The Best Clothing Layers for Winter in the Backcountry
By Michael Lanza
There’s one certainty about the clothing layers we use in winter: We get our money’s worth out of them. While a rain shell or puffy jacket may rarely (or even never) come out of our pack on a summer hike or climb, we almost invariably wear every article of clothing we carry when backcountry, Nordic, or downhill skiing, snowshoeing, climbing, or trail running in winter. That’s money spent wisely to make us more comfortable and safer.
Every winter, I test out new clothing layers doing all of those activities frequently. Here are the best shell and insulated jackets, base layers, and pants I’ve found for high-exertion and moderate-exertion activities in winter.
In my story “How to Dress in Layers for Winter in the Backcountry,” I offer advice—based on more than three decades of Nordic and backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, climbing, camping, and trail running in winter—on how to choose a specific, personalized layering system for different exertion levels and body types in temperatures near or below freezing. Use the tips in that story, along with this review, to make the best choices in winter outdoor apparel for your activities and your body.
Please share your experiences with any of these products in the comments section at the bottom of this review. And if you make a purchase through any of the links to online retailers in this story, you support my work on this blog, so thanks for doing that.
Don’t go out in the cold before reading my “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter.”
The Best Base Layers for Winter
Whatever your exertion level, you want next-to-skin tops and bottoms that perform two functions that become especially important in winter:
1. Wick moisture off your skin quickly.
2. Provide at least the minimum amount of warmth you need for the conditions and your body.
Here are the best base-layer tops I’ve found for various activities in winter.
Made with Nucliex STR 180 wool, the Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck LS ($139, 8 oz.) consists of Merino fibers wrapped around a nylon filament, marrying the properties of wool (soft, warm when wet, odor resistant) with the strength and durability of nylon. It shines for high-exertion activities in cool to cold conditions and highly variable weather.
Made from very light and soft, 18.5-micron, 165g Merino wool, with flatlock seams and no-tag labels for no compromise on comfort, the form-fitting Ibex Woolies 1 Crew long-sleeve ($85, 5.5 oz.) feels like you’ve grown a thin layer of wool rather than put on an article of clothing. It’s ideal alone or as a bottom layer for virtually any activity level in cool to cold temperatures.
The Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck ($69, 7.5 oz.) regularly lies against my skin while backcountry, resort, and Nordic skiing and cold-weather trail runs. The Polartec Power Grid fabric’s brushed-grid delivers a lot of warmth for its low weight and wicks moisture quickly, while the Polygiene permanent odor control has prevented it from getting stinky.
I find The North Face Warm Long-Sleeve Zip Neck ($60, 8 oz.) ideal for any moderate- or high-intensity activity—hiking, running, skiing—in cool to cold temps. TNF’s HyActive fabric traps heat and dries so quickly that I finished full days of backcountry skiing with it dry. The high collar keeps cold air off my neck, while the deep front zipper dumps heat when needed.
See more in my “Review: The Best Base Layers and Shorts for the Outdoors and Training.”
The Best Insulated Jackets for Being Active in Winter
As I write in my story “How to Dress in Layers for Winter in the Backcountry,” for backcountry skiing or ski touring, snowshoeing, or hiking, you need a layering system with great versatility—and the critical piece is the middle, or insulating layer. It provides most of your layering system’s warmth, and it must breathe well, because your outer/shell layer provides the full weather protection. In moderate-exertion activities, the more breathable your insulating layer, the less frequently you have to make layering changes—a challenge that modern synthetic insulation has risen to meet effectively.
If your winter sport of choice involves sweating and breathing hard, like running and Nordic skiing or even power hiking, you need only a lightweight jacket with some warmth, superior breathability to dump the moisture your body is producing, and enough water resistance to not soak through in light rain or snow.
I’ve listed below the best middle/insulation layers I’ve found for moderate- and high-exertion activities in winter, listed roughly in order of lightest to warmest.
The Patagonia Nano-Air Vest’s ($199, 8 oz.) breathable synthetic insulation makes this lightweight garment functional on outings year-round. On an early-October backpacking trip in Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains, it stayed on me not only through cool evenings and mornings in camp, but also while hiking with a full backpack uphill, off-trail, in temps in the 40s and 50s Fahrenheit, with intermittent wind. I’ve regularly grabbed it instead of other vests in my closet for Nordic skate-skiing in “milder” temps above freezing and warm sunshine. Both the nylon ripstop shell and the insulation have four-way stretch.
