Women’s Layering System Basics

The key to managing your body temperature while hiking is dressing in layers. Depending on your adventure, you might start before sunrise in freezing temps, and go well into the afternoon heat. Moving at a steady clip uphill with a backpack on is a surefire way to work up a sweat, but doing so in winter or at altitude means that when you do stop for a break, you will cool down fast and need to bundle up. It’s not unusual to start out in a few top layers, get down to one, then wind up back in all four plus one at the summit. The great thing about layers is you have all these combinations at the ready and can peel them off and pile them on each time the weather or your personal thermostat changes. So let’s look at what all these layers are.

Underwear

Upper Body Underwear

Sports bra and/or tank top and/or camisole: Many options available for this layer based on your personal preference and shape, but you’ll likely want something with support under all the warmth layers. Sports bras come in everything from somewhat skimpy to almost tank top coverage, with or without cups, with various strap thicknesses and designs (racerback, classic bra, halter). The only two recommendations I’ll make are one, don’t get adjustable straps as the little buckles can rub and irritate your skin, especially if they are under your backpack straps; and two, go for wider straps over skinny ones as they generally feel better over long distances.

Best Sports Bras For Hiking

  • Atheleta Panache
  • Patagonia Barely
  • Brooks Hot Shot
  • Iceebreaker Merino Siren
  • Odlo Seamless High

Best Tank Tops and Camisoles For Hiking

  • Patagonia Capilene Cool Trail Tank Top
  • Prana Liliana
  • Outdoor Research Nuance
  • Black Diamond Campus Tank
  • Athleta Oxygen Two-Toned Tank

Lower Body Underwear

Some hikers skip underwear altogether, some stick with shorts that have the built-in liner, and some consider their long underwear to be underwear enough in the winter. Good options for women are boy-shorts, briefs, and thongs made of wool or synthetics. Cotton and lace are a no-go (one for moisture retention the other for chafing). Speaking of chafing, look for tagless.

Best Women’s Underwear For Hiking

  • REI Women’s Active Brief
  • Ex-officio Give-n-go Sport Mesh Bikini Brief
  • Ridge Merino Boy Shorts
  • Marmot Performance Hipster
  • Smartwool 150 Bikini Briefs

Base Layers

Base Layer Tops

Smartwool is your best choice for base layer tops, as wool naturally helps regulate body temperature and has a great capacity to absorb moisture. It is odor resistant, highly breathable, and soft on your skin. Wool helps keep you warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot. Generally here in Washington from about October to June, I live in my long sleeved Smartwool top (the Merino 150 crew), and add layers from there. Capilene is a synthetic alternative to wool that is increasing in popularity and is a great option for vegans.

Best Women’s Base Layer Tops For Hiking

  • Smartwool Merino Women’s 250 quarter-zip
  • Smartwool Merino Women’s 150 crew
  • Carhartt Base Force Women’s quarter-zip
  • Arc’teryx Women’s Rho LT zip
  • Icebreaker Women’s Merino 200 Oasis Crewe

Base Layer Bottoms

Base layer bottoms are the garments formerly known as long underwear. Wearing these Smartwool, silk, or capilene leggings under your hiking pants is key for winter excursions. Having warm legs means your core stays warmer. You can regulate your body temp by adding or subtracting top layers.

Best Women’s Base Layer Bottoms For Hiking

  • REI Coop Midweight Base Layer Tights
  • REI Coop Silk Long Underwear
  • Patagonia Capilene Air Bottoms
  • Odlo Performace Blackcomb Base Bottoms
  • Smartwool Merino 250 Asymmetrical Bottoms

Midlayers

Midlayer Tops

Midlayer tops are your fleeces or otherwise soft pullovers, maybe a hoodie or quarter zip. I have some that are also smartwool but my favorite is a slightly oversized Kuhl fleece made of synthetic fabrics. It’s a half-zip so I can easily take it off or put it back on over any hat, cap, helmet, etc, and has a short mock turtleneck so my neck stays warm. My second favorite is an Altra hoodie that has a kangaroo pocket and thumb-holed long sleeves, super soft and has reflector strips for night visibility. Keep in mind that your base layer is your sweat-management layer; this is your cozy layer, the one that will do the work of keeping you warm.

Best Women’s Midlayer Tops For Hiking

  • Mountain Hardwear MicroChill 2.0
  • Marmot Flashpoint
  • Burton AK Turbine
  • REI Women’s Swiftland Insulated Mid-layer Top
  • Salomon Swift Hoodie

Midlayer Bottoms

So many choices here, but basically you want something comfortable and durable, and pockets are a bonus. For summer some prefer a convertible pant (zip the legs off mid-thigh for shorts), for winter something with a little thickness while still being breathable is ideal. I’m a huge fan of the REI Women’s Activator pant, and wear them practically year-round aside from the blazing hot shorts days when I’m not going to be too high up. They are weather resistant—not waterproof but not absorbent—and breathable, with many pockets, and durable enough that for all the scrambling and kicking myself with my own spikes have never torn, and I’ve had them for two years. Here are some others you might want to try:

Best Women’s Midlayer Bottoms For Hiking

  • First Life Alturas Guide
  • Columbia Saturday Trail
  • Athleta Women’s Trekkie
  • Patagonia Quandary
  • Prana Halle

Outer Layers

Jackets

A jacket that fits comfortably over your base and mid layers is next, and this one is weather-dependent. A thin puffy, a hard shell jacket, or a Gore-Tex raincoat are the three that I alternate between, and if it’s shoulder season or an unpredictable forecast or I just can’t decide, sometimes I wear one and bring another. Having a fully waterproof rain jacket in your pack is a good idea anyway. This is a good choice for starting out before the sun’s up, for breaks, or for hanging out on the summit.

