Creating a Clothing Layering System for 3 Season Hiking
Maximizing your clothings efficiency through layering


When it comes to multi-day hiking, clothing selection can be the difference maker between a heavy pack and a light pack.

With a mindful approach to clothing, it’s not unusual for a newer hiker to find an entire pound or two of weight savings in their pack.

To achieve these weight savings we’re going to have to look at our clothing as a system. A system of individual clothing items designed to work together to keep us comfortable and safe in the expected conditions that we’ll face.

The goal is to create a system that will allow us to put on clothing layers for additional warmth or to peel them off, to let our bodies cool down; each item in our system providing maximum performance as they work together to create the appropriate comfort for each situation we encounter.

A solid clothing system can help eliminate the need to bring two clothing items that serve a similar purpose; which will free up valuable pack volume and save weight.

For the purpose of this video, we’re going to focus on 3 Season backpacking. 3 Season backpacking begins in the spring continuing through summer and into the fall. A 3 Season Layering System should cover most of the situations that hikers typically face during these seasons.

I like to describe mine as “a system that will keep me warm and dry down to 20 degrees.”

A backpacking layer system consists of 3 different categories: Base layers Mid layers And Outer Layers

Base Layer

A baselayer is worn next to skin and plays a vital role in your body’s moisture management; helping to move sweat away from your body.

To encourage moisture management, it is important to select fabrics that excel at getting the job done. Typically, people lean towards synthetic materials for their base layers, as they tend to dry quickly and perform well in most conditions.

Merino wool is another popular choice due to its natural odor resistant properties. There are also Merino and Synthetic blends that take advantage of the strengths of both materials.

You’ll want to avoid cotton base layer options as they do not perform well when wet, take a long time to dry, and do not hold in heat.

Items that fall into the baselayer category are:

Underwear: Typically, you’ll only need to bring 1 or 2 pairs. Don’t get too grossed out, these can easily be washed with water found on trail during the day or when in town.

Hiking Socks: Just like your underwear, these can also easily be washed with water on trail as well, which allows most hikers to get away with only bringing 1 to 2 pairs.

Hiking Shirt: This covers everything from a Short Sleeve T-Shirt, to a Long Sleeve T-Shirt, to a Sun Hoody, to my personal favorite, a Button Up Shirt. You can usually get away with only bringing one, which is the way I like to roll.

Hiking Shorts: Whether you like that big baggy look or that 80’s marathoner vibe, you only need one pair.

Pants: Like shorts, you typically don’t need to bring more than a single pair. You can even take my approach and leave them at home and, when needed, just use your rain pants in their place.

Bonus points for those dad bosses out there for bringing a pair of those convertible zip off pants.

Thermal Leggings: This is one of those optional items, primarily used when sleeping, that really only requires a single pair.

Thermal Shirt: Same goes for the shirt that goes for the leggings; one pair will do.

A Hat: If you’re bringing more than one hat, you really love hats.

Gaiters: These are another optional item that only requires a single pair.

Garments, like these, made from lighter and more technical fabrics can greatly reduce your total carried weight and take up significantly less room in your pack.

Mid Layer

The next category in our system are Mid layers. These items are intended to be worn over your base layers and to provide additional warmth.

When purchasing these items, be mindful that because they’re intended to be worn over other clothing, that you may need to size up from your typically worn size.

Some common examples of mid layers are:

Gloves: Every good layering system should include a quality pair of gloves. Typically, this is something that you only need one pair; especially when paired with rain mitts.

Sleep Socks or Insulate Booties: These are 100% optional, but if you sleep cold, you’ll probably want to bring a pair along.

A Beanie: These are great for cool mornings and for sleeping in on cold nights on trail. Definitely only need one of these.

A Fleece Top: Now these come in everything from a vest, to a zip up, to, my preference, a hooded pull over. If you pick the right one for your trip, that’s all you’ll need: one.

Fleece Pants: Perfect for sleeping or for wearing when doing laundry in a trail town.

An Insulated Jacket: An absolute must have when the temperatures start to drop. Rarely, will you need it while hiking, but when you get to camp and the sun starts going down, you’ll be happy you have it. You’ll only need one of these bad boys.

Mid layers are great for insulation and retaining warmth, and ultralight versions are great for protecting you from the elements because they breathe better, pack down smaller, and are far lighter than traditional options.

Going with these options prove that you don’t have to dress like you’re embarking on an arctic expedition or a mountaineering excursion to the top of K2 to have a safe and comfortable time on trail.

Outer Layer

The last category in our layering system is the outer layer. These items, just as they sound, are intended to be worn on the outside of all other clothing and are primarily intended to protect you from weather like rain and wind.

It is even more important to be mindful of sizing on these items as they may need to be worn over as many as 3 layers of clothing, one of which may be your bulky insulated jacket.

