How to Layer Clothes for Hiking | The 3 Layer System

Last Updated on 29/04/2023


How to Layer Clothes for Hiking

In this guide on how to layer clothes for hiking, we share our tricks and tips for maintaining a balanced temperature using clothing layers. You will learn the most common mistakes beginners make when layering for winter hiking and how to avoid getting too sweaty on a hike.

When you’re hitting the trails for a hiking adventure, dressing appropriately is crucial for both comfort and safety. Layering is a tried-and-true method to ensure that you can adjust to varying temperatures and conditions throughout your hike. In this article, we will discuss the importance of layering, the three-layer system, factors to consider when choosing layers, and how to adapt your layers to different hiking scenarios.

Understanding the Three-Layer System

Layering clothes for hiking is essential for comfort, safety, and temperature regulation. By understanding how to layer clothes for hiking, selecting the appropriate layers based on weather conditions, activity level, and personal preferences, and adapting your layers to different hiking scenarios, you’ll be well-prepared for any adventure on the trails.

The three-layer system is probably the best starting point when deciding what to layer for hiking. It follows basic fundamentals of moisture control, insulation, and protection.

The idea is that the base layer (the one worn closest to the skin: things like underwear, t-shirt, or thermal underwear) wicks moisture away from your body and provides comfort. The second layer or layers should then provide all the warmth you need using insulating materials like fleece, wool, or down. The outer layer is usually a waterproof shell jacket designed to protect everything underneath.

1. Base Layer: Moisture Management and Comfort

The base layer is the clothing you wear closest to your skin. Its primary function is to wick moisture away from your body, keeping you dry and comfortable. Base layers can also provide warmth, but this is less important if you wear an insulation layer over the top.

When hiking in shorts and a t-shirt, these will count as your base layer, along with your underwear. It is super important for this layer to feel comfortable against your skin as you are hiking, as it will really irritate you if not.

2. Mid Layer: Insulation and Warmth

The insulating layer is designed to retain heat and keep you warm. Fleece, down, wool, and synthetic insulation are common materials used for this layer. The thickness of the insulating layer depends on the weather conditions and climate, but wearing one thick layer is not a good idea for hiking because you will find yourself either really hot or you will quickly get cold when you take it off.

Multiple layers of insulation are better than a single warm one, which allows you to control your temperature gradually. I personally like wearing a thin fleece followed by zipped hoodies and tops and then either wool, down, or synthetic insulation as the final mid-layer.

3. Outer Layer: Weather Protection

The outer layer, also known as the shell, protects you and your underlayers from rain, snow, wind, and abrasions. This is crucial on a hike, as wet insulation doesn’t work very well and can be dangerous under extreme conditions. Waterproof hardshell jackets, softshell jackets, and windbreakers are popular choices for the outer layer.

Waterproofing is probably the most important feature of the outer layer, but breathability follows closely behind.

How to Layer Clothes for Walking

Adapting to Weather Conditions

Dressing for sudden weather changes allows you to always stay ready in case it rains, blows in a storm, or gets really hot. Knowing how to layer hiking clothes is the fastest way to achieve this. Here are some examples of how you can layer for certain types of weather:

Cold and Wet Conditions

For cold and wet conditions, opt for a moisture-wicking base layer, insulating layers that retain warmth when wet (such as synthetic insulation), and a waterproof/breathable outer layer. If it rains hard, I would choose a Gore-Tex Pro jacket as the outer shell because it has one of the highest waterproof ratings and is very breathable too.

In really cold conditions, you can wear a warmer base layer and multiple mid-layers, but be careful about putting too many layers on your legs that are hard to remove without taking off your boots. Accessories like scarves, hats, and balaclavas can all help keep you warm when it’s extra cold and wet.

Cold and Dry Conditions

In cold and dry conditions, choose a moisture-wicking base layer, a warm insulating layer (down insulation can be a good option), and a wind-resistant or softshell outer layer. WindStopper is the perfect fabric to wear as the shell when it is cold and dry because it is more breathable than a fully waterproof shell and will keep you more comfortable.   

Warm and Wet Conditions

The way to layer clothes for hiking in warm and wet conditions is to wear a lightweight and close-fitting t-shirt and shorts as your base layer, along with moisture-wicking underwear. Skip the second layer and get a breathable outer shell and rain pants if you want to keep the rain off. I like Gore-tex and Pertex because they come in extremely lightweight options.

Underarm pit zips are a great feature to have on a jacket in wet and warm weather because they allow you to breathe and vent. Another option I like in wet/humid conditions is a waterproof poncho which is very breathable.

Warm and Dry Conditions

In warm and dry conditions, the way to start your layering system is with breathable and moisture-wicking underwear. Then you can either wear minimal baggy sportswear to take advantage of the sun. Or, you may want to cover up with UV protective shirts and lightweight hiking pants. Oftentimes in dry and warm weather, you won’t need an insulating layer or even a raincoat, but it is good to have them just in case.

