempo pace. Again, not too difficult. If you are too cold add a layer or use a warmer garment. If you are starting to sweat and get your base layer/mid layer wet then you need to either lighten up on insulation or cut your pace. Again, I think the post addresses this.

        As such I do not agree with “Being a NOVICE please DO NOT follow this article. It is misleading and fails to truly explain what layerings fundimental purpose is..” I would actually counter that it is the novice that really needs this advice as experienced hikers may well do this intuitively without really understanding that they are doing it. In summary, I do not think this technique is complicated or difficult to execute. As such, it is well suited to novices and experts alike. Warm regards, -alan

      • m haffler
        m haffler says:

        When I give instruction to beginners I make the statement “CLOTHES AND SLEEPING BAGS ARE NOT WARM”. That is what you said in essence. Put a thermometer in a pile of clothes and it will read ambient temp. There are 5 ways a body loses heat and clothes address one or three of them. Evaporation, convection, conduction, radiation and respiration. The only SOURCE OF HEAT IS YOUR BODY releasing energy from food or drink. Protect it rather than lose it and try to get it back. You may not have availability of external heat like fire, chemical packets or another warm body.
        Anyone may include this version of information in whatever format they want. It is not original info but the wording may get the right attention.

  14. Pat
    Pat says:

    Patagonia Airshed is a much better wind shirt because it breathes better than typical wind shirts. Works well with base layer or over a light fleece+base layer combination.

  15. Vic Hoyt
    Vic Hoyt says:


    I really enjoy the site. It’s one of the best of its kind.

    One comment on layering and vests: (I see you do address vests in a few places.) As someone who has Raynaud’s, I find that a vest is one of the best pieces of kit I can add to any layering system. Core temperature is key. Paradoxically, I’m not a “cold” person; I just have this odd syndrome. Vests are great because without arms, they vent heat quickly when unzipped (so they don’t have to be removed), and they don’t add a lot of weight. I do have to keep chemical warmers in my pack no matter what.

    Thanks again for the great site.


    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Vic, thanks for sharing this approach. Yes, vests to a great job of retaining core warmth (and wind protection for your core) but do vent exess moisture keepign you drier. Wishing you a great year of trekking — warmest, -alan & alison

  16. Peter
    Peter says:

    Hi Alan,
    Super happy I found your blog/site with all of these details. I just wanted to clarify, if you’re hiking in cold weather, are you saying the Patagonia R1 Hoodie is your baselayer, direct to skin? Or do you have something synthetic shirt underneath to wick away sweat to the fleece? I’ll keep reading, there is a ton of info here, and thank you for passing along so many hints/tips. Especially as I dive into more photography.

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Peter, nice to hear from you. Yes, when it’s cold I use the Patagonia R1 Hoodie as my shirt/baselayer. So nothing underneath it. That’s the beauty of it. It’s light and not a lot of switching layers goes on. Works for me when I am active from around freezing into the 50’s without need for additional garments. Enjoy the photography articles. Warmest, -alan

  17. Karen
    Karen says:

    Do you have an article in which you make a suggestion for ultralight weight rain pants? Doing the Tour De MontB and wish to keep the pack light

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Karen,
      And apologies for the late reply and short reply. I’ve been out trekking in Patagonia for the last two weeks (and am still in Patagonia with crappy Internet). I would definitely look at the Z-Packs Vertice rain pants. They are what I am using in Patagonia right now. Alison is using the Outdoor Research Helium pants which are a bit easier to get on with their calf zips. Both are light and will do the job altho I prefer the pricier Z-Packs ones. They are lighter and a bit more breathable. But also a thinner fabric. Although I have about two weeks of actual wear (rain days) on them and they are fine. Hope this helps. Best, -alan

  18. Montana Gent
    Montana Gent says:

    Great article. I agree on the windshield, especially the clammy part, but I have to share something that changed my life: the wind vest! I do a lot of backcountry skiing and mountaineering, so wind at elevation becomes an issue. But they are high exertion activities, so a full windshirt is way too much. But the Patagonia Houdini Vest weighs nothing and cuts the wind right where you need it while still letting you dump heat.

