Short Stories

Layering, Winter Clothing, and Winter Backpacking

The following are reprints of two articles I wrote for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club newsletter, the Potomac Appalachian. Visitors who have read the other articles I wrote on equipment may recognize a slightly different style in this write-up. I have not made any attempt to go into the mechanics or engineering of equipment as I did in the other articles. Frankly, there wasn't enough room in our club newsletter. Candidly, you could probably write a small book about winter backpacking and camping (and some have). However, for those who are contemplating a winter hike or backpacking trip, the information in these two articles may be worthwhile despite their "broad brush" approach. I hope you find the information of value.

Dressing Smart for Winter

I remember when I was first getting serious about spending time in the outdoors. I was in high school, and my outdoor interests were expanding into the colder months of the year. What to wear, what to wear? As I poured over a small collection of outdoor catalogs, I made a command decision. I was going to buy the warmest down parka I could find, and I'd use that on the trail. So I sent my $50 hard-earned dollars off to Frostline Kits, and after some cooperative sewing from my mother, was ready to go.

Or so I thought.

My first hike was in Shenandoah National Park the following Autumn. As is true of any route in the mountains, sometimes you go up, and sometimes you go down. I guess it was okay going down, but on those uphill stretches, I was getting a bit warm. Heck, I was actually getting a bit hot - in fact so hot, that I started to sweat. After a few miles, I started thinking it would be nice to take the down parka off, but that wasn't possible since it was the only insulation I was wearing. As the hike progressed, I started to notice the jacket getting less "puffy". Heck, it wasn't getting less puffy, it was getting wet, and the down insulation was starting to go flat. On top of that, despite the fact I was wearing a lot of parka, I was starting to get chilled. By the end of the hike, I was reconsidering my clothing choices.

Layering? Yeah, I had heard that falderall. I wasn't going to be one of those multi-colored monstrosities that looked like they were headed up the north face of Everest. No, I think I was more into the Field and Stream line of thinking - more insulation is better, and throw in a large campfire while you're at it. Hmmm, how times change.

As we head into the colder months of the year, here are some thoughts for you beginners out there. I'll distill the 24 years that transpired since that first hike into this one short article. Maybe it will save you some time and discomfort as you head into the woods this winter.

Layering? Yeah, do it. What is layering? Basically, it's wearing a number of light- or medium-weight articles of clothing when you hike, preferably topped by a breathable windproof or waterproof shell. For those times when you stop long enough for the body to cool, you can pull a heavier layer out of your pack to stay warm. If you get warm while hiking, just peel off a layer - hey, you're still comfortable. What a revelation! In time, you'll discover how much insulation you need to stay warm when hiking, and when resting. That's how to do it. Layers.

If you want to give yourself the largest margin of safety, I recommend that you stick with synthetics. That's what I wear in the backcountry, except for an expedition down parka that I sometimes take on backpacking trips in the dead of winter. Fortunately, in recent years, an extraordinary range of excellent synthetic equipment has appeared on the market. It either wicks perspiration from your body to outer layers, or keeps you reasonably warm when wet. To help you along, I'll go over the layers I wear in the backcountry during the colder months of the year.

My first layer is not always long johns, as you might suspect. There are a number of excellent high-wicking briefs for men and women that work well during the not so cold months. Patagonia makes an excellent polyester Capaline brief that they claim wicks better than wool. Duofold makes a brief from polyester called "Thermax", but I haven't found them to be as comfortable as the Patgonia models. By far, the best performing and most comfortable brief I've found is the "Microclimate" manufactured by Early Winters (1-800-458-4438). "MicroClimate" briefs are made from 92% polyester and 8% Lycra and perform as advertised. They wick well, they are warm, and exceptionally comfortable.

