How to Dress For Winter Hiking in the Midwest
Last Updated by Ricky Holzer on Wednesday, December 31st, 1969My friends call me crazy when I go outside in negative temperatures, but I swear it's really not that bad when you know how to dress! Dressing properly is absolutely the key to enjoying time outdoors in the winter. And if you don't regularly spend time outside in the winter, it's likely you're not wearing the right clothes to stay comfortable.
Unless you're into other winter sports (or you're the one responsible for shoveling), you rarely ever spend more than 20 minutes out in the cold at one time. Because of this, you've trained yourself to wear the bare minimum to tolerate the cold in those brief moments between heated spaces, from cozy home to warm car to uncomfortably heated office.
Layering properly on a typical weekday seems nonsensical because it's much easier to wear one thick, insulated coat over your standard wardrobe than it is to strip off layer after layer upon entering that 70+ degree building, especially when you only spend a few minutes outside during your quick walk inside. That method won't work for hiking, and you must prepare to be outside for at least an hour or two. Unlike more active sports like skiing or skating, hiking doesn't warm you up that much, especially on those mostly flat Midwest trails. You'll have to dress warmer than you're used to.
Guide to Winter ClothingBefore diving into my winter wardrobe guide, let me relate a story on the importance of dressing right. When I first moved to Minneapolis, I had lived in sunny, warm Arizona and California for almost my entire life. Needless to say, I had no idea how to dress, severely limiting my outdoor enjoyment for nearly half of the year. I don't think I will ever feel as consistently cold as I felt that first winter, and that's not just because it was the polar vortex of 2013/2014.
After two miserable winters, I splurged on decent winter boots, waterproof mittens, and a parka. Thanks to my shopping spree, I was well prepared to spend some quality time outside, hiking around Minnehaha Falls and ice skating in the parks on some of the coldest days of the year. Despite the negative temperatures, I found myself sweating during all that activity. However, I couldn't remove any of my heavy clothing without freezing after a minute or two because I hadn't learned the real secret to dressing for winter: layers.
Layering is even more important when doing any outdoor exercise in the winter. Sweat and moisture are the enemies, and having wet clothing can be the difference between hypothermia and hiking in comfort -- the reason I couldn't cool down by simply unzipping my parka was because the one layer underneath was sweaty and would literally freeze! In addition, the one-coat-fits-all approach doesn't work very well when you're exercising outdoors because you cannot adjust your clothing as you warm up from activity or as weather conditions change.
Below, you'll find my layering guide for temperatures from 0 degrees to the 40s -- I don't go outside except to walk to the bar when it's below 0 degrees. This is only a rule of thumb based on my own experience, and you may need to adjust according to your own preferences, wind conditions, whether it's sunny or cloudy, and how strenuous your hike will be. If you find my guide useful, feel free to click on the image, save it, and share it with your friends! Also, I designed the infographic to fit nicely on a standard 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper, so print it out and hang it somewhere useful too! Now, you may be tempted to go shopping to buy new outdoor exercise clothes with the latest and greatest synthetic, waterproof, windproof, breathable, expensive fabrics available. As much as we complain about how bad Midwestern winters are, they aren't nearly as inhospitable as Mount Everest or the Antarctic climates those fancy fabrics were originally designed for. Think about it, native people have lived in this climate for thousands of years before the invention of central heating and fancy coats -- they must have survived somehow!
If you've lived in the Midwest for a winter or two, you probably already own most of the things on the infographic. But now that you're going to start seriously winter hiking, it's worth upgrading to better clothing to help you stay warmer, drier, and comfortable longer. In the next sections, I've provided suggestions on what to wear including what I wear myself, some cheap options, and the crazy expensive things that make your own choices seem sane. I'm not going to pretend to know anything about women's clothing, so all the links are for menswear.
Base LayerSince the base layer touches your bare skin, it's important that your it wicks moisture away from your body. Even though it's cold, hiking will inevitably make you sweat, and the last thing you want is gross wetness against your skin (and you can't just take it off because it's under so many layers and it's coooold). Cotton is absolutely the worst fabric to wear as a base layer -- once it's wet, it won't dry until long after you're safely thawed at home. This is a layer worth investing your money, especially because base layers will also see the most frequent use of all winter clothing. A good polyester shirt will last you many years (I still wear shirts from 10 years ago) and is usable in at least 3 of the 4 seasons.
