The Basics of Layering Clothing for Fall Hikes

September 16, 2019Garland Kennedy
Fall autumn hiker girl outdoor at nature forest lake with backpack for camping travel trip. Happy Asian woman hiking outdoors with bag and hat, cold outerwear gear.

Fall autumn hiker girl outdoor at nature forest lake with backpack for camping travel trip. Happy Asian woman hiking outdoors with bag and hat, cold outerwear gear.

Outdoors clothing needs to meet the conditions a hiker will face. How hot or cold is the climate? How intense is the planned activity? Is rain or snow in the forecast? What about changes in elevation?

Outdoors people are often told to “dress in layers,” and while that’s sage advice, it’s also a bit too simple. So let’s go over what works and what doesn’t work for layering in varying outdoor conditions.

First, some general rules.

Avoid cotton! Once wet, cotton doesn’t hold heat — instead, it draws heat away from you. Cotton also takes a long time to dry, making it far from ideal for an outdoors layer. If a cooling or wicking layer is needed, stick with synthetics.

Baselayers are the foundation of the layering system — companies such as Beyond Clothing offer pieces for all types of outdoor activities. Photo courtesy of Beyond Clothing Facebook page.

When it’s cold, wear wool. Unless you’re allergic to wool, it’s the best mid-layer material out there. Wool remains warm when wet and, if layered correctly, it can handle a wide range of temperatures and weather conditions. Merino wool is shockingly warm for how thin it is. Merino is my go-to baselayer, especially since it’s considerably less itchy than standard spun wool. It’s true that wool stays wet for a long time, but since it won’t make you cold, it isn’t a dealbreaker.

Also bring a rain layer. Rain, and even snow, are constant possibilities in many outdoors locations. Mountains have an annoying habit of creating their own weather patterns.

Other layering options will depend more specifically on the temperatures you’ll be facing.

If you’re in a hot place, a thin synthetic layer works great and wicks away sweat. Even better, these thin, wicking layers often provide some form of sun protection, which is a must even when it’s overcast.

When camping at higher elevations, temperatures can change quickly, so be prepared for variable weather. The sunset from Starrigavan Ridge, Sitka, Alaska, on a rare sunny day in the rainforest, Sept. 1, 2019. Photo by Garland Kennedy/Coffee or Die.

If it’s cool or cold, a thin synthetic layer is generally still a good idea for wicking away sweat. Adding on some merino wool mid-layers will create an adaptable and versatile clothing system. Last March, I spent a long weekend snowshoeing in Alaska’s Talkeetna Mountains. Temperatures ranged from the mid-20s to around minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. It may sound like a down jacket would be the best barrier from the cold, but that wasn’t the case.

I spent my time hiking below zero in a nylon T-shirt and a single merino mid-layer. I had lightly insulated boots but wore my standard nylon hiking pants with no long-johns. The exertion from backpacking with fairly heavy equipment kept me warm. I didn’t even wear gloves, as the cold air on my fingers helped cool me off.

However, when we arrived at camp, I quickly pulled the warmer layers out of my backpack. Carrying a variety of thinner layers instead of a big parka or wool sweater allows the hiker to fine-tune their clothing to the weather conditions and activity — and that’s imperative to an enjoyable, successful, and safe adventure. If you wear too much insulation and begin to sweat, that dampness acts as a thermal conductor directly away from your body, making hypothermia a very real risk.

It’s also important to keep in mind the level of your activity when packing clothing for a trip. I have been colder while deer hunting in North Carolina on a wet, 45-degree day than I was when backpacking in the Alaskan winter. Hunting requires almost statue-like stillness, and I slowly cooled off, despite a raincoat and underlayers. When you’re not physically active, the cold will creep up on you slowly, so be aware of it and dress appropriately.

Cooler temperatures in the fall, along with activity level and general climate, will help determine clothing layers while hiking.

