How to Layer for Hiking and Backpacking

Last Updated: December 2020

Any time you see or make a packing list for a backpacking trip, clothing is usually the last thing on your mind. 

Still, it is the one thing that could make or break your experience. 

Being in a hot, desert climate or a wet, cold climate all come with their challenges when choosing how to dress.

The one system that always works, no matter the environment: layering. 

Knowing how to layer for hiking and backpacking is one of the basic and essential skills for any outdoors person to learn.

Layering clothing correctly is a foundation for both personal comforts, but also safety in the backcountry. 

Every individual will be slightly different, so it is important to develop a layering system and clothing that works best for your needs.

However, there are some basics that everyone should know to get started. 

What is the Layering System?

Layering is an effective system for outdoor recreation because it affords the hiker the ability to shed or add layers quickly. Each layer serves a specific purpose and should be chosen based on the type of material. 

Most hikers should be aware of the three standard layers: the base layer, insulating layer, and an outer layer. 

It can become more complex than this, and you may have more than one insulating or outer layer. 

In the most basic sense, the base layer should wick moisture from your skin. The insulating or mid-layers should help retain body heat.

The outer layer’s main purpose is to protect and shield you and your other clothing layers from the elements. 

1. Base Layers

One thing that most outdoors-goers can agree on is that when you’re hiking or backpacking, you’ll likely get a little bit sweaty.

In some climates, like the desert, this moisture will dry much faster, but in other climates, wet, sweaty clothing could become a serious danger. 

The base layer intends to pull or wick moisture away from your skin. This means that it also shouldn’t be holding onto the moisture either.

Thin, lightweight, and fast-drying materials are ideal for a base layer on top and bottom. 

The time of year and overall weather conditions will also influence the type of base layer you choose. If it is a hot summer, and you know you’ll be in the sun, some hikers choose to wear a long sleeve sun shirt to keep them cool and protect them from the sun. 

You may choose warmer materials in winter conditions and add a base layer under your pants, like thermal underwear. While this will provide some warmth, keep in mind that the base layer’s primary purpose is to draw moisture away from the body.

In cold weather, this is especially important to reduce the risk of hypothermia. 

Keep in mind that your underwear is technically part of your base layer as well.

Choose to wear a bra and underwear that does not absorb moisture, which is comfortable for physical activity. 

2. Insulating Layers

The insulating layer(s) is where you will be getting the most warmth in your layering system.

The type of material you choose and the thickness of this layer will depend on personal preference and weather conditions.

The only kind of material that should be avoided for the insulating layer is cotton. It will absorb moisture and takes a long time to dry. 

If you’re hiking in warmer months, it can be tempting to skip an insulating layer. However, we do not recommend this because no matter where you are hiking, weather conditions can change instantly.

Something as simple as a few more clouds and a change in the winds could make the temperature drop.

So, even if you aren’t sure you’ll need it, always carry an insulating layer of some kind in your daypack. 

In most circumstances, an insulating layer will only really be used on the top of your body. If you are trekking in cold weather conditions, you may choose to wear an insulating layer over your pants, though. 

For your upper body, your insulating layer could be a puffy jacket, a fleece, or even just a light pull-over athletic sweater. 

Just keep in mind that you want your insulating layer to hold your body heat in, stop cold air, and still allow enough movement to effectively allow the base layer to wick moisture away from your skin. 

3. Outer Layers

The outer layer of your layering system will protect your body and your other clothing layers from the elements. This is usually some type of hardshell jacket, raincoat, or windbreaker. 

Since the intention is to protect you from wind, rain, snow, etc. your outer layer should, at the very least, be a water-resistant material.

We always recommend that you hike with a waterproof outer layer, even if there is no rain in the forecast. However, if you only own a water-resistant jacket, it is better than nothing. 

Although having a waterproof outer layer is advantageous in most situations, it should still be breathable. This could be as simple as having vents in the armpits.

Either way, ventilation is just as important. If the jacket is not breathable, you compromise the effectiveness of the two other layers. 

If rain or snow is suspected, then having an outer layer for your lower body is ideal.

This usually comes in the form of rain or snow pants. Some backpackers will also go for a long poncho over rain pants and jacket combo for breathability. They are lightweight and highly packable. 

For more expert advice, check out our articles on How to Prepare for Your First Backpacking Trip and 10 Essentials for your Backcountry Adventure.

Wrapping Up

The standard three-layer system can be adapted and applied differently for every outdoor situation and each individual.

It is meant to provide a solid framework for successful and safe outdoor adventures. 

Beyond personal preferences, layering comes down to how much money you can spend on outdoor clothing, your level of exertion while hiking, and the climate you’re traveling through.

It may also take some trial and error to determine how the three-layer system works best for you. 

In the end, layering keeps you safe and comfortable. It is easy to add or shed a layer when weather conditions change or if you start to warm up after hiking for a while. 

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