LAYERING TIPS FOR COLD WEATHER HIKING
Layering your clothing in a way that will allow you to regulate your body temperature in multiple conditions could be the difference between life and death in the White Mountains. When deciding what to wear on a hike in cold weather months, it is important to consider that you may encounter low temperatures, wind, and water. Making sure that you have a layering “system” that will allow you to stay warm and dry in a variety of situations is vital.
First, let’s talk about cotton. It’s great for lounging around the house or wearing casually because it allows your body to breathe while wearing it. However, a downside to cotton is that it holds liquid (including sweat) and takes much longer to dry than other fabrics. If someone sweats in a cotton shirt on the climb up, that wetness will still be against their skin on the summit. This will decrease their body temperature rapidly and may cause them to become hypothermic - even with other layers on top. Hypothermia is a serious problem in the summer, but in the winter it can be disastrous; this is where the saying “cotton kills” comes from, and it is very true. Avoid cotton in all clothing when hiking: tops, pants and even underwear. Instead, stick to wicking, hydrophobic materials like wool or other synthetics (especially with underwear and base layers). One caution: synthetic fabrics can be dangerous if they are exposed to fire and ignite. So, when you are wearing synthetics be very careful around fire.
While heavy ski-style jackets are warm and waterproof, they don’t allow you to remove or add layers as intricately as you need to regulate a constantly changing body temperature. The key to hiking in cold weather is to keep a pace that keeps you warm but doesn’t make you sweat. If you know that you will sweat on a hike, make sure to bring a warm set of clothes to change into at the summit. It is much better to be bare skinned on a cold summit for a few minutes than to wear wet clothes for hours.
For bottoms, someone could wear leggings with a soft shell pant as a mid-layer. If it is going to be extremely cold, there are down pants available. Lastly, rain/wind pants should also be carried in cold months to keep out moisture and drafts.
A hiker can also layer their hand protection with a pair of liner gloves, followed by an insulating mitten, and topped off with a waterproof layer when needed.
Insulating yourself from the cold temperatures outside is crucial, and it is always important to bring more than you think you will need. A light quarter-zip synthetic pull over may be great to hike in for someone who runs colder. A medium weight fleece is a great mid layer, especially for taking a break on the summit. A thick, warm puffy jacket should always be carried in case you need to take longer breaks or stay the night for some reason. Puffy jackets can either be filled with down feathers, synthetic insulation, or a mix of the two. Down tends to be warmer and lighter, while synthetic insulation is much better if it gets wet. Each person must decide what is best for them, but every puffy jacket should be able to keep you warm for several hours in the conditions you are venturing out in. As stated above, there are also down pants available. Usually an insulated legging combined with a soft-shell pant will do the trick (with a rain/wind layer in the pack).
Insulation can also be found in the form of hats, gloves, and face protection. It is always a good idea to bring an extra warm hat just in case the original gets wet or sweaty. Wool or synthetic headbands are great to hike in to allow any sweat to escape - just make sure to bring a full hat in case you need it. Insulated gloves and mittens can be found in a puffy (down or synthetic) style or thick wool style. For face protection, a balaclava should be carried to block out cold temperatures and wind. Many people that run warm use thin neck gaiters, but it is important to have a warmer, thicker option to protect your face in the case of longer breaks or emergencies.
A waterproof jacket and pair of waterproof pants should be carried on all cold weather hikes to protect your insulation layers from any precipitation (rain, snow, sleet etc). This will also protect your insulation from getting damp from any fog and prevent the wind from whipping through your warm layers. Lastly, make sure that these layers will fit over all of your bulky insulating layers.
Goggles are used to protect your eyes in extreme cases above treeline. The goggles prevent wind (and any debris the wind is carrying) from getting to your eyes, including snow and ice.
Layering for your feet in cold weather is important to prevent your toes from getting frostbite. Many people start with some kind of liner sock to prevent blisters and wick moisture. Next comes an insulating layer - thick wool socks are great! In the White Mountains during winter months, waterproof boots with at least 400 grams on insulation should be worn. Bringing disposable toe warmers are a great option in case your toes get cold from long breaks or emergencies. Winter gaiters should be used to keep snow and moisture out of your boots. Gaiters also provide an extra layer of warmth and protection to your lower leg, and are great in preventing tearing of your pants from traction devices that you may be using.
Something to keep in mind when hiking with others in colder months is that some members of the group may need to regulate their body temperature more or less frequently than you. When stopping to add or remove a layer, make sure to do it quickly to prevent the other members of the group from standing around and getting cold. This method should be discussed at the trailhead prior to hiking so that the entire group is aware of each other’s requirements for temperature regulation.
Overall, comfort can be achieved while hiking in the White Mountains during cold months if you dress correctly. Make sure to bring an adequate layering system that allows for many different combinations of layers depending on circumstance. Avoid cotton for layering to keep moisture away, and make sure you have more layers than you think you will need to keep warm and dry.