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Winter Hiking Layers Guide: What to Wear for Winter Fourteeners

The temperature on a fourteener in January can drop to -30 degrees Fahrenheit, and that isn’t even taking wind chill into account. In such a cold environment, dressing warm isn’t just an issue of comfort. It’s a matter of life or death. Layering your clothing is a tried and true method. By providing flexibility to add and remove layers as the temperature warms or cools, you can adapt constantly and keep warm without beginning to sweat or suffer. 

Here is a complete guide to dressing for winter 14ers with a focus on layers. I also share a few recommendations on my own favorite clothing for winter hikes and climbs.

Table of Contents

Winter Hiking Layers: The Fundamentals

Everyone uses a layer system that works best for them. However, there are a few general layers that everyone uses. They form the core of any clothing system for mountain adventures in the winter. From there, people add more layers where they feel they need them. Here’s a run-down on the essentials:

  1. Base Layer. This is the bottom layer worn directly over your skin. It is often a merino wool or spandex material that wicks sweat away from your body so it can be sweat off instead of pooling and creating humidity. Avoid cotton base layers, which do a poor job at this.
  2. Mid Layer. Mid layers vary considerably according to personal taste, with some people preferring wool, others synthetics like fleece. Most mid layers balance warmth with mobility, perfect for cool weather where just a light sweater will keep you warm.
  3. Hard Shell. A hard shell is a waterproof exterior jacket, often the topmost layer warn above all others. It keeps rain and snow out so you remain dry underneath. It is also usually wind-resistant, making it ideal for cold and windy days even without moisture.

While some people rely on these three basic layers, most people (including myself) wear 4-5 layers while in true winter conditions, adding and removing them throughout their climb as required.

Additional Essential Clothing Accessories

Layers keep your core warm, but they do little to protect against frostbite on your extremities. To keep your face, ears, fingers, and toes nice and safe you will need the right gloves, socks, and other accessories. Here are a few to always keep with you while dressing for winter fourteeners:

1. Winter Mountaineering Socks

Thin summer socks won’t do much for you during the cold winter season. Get a thick pair of wool mountaineering socks, along with a slim silk liner to wear underneath. Just as wearing layers on your torso keeps your body warmer, layering your socks will keep your toes nice and toasty.

Check out these excellent winter mountaineering socks from Smartwool.

2. Warm Gloves or Mittens

While mittens provide more warmth than gloves, they also sacrifice mobility for your fingers. Keep this in mind while choosing between them or considering bringing a pair of both. The cost here correlates with quality and warmth; keep that in mind.

Click here to check out my favorite waterproof winter weather gloves.

3. Hat or Face Mask

You can bring a stand-alone stocking cap, or buy a combined face mask/hat combo. I recommend the second option as it covers your entire face, including your cheeks, nose, and ears to protect them from frostbite. It allows prevents more heat from escaping from under your warmer layers, especially when combined with a pair of ski goggles or glacier glasses.

This balaclava from REI is well worth the low price.

4. Snow Goggles or Glacier Glasses

The sun is extremely powerful at high altitude, which is magnified by the white snow around you like a magnifying glass. When blown at high speeds it can scour like sandpaper. Bringing snow goggles or glacier glasses can help protect you in both situations.

Click here to see the Julbo pair of glasses I use during winter.

Your Gear is Only Helpful if You Bring It With You

Often times you may go several trips without using a piece of gear. For example, I run fairly warm and haven’t often needed to wear my warmest mid-layer. However, that doesn’t mean you should stop bringing it with you. The margin for error is very small in the winter, when even a small risk can snowball into a life-threatening emergency. Keep every bit of extra gear with you, as when you do need it, you will want it more than anything.

Base Winter Hiking Layers: My Three Recommendations

Here are several specific choices for a winter base layer, depending on your personal taste and needs.

1. Smartwool Classic Thermal Merino Base Layer Bottoms

These classic leggings provide extra insulation for your legs on cold winter days, with options for both men and women. They’re a significant upgrade from the cotton-long johns from the good old days. You can even get them in either a men’s or a women’s version to ensure the best fit possible. I never head out to the mountains in winter without these.

Buy Men’s Leggings | Buy Women’s Leggings

2. Smartwool Classic Thermal Merino Crew Base Layer Top

Designed for your upper body to keep you warm in cold weather environments, these merino wool tops wick away sweat while providing extra insulation for warmth in cold environments. The merino wool regulates temperature and comfort while combating odor and foul smells from sweat. I always wear them during winter hikes and climbs.

See Men’s Price | See Women’s Price 

3. Smartwool Classic All-Season Merino Base Layer Long-Sleeve Top

For year-round hikers and climbers, stay warm in the mountains with a lighter all-season top that can be worn as a base layer during the winter or as a stand-alone shirt in warmer weather. It is slightly lighter than the Thermal Merino Top, so if isn’t the best choice if you are looking specifically for insulation in a winter climbing environment.

See Men’s Price | See Women’s Price

Winter Hiking Layers: Mid Layer Recommendations

These mid-layer options provide warmth and insulation but are still sleek enough to fit under heavier and bulkier exterior layers and jackets. Here are three good choices for winter hikes in Colorado.