As temperatures get colder, many will want to consider long johns and a matching top. As the temperatures drop into the mid-40's, I generally add the long johns under a layer of shorts. (Those who hike regularly in the colder seasons will recognize this is not entirely unreasonable. Your legs seem to tolerate the cold better than other parts of your body.) Once again, there are an incredible variety of fabrics to choose from. One to stay away from is COTTON. When cotton gets wet, it chills the body and drys slowly. It's not a fabric you want to wear in the colder months where the potential exists to wet the fabric. The cotton, waffle-weave long johns you see in your local K-Mart are therefore out as a candidate. Concentrate on long johns made from polyester, which are sold under a variety of trade names such as Capaline, Thermax, MicroClimate, REI's "M.T.S." fabric, CoolMax, ThermaStat, and others. Frankly, any "fuzzy" polyester long john will probably do the trick. The large variety of trade names represent variations and refinements on the polyester thread extrusion to increase the ability of the fabric to transfer moisture. If you feel better owning a trade name, then go for it. There's plenty around and lots of choices.

The next layer is your main layer in cold weather - probably the layer that will see the most use when you're hiking or backpacking. When the temperature dips into the thirties, I generally add light polyester fleece pants and a fleece top. The fabric most commonly found on the shelves these days is "Polartec" manufactured by Maulden Mills in New England. They make three fabric weights, from light "100", to medium weight "200", to dead of winter "300". Once again, you don't necessarily need to buy the trade name. I picked up my current pair of polyester fleece pants from of all places, a local department store - on sale for $24. No "famous label", but they work great. You might also be able to find inexpensive polyester fleece at some of the large sporting good stores at a price much lower than "name" brands. I've also often worn wool as my main layer - from cheap wool pants acquired from a local surplus store to old wool dress pants, and wool sweaters discounted at K-Mart to a winter-weight Dachstein sweater. (For the many individuals who have asked about Dachstein sweaters, they can be special ordered from Climb High (1-800-451-5127) at a 1998 cost of $195.) Wool has been worn for centuries as a cold weather insulating fabric. It keeps you warm when it's wet, and it drys out reasonably well on your back (but not as quickly as polyester fleece). While wool has a tendency to be heavy and doesn't wick moisture as well as the newer synthetics, it's still an excellent insulating fabric and worthy of consideration as dependable outerwear.

For supplementary layers, consider more polyester fleece. There are some interesting variations available these days. "Shearling", "Berber" and "Plush" pile seem to be growing in popularity, sometimes constructed of polyester or polyester/acrylic fabric that gives the appearance of shearling wool. "Butterfleece" is the exact opposite - a polyester fabric with an extremely fine knap. My personal experience is the looser the weave of the fabric, the faster it will dry in the backcountry or on your back. I would also recommend loose layers opposed to skin-tight layers. I've find the looser fabric creates a warm air space between your body and the fabric, which at least for me, seems to be more comfortable and promotes drying.

For a top layer, consider something that is windproof and waterproof. A windproof layer can noticeably increase your warmth on the trail. And you need to keep out the elements - namely, rain, snow and sleet, so you want your outer layer to be impervious to wet conditions. If you're willing to put up with moist insulation, you can always consider inexpensive waterproof, non-breathable nylon rainwear - or even waterproof, non-breathable vinyl rainwear. It will work, but your insulation will start to get wet from perspiration - something to avoid, since perspiration cools the body.

The best alternative seems to be the more expensive breathable waterproof rainwear. Gore-tex is still considered by many to be the best, but there are other variations available that perform adequately. If conditions on the trail are breezy, or if I want to add some warmth to my clothing complement, I throw on my Gore-tex parka and pants - my "most used" clothing equipment..

For hats and gloves, I also stick with polyester fleece (though wool and the other high-wicking fabrics described in the long john section are also available). And the final touch are the Gore-tex Marmot "Mountain Mitts" I wear on my hands when the weather gets wet. The nice thing about the Mountain Mitts are that they have removable liners, so I can wear just the shell when it's raining or add the liners when it starts to get cold. However, there are a large variety of breathable, waterproof gloves and mittens available from your local ski shop, and these will probably work well too, and they're more likely to be on sale.

Boots? A number of new boot styles specifically designed for winter use are starting to show on the market. Trukke makes one of the newer models, but there are many hunting boot styles available, as well as the Canadian Sorrel boots which are rated to extremely low temperatures.