I've found thermal underwear is necessary only for the coldest of days. Guys, don't waste your time with any garment without an easy access flap for going to the bathroom. The last thing you want to do is pull down all your bottom layers just to pee, especially if you're at a park with unheated pit toilets or out in the wilderness. What women lack in bathroom flexibility they make up for with a many more base layer choices: thermals, tights, or leggings -- I will say I'm jealous of how comfortable fleece-lined leggings sound. Whatever you pick, make sure it isn't itchy or wedgie-inducing since you won't be able to adjust it underneath your other layers. Fit on both your top and bottom garments should be snug to allow you to easily wear other clothing on top, something that becomes more important the more layers you need to wear. What I wear: C9 polyester long-sleeve and short-sleeve shirts from Target and Fruit of the Loom Premium Performance Thermals.
Budget Picks: Gildan Polyester Short-Sleeve Shirt, Champion Polyester Long-Sleeve Shirt, and Fruit of the Loom Premium Performance Thermals like I wear.
Hip, Cool, and Expensive: Nike Legend Short-Sleeve Tee, Under Armour Long-Sleeve Shirt or SmartWool Long-Sleeve Baselayer, and SmartWool Thermals.
Insulating LayerInsulating layers are where you can be the cheapest. Since your base layer will absorb the sweat and your outer layer will protect your insulating layers from the elements, it's not the end of the world if you wear a cotton sweatshirt with jeans, things you already own. However, if you're hiking in "warmer" winter weather and your insulating layer is exposed, you should wear fleece or wool on top with polyester pants. The same goes if you're planning an extended hike and can't risk cottony wetness.
Because your legs do all of the work when hiking, you can get away with wearing thinner pants than you'd expect. Until it dips below 40, I wear the same Columbia polyester hiking pants as I always do in the other seasons. After that, I either wear those pants with thermals or switch to jeans. I don't currently own a good pair of winter hiking pants, but it's the next purchase I plan on making. So, I highly recommend buying some non-cotton hiking pants since they'll be invaluable all year, but wear jeans when it's too cold for those.
The fit for sweaters and fleeces should not be baggy or oversized so you can easily wear a coat or another insulating layer on top. Pants should be loose enough to allow you to wear thermals underneath but tight enough that they won't constantly snag on every leafless branch you brush. What I wear: C9 polyester hoodie from Target, zipper fleece from my old job, and Columbia Royce Peak Pants -- these are awesomely comfortable and durable pants for outdoor use since they are made of a stretchy synthetic material, have reinforced knees and crotches to prevent rips, and protect your legs from sunburn with UPF 50 sun protection.
Budget Picks: Sweatshirts and jeans you already have. Otherwise, buy the Amazon Essentials Full Zip Fleece or spend an extra $10 for the better quality Columbia Full Zip Fleece. The Columbia Royce Peak Pants that I wear are another great value.
Hip, Cool, and Expensive: North Face Apex Canyonwall Jacket and prAna Zion pants.
Outer LayerYour outer layer is the first defense against wind, snow, and rain. Ideally, any coat used for hiking should consist of a removable insulating liner filled with down or a synthetic alternative and a water- and wind-proof shell. This way, you can adjust for temperature and weather conditions on the fly. In addition, you can use the removable liner in slightly warmer weather, and use the outer shell as a rain jacket all year.
When it comes to insulation, you'll be choosing between down and synthetic fills. Down is usually more expensive, but it's amazingly warm and lightweight (light as a feather you might say). However, down does not perform well when wet and dries slowly, one reason why it's important to have a waterproof shell. On the flipside, synthetic materials are generally cheaper, warm even when wet, and dry quickly but are heavier and bulkier. Don't make the mistake of assuming more expensive down will always be warmer than synthetics either; many thin synthetic fabrics are actually warmer despite appearing thin (see Patagonia Nano Puff Jackets). Also, a low quality down jacket will just leave you with feathers on your shirt.
Living in the Upper Midwest, it's easy for me to justify owning both a warm coat and a parka. You can survive without a parka if your coat is sufficiently insulated. The real perk to a parka is that it covers more of your body, preventing cold air from reaching your torso and warming and shielding your bottom and thighs. Unlike my coat, however, my parka does not have a removable liner and is really only reserved for the coldest of days.
Fashion companies want you to believe that your outer layer is the most important component of your winter outfit, but as explained before, wearing more layers is more effective than wearing one really warm coat over your base. While the outrageously expensive Canada Goose parkas are currently the hippest outerwear in the frigid north, you don't have to spend $1000 and murder 5 geese and a coyote to be fashionably warm. Several look-alikes exist at bargain prices, like the $100 down parka from Uniqlo that I own. Keep in mind that you don't want to buy winter jackets every year, so even at the budget level you should still plan on spending $100-$200 to buy a good quality, durable coat. Coats for skiing and snowboarding perform well for hiking too and help you save money if you do all of the above.
The same rules apply to insulated pants, except that pants don't usually have removable insulation. Again, pants for skiing and snowboarding are an ok choice, though some features like suspenders or wide legs to fit over ski/snowboard boots aren't necessary or ideal for hiking. Unless you plan on hiking on really cold days, you can skip buying insulated pants.
