Hiking in winter brings with it the amazing beauty of a snowy landscape but also some issues of comfort due to the much reduced temperatures and the problems associated with getting chilled.
Starting with the innermost layer a good moisture wicking base layer is vital. It is really important to stay as dry as possible next to the skin to prevent serious chilling and the risk of hypothermia when you stop moving. Either synthetics such as Helly Hansens polypropelene or the natural merino wool of Smartwool or Ibex will keep you dry by wicking away any sweat you generate.
The next layer, the mid layer can be fleece, softshell,wool anything nice and breathable to move the moisture you generate to the outside where it can dissipate into the air. Layering is really important in winter and attention to the layers is vital, if you are getting too hot adjust the layers by removing one or replacing a thick layer with a thinner one. If you are chilly slip on an extra layer. Most manufacturers of quality hiking clothing produce warmer pants for hiking such as the Sherpa Kala Pathar or Himal. These have a microfleece lining for added warmth.
The outer layer may not have to be a hard shell. In winter we are generally less worried about precipitation as hopefully any that falls will be as snow rather than rain. A wind resistant but breathable outer layer such as a softshell or a primaloft layer may be all we need to stay protected. Most hardshells work by allowing a humid atmosphere to develop inside the garment in order to allow the breathability of the material to function. This means that as we are moving the inside of hard shells tend to be rather clammy and this layer can very quickly cool us when we stop. I generally only put on a hard shell in winter to cut out the wind unless it really is snowing heavily. But hopefully we will be hiking on perfect bluesky days. Look for outer layers with lots of venting options such as pit zips, full front zips or thigh vents on pants.
Make sure you have good gloves and perhaps more than one pair, I usually have a thin liner glove, a warmer glove and my big waterproof mitts as a backup. Headwear is important too, the old adage “if you are cold put on a hat” really applies in winter, we lose most of our heat through our head so make sure it has a cover.
When we stop for lunch or a break it is important to add a layer to keep warm as we will cool down much more quickly in winter than the rest of the year. This is where insulation layers made from Primaloft or Down are really important. Down is lighter, more compressible and warmer than synthetics like Primaloft but it is more expensive and will lose its insulation to a much higher degree than Primaloft if it gets wet. It is possible to get Primaloft insulated pants which are great if it is really cold or you are one of those people who really feels the cold.
I always bring extra layers just in case. I have a spare toque, socks and spare base layers in my pack in winter. If you get the next to the skin layer wet, either through snow ingress or sweat then it may be necessary to remove the damp layer and put a dry one on. It is amazing the difference a dry layer next to the skin will make to your comfort. When you are travelling in winter try not to over exert yourself, move at a good steady pace that doesn’t cause you to perspire too much and you will be much more comfortable.
When suitable attired winter hiking is a real pleasure moving through a completely altered environment gives us a whole different experience compared to travelling the same environment in the summer.
So get out there and enjoy the outdoors in winter but go prepared and you will enjoy it all the more.