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Good find Montana Gent,
      And apologies for the late reply. I’ve been out trekking in Patagonia for the last two weeks. I will need to check the vest out. Warmest, -Alan

  19. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Hi Alan,

    When you’re bringing ALL your winter layering pieces (puffy pants, rain pants, winter weight sleeping bag, etc.) are you still fitting it all in the HMG 2400 Southwest? Which pack do you recommend for the added weight/volume when including your warmest layers?

    Thanks in advance!

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      I am in Patagonia between treks so short reply. I can fit all my winter gear into a Gossamer Gear Gorilla. So a HMG 2400 should be enough room. Google “winter hammock camping” to find my write up on this. Best -a

  20. Dogwood
    Dogwood says:

    In your winds pic it looks like you have a vest on over a shell. Can you elaborate on those brand pieces and why that layering scenario was chosen?

  21. Mark Hurd
    Mark Hurd says:

    I just stumbled on your site the other day and am amazed at the breadth and depth of your blog concerning backpacking and especially the UL end of the spectrum. Anyway, awesome site!

    I just tried out the layering system you suggested and ditched my 2 oz wind jacket for a 7 oz fleece. Now, I am a diehard wind jacket guy, so it was with some trepidation I set out this AM on my usual 10 mile training hike without said wind jacket. It was between 36° and 40° F over the course of my trek with calm winds here in Eugene. Humidity in the 90% range. I was slightly cool when starting, but nothing too bad. 2 miles in I start up a 10% grade. I got ready to sweat like I almost always do, but it never really happened. Usually by the time I get a quarter of the way up this mile long hill I have to stop and strip down. (Cue chill factor), but not this time. I did the whole 10 miles without a pause to take off or add clothing. A first. So I am cautiously optimistic that I have found a new, albeit heavier, layering system. Thanks!

    Happy Trails,

      • Alan Dixon
        Alan Dixon says:

        Oh, and within the realm of reason, efficiency usually trumps weight (at least for a “moderate” increase in weight). And you’d likely have a midlayer or other warm garment like it this on a hike anyway. -a

  22. Zachary Wells
    Zachary Wells says:


    Your website has been a fantastic information resource, and I definitely have run into the same problems you have trying to find lightweight fleece. I think north face is continuing to make their lightweight, but I think they average out the weight across the whole line when they put a stated weight and they sell a XXXL! That’s a lot of fabric!

    Anyway, I was curious if you’d ever tested any of the lightweight Mountain Hardwear gear outside of the Ghost Whisperer jacket? I found one on sale for $170 and picked it up because it was a steal (no hood, but at that price I didn’t care). However, when I was looking at the Ghost Whisperer jacket I came across a few other items that seemed like they would fit nicely into your systems.

    The first being the Mountain Hardwear Supercharger Shell. On sale for 79 bucks and 6.1 oz claimed weight! Heck of a deal. Curious if there’s anything you see glaringly wrong with it. However, there’s nothing unique about it notwithstanding the current price to weight, but it could very well be not that great of a product.

    The second is a more intriguing item. It is the Microchill 2.0 Zip T. Normal price of $55 and a claimed weight of 5.9 oz! If this has the same properties as a normal 100 wt fleece, but is just 2 oz lighter and the same price as TNF lightweight fleece, I think it is something worth looking into. Added benefit is it’s a full half zip for better venting! Curious about your thoughts on this product.

    Warm Regards,


      • JP
        JP says:

        I like the Microchill hoody I picked up, but the weights listed on Mountain Hardwear’s website are completely off. They say 4.8oz for the full zip hoody, it weighs more like 10.7oz. But functionally it’s great – handwarmer pockets, full zip, hood, and it’s light/thin.

        It doesn’t stop wind as well as the TNF TKA 1/4 zip I have, but provides more coverage. Hood is cavernous and does not have drawstrings/adjustment, so Patagonia Hoody may be better bet in Alan’s system.