If you are in the desert, for example, it might be warm and dry during the day, but when the sun goes down, it can get very cold. Similarly, in the desert, even on a nice sunny day, a sandstorm is less painful to hike in when you have a windbreaker or outer shell.

Layering Hiking Clothes

Essential Layering Tips

As you hike, it’s important to monitor your body temperature and adjust your layers accordingly. Remove layers before you start to sweat, and add them back when you feel chilly or stop for a break. This will help prevent overheating and ensure you stay comfortable throughout your hike.

Avoiding Overheating

When you get too hot on a hike, your body’s response is to sweat to cool down. This is fine if you’re naked, but when you have layers on, they can hold the sweat and actually put you at risk of getting cold once you have cooled down. If you can avoid sweating as much as possible, it also reduces your dehydration, so it is in your best interest to avoid overheating.

When you are hiking with multiple layers, you can easily strip a layer off before you get too hot and then put it back on if you get too cold. Layers with zips allow for even more precision when trying not to get too hot on a hike.

Staying Warm in Cold Weather

In cold weather, the best way to start your clothing layers is with a warm base layer like thermal pants and a long-sleeve top. Then you can add as many mid-layers as necessary. If it’s only going to be a little bit cold (30 degrees Celsius), then you will be better off layering multiple thin layers than one big one.

But if it is going to be so cold that you won’t be without a jacket, then sometimes combing a couple of thin layers with a thick insulation layer is the best option. This allows you to strip off some thinner layers still as you hike, with the idea that you will always be wearing your warmest layer, even if just over a t-shirt.

Layering Accessories

Accessories like gloves, hats, and scarves can be treated slightly differently and are often better as their own single layer. The exception to this is for gloves which I think are good to layer when it’s really cold. You can use a scarf as part of your insulation layer; however, on a hike, this will probably be the first thing to come off. I find neck buffs much more breathable than a scarf when hiking.

Importance of Layering for Hiking

Importance of Layering for Hiking

Layering clothes for hiking is essential for multiple reasons:

  1. Regulating body temperature: Layering helps you maintain a comfortable body temperature by adding or removing layers as needed.
  2. Moisture management: Wearing the right layers can wick sweat away from your body, keeping you dry and comfortable.
  3. Protection from the elements: Layers shield you from wind, rain, and snow, ensuring you stay safe and dry during your hike.

The alternative is often wearing one extra warm layer that overheats when you are hiking, and if you take it off to cool down, you will need to put it back on again shortly after.

Factors to Consider When Choosing Layers

When selecting the appropriate layers for your hike, consider the following factors:

Weather Conditions

Check the weather forecast before your hike and choose layers that can handle the expected conditions. This includes things like temperature, precipitation, wind, and sun. Make sure your outer layer is suitable for the expected weather, such as a waterproof shell for rainy days or a windbreaker for windy conditions.

Activity Level

Your level of physical activity during the hike will influence the layers you need. Higher-intensity hikes will generate more body heat, so you may require lighter or more breathable layers if scaling up a mountain with a backpack. On the other hand, lower-intensity hikes or frequent breaks may necessitate warmer layers to prevent getting cold.

Personal Preferences

Everyone has unique preferences when it comes to comfort and temperature regulation on a hike. Take note of your personal needs and select layers accordingly. For example, some people might prefer natural fibers like Merino wool, while others might opt for synthetic materials that dry fast. A common theme I have found for myself is that so long as I put my comfort first, I do ok.

what is a thermal base layer

Base Layer Options

For your base layer of underwear and thermals, there are some quality options available:

Synthetic Materials

Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester and polypropylene, are popular choices for base layers. These materials wick moisture away from your skin and dry quickly, making them ideal for high-intensity hikes. They are also typically more affordable than natural fibers.

As much as I love merino and silk for my thermals, synthetic underwear is my favorite for hiking because of how stretchy and breathable it is.

Merino Wool

Merino wool is a natural fiber that effectively wicks moisture, dries quickly, and is naturally odor-resistant. Although it is generally more expensive than synthetic options, many hikers appreciate its softness and comfort against the skin. I can attest to this and would highly recommend these Merino base layers here.


Silk is another natural base layer option that provides excellent moisture-wicking and insulation properties. However, it is less durable than synthetic materials or merino wool and might not be the best choice for strenuous hikes. I have also found that silk fabric looses its elasticity and tightness after not very much time.

zip winter jacket up for tight fit

Insulating Layer Options

When choosing an insulating layer for hiking, you have a lot of options. Pretty much any item of clothing can add some insulation. Wearing an extra T-shirt, for example, is warmer than wearing one on a crisp but sunny day. Here are some of the options:


Fleece is a popular insulating layer due to its lightweight, breathable, and quick-drying properties. It is available in various thicknesses, allowing you to choose the right level of insulation for your hike. My favorite type of fleece is made by a company called Polartec. You may have seen it before. It will keep you so warm and is incredibly lightweight, moisture-wicking, breathable, and tough.