Also, don’t be afraid to pause an activity to adjust your layering. If you’re sweating, take off a layer. If you’re cold, add a layer. Your body will let you know what it needs — including hydration. Water, with its high specific heat, is an amazing temperature regulator. While drinking from a half-frozen water bottle may not sound tempting, consistent hydration keeps your body running and helps maintain a proper body temperature.

Finally, don’t underestimate the outdoors. Warm days become cold without warning. Snow falls from the sky in August. The surface of a glacier, with all that reflected light, can be an oven. My sister and I crossed the Root Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park wearing thin pants, T-shirts, and tennis shoes because of the unbearable heat. Be prepared for a variety of conditions and fine-tune your layers to meet those requirements.

A proper layering system — and it truly is a system — can keep you running in a multitude of places and under a wide range of climates and weather events. Research the location beforehand so that you know what to expect. Drink lots of water. And don’t let poor clothing choices negatively impact your time outdoors.

Garland Kennedy
Garland Kennedy

Garland Kennedy is a contributing writer for Coffee or Die. As an avid backpacker and outdoorsman, he has explored wide-open spaces all over North America — from the forests of North Carolina (he’s a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in medieval history) to the mountains of Alaska. His previous bylines include gear reviews on

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Robert Heinlein: The Navy Vet Who Pioneered Sci-Fi

The dean of science fiction combined his experiences in the Navy with his knowledge as an aeronautical engineer to create genre-transforming novels.

January 27, 2023Mac Caltrider
Masih Alinejad
Feds: Brooklyn Cops Foil Brazen Iranian Plot to Murder Masih Alinejad

Three men reputedly linked to Eastern European mobsters and Iranian intelligence operatives have been arrested.

January 27, 2023Carl Prine
FILE - Ukrainian soldiers on captured Russian tanks T-72 hold military training close to the Ukraine-Belarus border near Chernihiv, Ukraine, Friday, Oct. 28, 2022. The West's move to send tanks to Ukraine was greeted enthusiastically from Kyiv, Berlin and Washington. But Moscow seemed to shrug. The Kremlin has warned the West that supplying tanks would be a dangerous escalation of the conflict and denounced the decision. AP photo by Aleksandr Shulman, File.
Russia Responds to Ukraine’s ‘Tanksgiving’ With Missile and Drone Strikes

Hours after the US and Germany agreed to send battle tanks to Ukraine, Russia launched missile and drone strikes at targets across the country.

January 26, 2023Nolan Peterson
Marine Corps Dedicates First New Base in 7 Decades

For the first time in seven decades, the US Marine Corps is building a new base.

January 26, 2023Carl Prine
US Sending Nearly a Battalion of Abrams Tanks to Ukraine

The US will send 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine after months of uncertainty.

January 26, 2023Associated Press
The damaged tug Mark E. Kuebler grounded near Corpus Christi, Texas, on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023. A large gash is visible just above the waterline. Photos courtesy of Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Merrit Carter. Composite by Kenna Lee/Coffee or Die Magazine.
Coast Guard Coxswain Emphasizes Having Clear Head During Tugboat Response

One of the world’s most innovative tugboats remains beached on a Texas sandbar, after apparently getting sucked under a massive oil tanker and mauled by its propeller.

January 26, 2023Noelle Wiehe
Coffee Or Die Photo
The ‘Tallinn Pledge’ for Ukraine: NATO V2.0?

Representatives from nine NATO countries gathered in Estonia and pledged more military aid for Ukraine.

January 20, 2023Nolan Peterson
Coffee Or Die Photo
Triple Seven Expedition
DISPATCH: With Celebratory Jump in Florida, Triple 7 Expedition Is a Wrap

The Triple 7 Expedition's team of nine vets wrapped up its breakneck skydiving expedition with a final, celebratory jump in Florida on Wednesday, Jan. 18.

January 20, 2023Jenna Biter
  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
  • Request a Correction
  • Write for Us
  • General Inquiries
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved