What is layering & how do you actually stay warm on a winter trek?

The simple answer is, your jacket and all the other layers that you wear, helps you trap air. And it’s this trapped air that helps you keep warm.

So how do you actually layer your clothes to stay warm on a winter trek?

For most trekkers, a three or four layer system would be enough to keep them warm.

My wife who grew up nn Mumbai and doesn’t know what cold weather means, uses seven layers. Seriously, you can ask her.

The point we’re trying to make is, this layering system that we will elaborate on is only a guide. Your body will adapt differently compared to your friends and you should add or remove layers to suit your needs.

The temperature, are you trekking or acclimatising at the campsite, wind conditions, are just some of the factors that can determine how many layers you should wear.

Trekking Hiking-Clothing-winter Layering guide
Image credits: Slick&Twistertrails

4 Suggested Layers for Winter Treks

Layer 1: Base Layer

The first layer is the base layer and is closest to your skin apart from your underwear. This is the first line of defense and also helps absorb any sweat that body produces during the trek.

Now, to be honest, a cotton t-shirt is not the most ideal base layer. Cotton fabrics absorb moisture and do not dry easily. Your body will be in contact with a wet piece of clothing for the entire day and will tend to reduce your body temperature.

An ideal base layer would be a merino wool t-shirt. Merino Wool tends to wick away sweat and are quick drying. Some of these even have anti-microbial properties which means you can easily wear the same t-shirt for a couple of days without worrying about odors.

But to be honest, merino wool t-shirts are quite expensive and not very commonly available. Affordable alternatives are polyester blends and they are affordable. Just remember that polyester fabrics can smell funky after one or two uses so do wash them after using. 

It’s not just important to stay dry from the outside in but also from inside out.

Technical outdoor gear helps you adapt to the outside environment.            

merino wool tshirt for winter trekking base layer 1 winter layering guide zen mountain
Image Credits: ActiveJunky

Layer 2: A Fleece Jacket

A fleece jacket is an ideal piece of clothing for the second layer. Fleece jackets are usually made from a polyester fabric and this is good for trapping heat. They are also not too heavy and easy to carry. Since they are lightweight, they can be worn below a soft shell or a hard shell jacket.

They are quite affordable and can be used in the city too.

Trek monk fleece jacket gear hero india
Trek Monk Fleece Jacket

Layer 3- a): A Soft Shell or Hard Shell Jacket

The third layer could be a soft shell or hard shell jacket. The main difference between a soft-shell and a hard-shell jacket is that a soft-shell jacket is lighter to the touch and provides more agility than a hard-shell. A hard-shell is waterproof and will protect you from the rain.

AdventureWorx Windblock Lumi Jacket Zen Mountain Gear Shop (2)
Adventure Worx Wind Block Lumi Jacket

trek monk soft shell jacket gear hero india
Trek Monk Soft Shell Jacket

Layer 3 b) : Good pair of pants

With so much focus on the upper half of the body, what about the lower. Just because you’re covering your torso with 3 layers doesn’t mean this would keep your legs warm too.

Good winter trekking pants are now available and will help keep your feet warm.

Even if you do not want to buy snow pants, a good pair of quick-drying trekking pants worn on top of a fleece base layer pant will do the trick. Please, for heaven’s sake, never wear jeans. Apart from looking silly, your jeans will absorb all the moisture and it’s impossible to dry.

Always carry an extra pair of trek pants in-case one gets wet.

Now, during the day when you are trekking, this three layer system would be more than enough.

Your body would be generating enough heat during the activity that you may not need more layers.

When you’re sleeping at night and your body is not active that you will tend to feel colder and require more layers.

dry-fit trekking pants gear hero india
Trek Monk Soft Shell Jacket

Layer 4: Down Jacket or Puffy Jacket

A puffy or insulated jacket will be helpful, If you are trekking in extremely cold weather or if you need an extra layer during the night while sleeping in your tent.

The benefit of these types of jackets is that they are compact and can be folded into its own pocket. Making the task of carrying this in your backpack easy.

Generally, you won’t need this fourth layer while trekking and will mostly be used when you’re resting at the campsite or sleeping.

If you do happen to sweat, you could take off one layer to cool down. The base layer should be absorbing and wicking away the sweat.

If you are expecting some showers, a poncho or rain jacket on top a soft-shell jacket will keep you dry. A hard-shell jacket will protect you from the rain but carrying a poncho will definitely be helpful for added protection.


1) Woollen Socks

Woollen socks are a great addition to your gear haul. Woollen socks help wick away any sweat and will keep your feet dry. You could keep a pair of socks that you wear only while sleeping in the tent. If you’re unable to find woollen socks, a good pair of affordable thick socks will work just fine.

trek monk high ankle socks
Trek Monk Trekking Socks

2) Hat or Beanie

You lose a significant amount of heat from your head so carrying a beanie or a warm hat is essential. Here again, fleece or woolen hats are your best bet though we would recommend a fleece beanie.

3) Gloves

Thick waterproof gloves that protect your hands from the cold are another important piece of gear you should carry.

4) Sunglasses

Winter trekking glasses
Oakley Holbrook

Most people forget about carrying their sunglasses. But the sunlight bouncing off the snow can be blinding and sunglasses come in really handy.

5) Sunscreen

Sunscreen is another essential to carry because the sun at such altitudes can cause some serious sunburns. Any Sunscreen lotion of SPF 30 rating is good Waterproof lotions are the best. 

More in this series:

Winter Trekking Jacket Guide: What to Know before you buy your next Winter Jacket

Everything you need to know about down jackets.

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