There are some excellent places to pick up gear. Certainly, your local outdoor shop is worth checking out. Other alternatives are the REI catalog (1-800-426-4840 or and the Campmor catalog (1-800-CAMPMOR or, or Sierra Trading Post where equipment is always discounted 35-70% (1-800-713-4534 or

"Winter Style"

Good clothing is a major factor in improving your hiking enjoyment in the outdoors. However, for a handful of rugged individuals, it's only the first step. Every year, as the trees grow bare and the snowflakes start to fall, a small number of dedicated backpackers head into the backcountry for the peace and solitude of the winter woods. The weeds are gone, the bugs have disappeared, and most important, nearly all the people have left the backcountry. For this select group of outdoors people, winter is prime backpacking season.

Is it possible to enjoying backpacking when the temperatures dip below freezing, or even below zero? Heck, is it even possible to be comfortable? The quick answer is, "Kinda". Winter backpacking is a study in "shifting equalibriums". How you adjust to find those equalibriums is what I call "winter style".

Clothing and equipment provide the foundation for rising to the challenges of the winter woods, but knowing how to conduct yourself and maintain your personal comfort level is your winter style. In this article, I'll share a few of my style points with you. No, I'm not going to make you into a winter backpacker. That takes time - including a number of backcountry trips with someone who is well- versed in the ways of the winter woods. But here are a few things to keep in mind as you contemplate an overnight stay in Mother Nature's deep freeze.

A good complement of winter clothing provides the foundation for any successful sojourn into the winter backcountry. Equipment that keeps you warm when wet is absolutely essential to your personal safety level. As a low impact camper, I don't build campfires in the backcountry. I depend on my equipment to keep me warm and comfortable. As you decide what clothing to take on your trip, keep this in mind: If you're expecting your campfire to keep you warm, then you're probably entering the backcountry unprepared. You should be carrying the necessary equipment on your back to keep you warm, comfortable, and alive.

Far and away, the greatest enemy to your personal comfort level is water. Water can appear in the form of snow, sleet, or rain, or generated by your body as perspiration. While high- wicking fabrics will help move moisture to the outer parts of your clothing, there are a few things you can do to help. One is to follow the practice of layering, and the other is "venting".

All the lessons you learned on layering are put to ample use when you backpack in the winter. I often enjoy watching less experienced backpackers prepare to start their trips. They step out of their vehicles, say, "Gosh, it sure is cold out here", and proceed to layer on the clothing. A mile down the trail, I usually pass them as they're stripping off all those extra layers. The exertion required to carry a pack produces a tremendous amount of body heat. You typically require far fewer layers of clothing when you're backpacking then when you're standing still. If you start to get hot and sweat, it's time to peel off some clothing layers. Keep those extra layers near the top of your pack. When you decide to sit down for a rest, they can be pulled out and put on for extra warmth.

The other thing you can do is "vent". That typically amounts to no more than unzipping your Gore- tex parka, or opening the armpit zippers. It might also mean unzipping that warm turtle neck you're wearing, or pulling the legs of your pile pants over your knees to provide more cooling. In either case, the goal is simple - keep that clothing dry if you can. Wet or moist clothing cools the body.

During the winter months, the fuel you put into your body takes on a dual role. Food gives you the energy to keep those feet moving. But food also provides a second funtion - it helps keep you warm. High calorie foods with high carbohydrates and fat are preferred during the winter months. Your body is called on to provide the energy necessary to keep you moving, but it also has to keep you warm as well. Snacking on the trail is highly recommended. You can keep a small bag of trail mix in your parka pocket pocket as you backpack, and munch on it occasionally as you travel. When you decide to stop for a rest, grab a granola bar or other "munchable". You'll be surprised at the additional energy and warmth it provides.

A sheltered campsite can provide a margin of safety when conditions are cold. Wind strips away a lot of heat from your body. In still air conditions, your backpacking tent will actually retain a small level of heat. It's not much, but it's something. Look for a sheltered campsite out of the wind. It will make a difference.

