Ultimate Guide On Layering Clothing System For Hiking

Posted On June 3, 2020

Today, we are busier than ever. The fast-paced life with nine-to-five jobs, packed social calendars and everyday life admin has become a source of stress and anxiety for most if not all of us. A guide to layer clothing will really help you to find the comfortable space in mountain.

Hiking gives people the opportunity to escape their hectic city lives and everyday stress. It encourages them to get away from their computers and get back into nature. It is a way to experience the world directly without any filter and truly experience nature in its full glory.

For some hiking is a way to find peace, a way to reconnect with themselves and nature. While others hike to get that adrenaline rush, to experience some adventure and break the monotony of life.

A men hiking sheo

While most amateur hikers use only sturdy boots and comfortable clothes for hiking, experienced hikers recommend a full-fledged clothing system for a comfortable hiking experience.

The hiking clothing system may seem very complicated and expensive, but it can make all the difference between a memorable experience and endangering discomfort. The right hiking clothes will significantly improve your experience making you comfier and more importantly safer.

The ancient art of layering is a tried-tested and most effective system to keep you safe and make the experience enjoyable. The layering system suggests wearing multiple light layers of clothes as opposed to one single bulky layer.


Layering for winters is much more comfortable than layering for the summers. The nature is unpredictable and this makes outdoor adventures challenging. It is about embracing nature and whatever it throws at you.

As you hike your body temperature and outside temperature changes, hence changing the clothing requirement. The basic idea behind the layering for hiking systems is to help you adapt to these changes and keep you comfortable at all times.

The hiking layers are based on the concept of “versatility”. Each dress in a layer of clothing is another layer of versatility. Think of each layer as a barrier between you and the external elements. If it gets hot you can peel off the layers and if it gets cold you can add layers. Simple. The layers work together to provide you with a wider range of movement, comfort yet safety.

If you get the right clothing or gear, you can enjoy your outdoor adventure in any season. The best about this system is that a small number of items or clothing can help you survive in any weather conditions. You can pretty much use the same clothes in different combinations as per the external conditions.

Woman trecking

Remember, more the layers, higher the versatility, fewer the layer, lesser the versatility. 


When you hike or do any outdoor activity, you sweat. That’s normal. But to stay comfortable you need clothing that wicks the sweat away and keeps you dry. At the same time if you are out in the cold you want insulation to stay warm and well, not freeze. Or say it is windy or rainy, then you also need protection against that.

The amount of wicking, insulation and protection you need depends on a bunch of factors – the season and possible weather changes, the terrain, the strenuousness of the activity and of course your own metabolism.

However, the fundamental system of layering clothes remains the same.


This first layer of clothing, this layer is what sits on your skin. It’s also called the next-to-skin layer, for obvious reasons. The main purpose of this layer of clothing is to wick away the sweat and keep your body dry.

As the base layer is used to manage moisture next to skin, it must draw the sweat away from your body and into the fabric. This is then dispersed into the outer layer of the fabric from where it evaporates into the air while your body remains dry. This movement of sweat or moisture along the fiber surface is called “wicking”.

The base layer clothing must have two properties: one it has to be moisture-wicking and second it has to be comfortable. The type of clothing will also depend on the weather you are dressing for. Base layer clothing for cold weather conditions, you want clothes that keep you warm and hence you must opt for snug garments that trap your body heat. On the other hand, in summers you will want loose-fitting clothes that will allow air circulation.

If you’re hiking during a sunny day you can go for base layer clothes with Ultraviolet Protection to protect you from harmful UV rays of the sun. The base layer must also prevent chafing which can cause discomfort in long hikes.

In addition to this, you also want a fabric that has anti-stink properties or does not retain odour. This is important when you are on a longer expedition.


As mentioned the base layer must be breathable and comfortable and moisture-wicking. While cotton may seem like a great choice, it must be AVOIDED. YES!

Never wear 100% cotton clothes on a hike. Though cotton clothes are breathable and comfortable, they are very absorbent but poor at wicking. The cotton clothes will absorb all the sweat, become damp and stick to your body, making them super uncomfortable.

There are other natural and synthetic fabrics that you can use.

