When I first started camping in cold weather, I had no idea just how important it was to properly layer my clothes.
I thought I could simply take what I had out of my closet, throw on a big parka, and call it a day.
Boy was I wrong!
Since then, I’ve spent years perfecting my layering system during my winter camping trips, and it never stops.
I’ve invested in new clothing, sized up so that each layer fit properly over the other, and monitored my body temperature and moisture levels according to weather conditions and activity level.
I’d say I’m pretty good at knowing how to dress for winter and layer properly.
If you’re new to figuring out how to layer for cold weather, or cold weather camping in general, fear not!
I’ll teach you everything you need to know.
What does it mean to layer clothes?
Layering is just what it sounds like: wearing multiple layers of clothing to regulate your body temperature and manage moisture during winter camping.
It allows you to add or remove layers as you warm up or cool down, adapting to fluctuations in weather and activity levels.
Why layering is so important for winter camping
Layering is the number one rule of winter camping, and for good reason.
Temperatures can plummet and get really cold, really quickly—exposing you to various weather conditions like rain, snow, and wind.
Your layering system protects you from these elements, prevents overheating and sweating, which can cause hypothermia, and ensures your body stays warm enough during rest.
Anatomy of a layering system
A layering system typically consists of three to four layers, each serving a specific purpose.
- A base layer
- A middle or insulation layer
- An outer or shell layer
Let’s take a closer look at them!
The base layer is your foundation.
This layer will be in direct contact with your skin, so it’s super important that it’s both comfortable and functional.
Your biggest problem isn’t getting cold necessarily—it’s getting wet, too.
Its main function is to wick moisture away from your skin, keeping you dry and warm.
Materials like merino wool or synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, are ideal for this layer.
Base layer weights
Base layers come in various weights, so it’s important to pick the right one for your specific needs.
Here’s a quick breakdown:
Lightweight: Best for mild to moderately cold conditions or high-activity levels.
It provides minimal insulation but excellent moisture-wicking properties.
Midweight: Ideal for colder conditions or moderate activity levels.
This weight offers a balance between insulation and moisture-wicking capabilities.
Heavyweight: Suitable for extreme cold or low-activity levels.
While these base layers provide excellent insulation, they may not wick moisture as efficiently, which could be a concern during high exertion.
The insulating layer is all about trapping heat.
You want materials with good insulating properties, like fleece, down, or synthetic insulation.
When selecting middle layer clothing, remember that larger and looser garments are better for insulation.
This is because a slightly looser fit allows for better air circulation, which helps to retain heat.
Additionally, a larger size makes it easier to layer up and layer down as needed.
Optional addition: Some campers who camp in extreme winter conditions add a fourth layer, typically an extra insulating layer such as a puffy jacket.
This allows more flexibility in adjusting to fluctuating temperatures and adds warmth when three layers isn’t always enough.
Mid layer types
There are several types of mid-layer clothing designed for specific purposes and weather conditions.
Here are some popular options:
Fleece jackets: Fleece jackets excel at providing insulation and are highly breathable, making them an excellent choice for winter camping.
They come in various thicknesses, from lightweight to heavyweight, allowing you to select the most suitable option for your needs.
Down jackets: These jackets are filled with natural down feathers and provide excellent warmth-to-weight ratios.
They are perfect for cold, dry weather conditions but can lose insulation properties when wet.
Look for down jackets with a water-resistant outer shell or bring a waterproof shell to use in case of wet weather.
Synthetic insulation jackets: Unlike down jackets, synthetic insulation jackets retain their insulating properties even when wet.
They are made from materials like PrimaLoft or Thinsulate, making them more resistant to moisture and ideal for a variety of weather conditions during winter camping.
The main purpose of the outer layer, also known as the shell layer, is to shield you from wind, rain, and snow while maintaining breathability.
You’ll want to choose a shell jacket that is both waterproof and breathable.
Shell jackets come in various materials, but look for ones made from durable fabrics like Gore-Tex, eVent, or other proprietary waterproof/breathable technologies.