As for fit, your coat should comfortably fit on top of your base and at least two insulating layers. Too tight, and putting on and taking off your coat will be a pain every time. Too loose, and cold air will sneak in. When buying pants, they should fit well over a pair of thermals and allow freedom of movement. What I wear: Gerry ski jacket with removable liner, Uniqlo parka, unknown brand ski pants a friend gave me (not ideal for hiking but they're warm when it's necessary).
Budget Picks: Columbia Alpine Action Jacket is a really great value and should last a long time. On bottom, either wear the thickest pants you own with a pair or two of thermals and deal with the cold, or buy Columbia Bugaboo II Pants.
Hip, Cool, and Expensive: Canada Goose Expedition Parka and Outdoor Research Cirque Pants.
FeetHonestly, any sort of comfortable winter boots are fine for your average hike. You don't need to buy another pair of hiking boots just for winter. The key here is that your boots and feet won't get wet from walking in snow (like your average sneaker or hiking shoe might) and cover your ankles so you won't get snow in your boots when there's only a few inches on the ground. Like any footwear for hiking, they should provide support and enough cushioning that your feet won't hurt after a few miles. Note that with any leather boots, it will take a while for them to properly break in, though the wait is worth it as they mold to your feet and gait.
As for socks, adjust your sock thickness based on the temperature. Wool socks are the king in winter since they are warm and stay warm even when sweaty and wet. For shorter hikes in warmer winter temperatures, you can wear cotton socks if that's all you have (I wear them when my wool socks are all dirty). For the coldest of days, you can also wear sock liners (make sure these are polyester or wool!) underneath your wool socks, or just double up on socks.
Good socks are one of the first investments you should make, since cold feet are the quickest way to ruin your winter hike. Luckily, this is also one of the cheapest clothing investments on this list and you can easily find a couple pairs for around $20. Beyond winter, wool hiking socks are usefully comfortable in all seasons except for the hottest of summer days. What I wear: Coleman wool socks, Timberland Britton Hill leather boots -- these boots are on their third winter of every day wear, and I'd bet they still have at least two more winters before they wear out. Sorel boots, like my Sorel 1964 Pac Snow Boots, are the absolute gold standard for extreme cold weather footwear; this pair is waterproof and insulated, factory rated down to -40 degrees -- so warm that I only wear them in single digits temperatures and below (and only needing thick wool socks in scary negative temperatures). I've found my feet sweating in these even when the temperature hovers around 0.
Budget Picks: As mentioned, you can find cheap wool socks easily like these Kirkland Signature Wool Hiking Socks - 4 pack. Wear whatever winter boots you already own, or purchase a versatile pair of boots you can wear both hiking and around town -- I'm a fan of Timberland boots.
Hip, Cool, and Expensive: SmartWool Socks. Surprisingly, quality snow boots cost around the same price and aren't exorbitantly expensive -- the most costly pair I found on searching "men's snow boots" on Amazon was $200. The real way to show off and flaunt your money is buying a pair of mountaineering boots like La Sportiva Nepal Evo Mountaineering Boots, totally overkill for the Midwest.
HandsWhat you wear on your hands is a matter of personal preference. I personally struggle with cold hands, so I may wear warmer gloves than you would. One thing I've learned is that my hands are much warmer when I wear thin gloves or liners and keep my hands in my coat pockets than when I wear thicker gloves with my hands constantly exposed to the elements (outer gloves are too thick to put in my pockets). My recommendation is to find a decent pair of glove liners that you can wear all the time and a toasty waterproof pair of gloves or mittens for the coldest days where even your pockets can't keep your hands warm. The only downside is that you should avoid touching anything snowy or icy when wearing only liners because they will get wet (and then cold).
As with any garment that touches your skin, buying non-cotton gloves is crucial. Fleece is a good option, but if your hands sweat easily wool is a better choice since they'll stay warm when wet. If you take pictures with your phone, touchscreen compatible gloves are essential. Mittens are warmer than gloves, and I highly recommend switching to mittens if your hands are usually cold (like mine).
If you're hiking longer than an hour, it's a good idea to bring a second pair of gloves or liners since your hands are likely to sweat or get wet if you touch anything snowy or icy (didn't I tell you not to do this?). Hand warmers are another easily packable solution to cold hands, and many nicer gloves and mittens, particularly those made for skiing and snowboarding, have built-in pockets for hand warmers and some even have battery powered heating elements. What I wear: Dakine Titan Mitts with Touchscreen Compatible Liners -- as mentioned I usually only wear the liners. These mittens are so warm, I hardly ever need to wear both the liners and the mittens simultaneously.
