You get out of the car, sort out your rucksack and you’re ready to set off.  But ten minutes into the hike you’re starting to head uphill, and you’re feeling hot and uncomfortable.  You stop to admire the view and take a few photographs and immediately you’re starting to feel cold again.  Then you start walking again and before long you’re aware that your damp top is rubbing nastily against your skin.  This just isn’t comfortable or fun anymore.

And that’s where getting your layering system right can help.

There are typically three types of layers worn when hiking:

  1. The Base Layer – to manage the moisture
  2. The Mid Layer – to keep you warm
  3. The Outer Layer – to keep you dry

Managing your moisture with the Base Layer

Paula Goude of RockRiver Expeditions stands at the trig point on the top of Scafell Pike

Sometimes it’s warm enough to just wear a base layer – but I’ve still got my mid and outer layers in my rucksack just in case


This is the layer that sits next to your skin.  Our bodies use sweat to take heat away from us but if that sweat gets trapped next to the skin it can quickly make us feel very cold.  For this reason we choose materials that are able to wick the sweat away from the body (transfer the moisture from next to the skin, to the surface where it evaporates).  Cotton is the worst choice you could make as it holds onto the moisture so it becomes heavy and makes you cold.  Polyester does a good job of this but it can quickly develop an odour.  My base layer of choice is a lightweight merino long or short sleeved top and in winter conditions I will also wear lightweight merino leggings.  Merino has natural antibacterial properties so it can be worn for weeks without smelling (believe me, I’ve done it!) but more on that in another blog…

Michael and Paula Goude, owners of RockRiver Expeditions wearing Icebreaker merino base layers on a hike in Snowdonia with a lake in the background

You can get base layers in his and hers too!


Keeping warm with your Mid Layer

Paula Goude of RockRiver Expediions wears Icebreaker merino hooded top in Dorset

Your mid layer is all about insulation.  A cheap mid layer option is a fleece top and you can select the thickness according to the time of year (and wear fleece trousers if it’s really wintery), but again, I choose merino and go for a slightly heavier weight than I have for my base.  You could also choose down or a synthetic material like PrimaLoft.  The idea of this layer is that it will trap your body heat but still be breathable, allowing the moisture to escape away from the body.


Keeping dry with the Outer Layer

This is typically your windproof and waterproof layer.  They come in two types, hard and soft shells.

A Gore-Tex jacket and trousers or those made of a similar material are examples of hard shells.  Look for taped seams and a high level of breathability.  When you’re trying it on, do the zips up fully and put the hood up – some of them come quite high up around the chin and face so you’ll want one that is comfortable for you.

A soft shell outer layer is more flexible than a full waterproof.  They are made as the name suggests of a softer feeling fabric and have an element of stretch to them, but are not fully waterproof.  They tend to be windproof, and are more breathable than full waterproofs and are ideal when the forecast is for a dry day (although I would always keep my waterproof in my rucksack just in case – I do live in the unpredictable UK!).

Mike Goude from RockRiver Expeditions stands in front of a tent in Scotland

Soft Shell jacket, ideal as a windproof and showerproof layer

Paula Goude from RockRiver Expeditions with Ben Nevis behind

Patagonia hard shell jacket and Arcteryx hard shell trousers



Added extras

Paula Goude from RockRiver Expeditions wears a green Patagonia insulating jacket on a crag in the Peak DistrictI have a really snug synthetic insulated Rab jacket (Nebula) that I take with me in my rucksack.  When I stop for lunch the first thing I do is pull it on over whatever I’m wearing.  So as my body cools from doing less activity, I don’t get cold, and I can enjoy my lunch.

Spare socks.  Always wool for me, but a spare pair partway through a long hill day or at the end of the day if I’m camping always makes me feel warmer.

So have the right layers with you, listen to your body and add or remove layers as you’re more or less active and you should have a more enjoyable and comfortable time on the hill.  Let me know in the comments below which layers, brands and styles you like to use best.

Other blogs in this series:

8 tips for buying walking boots or shoes
How do I keep my kit dry?


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