You’ll only need one each of the following example Outer Layer items:

Rain Mitts: These can come in really handy on those cold and rain fall days.

A Rain Jacket: An absolute necessity for just about any hike.

Rain Pants: If the temps could possibly drop below 60 degrees, it’s not a bad idea to bring a pair along.

And a Wind Shirt: I’d classify this as an optional layer but if you think you’ll be on exposed ridge lines, that added relief and protection they provide can greatly enhance your comfort level. In most circumstances, a quality ultralight breathable rain jacket can be used in place of a wind shirt.

Outer layers really are safety layers designed to keep you dry and from being battered in the wind. Having quality protection from the elements can literally be a life saver.

Now that we’ve covered the different categories in our layering system, we can start thinking about which items in each category will work best for us and how to incorporate them into our own, personal, system.

Before deciding what we’re going to include in our layering system, we’ll first have to research our route, know what to expect in terms of terrain, and typical weather conditions during the timeframe that we’ll be hiking it.

Only after we have this information can we make a truly informed decision on what we should bring and what we may safely leave behind.

It may take a few shake down hikes before you get comfortable with your system but we’d like to give you some real world examples of

layering to help get you thinking.

Cool or Cold temperatures in Dry Conditions

Our first two examples will be based around Cool or Cold temperatures in Dry Conditions. Imagine early morning or late evenings in the desert.

Example 1: For your base layer you might wear your underwear, socks, gloves, hiking pants, and a long sleeve shirt.

For your mid layer you might wear your zip fleece, and your insulated jacket

You may not need an outer layer here as the conditions are dry and the fleece and insulated jacket are providing you plenty of warmth.

Example 2: For your base layer you might wear your underwear, socks, gloves, hiking shorts, and a sun hoody.

For your mid layer you might just wear your fleece pullover and a beanie.

For your outlayer you could use your rain pants and rain jacket to provide added warmth.

Cool or Cold temperatures in Wet Conditions

Our second set of examples are based around Cool or Cold temperatures in Wet Conditions. Think the Appalachian Trail in Spring or Washington state in October.

Example 1: For your base layer you might wear your underwear, socks, gloves, hiking pants, and a button up shirt.

For your mid layer you might wear your fleece vest and a beanie.

For your outlayer you could use your rain pants, rain mitts, and wear your windshirt under your rain jacket.

Example 2: For your base layer you might wear your underwear, socks, gloves, hiking pants, and a short sleeve shirt.

For your mid layer you might wear your zip fleece, and your insulated jacket.

For your outlayer you could use your rain pants, rain mitts, and your rain jacket.

Warm or Hot Temperatures and Dry Conditions Our third set of examples are based around Warm or Hot temperatures and dry conditions. Think the Southern California desert in spring or the PCT in Oregon in August.

Example 1: For your base layer you might wear your underwear, socks, a hat, hiking pants, and a sun hoody.

You will most likely not need a mid layer.

If the conditions are windy, you may want to use your wind shirt but chances are you will not need an outer layer.

Example 2: For your base layer you might wear your underwear, socks, a hat, hiking shorts, and a button up shirt.

You will most likely not need a mid layer.

If the conditions are windy, you may want to use your wind shirt but chances are you will not need an outer layer.

Warm/Hot w/ Wet Conditions Our last set of examples are based around Warm or Hot temperatures and Wet conditions. Think the Appalachian Trail in the summer.

Example 1: For your base layer you might wear your underwear, socks, a hat, hiking pants, and a short sleeve shirt.

You will most likely not need a mid layer.

If the conditions are rainy, you may want to use your rain jacket.

Example 2: For your base layer you might wear your underwear, socks, a hat, hiking shorts, and a sun hoody.

You will most likely not need a mid layer.

If the conditions are rainy, you may want to actually skip a rain jacket and let the rain cool you off. Trying to stay dry when it's hot out and you’re climbing up a mountain is almost impossible when it’s not raining. Trying to not sweat to death in a rain jacket when it’s above 65 degrees may be an exercise in futility.

We hope these examples helped give you a little perspective and perhaps a little inspiration.

Here is a link to my personal 3 Season Layering System if you’d like to see what I personally bring.

Obviously, hiking clothing is a very personal choice, as each person has their own preference when it comes to fabrics, comfort, and style.

Even with that, your setup may vary slighting for each trip based on the elevation profile, and the expected trail and weather conditions.

Working towards a solid layering system can help reduce the amount of space clothing takes up in your pack and reduce your carried weight; minimizing the burden on your body and allowing you to enjoy your time on trail more.

Through thoughtful consideration and experience, you should be able to create a well thought out layering system that will keep you comfortable and safe, and ultimately one that works for you.