Once you've located your preferred campsite, try and get out of your moist clothing as soon as you can. I usually set up my tent, lay out my synthetic sleeping bag and pad, then switch out of the wet clothing while I'm unpacking. While your "trail" clothing may not be soaked, it does retain moisture. When you're backpacking, your body heat helps to push that moisture to outer layers of your clothing. But when you stop, there's no "push". Pull out the warm, dry gear and put it on. It will make a noticeable difference in your comfort level.

If the weather is particularly nasty, I usually resort to something a friend of mine labeled "comfort camping". I arrange all my gear in the tent for the evening, position my camp stove just outside the entrance to the tent, then climb into my very warm sleeping bag. (A good sleeping bag rated to a temperature below what you intend to camp in is a winter backpacker's last insurance policy. When all else fails, your sleeping bag should carry you through.) As the stove cooks my meal just outside the tent door, I luxuriate in my warm bag. For those of you who rely on freeze dried dinners for your evening meal, you can carefully place the dinner inside your sleeping bag as it rehydrates. When the mandatory 10-minute waiting period is over, you have a hot meal ready to go. I also typically down a mug of hot spiced cider as I'm waiting for my meal to rehydrate. The winter woods take on a special beauty from the inside of a tight tent and warm sleeping bag. (Some who use their winter tent to travel to far and remote locations where Grizzly Bears are present may recommend against the comfort camping technique with the thought that the tent may retain food odors. I have not found this to be a consideration in black bear country - unless you decide to dump your meal on the tent floor and leave it there for the evening.....)

Inside my sleeping bag, I've usually found that a light pair of dry long johns (and fresh dry socks) makes a difference in comfort levels. As is true with the sheets on your bed at home, the inside material of your sleeping back can get chilled where it's not in contact with your body. I have followed a debate on the Internet's "rec.backcountry" newsgroup about this subject. Some feel that you sleep most comfortably in the nude. Others feel that light clothing is preferable. About all I can recommend is that you experiment for yourself. For those that decide to try the bare-skin method, just keep in mind those midnight visits to the bush outside the tent can be a real hassle.

Say, what about that moisturized trail clothing you were wearing? Why not put some of that moist clothing in your bag with you (but don't put it back on). Your body will act as a human dryer overnight, drying out moist clothing in preparation for the next day's hike. If your clothing is soaked, and you absolutely MUST wear it the next day, wring it out and put it into a plastic shopping bag before you put it inside your bag. It won't be dry in the morning, but it also won't be frozen .

Don't forget about your hiking boots. If it's particularly cold, they may freeze overnight. There are two methods you can use to keep this from happening. If you have a long sleeping bag, you can slip them into a plastic bag and shove them into the bottom of the bag. Or you can consider purchasing a couple of hand warmers from your local hunting supply store. For instance, you can fire up two GI-sized "Johnnie Warmer" handwarmers and drop them into your boots, then lightly cover the top of the boot with a sock. The next morning, your boots will not only be dry, they'll also be warm.

Consider "comfort camping" when you wake in the morning. The morning hours are the single time during the day when your body warmth is at its lowest level. You body metabolism is down from sleep, and your body is in need of food for energy and warmth. This is the one time when your "significant other" won't complain if you decide to lounge around in bed in the morning. Unstring your food bag and get back into your sleeping bag. Fire up the stove, make some warm drinks, and eat breakfast. Once you have some food and hot drinks inside, your body will start to warm noticeably.

I'll close this short piece by mentioning one other thing. Know when to turn back or "punt". If the weather has changed to a point where you don't feel you're adequately prepared, then don't be afraid to call off the trip. If that means covering the last two miles back to the car with your flashlight, then do it. Mother Nature doesn't care whether you're prepared or not, and she can be a fickle gal during the winter months. The stakes can be high, and sometimes your life, or the lives of those in your party may hang in the balance. Play it smart - be conservative in your judgement.

Andy Hiltz