Growing up in the rural UK countryside I gained an early connection with the outdoors. It wasn’t until about 15 years later that I did my first real hike though. It was a walk up Mt. Snowdon in Wales wearing Nike trainers and a thick cotton coat. Oh, and it was snowing too!
The good news is that my friends and I made it, but I slipped a few times and by the end, icicles had formed around my damp furry hood.
Did I mention that it was my birthday too?
Looking back on that day now, I think how stupid I was. But at the same time, no one told me there was anything specific you’re meant to wear for hiking. Not just for safety, but for comfort too! After all, we all hike to feel good, right? Not to feel cold, tired and wetter than a fish in a wet t-shirt competition
It’s all about being in the moment, experiencing the outdoors and feeling your best.
In this post, I’d like to highlight the importance of how you layer your clothes when you go on a hike not just in California, but anywhere in the world.
LA may have a dry subtropical climate, but California is one of the few places on Earth where all five climate types occur within a small area (ref: coastal.ca.gov).
What this means is that your chosen hiking location is unlikely to have the same weather conditions as in the city of LA – even if it’s not that far away. Not to mention, CA has 18 peaks over 13,000 feet, and I can guarantee you that it gets very cold at the top.
So what I am trying to say here is to be prepared! Look at the weather conditions of where you are actually hiking. Maybe even download a hiking App such as All Trails which will give you on-route weather updates. I’ve lost count of the times when I’ve looked out of the window and thought “It looks quite warm today…I can travel lighter”. Ask yourself “what if!”…and imagine the worst-case scenario.
So I hope that’s given you motivation to actually take note of what I have to say…
How To Layer Your Hiking Clothes
The basic idea of layering your clothes for hiking is the 3-layer principle.
You have your base layer. Then you have a middle layer, and finally an outer layer.
Each of these three layers does a specific job and the properties of the material they are made from is very important.
The following are some things to consider with each layer:
- Tightness/Proximity to the body
- Moisture wicking ability
- Water Absorption
So I’d briefly now like to take you through each layer and its purpose.
And a side note, I’m gonna be talking about the torso layers, but the same principles also apply to the bottom half of your body as well.
Hiking Base Layer
Your hiking base layer is going to be the first thing in contact with your skin. Because of this, it has to feel good and be comfortable to wear.
Contrary to popular belief, your base layer is not really there to insulate you – it’s there to manage moisture!
A good base layer will be tight to the body and have good breathability plus moisture-wicking properties. This is really important!
When you hike, yes there’s the part of keeping from dry the outside when it rains or snows, but just as important, you need to keep dry from the inside too. I.E. SWEAT.
Sweat is your enemy as it pulls heat from your body. Water is more conductive than air, so as soon as you get moisture in your clothing, then you start to lose more body heat.
This is why base layers are either Marino Wool or for a slightly cheaper option, Polyester.
These materials feel good against the skin, but also pull away moisture rather than retaining it. Think of the structure having lots of micro-straws which suck moisture through to the outer surface where it can be transferred to the next layer (or the environment if you’re only wearing 1 layer).
You definitely shouldn’t just be wearing a cotton t-shirt like I used to do. Cotton is the devil when it comes to hiking. Not only does it absorb moisture, but it can hold up to 27 x its weight in water (ref: sciencedirect.com). That makes it a big NO for hiking clothing because if you get it wet, it takes ages to dry as well.
So as a summary, for your base layer, go for tight-fitting Merino Wool or Polyester clothing.
Hiking Middle Layer
The purpose of your middle layer is to hold in the warmth. You will often see people wearing two or more middle layers in colder environments.
Let’s give you an example…Common middle layers would be a puffer jacket or fleece. The former tends to be much warmer as the technology has evolved to make light, warm and quite compact puffer jackets these days. Mine actually folds into its own pocket!
The main properties to look for in your middle layer are, warmth, breathability and weight.
If you’ve ever had a puffer jacket, you’ll know that they have light waterproofing, but aren’t really designed to get too wet. Again, like the base layer, if you get them wet, their ability to do their job well decreases.
Fleece coat material is usually Polyester and Puffer coats are often made from Polyester with a Down or synthetic filling to trap in the warmth.
As a summary, your middle layer goes over your base layer when it gets a bit colder. If one middle layer is not enough, then go with two. Layering a fleece with a puffer jacket is what you’ll commonly see.
Hiking Outer Layer
I mentioned that the middle layer is not designed to really protect you against the rain, so this is where your outer layer comes in.
You’ll often hear the outer layer being referred to as a Shell Jacket and its purpose is to protect you again the elements. It’s in direct contact with the environment around you so important properties are being waterproof and durable.
Unlike the other layers, the outer layer will often be made from Nylon due to its harder-wearing properties and ability to resist water. If you’ve got a backpack, this is also likely to be made of Nylon so it will have a similar feel.
Summary…your outer layer is basically to protect you from the rain or snow. Its primary job is to stop the moisture from getting through to the other layers.
So I hope that gives you an insight into what to wear for hiking and how to layer it.
As it gets colder or warmer you can add or take away layers according to your comfort.
Plus, there are no hard rules with your layers. You could put an outer layer right over the top of a base layer if it was a warm day and started raining – obviously, you wouldn’t need the extra warmth of the middle layer(s) if temperatures are high.
Harry Snell is an outdoor enthusiast who runs the site OutdoorsObsession.com
His main hobbies include travel, cycle touring & hiking.
When he’s not outdoors, he works as a nutritionist.