Budget Picks: In all but the coldest temperature, you'll be fine wearing a decent pair of touchscreen friendly glove liners and keeping your hands in your pockets.
Hip, Cool, and Expensive: SmartWool Liner Gloves and Outdoor Research Lucent Heated Gloves.
Head, Neck, and FaceClothing for the head, neck, and face doesn't really come into play until it dips below freezing or if there's an icy wind. There's a wide variety of options in this category, so you'll have to find your preference -- putting up a jacket's hood is even sufficient for some.
One of the best purchases I made in the past year was a windproof balaclava. Even though I originally bought it to protect my face while skiing and biking, lately it became a necessity just to survive the -50 degree windchill of the polar vortex. Scarves are definitely more fashionable, but they lack the flexibility of a balaclava: I can quickly reconfigure my balaclava to only cover my neck or to not cover my nose and mouth.
Forget the common claim that 3000% of your body heat is lost through your head; the biggest reason to wear a hat is to cover your ears. Style comes down to personal preference, whether you want a simple beanie, or a beanie with a puff ball, or a super cozy fur hat with ear flaps. If you don't like hats or don't want to mess up your hair, earmuffs are another viable option until temperatures sink into single digits and the negatives. Once you find a hat you like, you probably won't change it up much. (Many struggle with finding the right hat. My brother-in-law is currently on the hunt for what he calls the perfect beanie: non-bulky, itch-free, and perfectly conforming to his head. He currently has a drawer full yet is still looking.) What I wear: Unknown brand acrylic beanie and an Outdoor Research Balaclava.
Budget Picks: Putting up your hood and wearing the scarf your grandma knit you. But more seriously, I spent my first winters wearing a highlighter color Carhartt Acrylic Beanie and only stopped because I lost it. Neck and face protection is really only necessary if it's really cold and/or windy, but you can use a T-shirt (preferably not cotton) as a balaclava.
Hip, Cool, and Expensive: A North Face Beanie and the ultra-versatile, "10+ ways to wear" Buff -- all the rage in functional neckwear.
Traction Devices for Ice and SnowTrail conditions in winter can be variable, especially during the shoulder season in March and April. When there's a nice layer of snow on the trail, you won't need any special equipment as long as you have decent boots. However, icy conditions make even the flattest of trails treacherous unless you have some sort of traction device for your feet and poles for balance. While winter mountain climbing in the West certainly requires the use of ice axes and crampons, here in the flat Midwest you'll be just fine with simple microspikes and poles.
Microspikes are simple chains or wires that you can easily strap on your boots, just make sure it fits your winter hiking footwear. They don't take up much room in your backpack, so it's worthwhile to carry them with you all winter just in case you encounter icy conditions -- I forgot mine at home one warmer than average March day while going to Lebanon Hills only to discover the trails were rivers of ice, forcing me to go home. Best of all, they aren't very expensive, and for under $30 you can buy a decent pair of Yaktrax like I own.
Collapsible hiking poles are also easy to pack with the added benefit that you can use them in all four seasons! In addition to preventing you from falling, hiking poles reduce strain on the knees, especially on downhill segments, and also help you establish a steady rhythm while hiking. No matter what you budget is, there are hiking poles to meet your needs, and you won't be missing out on much if you don't buy the latest and greatest -- a pole is a pole.
Really the difference between poles is in the materials used, namely aluminum versus carbon fiber for the shaft and rubber versus cork for the handles. Unless you spend a lot of time doing long, rugged hikes, you won't notice the difference between the two. From a budget-minded perspective, aluminum is the superior material because in the worst case scenario, you may end up bending one of your poles; sure this sounds bad, but a bent pole is still usable and you could potentially bend it straight again. With carbon fiber poles, the worst case scenario is that the pole snaps, rendering your pole useless and forcing you to completely replace this expensive piece of equipment rather than repairing it. What I wear: Yaktrax and Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles.
Budget Picks: Yaktrax and TrailBuddy Aluminum Trekking Poles.
Hip, Cool, and Expensive: Kahtoola Microspikes and Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles.
Before You GoAs you've probably experienced many times in the Midwest, weather is unpredictable. My guide only serves as a rule of thumb, and you will have to adjust your clothing to your comfort level. Pack an extra insulating layer and a hat and gloves (if you're not already wearing them) just in case. If rain or snow is in the forecast, bring a rain jacket or wear a coat with a waterproof outer shell. Lastly, wind can severely affect comfort levels. In windy conditions, dress for at least 10 degrees colder than the air temperature (aka move down one line on my handy infographic from earlier!).
Now that you're experts on clothing for winter hiking, go out and enjoy the outdoors without freezing. And after you go, share your adventure and use #nocoastbestcoast!