Consider the type and intensity of activities you’ll be engaging in during your winter camping trip.
Will you be hiking, skiing, or just lounging around?
Your activity level can help you decide on the weight, fit, and features of your ideal outer shell.
For more intense activities, opt for a lightweight and highly breathable shell, while a heavier and more durable shell is suitable for less active pursuits.
Waterproof and breathability
To make sure your outer shell performs as needed, it’s important to focus on its waterproof and breathability features.
Waterproof rating and breathability rating are often measured in millimetres (mm) and grams (g/m²) respectively.
For instance, a 10,000mm waterproof rating means the fabric can withstand 10,000mm of water pressure before leaking.
Similarly, a 10,000g/m² breathability rating indicates that 10,000 grams of water vapor can pass through a square meter of fabric in a 24-hour period.
- 5,000mm to 10,000mm: Adequate for light to moderate rain
- 10,000mm to 20,000mm: Suitable for heavy rain and wet snow
- 20,000mm and above: Ideal for extreme conditions and heavy snow
- 5,000g to10,000g/m²: Moderate breathability, suitable for less intense activities
- 10,000g to 15,000g/m²: Good breathability, ideal for moderate to high-intensity activities
- 15,000g/m² and above: Excellent breathability, perfect for intense and high-energy activities
Choosing the right materials for layering
Some materials you’ll want to favour while others you’ll want to stay away from.
Wool is an excellent choice for layering because it provides warmth, wicks moisture, and is breathable.
In particular, merino wool stands out for its softness and ability to regulate body temperature effectively.
However, wool can take longer to dry than synthetic materials if it becomes wet.
Silk is another natural fibre to consider for your base layers.
It is lightweight, comfortable, and can wick moisture effectively.
Cotton materials, on the other hand, should be avoided in winter camping.
Cotton holds moisture, takes a long time to dry, and loses its insulating properties when wet.
Polyester, a widely used synthetic fabric, is known for its moisture-wicking properties, durability, and quick-drying capabilities.
Opt for polyester fleece, which is an effective insulating material for the middle layer.
It retains warmth, wicks sweat, and dries quickly.
Other synthetic materials, such as Gore-Tex, offer excellent protection as the outer layer due to their waterproof and breathable qualities.
Winter layering tips
Here are some extra things to keep in mind when you’re layering for winter.
Regulating body temperature in cold weather
You can expect your body temperature to change according to how cold it is outside and your activity level. This forces you to put on layers to warm up or shed a layer to cool down.
Here are a few things to remember:
Don’t overdress before starting a moderate to high-exertion activity.
Expect to be cold when you first get going on a hike or going snowshoeing.
Within a few minutes of moving, you’ll warm up and won’t need as much heavy clothing.
If you can embrace being a little chilly at first, that’s probably best to avoid sweating.
Remove a layer before you break into a sweat—not after.
Getting too warm and sweaty can make you very cold and potentially put you at risk of hypothermia once your body cools down.
Always be checking in with your body moisture levels and shed a layer if you’re feeling those beads of sweat coming on.
Change into dry clothes if you get wet.
If you do happen to sweat or get wet from rain or melting snow, be sure to change as soon as possible to avoid getting cold and becoming hypothermic.
When packing for your winter camping trip, consider the following:
- Pack lightweight and compact layers that won’t take up too much space in your backpack.
- Bring additional base layers to change into if the ones you’re wearing get damp from sweat.
- Use compression bags to keep your clothing organized and save space in your backpack.
- Keep extra layers accessible so they’re easy to get and easy to put away.
- Even if the forecast looks good, pack extra layers and be prepared for all weather conditions.
Fitting of layers
To maximize comfort and proper insulation, make sure your winter layers fit properly:
Base layer: This should fit snugly but not too tight, allowing your skin to breathe and wicking moisture away from your body.
Look for tops with thumbholes to help prevent drafts from creeping in between your sleeve and glove.
Mid layer: This layer should provide insulation and should fit comfortably over your base layer without feeling too tight or constricting your movements.
