Before I go into detail, you should know that I generally run pretty hot everywhere except my nose, toes, and fingers. I’ve tested myself in snowy, sub-freezing hikes for years, and I’ve found this type of clothing system suits me best. If you plan on getting into winter hiking I’d suggest bringing some extra insulation layers in your pack and stopping to adjust layers frequently. After a while, you’ll know what works best for you. I won’t discuss footwear here, since feet are much tougher to get comfortable in winter, although I have a few thoughts on keeping your feet warmin winter as well.
|Nine degrees and blasting wind. Notice the snow stuck to the windstopper fleece. That’s why I go with outer layers that have smooth surfaces now. The softshell pants didn’t hold any ice, but the fuzzy fleece held plenty.|
My philosophy for this winter clothing system is simple—start cool, block wind, keep snow from sticking to you, and never sweat. Heat will transfer away from your skin in several ways, but the most dangerous are direct contact with cold air and objects (conduction), movement of colder air over a warm body (convection), and getting moisture on your skin (evaporation/conduction). Your body will generate a lot of heat just through the work necessary to hike with a heavier pack and through snow, which requires more exertion than hiking on dry ground in summer. The trick is to not lose too much of that heat to the environment around you.
|Another wicked cold one. This is our summit break, so out came the big puffy jacket.|
I take care of the simple conduction heat loss by keeping as much of my skin covered as possible, hence the long sleeves and coverings of my head and hands. Convection is almost as simple, just adding the layers that block wind (in this case, the soft shell pants and wind shirt). Evaporation is the hardest problem to combat, since your body will produce sweat to cool you down as you exert yourself. That’s why I start hiking with as little insulation as possible, so that my body heats up slowly rather than sweltering quickly with heavy insulation. I’ll usually get a sweaty back because of my backpack, but if I can keep the rest of my body dry, all is well. As soon as I stop moving for a break, the puffy down jacket comes out of the pack and keeps me from cooling off too quickly.
The most important thing to remember for staying comfortable on a winter hike is that your body will generate a lot of heat while hiking, but it can lose that heat even faster. Slowing both rates is key to staying comfortably warm.