I enjoy hiking in the mountains. I enjoy the challenge, the scenery and wildness, but what I don’t enjoy is the weather. It’s totally unpredictable. One minute it’s dry and warm, the next the clouds roll in, and it’s raining and cold.
The biggest problem I find when I’m out walking in the countryside is not the hiking; it’s keeping warm with the different, ever-changing weather system that role through the countryside. Like many hikers in the UK, I use a layering system, consisting of a base layer, a middle layer and an outer layer. The base is usually a vest or other undergarment that absorbs the sweat. The middle layer is a thick jacket or some other fleece material that can trap heat, and the outer layer is something like a jacket or a coat that shelters you from the wind.
The idea, by dressing in multiple lighter layers, as opposed to a single layer, you’re better able to adapt to the full range of weather conditions as they roll through the mountains. If you’re too cold, you can add another layer of clothing; if you’re too hot, you can open your jacket or remove a layer.
The Three Layer System
We touched on this above, but if I’m ever out hiking, I like to wear to a three-layer system consisting of a base layer, a middle layer and an outer layer. In an ideal world, the three layers of clothing should complement each other, so that each layer works together as part of a flexible overall system designed to maximize efficiency and minimize duplicity.
The idea with the three-layer system is that I’m warm and comfortable, hiking in the countryside whether its rain or sunshine, from -20 to +30. If it’s cold, the three-layer system needs to be able to adapt itself so that you feel comfortable wearing all three layers simultaneously. Below is a quick review of my layering system and what I would recommend you wear.
The Base Layer
When your choosing base layers, you’re looking for fabrics that can draw sweat and moisture away from the body to the middle and outer layers. This not only makes it easier for moisture to evaporate but also keeps this layer dry and light.
Typically, you have two choices of material, Merino wool or synthetic fabric that has been crossed with Polyester. You need to make sure you avoid cotton as a base layer, and this also means avoiding cotton boxers, pants and bras. Cotton has no wicking capabilities and therefore, will absorb and retain your sweat. Not only does this get very cold the minute you stop walking, but it also gets heavy if you sweat a lot over a day.
Underwear is where everything starts, but it’s also the place where people put in the least amount of effort. Like many, I’m not perfect, and often for a day hike, I wear the same boxers that I wear during the day. That said, when I remember and wear a specialist outdoor pair of boxer shorts, the difference is enormous.
You should be looking for out for synthetic fabrics or merino wool (No Cotton, this rule also applies to sports bra’s), and either a boxer-brief or brief design (pure boxers are too baggy). For Men, I’d recommend looking at the Smartwool Merino 150 Boxer Brief and for women look at Smartwool Women’s PhD Seamless Racerback Bra.
Upper Body really depends on the time of year. My go-to thermal layer is a mid-weight, synthetic long-sleeved top, however, if I’m out in early spring or later Autumn when the temperature is often well below freezing, I will drop this down to a heavyweight. On the same token, if we’re out in the summer, I will often drop this down to a lightweight, long or short-sleeved top. The whole idea of your thermal layer, especially on the top, is to whip sweat straight away from your body.
My favorite thermals are probably Icebreaker Men’s 200 Oasis Ls Crewe Base Layer, however this does depend on your cash flow situation. If you can afford expensive thermal layers then great, if not, honestly the difference between the Icebreaker above and the £10 thermals that you get in decathlon is minimal.
Personally I don’t wear a base layer on my legs unless its really cold.
The Middle Layer
The Middle Layer is where your warmth is created. Typically, you have four choices when it comes to materials Merino Wool, Down, Synthetic fill or my personal favourite fleece. We all have our favourites, and what’s my favourite might not be yours, however, what is clear, there is no one-stop-fit insulated garment that’s perfect for all activities and weather conditions across the UK.
I’m not prepared to spend heavily on my mid-layer, and as such, I typically wear the brand Columbia. I like their designs, the fact they offer value for money, and the fact they offer a “big & Tall” which helps out for those that have put on a few kgs over the holidays.
If you’re more of a late-spring to early Autumn hiker like we are, fleece material is excellent for your needs; however, if you’re out in the winter when the temperature is below zero, you might need to get serious with your down or merino wool mid-layers.
- Fleece – I like fleece because it stays warm even when wet, and comes in a variety of different weights and warmth. It’s also cheap, but can be heavier than a synthetic fil for example.
- Merino Wool is an excellent heat insulator, but it’s expensive, really heavy, especially when it’s wet and drys very slowly
- Down is typically filled with duck or goose feather, and is very warm, but it’s also costly, and if you get it wet, you can have real problems getting it dry again. If you insist on down products, make sure you buy RDS products that protect the welfare of ducks and geese.
- Synthetic fill – is very similar to the fleece material above, however, it’s defiantly heavier and often less durable. I’ve got synthetic tops that have barely lasted a season, whereas fleece material can last for years.