Top layer: Choose a larger and looser fit to accommodate all your underlying layers and allow for better air circulation, trapping warmth around your body.
Keeping extremities warm
These parts of your body can be some of the toughest to keep warm when the weather is so cold, but there’s a lot you can do to trap as much warmth as possible.
Your head loses a significant amount of body heat, so it’s important to keep it properly insulated.
Go for a winter hat that covers your ears, made from materials like wool or synthetic fibres that provide warmth and moisture-wicking properties.
In windy or extremely cold conditions, you can also use a balaclava or neck gaiter that can be pulled up over your nose, providing extra protection for your face.
For winter camping, you need gloves or mittens that are not only warm but also allow you to maintain some dexterity.
Start with a thin liner glove made of moisture-wicking materials to keep your hands dry.
Then, wear insulated waterproof gloves or mittens over the liner.
Mittens are usually warmer than gloves, but gloves allow for more finger movement.
Keep a spare pair of gloves or mittens in your bag in case the first pair gets wet.
- Gloves: more dexterity
- Mittens: better warmth
Start with moisture-wicking liner socks, preferably made of merino wool or synthetic materials.
If you want, you can add a thicker sock, such as a pair made of wool.
Next, invest in a good pair of insulated, waterproof boots that are slightly larger than your normal size.
This allows space for the thicker socks and helps with air circulation around your feet.
To provide additional warmth and snow protection, you can add gaiters over your boots.
Always bring an extra pair of liner socks, wool socks, and even boot insoles in case your feet get wet.
What about parkas and snow pants?
A winter parka is a heavy, insulated jacket designed to provide warmth and protection in extremely cold weather conditions.
Parkas are typically longer than regular jackets, often extending below the waist to cover the hips and sometimes reaching the mid-thigh or knee.
They essentially serve as both a mid insulating layer and an outer shell layer in one.
The same could be said for snow pants, which are often designed with an insulating later and a waterproof outer layer.
These are definitely winter appropriate…but only if you plan on doing very low levels of activity.
I personally love to bring my big -30°C (-22°F) Canada Goose parka on winter camping trips, but I only wear it when I’m in a resting state or when I’m doing very basic activities around camp.
During moderate or higher levels of activity, I switch to a layering system because it’s easier (and safer) to manage body temperature and moisture levels.
Snow pants are slightly more forgiving because you tend to heat up more in your core rather than your legs when you’re active, but it’s still worth considering going without them if you plan on being quite active.
Ski or snowboard pants, for instance, tend to be an outer shell only made of Gore-Tex, nylon, or polyester—without the extra insulation layer that’s typically built into snow pants.
This gives you the flexibility to adjust your insulating pant layer way more easily.
Common layering mistakes
Mistake #1: Choosing the wrong materials, especially for your base and mid layers.
While cotton might feel comfortable, it’s not suitable for winter camping, as it retains moisture and dries slowly.
Instead, opt for moisture-wicking materials such as merino wool or polyester that keep you dry and warm.
Mistake #2: Wearing too tight or restrictive clothing.
Avoid this by choosing slightly looser-fitting garments.
This allows for better air circulation, trapping warm air around your body while providing enough mobility for winter hiking and other activities.
Mistake #3: Neglecting proper moisture management.
Winter camping requires both staying warm and managing sweat.
As you exert yourself, your body releases moisture, increasing the risk of hypothermia if it’s not wicked away.
Focus on moisture-wicking fabrics for your base layer and breathable layers for the outermost layer.
Mistake #4: Forgetting to adjust your layers according to your activity level and the weather.
You might start your hike feeling cold, but as you warm up, it’s important to remove layers to avoid overheating.
On the other hand, when resting or encountering colder temperatures, adding layers will help you stay warm and protected.
Remember, dressing appropriately for winter camping is all about the right combination of materials, layering, and moisture management.
Avoiding these common mistakes will greatly enhance your comfort and enjoyment in cold weather outdoor adventures.
More about winter camping:
- Easy and delicious meals to make while winter camping
- Can you sleep outside in winter without a tent?
- How to insulate your tent when winter camping
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).