1. Patagonia Better Sweater Fleece Jacket

One of Patagonia’s signature pieces, their Better Sweater Fleece Jacket is perfect for extra insulation under a heavier jacket and over your base layer, whether you plan to go skiing, hiking, or climbing in the winter. It has two versions, one for men and one for women, to ensure a comfortable fit.

See Men’s Price | See Women’s Price


2. REI Co-op Trailsmith Fleece Jacket

REI’s alternative fleece is a bit cheaper than Patagonia while still providing much of the same warmth and standard of quality. It will still keep you nice and warm on a cold mountain morning. It is the only jacket that comes with an option specifically for kids, which is excellent as well.

See Men’s Prices | See Women’s Prices | See Kids Prices

3. Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket

Many people use a lightweight jacket like the Nano Puff series as a mid-layer. It is far less bulky than fleece jackets so that you can pack them more easily away. However, they usually cost more as a result, which is a tradeoff for the more efficient use of space. They also make a good standalone jacket during the spring and fall.

See Men’s Prices | See Women’s Prices

Hard Shell Winter Hiking Layers: Three Recommendations

These hard shells cost more than some of my other suggestions, but that’s because they are among the most critical layers. The protect you from the wind, rain, and snow to keep you dry and warm. If you don’t bring a good hard shell jacket with you, your chance of getting cold is much higher. Here are three great options to choose from.

1. Arc'teryx Beta LT Jacket

Arc’teryx is the gold standard in high-end waterproof jackets. Unfortunately, you will need to spend several hundred dollars to get even their most affordable hard-shell jacket. In return, know that you have one of the best quality jackets available, with supreme protection from wind, rain, and snow.

See Men’s Prices | See Women’s Prices

2. Patagonia Torrentshell 3L Jacket

Patagonia’s torrentshell is a much more affordable alternative hard shell compared to Arc’teryx. They use their own unique waterproofing system instead of GORE-TEX to reduce the price. This makes it slightly less reliable but much less costly to manufacture and purchase. It isn’t as reliable in extreme conditions but works great for day trips and mild weather.

See Men’s Prices | See Women’s Prices

3. REI Co-op Stormbolt GTX Jacket

The Stormbolt GTX Jacket includes the high-quality GORE-TEX waterproofing of Arc’teryx with the affordability and accessibility of Patagonia to provide one of the best Hard Shell options on this list. The jacket is less than $200 but provides double that value. I highly recommend it if you want something dependable but not super expensive.

See Men’s Prices | See Women’s Prices

Tips for Safe Winter Hiking and Climbing Adventures

Even with the right layers, the mountains are a treacherous place in winter. It takes the right knowledge and skill to make it safely to the summit and back. Here are a few tried-and-true tips to stay safe in the snowy, cold alpine terrain.

  1. Bring a buddy if you don’t have much experience. It is helpful to have someone you can talk to about route-finding and navigation issues, which come up more when everything is buried in snow. Accidents also happen to even the most prepared hikers, so having someone with you who can help go for help can be the difference between life and death.

  2. Always check the avalanche forecast before heading into the mountains. Any slope covered in snow could be a potential slide path if you don’t have the skill to differentiate between low and high risk slopes. I highly recommend that everyone who heads into the mountains during winter take the time to get trained in avalanche terrain recognition, avoidance, and rescue.

  3. Don’t forget to look up the snow status in the area you plan to visit. Use tools like the Colorado SNOTEL system, as well as recent weather forecasts to determine whether you need microspikes, crampons, snowshoes, or multiple types of traction. When in doubt, bring it all, and make a decision at the trailhead once you can see the peak above you.

  4. A lot of people who climb winter 14ers see others glissading and decide to try it themselves. Glissading is a fancy way of saying sliding down a snowy slope on your butt. However, if you glissade without an ice axe, it is extremely easy to lose control of your speed and careen into rocks below. Never glissade without an ice axe and the skill needed to self-arrest a fall. To learn how to do this, check out classes with the Colorado Mountain Club.

  5. Wind is annoying in the summer but potentially deadly in the winter. Always remember to check the wind forecast and factor that into your plans. A 32 degree day might seem relatively warm. However, with sustained 30mph winds, the chill drops to 17 degrees. On any day with even limited winds, bring gloves, facemasks, snow goggles, and anything else necessary to cover all of your skin to protect it from the bitter cold.

Types of altitude sickness

Dressing for Winter Fourteeners with Winter Hiking Layers: Now You Know!

Planning your wardrobe for a winter hike or climb is less intuitive than you might expect. However, using the layer system simplifies it by providing an easy-to-follow model to copy and then personalize according to your needs. If you have a favorite piece of clothing you like to wear for winter fourteeners, please share it below in the comment section and it might get added above in our next article update. Thanks for reading, and safe travels on the trail!

Additional Resources Related to Winter Hiking Layers for 14ers

If you are looking for more articles about dressing for winter fourteeners, try visiting some of these related links and resources.

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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