Best Women’s Soft Shell Jackets For Hiking

  • Mountain Hardwear Kor Preshell
  • Rab Borealis
  • Mammut Ultimate V
  • Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hoodie
  • Columbia Kruser Ridge

Best Women’s Hard Shell Jackets For Hiking

  • The North Face Apex
  • Patagonia Cloud Ridge
  • REI Drypoint GTX
  • Arc’teryx Beta SL Hybrid
  • Norrona Trollveggen Gore-Tex Light Pro

Parkas

A parka is the Denali coat, the Arctic coat, the one you couldn’t wear casually around town without roasting from the inside out. Usually down-filled (though there are some great synthetics out there) this is an investment piece and one you want to make sure you absolutely love, not just like. I bought mine, the women’s Rab Neutrino Pro, when I started climbing the Cascade volcanoes and needed to be able to tolerate temps near zero. Most hikes it stays home, but if I’m at altitude or it’s wintery, I always bring the big puffy. It might only come out on breaks and at the summit, but it becomes more of a safety issue than a comfort issue when temps dip into the twenties.

Best Women’s Parkas For Hiking

  • Rab Neutrino Down Parka
  • Arc’teryx Cerium LT Down Parka
  • Patagonia FitzRoy Down Parka
  • Feathered Friends Khumbu Down Parka
  • The North Face Aconcagua Synthetic Parka

Rain/Snow Pants

Waterproof rain/snow pants are a real gamechanger, especially if you live in a wet climate. Here in western Washington where it feels like it rains more often than not, if we waited for clear days to hike, we’d never leave the house. Get them oversized enough that you can pull them on over your pants, like a raincoat for your legs. A full-leg zipper is ideal, as you can pull them on and off not just over shoes, but over mountaineering boots with crampons attached. When it’s weathery enough to warrant putting these pants on, you aren’t going to want to take your boots off, and you’re going to want it to go as quick as possible. Not to mention if you want to do any glissading, this will keep your pants underneath perfectly dry.

Best Women’s Rain/Snow Pants For Hiking

  • REI Rainier Full Zip
  • Columbia Storm Surge GTX
  • Marmot Pre-Cip Full Zip
  • The North Face Venture 2 Half Zip
  • Black Diamond StormLine Full Zip

Sock Layers

Sock Liners

Personal preference here. I know folks that swear by them and others that can’t stand them. Liner socks, also called sock liners, are an ultra-thin, practically see-through, silk, nylon, polyester, or wool sock worn under your regular sock. If you are blister-prone or plan on hiking incredibly long distances, you might want to give them a try. They work to prevent blisters by reducing friction and wicking moisture away.

Best Women’s Sock Liners For Hiking

  • Injinji Toe Sock Liners (wool)
  • REI Silk Liners (silk)
  • Smartwool Hiking Liner Crew Socks (wool)
  • Fox River Liners (polypropylene)
  • Wigwam (nylon)

Socks

Wool, wool, wool. Nothing but wool socks. Unless you have an allergy and wear synthetic wool. Wool keeps your feet warm in the winter, and cool in the summer, but most importantly it keeps them dry in any temperature by wicking the sweat away from your skin and absorbing it without winding up heavy and wet like cotton. Myth: the thicker the sock, the warmer it is. It may feel that way if you’re just walking around your house in your cozy socks, but once all that coziness gets jammed into a boot, it can actually work in the reverse. You need the space inside the boot in order for your body temp to create warm air pockets, like mittens vs. gloves. When it’s very cold out, you need a warmer boot, not more socks. During the summer, wool socks help prevent blisters from forming because your feet stay dry.

Best Women’s Socks For Hiking

  • Farm to Feet
  • Darn Tough
  • Smartwool
  • Bombas
  • REI

Other Layers and Accessories

Hats

A wool beanie works wonders in cold weather to keep body heat in, and a billed cap will keep the sun off your face and out of your eyes on those days with miles of direct sunshine.

Balaclavas

This head/neck/face covering looks more like something you’d use to rob a bank, but if you are hiking in bitter cold, the full coverage will feel great and prevent your nose and ears from freezing.

Neck Gaiters/Buffs

Buffs are so versatile that I keep one with me at all times, to put my hair back, protect my neck from cold or sun, or to cover my face.

Gloves and Mittens

Covered at length in the Gloves and Mittens article, I would almost put these on the Ten Essentials list just as something to have in your pack at all times. If anything should ever happen and you have to spend an unexpected night out, you’ll want to protect your hands from the elements because 1. You need them to do all the other things, and 2. Your body pulls heat away from them first to keep your core warm.

Putting It All Together

The biggest thing I’ve learned about layers is that it takes a little trial and error. You may have some over- or underdressed days on your journey to being comfortable, and you need to remember it’s not an exact science—each of our bodies operate differently, we all have different temperature comfort zones, and the weather variables that go into determining what we feel vs. what the thermostat says can keep us guessing like crazy. 80 degrees with a light breeze on a dry desert morning is beautiful, but 80 degrees with 70% humidity bushwhacking near ponds is gross. Same with cold—being on a glacier in the dark can be perfectly comfortable until you throw in some 30MPH wind, then it becomes miserable without the right gear.

So play with it. And always err on the side of “just in case.” For the weight of one more shirt or an extra jacket, you’ve insured a pleasant day in the mountains. You might find yourself coming up with some unconventional combinations (my personal favorite here in Washington being the Camp Muir break-time tank-and-puffy combo) but truly it’s whatever works as long as you are safe, dry, and comfortable. One thing we can never control is the weather, but one thing we can always control is what we wear.