How to Layer Clothes for Cold Weather Camping


man dressed for cold weather hiking

Deciding what to wear is, famously, a tricky business. Comedians of a certain era could more or less make a living by mocking women for time spent in front of a mirror, umming and awwing about what to wear on a night out.

If your idea of a good time features flashlights and snow blanketed plains rather than disco lights and a dance floor, you’ll know that deciding what to wear is no laughing matter

Piling on the layers may seem obviousif you’re about to go hiking in the snow, but what happens when you start to sweat from exertion? No less a source than polar explorer Eric Larsen points out that “your biggest problem isn’t getting cold. It’s actually getting too warm and sweaty.”

Work up a sweat while wearing the wrong clothing and you’ll end up wet and cold, an invitation to hypothermia.

Fortunately, there is a pretty simple layering system going around that will help you stay dry and comfortable whatever winter throws at you. If, like me, you love the great outdoors and a comfortable core body temperature, this layering system will allow you to experience the best of both worlds!

Read on to discover the secret of comfortable winter camping!

What you will need

There are three main layers you need to stay comfortable in winter: a base layer, a mid layer and an outer layer.

Base layer

thermal base layer

  • The primary function of a base layer is to insulate your body heat and to evaporate (wick) sweat away from the body to prevent dampness
  • You will require merino wool or polyester base layers that cover the full length of your legs, arms and torso. Both materials are quick-drying, wick away sweat and have odor-resistant properties. Merino wool, as a natural material, tends to be more expensive but usually outperforms polyester in equipment tests (particularly in the area of odor prevention) so may be the best bet for a long trip!  

Mid layer

mid layer pulloverThe purpose of the mid layer is to provide insulation. You will require:


  1. Polyester (or equivalent quick-drying, synthetic) pants
  2. A polyester fleece or wool pullover. Polyester dries quicker but, when wet, does not insulate. Wool takes a long time to dry but retains insulatory properties when wet so may be the best choice if you are heading to a damp environment.
  3. A puffy jacket (e.g. one with down feather insulation for superior heat retention) with a hood. The inclusion of a hood can add vital extra protection to your neck and head.

Outer layer

waterproof outer layer

  • The outer layer is sometimes called the shell layer as it provides a hard shell to protect the inner layers from rain
  • You will require:
  • Breathable, waterproof pants
  • A breathable, waterproof jacket

Base Layers

A nice, simple step to start with! Pull on your base layer trousers and top. Both should be thin and tight-fitting, hugging your skin and providing an immediate feeling of warmth as they trap in body heat.  

This layer acts as the foundation for a warm, dry winter camping experience.

Mid Layer

While you may feel like a ninja (or a man wearing tights!) in your sleek, figure-hugging base layer, it’s important for both fashion and function to pull on more substantial clothing.

Conventional polyester hiking trousers should make men feel much more comfortable and complete the bottom half of your mid layer.

When it comes to the top half of your mid layer there are more choices. A fleece or wool top will provide a sturdy layer of insulation atop your base layer. Pulling on a puffy jacket over this is sure to provide a strong sense of cosiness.

Depending on the level of cold you face you may decide to leave either the jacket or the fleece/wool top in your pack. It’s the mid-layer that’s most likely to cause overheating during exertion and one – or both – of the mid layer tops that can be removed to manage the risk of sweating.

Outer Layer   

To complete layering pull on your waterproof trousers and jacket. This “hard” shell will stop the layers beneath becoming wet in damp conditions and it is this combination of wet and coldness, rather than coldness itself, that poses the biggest danger to hikers.

Again, depending on the conditions you face, you may decide to leave one or both of your outer layers in your pack. If you feel yourself overheating in dry conditions there is really no need for an outer layer. Stow them away in your pack, but make sure they can be accessed quickly if conditions deteriorate.

Additional Clothing

Applying the previous three steps will keep the core of your body – abdomen, legs and arms – suitably toasty and dry. Of course, cold attacks the extremities first. It is, therefore, vital that the above layering system is topped off by equally efficient protection for your hands, feet, face and head.

The various choices available for extremity clothing would constitute a guide in themselves, but see below for a basic overview of the options available.

Hands: Gloves can also be layered, with a thin inner glove covered by a thicker outer glove with a hard shell exterior. Some hard shell gloves have a detachable inner “liner” that acts as a standalone glove if conditions are hot and the outer layer isn’t required.

Be sure to pack gloves that cover your wrists so that they overlap the sleeves of your clothing layers to stop cold leaking in between the two.

Feet: Several pairs of thick, woollen socks (which retain insulatory properties even when wet) beneath a pair of sturdy, leather boots will protect your feet from the elements.

Head: A thick woolen hat should provide insulation for your head and ears. Famously, much human body heat escapes through the head so a hat really is essential in cold conditions!

Face: Depending on the conditions you expect to, um, face, you may wish to go a step further and upgrade that hat to a balaclava. Face masks and goggles are also available to protect the eyes and nose (but are prone to fogging up).

We’ve all been caught in freezing showers and felt the chill as wind blasts rain or snow into our face. Face masks and balaclavas may seem extreme, but in trying conditions you may be extremely happy you brought one or the other along.      

This video from Sierra Trading Post gives an overview of the 3 pieces to include in a basic layering system:

Summing it up

I hope you found this tutorial useful. Layering for winter camping is a relatively straightforward process and should allow you to enjoy the beauty of snow and ice without succumbing to either the cold or, perversely, the very real threat of sweat and overheating.

Just remember to apply your base layer, followed by an insulating mid layer and a waterproof outer layer, removing elements of the latter two if conditions permit.   

Please feel free to share. If you’re planning a winter camping trip you’ll want to make sure your friends will be as ready for the conditions as you!

How to layer clothes for cold weather camping