  • Merino Wool – This natural fiber is one of the softest and finest wool in the world. It is not itchy or scratchy or heavy. Rather it’s light, comfortable and soft. The fabric is highly absorbent but doesn’t get clammy or feel damp and heavy when wet. Hence if you accidentally step in a creek or have to cross a stream, merino wool socks will dry quickly and keep you from getting cold. It also has amazing wicking properties. Hence it keeps your body dry and warm.
  • Polyester – Polyester is a synthetic man-made fiber that is widely used in hiking clothes and even sportswear. It is cheap, durable and easy to take care of. It also rolls up to a small size and easy to pack in your backpack.

Polyester Fabric Sample

The fabric is hydrophobic, meaning it will wick away the moisture without absorbing it, resulting in a quick-drying effect. In addition, it is a tightly woven fabric, so it provides protection against the sun’s harmful UV rays as they can’t penetrate through it.

Only downside though is that the fabric is highly flammable so you must maintain distance from campfires

  • Nylon- Another synthetic fiber, widely used for hiking clothes. Polyester has very similar properties to nylon. It is cheap, durable and quick drying. The fabric was made to replace silk and provide people with an inexpensive material. Hence it replicates the properties of silk, which means it’s soft. This makes it more comfortable compared to nylon.
  • Polypropylene – This is another synthetic fiber which you can opt for. It's soft, stretchy and has great wicking properties. The problem though is that it absorbs oil and retains odours which is not preferable.
  • Silk- Silk is a natural fiber as we know that is extremely soft and comfortable. It too has excellent wicking property. But it is too expensive and hence not chosen for hiking.


Also known as an insulation layer, the mid-layers main purpose is to keep your body warm. This layer helps in regulating body temperature and retaining body heat. It does so by trapping the dead air space next to your and extra insulation from the fabric. it keeps the hot air in and lets the cool air out.

However, this layer too must be breathable. It helps in managing moisture form base layer or wicking too. It does so through a combination and balance of absorbing moisture and letting excess moisture escape through its fibers.

You can use multiple items in mid-layer to have more flexibility and versatility. You can go for one lightweight thin layer and another heavier layer with it. This will help you in adapting to the range of changing weather conditions better. If it gets cold you can wear the second layer or remove if you start feeling sweaty and hot. You can choose the items based on the weather and level of activity to get the right level of warmth.



A lady shopping fleece

  • Fleece – Made out of synthetic fibers like polyester, fleece layer keeps you both warm and dry. As it’s made from polyester it has quick-drying properties. At the same time, it traps air between the fibers and provides insulation. It is breathable, lightweight and durable.
  • Down– Down jackets also provide great insulation by trapping air as a mid layer jacket. They have an excellent warmth-to-weight ratio. However, they absorb a lot of moisture making them unsuitable for rainy or damp weather. Also, they are easily damaged if not stored properly.


The outer shell layer is your first line of defense from external elements. This layer protects the other two-layer form rain and wind, at the same time allowing moisture from these two layers to evaporate into the environment.

The layer must be waterproof yet breathable. The contradictory properties are difficult to get together and hence you have a trade-off between protection and comfort.

However, certain fabrics serve both purposes together to some extent.

There are two kinds of outer layer items- one is water-resistant and another water repellent.

Water-resistant clothes are meant for areas with drizzle or light rains. The water slides off these fabrics keeping you dry and warm. However, in heavy rains, they will become damp and clammy leaving you chilled and exposing you to risk.

Waterproof clothes, on the other hand, keep you dry even in heavy rains. They are durable, versatile and weather resistant. However, they are not always very breathable and expensive compared to water-resistant clothes.

This layer of clothing includes soft-shell jackets, hard-shell jackets, jackets filled with duck down and insulated jackets.



a woman wearing polyester jacket

  • Microporous fiber (Gore-tex & eVent)- These are lightweight synthetic fibers that provide water resistance as well as breathability. The fiber is densely woven and has pores that are permeable to single water vapour molecules but impermeable to liquid water molecules.
  • Nylon & Polyester – These synthetic fabrics are used mainly as the base fabric with hydrophilic coatings and membranes. These fabrics are hydrophobic hence providing breathability and durability providing stability to otherwise fragile membranes.
  • Soft-shell- A more recent addition to the layer, soft-shell fabrics or jacket are water-resistant jackets with excellent breathability. This fabric has become popular as more and more people are realizing that waterproof is overestimated and less important when compared to breathability. This fabric is stretchy, flexible, breathable and provides wind resistance. It can also be used as a mid-layer along with a hard shell outer layer.