        Website describes it as “perfect as a base layer, wearing as a light standalone pullover or for added warmth under a shell.” I concur – I love this with my Montbell Tachyon Anorak wind shirt (2.3oz), only pulling out the wind shirt at the very beginning of hiking or when it’s super windy. As noted, a slightly different system than what Alan’s using, and heavier overall. Saves wear and tear on my rain jacket also.

        • Alan Dixon
          Alan Dixon says:

          Yes JP, the hood on the Microchill does look tempting. But for that weight, and if cost is not too much of an issue, I might consider

          • the approx. 10 oz Pat. Men’s Nano-Air Light Hoody or Men’s Nano-Air Light Hybrid Hoody. They might be the perfect blend of warmth, moderate wind resistance, and breathability (you can easily breathe through the shell).
          • Or even the OR Ascendant Hoody at ~11.5 oz.

          All the best, -alan

  23. andrew
    andrew says:

    I’m sorry man, maybe it’s because I’m not a native english speaking user or something, but I find these threads so confusing!

    I do not understand the rules you are suggesting.
    For instance: I will go to the Alps again this summer, it’s like 20°C in the sun, even more, and -5°C° when it’s night and it’s cold.
    Wind is always there, sometimes it rains too!
    I’d like to semplify my gear and equipment, and I believe I can carry a shor sleeve T, a Patagonia R1 and a 100g ultralight windjacket (wind and very small rain – jacket) .
    My worry is regarding maybe a down vest, no hood.
    What do you think about that?

    I mean, the article is great and everything, but it is a bit chaotic

    Peace, Andrew-

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Sorry for the confusion Andrew. I am guessing that the fairly technical/complex topic does not translate easily to other languages.

      You have an excellent Q about environments that range from moderate (room temperature) temps to very cold (below freezing) with some rain thrown in: I would say a short sleeve, or long sleeve T (or a thin base layer), a Pat R1, 3 oz wind shirt, a rain jacket would be a good set of active layers.

      And then add to that a warm down jacket with a hood. Something in the 300g to 400g range with a very light shell fabric. Take a look at my Guide to Lightweight Down Jackets and Pants for Backpacking. In Europe it might be easier to get a jacket like this from Rab or Montane, etc. My preference is when I moving I’m moving. And when I’m stopped, I’m stopped. Or put in other words, the down jacket is only for when I am stopped. And then I want it to be very warm. Just a few more oz down can make an incredible difference in warmth.

      Oh, and if you could find a denser weave (less air-permeable than the R1) 100 wt fleece you might be able to ditch the wind shirt. Not for the weight savings but for the time saved in layer changes. I and a number of my experience friends feel the denser weave 100 wt fleece had a broader comfort range (less layer adjusting) than a the combo of a more air-permeable fleece and a wind shirt. I will note that some other very experienced hikers don’t agree about this.

      Hope this helps and wishing you some great trekking in the Alps. Warmest, -alan

  24. Andy
    Andy says:

    I actually meant a light vest OVER a fleece, not instead of it.

    So baselayer + R1 + vest + rain jacket would be the system. I think the vest in this system represents an extra layer compared to your overall recomendation ?

    Do I have it right? You use baselayer + R1 (or other fleece) + shell and that’s it? Thanks again…

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Andy. My basic 3-season layering system is

      • a wool or synthetic LS baselayer in the range of 6-8 oz
      • a 100 weight fleece like TNF TKA 100 Glacier 1/4 Zip Pullover or White Sierra Alpha Beta Quarter Zip (100 wt) both at Amazon or if you can’t find a 100 wt fleece use a Pat R1 garment.
      • And then a light rain jacket. To be used for rain obviously. But also as a windshirt if it gets cold and windy. This is where the more wind resistant 100 wt fleece shines as means you can wait longer until having to put the rain jacket on.