Read my full review of the Patagonia Nano-Air Vest.
The lightweight, trim-fitting Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody ($229, 9 oz.) quickly became a personal favorite for everything from chilly days hiking in spring and fall to skate-skiing and running in temps from above freezing to the mid-20s, because it delivers just enough warmth for moving in cool temps without causing me to overheat. It marries lightweight fleece under the arms with 40 grams of synthetic insulation in the torso, while the adjustable hood and the outside of the sleeves have no insulation, only windproof shell fabric. It breathes reasonably well: At the end of even the sweatiest outings on Nordic skis, the inside of the jacket was merely damp.
Read my full review of the Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody.
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The lightweight Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody ($189, 10 oz.) functions as a middle or outer layer for activities from cool-weather hiking to skate-skiing or snowshoeing. It blends lightweight, breathable, fast-drying, synthetic Polartec Alpha insulation in the front, sides, and shoulders with stretchy Polartec Power Grid fleece—which breathes very well, dries quickly even when I’m sweating hard, and is warm for its weight—in the back, sleeves, and the close-fitting hood. The combination delivers good warmth and exceptional breathability when you’re on the go in temps from the mid-30s to mid-20s.
Read my full review of the Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody.
I wore the Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket ($199, 10 oz.) for activities ranging from four straight days of backcountry skiing in the Sierra (see photo above, too) in winds gusting to 40 to 50 mph and heavily falling snow, to Nordic skate-skiing and snowshoeing in Idaho’s Boise Mountains on days both overcast and windy and in warm sunshine. Arguably the most versatile insulation layer covered in this review, its hybrid design puts FullRange synthetic insulation, which stretches and breathes, in the front of the jacket, upper shoulders, and top sides of the sleeves, and a much more breathable, wicking, stretch waffle knit on the back of the sleeves, in the sides, and covering the entire back. The result is a jacket that offloads body heat about as fast as you produce it—while keeping you warm at varying levels of exertion.
Read my full review of the Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket.
The North Face ThermoBall Active Jacket’s ($150, 14.5 oz.) torso is filled front and back with PrimaLoft ThermoBall synthetic insulation, which consists of small, round fiber clusters that trap heat in air pockets to mimic the warmth and compressibility of 600-fill power down feathers—while, because it’s synthetic, retaining warmth when wet. Meanwhile, the sleeves, shoulders, and side panels consist of a water-repellent, ripstop nylon shell with a DWR (durable, water-repellent treatment) to shed light precipitation. And stretchy, midweight grid fleece extends across the shoulders, to the elbows inside the sleeves, and under the arms, to offer minimal warmth with high breathability. The result: a jacket built for moderate to highly aerobic activity in temps ranging from just above to well below freezing.
Read my full review of The North Face ThermoBall Active Jacket.
My “Review: The Best Gloves for Winter” covers gloves for high- and moderate-exertion activities.
The Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody ($215, 12 oz.) features Polartec’s newest generation of breathable insulation, Alpha Direct, which consists of low-density fibers packed between air-permeable woven fabric layers, allowing moisture to pass through. Very compressible, the jacket stuffs into one of its two zippered hand pockets, and has a close-fitting, helmet-compatible hood and thumbholes in the cuffs. And it’s warm for 12 ounces. While most useful from fall through spring, this is a legitimate four-season insulation layer for backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, mountaineering, bike commuting, or throwing on after you finish a trail run.
Read my full review of the Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody.
A step up in warmth from the Ascendant Hoody, the toasty Outdoor Research Uberlayer Hooded Jacket ($315, 1 lb. 2 oz.) has staved off the chill for me on cold winter days backcountry skiing, when I’ve worn it skinning uphill—when the temp and/or wind chill hits single digits or colder—and downhill under a shell. It breathes well enough that I don’t overheat on the up, and moves moisture so well that my sweaty base layer dries out as I ski down. That’s huge for preventing moments of feeling chilled. It achieves this performance through a combination of water-resistant, breathable, and compressible Polartec Alpha Active insulation, a breathable, polyester stretch-mesh lining that wicks moisture, and a breathable and highly durable, weather-resistant, nylon stretch-woven shell. While best for winter, it can pull double duty as a puffy for three-season backpacking or on-the-go insulation for mountaineering.
Read my full review of the Outdoor Research Uberlayer Hooded Jacket.