My middle layer consists of three different fleece jackets depending on the weather and where I’m walking. I like zip’s rather than jumpers for my mid-layers, as I like to be able to un-zip my mid-layer if I’m getting too hot. My line-up consists of
- Lightweight Gilet – Columbia Men’s Fast Trek Fleece Vest
- Mid-weight – We both wear Columbia’s designs with me wearing a Men’s Titan Pass 2.0 II Fleece Jacket 200 weight while my wife wears, Women’s Chillin™ Fleece – 200 weight. I have also got a Men’s Heather Canyon™ Softshell Jacket which is a light-weight, waterproof fabric designed jacket that’s great for those times when
- Heavy Weight – Men’s Lake 22 Down Jacket which is a water-resistant shell and 650-fill power down insulation while my wife has a Heatzone™ 1000 TurboDown™ II Jacket – 900 Fill Power Water-Resistant Down Insulation, RDS Certified
The outer layer exists to both form a protective layer against the worst of the weather while allowing moist air from your layering system to escape. As a consequence, it needs to be both waterproof and breathable, depending on the conditions you’ll face. When it comes to your outer-layer, you have four fabric options;
- Shell Jacket (Coated Fabric) – are painted with a waterproof substance meaning they are very water-resistant, but totally useless when it comes to breathability. For anything other than a light-weight, summer, rain top, you’ll sweat so much; they’re totally meaningless
- Waterproof-breathable (Gore-Tex) – These are a great option of hiking as they are totally waterproof, while allowing your sweat to escape. They come in 2-layer, 2.5-layer, and 3-layer versions and while they’re expensive, its not worth buying anything less than the 3-layer version.
- Soft-Shell – which covers a massive range of fabrics and styles which focus heavily on breathability and movability. Generally, they’re not 100% waterproof, but will protect you from a light shower, while drying quickly.
- Insulated Jackets – for the winter. These are typically Goose or Duck Down and offer serious insulation that’s fantastic for the winter. I would recommend a 600-900 fill rating for winter walking in the UK.
My out-layer consists of two approaches that depend on the weather and the temperature. When I’m out in the countryside, I will generally be wearing one, and have the other in my rucksack, with the third at home. My three go-to outer layers include;
- 100% waterproof, lightweight rain jackets (Shell) for those times when it just will not stop raining, but you’re out in the summer and its warm.
- Soft-shell jacket, which while not 100% waterproof, is very breathable and will keep you warm and protect you from everything but consistent rain. Something like a Patagonia R1 Hoodie
- Insulated jacket, something around the 800-900-Fill jacket for times when its cold and ranking REI Co-op Stormhenge 850 Down Jacket – Men’s
Additional Clothes for Hiking
- Lower Body – I tend not to wear too much on my lower body in the way of insulation as I get too hot. If it’s cold, I will wear thermals underneath a pair of waterproof walking trousers. That said, if I’m hanging around the campsite in the evening, I wear a pair of down-trousers such as The North Face Summit L3 Down Pants.
- Head – Much like trousers, I hate wearing hats. I find that I get way too hot, that said, if I’m hanging around the campsite in the evening, nothing beats a Merino Wool Nordic Style Fleece Lined Knit Beanie
- Balaclava or Face Mask – I’m not a great fan of either, however
- Buff or Neck Gaiter – really helps when its cold
- Hands – I’ve not mentioned gloves until now and with good reason. I use two types of gloves either a pair Head Multi-Sport Running Gloves that are great around the campsite when you need to keep warm, however for out and about, I like to wear gloves that have both the insulation layer and a waterproof outer layer. I find that no matter how hard you try to stay dry, the minute you start touching hiking poles or hiking boots, the gloves start to get wet and without the waterproof outer-layer, your in trouble. My go-to gloves are Marmot Randonee glove, however, if it’s freezing, I often wear a pair of mittens as I find they’re warmer.
- Feet – Darn Tough Vermont socks
- Sunglasses and Ski Goggles –
Mistakes Everyone Makes With Laying
- The number one mistake everyone makes with their layering system is to bring too many layers. If you do any form of regular walking in the countryside, you’re going to build up your layers, however, you need to find a minimal set of clothing that works in a broad range of conditions.
- The crucial second mistake everyone makes is to change their layers frequently. This is wrong and can have serious consequences, especially when it’s cold. Overheating and sweating out clothes will cause you to be cold in the long run and remember, it’s very difficult to dry clothes when it’s cold.
- Don’t wear jumpers – wear zipped jackets. This allows you to zip your coat up if your cold, or un-zip it if you’re too hot.
- Shorts are useless. They offer no protection from the sun, the wildlife, or even insects that love a fresh set of sweaty legs. Short-sleeved tops are optional – many say they are useless for the same reason, but I rather enjoy walking the summer in my short-sleeved rash-vest.
- The only difference between cold weather layers and rainy layers are that rainy layers should be lighter. It is also a good idea to make sure that your rainproof trousers are at a longer length in the sleeve and legs to prevent any water from seeping through to your fleece clothes. Once wet, fleece clothing can take a long time to dry.
- Don’t think about seams when buying waterproof clothing. Seams are another critical aspect of weather layers. Even if the main surface of your jacket is fully waterproof, rain can still seep through weak seams. Check the waterproof rating on the jackets and trousers. Waterproofs should not have a rating lower than 2,500 mm.
- Many people make the mistake of hiking in warm weather in shorts and a t-shirt. The problem with that is what happens if the temperature drops? You can be left with a bad summer cold or worse. In this respect, experts recommend that you wear lightweight clothing, preferably nylon hiking trousers, and an equally lightweight wind jacket. Make sure are prepared for any drops in temperature by carrying a set of warmer clothes in your bag. Even if the weather is boiling, keep a long pair of trousers and a long sleeve shirt in your bag. There is nothing more uncomfortable than wet skin.
- Specialist Hiking gear is expensive, so make sure you plan and buy in the January Sales.
- Cutting cost’s in the right place – buy cheap thermal, but I would not buy a cheap insulated jacket
- If you’re looking for plus-sized Columbia Sportswear, Marmot and REI (house brand) are best brands
Always carry an insulating layer and a full set of waterproofs in your pack