Down Insulation

Down insulation is known for its exceptional warmth-to-weight ratio, making it an excellent choice for cold conditions. In places where the temperature drops below -20 degrees in winter, then down jackets are one of the only feasible ways to stay warm without being weight down by heavier layers when hiking. However, down loses its insulating properties when wet, so it is best for dry environments or when paired with a waterproof outer layer.

Synthetic Insulation

Synthetic insulation, such as PrimaLoft or Thinsulate, offers excellent warmth and retains its insulating properties even when wet. While it is typically heavier and bulkier than down insulation, it is a more reliable option in wet conditions and isn’t that bad. Also, synthetic insulation is much cheaper and more durable than down, so you feel more confident pushing it to its limits.

waterproof outer shell for hiking

Outer Layer Options

For your outer layer, if you need one at all, I would recommend a good hardshell you can use all year round. There are times when a softshell or WindStopper might be more comfortable than a raincoat, but it’s always good to keep one just in case (if you live somewhere with a chance of rain). Here are your options:

Waterproof/Breathable Jackets

Waterproof/breathable jackets, like those made with Gore-Tex or eVent, protect you from rain and snow while allowing moisture from sweat to escape. These jackets are ideal for wet conditions but can be less breathable than other options. In summer, you often won’t need one, but they are always good to have with you just in case and, if for nothing else, to be used to sit on when you take a hiking break.

Softshell Jackets

Softshell jackets provide a balance between breathability, water resistance, and wind resistance. They are an excellent choice for hikes with variable conditions and moderate precipitation. I do find they can get a little warm when hiking. However, they rarely ever feel damp on the inside the way a waterproof shell does.


Windbreakers are lightweight jackets designed to protect you from wind and light precipitation. They are highly breathable, making them ideal for high-intensity activities or warm and windy conditions.

How to Adjust Layers While Hiking

I can only speak to what works for me which is that I start with a waterproof shell that has ventilation zips. When I get too hot, I open up the vents and the front zip. If this is still too hot and it isn’t raining, then I lose the hardshell in my backpack.

Now my outer layer is a full zip fleece hoody made from Polartec. Underneath that is another full zip fleece but without a hood. This double fleece layer is very effective at being warm, breathable, wind, and weather resistant. And because they both have a full-length zip, you can cool off even further by opening that.

For my hiking pants, I swap between all the new models I am testing for Gear Assistant and some of my older pants with thigh zips. Then when I get too hot, I can get some air to my legs. If I realize that I am still too hot, then I might switch to a pair of shorts.

As you hike, monitor your body temperature and adjust your layers accordingly. Remove layers before you start to sweat, and add them back when you feel chilly or stop for a break. This will help prevent overheating and ensure you stay comfortable throughout your hike.

layering techniques for hiking clothes

FAQs About Hiking Layers

Here are some questions I found people asking on forums and in the Facebook group:

Can I Wear Cotton as A Base Layer for Hiking?

Cotton is not the best base layer for hiking because it absorbs moisture and dries slowly, which can lead to discomfort and chafing. Instead, choose moisture-wicking materials like synthetic fabrics, merino wool, or silk. If, however, your base layer is a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, then I think this is absolutely fine.

How Many Layers Should I Wear for Hiking?

The number of layers you need will depend on the weather conditions, your activity level, and your personal preferences. A good starting point is the three-layer system: a base layer, an insulating layer, and an outer layer. Ideally, you want the outermost layers to be easy to adjust and take off and your innermost layers to be thin and moisture-wicking. This is more important than an actual figure amount.

Can I Use a Down Jacket as An Insulating Layer in Wet Conditions?

Down insulation loses its insulating properties when wet, so it’s not the best choice for wet conditions. Yes, you can get hydrophobic down, and I do use a down jacket for insulation in freezing conditions, but my advice would be to opt for synthetic insulation instead, which retains warmth even when wet.

How Do I Pack My Layers for A Hike?

Pack your layers in a backpack, with the items you’ll need to access first (like an outer layer or insulating layer) near the top. Packing your layers in a waterproof stuff sack or dry bag can help keep them dry in wet conditions.

We hope you found this guide on how to layer clothes for hiking useful. Leave your comments below.

Gear Assistant
Gear Assistant

This article has been written and/or edited by Andrew N. 20+ years of hiking, mountaineering, and camping experience, with access to all the latest outdoor gear.

Gear Assistant