Which puffy should you buy? See my “Review: The 10 Best Down Jackets” and
“Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?”
The Best Winter Backcountry Shell Jacket
For activities like backcountry skiing, ski touring, snowshoeing, climbing, and hiking, when I’m working hard outside for hours in wide-ranging winter temps and weather conditions, I want a shell jacket with superior breathability—so that I don’t get soaked with sweat when exerting in it—that also repels hours of falling snow and blocks most wind. It must have an adjustable, brimmed hood that keeps wind and precipitation off my face. It must layer comfortably over an insulated jacket and allow me full range of motion—all without being too heavy.
The Outdoor Research Skyward Jacket ($350, 1 lb. 7 oz.) demonstrated its unique range as a winter shell the first day I wore it (and many days since), backcountry skiing through several hours of dumping snow and temperatures from the teens to the 20s Fahrenheit: Going uphill and downhill, this jacket never left my back, from car to car. I’ve also worn it over warm insulation while resort skiing, because it’s so weather- and windproof.
The explanation is the breathability of OR’s stretchy, proprietary AscentShell fabric, plus a waterproof-breathable Electrospun membrane that keeps water out and is permeable to vapor. It also excels in ventilation, with unique, two-way, side zippers that run from under the biceps all the way to the hem. In short: It’s a hard shell that looks, feels, and breathes like a soft shell.
Read my complete review of the Outdoor Research Skyward Jacket.
Keep your noggin warm, too. See my “Review: The Best Winter Hats.”
Best Winter Pants for the Backcountry
We generally wear one or two bottom layers and do not change them while outside in winter, so they must be chosen specifically for the activity and conditions. Here are my favorites for three different types of activity and levels of exertion.
For trail running, when I prefer highly breathable, fast-wicking tights with some warmth, I like compression tights, and wear the CW-X Stabilyx ¾ Tights quite a lot (find the men’s and women’s versions at backcountry.com). I’ll also wear them under ski pants in the backcountry or at resorts, to add a little warmth and the benefits of compression.
When Nordic skiing, I favor lightweight soft-shell pants that breathe well, block some wind (for skiing downhill), and offer a bit more warmth than tights.
Here are my favorite lightweight pants for winter.
The Westcomb Recon Cargo Pant ($240, 11 oz.), made with Schoeller Dynamic fabric, with NanoSphere and a DWR (durable, water-repellent treatment) for water repellency, repels falling snow and light rain and cuts some wind; but most importantly, these pants breathe supremely well, so you don’t overheat when exerting hard.
Read my complete review.
Made with Patagonia’s stretchy, weather-resistant soft-shell fabric, the Patagonia Simul Alpine Softshell Pant ($139, 11.5 oz.) breathed well and cut some wind when my teenage son wore them on a windy, chilly, four-day spring climb of The Mountaineers Route on California’s Mount Whitney. With four zippered pockets and cuffs designed for low-profile boots, these pants are a good value for Nordic skiing, climbing, and three-season mountain treks, but don’t have quite the breathability or weather resistance of the Westcomb Recon.
The Black Diamond Alpine Pants ($139, 14 oz.) offer a somewhat more durable version of a stretchy, soft-shell pant that pairs good breathability with resistance to falling snow and light rain, for high-speed and moderate-exertion winter activities as well as all things mountain-related in the other seasons. The adjustable waistbelt with low-profile loops is comfortable under a pack belt or harness.
For backcountry or downhill/resort skiing, climbing, or snowshoeing, I need more substantial pants that breathe well but deliver more warmth and weather protection.
The Schoeller stretch-woven soft-shell fabric in the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Pants ($199, 1 lb. 11 oz.) kept snow and other wet stuff out when I skied downhill through conditions ranging from powder to mashed potatoes. The fabric also breathes so well that, even on long, sweaty ascents on skis—including carrying a full pack to a backcountry yurt—that I rarely even bothered to open the side zippers, which extend from the thigh to the cuffs. Still, while the pants were warm enough on a 3° F morning without long underwear (which I rarely wear unless it’s really cold), those side zips deliver needed ventilation for uphill slogs on warm, spring days.
Read my complete review of the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Pants.
Tell me what you think.
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Be sure to read my stories “How to Dress in Layers for Winter in the Backcountry” and “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter.” And see all of my reviews of outdoor apparel at The Big Outside.
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.
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