By Michael Lanza

If hiking, backpacking, and climbing from spring through fall teaches us the fundamentals of layering our clothing for comfort in variable weather, the backcountry in winter confers a graduate degree in layering. In mild temperatures, getting wet with perspiration or precipitation merely risks discomfort. In freezing temps, it can quickly lead to hypothermia and actually become life-threatening.

In this article, I’ll offer advice on how to choose a specific, personalized layering system for different exertion levels and body types in backcountry in winter. Drawn from three decades of Nordic and backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, climbing, camping, and trail running in winter, these tips go beyond the usual layering advice to help you stay comfortable and safe by customizing clothing systems according to activity and body type. See my “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter” for advice on how to manage your activity level in combination with your layering system to minimize sweating.

A layering system is simply the clothing layers you wear outdoors, and we all understand that dressing in layers allows us to make adjustments—adding and removing layers—as needed for changing conditions. My “10 Tips For a Smarter Layering System” apply primarily to three-season conditions. But temperatures near and below freezing compound the challenge of dressing comfortably during exertion, when our bodies sweat, because damp clothing conducts heat from your body, and cold air rapidly accelerates that cooling effect—potentially to a dangerous degree.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


A backcountry skier in Idaho's Boise Mountains.
Chip Roser backcountry skiing in Idaho’s Boise Mountains.

Choosing a Layering System

Three variables dictate the layers you need:

• The ambient conditions you expect to encounter—temperature range, wind, and precipitation—as well as how terrain and vegetation cover affect your exposure to the weather (i.e., you’re more protected from wind and weather in the forest than above treeline).

• Your level of exertion, whether moderate (downhill or backcountry skiing or riding, ski touring, or snowshoeing) or highly aerobic (fast Nordic skiing, trail running).

• Your body type and metabolism, or more simply, how easily you get cold.

Think of those variables on a sliding scale. As we all understand, you need warmer layers as temperatures and exertion level drop. But your choice of specific garments will also depend on your body and activity. Some of the apparel pieces I suggest below can crossover between the two types of layering systems, which is why you’ll see some overlap in my recommendations.

My “Review: The Best Gloves For Winter” covers gloves for both high-exertion and moderate-exertion activities.


Tell me what you think.

I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons at right, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.


Be sure to read my “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter.” And see all of my reviews of outdoor apparel at The Big Outside.