      Hope this helps. Warmest, -alan

  25. Andy
    Andy says:

    Noticed that you mentioned a vest in on of your replies, and I am curious to hear your thoughts about vests in general and whether you like them as a layering piece. If you’ve talked about this elsewhere, feel free to just direct me to that. I have been thinking about adding a light synthetic vest as an insulating layer over the R1 and a wool baselayer. Is the vest addition worthwhile in your opinion, or an unnecessary item for three season applications? Thanks Alan…

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Andy, absolutely nothing wrong with layering a vest. Alison and I have used Pat R2 vests like this for years. Works great! The caveat about a vest is that since it doesn’t cover your arms you are more likely to need to layer a wind shirt over it. And layering the wind shirt can take more time since you’ll need to take your pack of to do it. So, you’ll likely spend a bit more time adjusting layers vs. the full fleece which in my opinion has broader temp range of comfort than a vest. But if you don’t mind a few extra minutes to deal with the wind shirt, a vest is an excellent layering option. Wishing you a great year trekking. Warmest, -alan

  26. Rob B
    Rob B says:

    Informative article, I’m sure it has shifted many people’s paradigms. I hope try some of the ideas out very soon. One item though for me that’s become integral to my 4 season list is the Squamish wind jacket…the reason is b/c it breathes better than any other and allows me to find that sweet spot to prevent chilling but allow drying. Last spring in March used it, a craft base layer, & a smart wool mid at the summit of Kirkwood ski area in 40mph winds @28deg.

  27. Nathan H.
    Nathan H. says:

    Great info. I am always trying to learn layering techniques. It’s a challenge for me, because my blood doesn’t circulate well. So I often sweat while my extremities are numb. But my passion for winter hiking keeps me going. Any suggestions? I’d like to get pit zips jackets, but they are just too expensive! I am also on a tight budget. That’s another thing I appreciated about your article. Most of these things are not too expensive

  28. Scott
    Scott says:

    Should the layers be more “form fitting” than baggy? I’m between a M and S for the fleece layer, both fit under my rain jacket. The S is fairly form fitting but not too tight while the medium “fits” but is a bit looser. Should I choose one or the other? Or does it not matter that much? Thanks for the help

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Scott, ideally they should fit but not be not snug (with the execution of your base-layer that should be snug but not too tight). For a fleece layer, looser is better than tight, otherwise it’s hard to get over layer under it as it tends to bind and bunch things up, especially in the sleeves. And you might want to put it on over a thin vest so a bit of extra room is welcome. Enjoy your hike. Warmest, -alan

  29. Blake Wolfskill
    Blake Wolfskill says:

    I always hear to try and avoid sweating in the cold, but have yet to understand how. I can be in a t shirt in mid 30’s, as soon as I start going uphill I’m soaked. Always a big sweater

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Blake,
      If you are only sweating out your T-shirt then you are doing it right! On of the first principals while exercising hard is to sweat out the least amount of clothing (only T-shirt is good!). If you do sweat this much and can’t lower your pace to reduce it… then you are likely someone that may need to doff and don layers when going up and down in cold weather. Such is life. Warmest , -alan

  30. Richard
    Richard says:

    Alan, thanks for the time you put into this site. Would you discuss the footwear you use when you expect colder temps with rain or snow? I’m usually in the Sierras in late September to early October and often see some precipitation. Can your feet stay warm walking in all day rain when it’s 35-45? And what do you recommend when you arrive in camp with wet feet and aren’t planning to jump right into the bag/quilt?

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      In the field right now Richard so a brief response. Short answer is that if you keep moving you feet should stay warm (even in snow). If it’s consistently cold enough you can switch to GTX trail runners (which I wouldn’t rec. for warm to moderate temps). In camp when it’s cold you’ll likely want dry socks and light down booties. Best -alan

  31. Donna
    Donna says:

    Thanks Alan I enjoyed this. I share your liking for fleece. It went out of fashion for a while but I always carry a 100wt fleece on backpacking trips, so versatile!

  32. Scott Wilkinson
    Scott Wilkinson says:

    Great article. And it can’t be emphasized enough that with proper layering, you should start cold in cold weather! That is, you shouldn’t dress to be warm when you’re standing still at the beginning of a hike (lots of people make this mistake). You need to learn how to deal with being cold for anywhere from 20-40 minutes of activity before your body kicks into “high heating mode.” It’s never fun, but you get used to it—and it pays off in the long run.