When you are spoiled with so many options, it is possible that you feel lost while buying the hiking essentials.
What is best, what is not?

What will work for you and what is just shown?

It is difficult to differentiate when every product in the market is advertised as the best one. Yeah, we all know that trick! But, we also know that not every pair of shoes out there is the most comfortable. Some will give you a blister-filled hike while some will feel as light as feathers. And I’m sure you don’t want to be the impulsive shopper and regret later.

Worry not!

While shopping for clothes for your next hike. Whether layering for cold weather or buying warm layers, if you keep these four factors in mind - trust me, you won’t regret a single purchase!


If you are planning a short trek where you don’t have to work a lot or sweat a lot, a low breathability garment will work as well. But, if your hiking includes climbing all day and strenuous work, trust me you need clothes and accessories with higher breathability which will help you avoid quick wet-out caused inside the layers by their own physical exertion.
While buying you also need to make sure to check breathability rating on the garments.

Is that even a thing?

Are they even important?

Well, yes!

Like every other silliest mistake that I made in my initial hiking days, I thought that the rate won’t matter and to my surprise - THEY DO.
Remember, if you do short hiking where you take many breaks and rest well all along the path, look for breathability in 5,000 to the 8,000-gram range but if you have planned a hike where you are probably often going to sweat, then look for breathability in the 10,000 to 15,000-gram range.


It is an important factor for the base layer of the clothing that touches your skin to have the moisture-wicking ability.


Because it’s simple!

When a fabric has the quality of moisture-wicking, it pulls the moisture away from you and dries it quickly on the fabric's outer surface without giving you any chills.

Woman in Gray Knit Cap and Gray Jacket.


Make sure that your layers are capable of insulating and especially the mid-layer that will help you stay warm.
We all have studies that clothing doesn’t have the capability to generate heat but they can hold heat if they have a good insulating power which will hold your body heat inside and keep you warm during your hiking adventure.


It is important for your outer layer to have the superpower of protecting you and your
inner clothes and gears from rain and a chilling sense that blowing wind leaves. The
a water repellent outer layer is must-have clothing despite the forecast. You don’t want to
be all drenched because the weather showed there was no rain and you didn’t bring
that waterproof jacket with you on the hike.


While the layering system provides you with comfort and safety, they are not enough. Your hands, feet and hands are body extremities that also need to be covered and taken care of. In cold conditions you can lose a substantial amount of heat from these extremities, exposing you to the risk of frostbite.

So, here is a list of accessories that you will need to have an overall comfortable and memorable hiking experience.


If you think you can wear your regular socks on a hiking expedition, you’re wrong. Socks must be comfortable and cushiony. The material of socks will depend on the weather in the area. In cold conditions, you will need thick socks that will keep your feet toasty. In summers, on the other hand, you need merino wool or synthetic wool blend socks that are breathable. In extremely cold weather you can wear two-layers of socks. A thin lightweight layer for wicking and thick layer for insulation and warmth.

Your socks should have wicking properties as sweaty wet socks can cause blisters on your feet. You also should look for socks with antimicrobial and anti-odour properties.


Footwear is one of the most important items for a hike. They can make all the difference in your hiking experience. The right pair of shoes will keep you comfortable whereas a wrong pair of shoes can leave you with an extremely sore foot.

Your shoes should have cushioned soles and must support your ankles properly. Hiking shoes must have gripping rubber soles. This will ensure you don’t slip while walking on grass, gravel or roots. They must be waterproof, for wet feet leads to chafing and blisters- a hiker’s worst nightmare.

In cold weather conditions, you should opt for lightweight and waterproof boots while in hot weather you should go for trail running or low-cut shoes that are lightweight and quick drying.

tools to be taken when going out backpacking


These are needed to ensure that snow, debris or stone don’t enter your shoes and cause discomfort. They should be lightweight, breathable and waterproof.