  33. Philip Werner
    Philip Werner says:

    Nice post. The Insect Shield treatment applied to RailRiders pants doesn’t last a lifetime but 70 washes max. Bug killing efficacy also drops to 50% after 35 washes. I send out my old RailRiders each year to Insect Shield to have their treatment refreshed because I wash them about once a week. The same holds for all factory clothing treated with Insect Shield, which is just an industrial process for Permethrin Treatment that lasts significantly longer than if you apply it at home

    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Thanks Phillip. Yes, you are correct it is 70 washings for the factory treatment. And I say so in a note at the bottom of the table. For me that IS a life time :-) But to be clear, I’ve amended each table line to read 70 washings. Best, -alan

    • Randy Cain
      Randy Cain says:

      Is there a benefit to having Insect Shield applied to fabric that bugs can’t bite through regardless? I’ve had 2 or 3 RailRiders shirts treated with the stuff and have seen hordes of mosquitoes land on the shirts and walk around for several minutes in search of a place to try and bite through, and eventually fly off. I’ve never seen one drop dead yet. Maybe some of them eventually die, but the Insect Shield doesn’t deter them from landing on me. The shirts are some kind of nylon/poly blend I think, and since the bugs can no more bite through that than they can my rain jacket, is there an advantage to having it on there?

      I used to wear pants with it and witnessed the same plague-like congregation of skeeters landing all over them. More recently I switched to the somewhat stretchy and more comfy Prana pants with no Insect Shield and find zero practical difference. The bugs still land on me, but they can’t bite through the material. My approach in the High Sierra in bug season is to just keep covered with lightweight, tightly woven nylon or some kind of blend that the bugs can’t bite through so that my sun protection and bug protection are essentially one. Works really well. I just can’t figure out what I’m missing.

      What am I missing here?

      • Alan Dixon
        Alan Dixon says:

        Hi Randy. Apologies for the late reply. Somehow this slipped off of my screen before answering. First, I have had good success with clothes that mosquitoes can’t bite through. Especially places like the sierras where intense mosquito pressure is rare. And even then it’s fairly local and they usually shut down after dark. This is a different story in places like Alaska at Summer Solstice where they will eventually bite through anything you can tolerate to wear in warm weather. There permethrin pants and shirts do matter. And in a place with malaria or yellow fever (not the US) then everything you can do to reduce mosquitos bites is critical. Second, unless you seal all your lower extremities, ticks in spring on the East Coast are much more of a worry. They can crawl in the smallest of openings. Here I would definitely use permethrin pants or at least coat my legs in picaradin–maybe refreshing the treatment midday.

        Finally, the permethrin treated clothing is tested and approved by the EPA. This is a stringent test. In the correct dosage permethrin is a proven mosquito and tick repellent–the best out there. So possibly your clothing has been washed too often and needs to be sent back to the manufacture to be refreshed. Hope this helps, -alan

        • Randy Cain
          Randy Cain says:

          Thanks for the reply Alan. I used to live back east, and ticks were far more of a problem. I’ve literally seen only one tick in 5 seasons of Sierra hiking, but I’m always up high. Haha. The odd thing about my treated Railriders shirts was that I had very few washings at all on them. Perplexing. Thanks again for the reply, and keep up the awesome work on the website. REALLY valuable stuff!

        • Chris
          Chris says:

          One note about permethrin – it is extremely toxic to cats. I never see that mentioned in gear discussions, but if you have cats at home bear that in mind.

          • Alan Dixon
            Alan Dixon says:

            Good point Chris. Cats are more sensitive to permethrin than say dogs. As such, one should never use permethrin treatments for dogs on cats. These dog products may be 45 percent permethrin or higher. That being said, Permethrin treated clothing should pose no danger to cats. And according to Dr. Charlotte Means, director of toxicology at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center the concentration of permethrin in household sprays is much, much lower – typically less than 1 percent. And with concentrations of 5 percent or less, Means says, there are rarely problems. Permethrin clothing sprays are only around 0.5%. Even so, one should be careful not to expose your cats if you end up treating your own clothing with permethrin. Regards, -alan

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