Just like with socks, gloves too can be worn in two layers. Thin linear gloves made from merino wool or synthetic fabric are breathable, weigh almost nothing and work perfectly for not too cold temperatures.

You can add a layer of thick gloves over it for insulation in extreme cold weathers. On the contrary, in hot weather, you can either choose lightweight gloves for protection from the sun or skip the gloves and use sunscreen.


While hiking it is important to cover your head and ears too. In cold weather, you can use merino wool or fleece hat that will provide necessary insulation. Ensure it covers your ears and back of the neck well. In addition, your rain jacket or outer layers hood will provide water-resistance and keep it dry.

In hot weather, a wide-brimmed head is your savior. It will cover your hair, skin and eyes from the sun’s harmful UV rays and ensure you don’t get any sunburns.


A scarf around your neck will protect you in cold weather and against the stinging wind. You can use a bandana in the summertime to protect your neck against sunburns. A neck gaiter is an item made of microfibers that have moisture-wicking properties and can be used in both cold and heat


Comfortable underwear is a must. Irrespective of the weather wear undergarments with moisture-wicking properties and anti-chafing properties.



You have now understood the basic concept of layering. However, you must have doubts about what layers to select and carry. Here is a simple guide to help you pick the right layers based on various seasons.


Summers is the hottest season to hike in and thus require minimum layers. The summer hiking clothes should be lightweight, sweat-wicking and provide sun protection.

You will need – a cotton free wicking t-shirt and hiking shorts or pants. You must carry a lightweight hoodie, in case it gets a little cold or for sun protection. In addition, a cap and neck gaiter or bandana will also be needed.


Springtime clothing for hiking is very similar to summer clothing except for a little extra layer for the temperatures to drop in the evenings.

You will need- a cotton free wicking t-shirt and hiking shorts or pants. Also, you will need a mid & outer layer item. You can carry a lightweight hoodie or soft-shell jacket to ensure moisture management but also maintain body temperatures. You must also carry a rain jacket, to protect yourself against unexpected rains.


Autumn season is a little tricky to dress for. The noons are hot while it starts getting cold in the second half of the day and can get extremely cold at night.

You will need- a cotton free wicking t-shirt (sleeveless or long sleeves based on personal preference), a lightweight mid-layer pants and t-shirt to keep you warm and cosy and a rain shell to protect yourself against heavy-duty rains or stormy weather and winds. For the bottom, full hiking pants or leggings are the best options.

A man enjoying winter hiking


The winter layering guide that could help you to dress in layers for the winters. Winter season is the most difficult to dress for. All 3 layers of clothing are needed but at the same time, they should be comfortable and offer a full range of motion. You will need a mid-weight to heavy base layer such a long sleeves wicking t-shirt. For the mid-layer, you can use a single heavy-weight insulated jacket or use a lightweight mid-layer with an insulated mid-layer. For the outer layer, you will need a down-insulated jacket (for extreme temperatures only) and a shell to protect against rain and strong winds. For bottoms you will need heavy base leggings to keep you warm, hiking pants and shell pants.



  • Remember a good layering system is NOT about constantly removing and adding layers, rather it is about reducing changes in layers. If you select your layers and clothes well a single set should help you survive in a wide range of weather conditions.
  • Another issue people often face with layering systems is OVERDRESSING. It is a mistake that must be avoided especially in cold temperatures. Overdressing causes you to sweat more which can get you cold and uncomfortable.
  • You must also ensure that all layers of clothing fit you well and accommodate each other. At the same time, they should leave room for comfort and provide you with a full range of motion.
  • The most important thing in the layering system is to invest in good quality clothes. Yes, they are expensive and may not always seem feasible, but trust me they make a great difference in your clothing systems effectiveness. Good quality gears are not about brands but the technical features of the items- the fabric, design, durability and overall effectiveness.


A complete and proper layering system can improve your hiking experience drastically.

Remember a few points -

The base layer remains constant in all weathers. 

The mid-layer keeps changing based on varied weather conditions while the outer layer is mostly only needed during winters or heavy rains. The right clothing for hiking can make all the difference. You can either have an uncomfortable and risking hike or a thrilling and rewarding hike.

So invest in good quality gear and focus on the adventure, relish the nature and enjoy the view you worked so hard for.

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