Dressing is more complicated for winter hikes and it takes time to dial in your personal preferences. It's important to realize that everyone's gear strategy is different. There is no one-size-fits-all gear setup. You will be hiking in changing temperatures and conditions throughout the day. From still and bitter cold in the morning, to sunny and breezy in the afternoon or snowy and windy. Some people hike hot, some warm and some cold. The amount of heat and sweat your body generates will be different if you're hiking uphill or downhill.
With all that said, layers are your friend. Base, mid, and outer layers are the traditional setup. Moisture-wicking materials are important and cotton fabrics discouraged. You will sweat during your hikes, making moisture management a necessity. The more you sweat and soak your clothes the greater the chance for hypothermia to set in as your body loses heat when wet. Managing the balance between staying warm and sweating because you are too hot is the key to staying comfortable and safe.
Synthetics, silks, down and wools are all possibilities for clothing fabrics and it usually comes down to preference. Finding your personal preference may take time as you try different setups and fabrics. And clothing in these materials can be expensive so do your research.
Both men and women should go with synthetic breathable fabrics. For women, stay away from heavily padded bras, as the foam will soak up sweat with little chance of evaporation. Sports bras are a good option.
Pants and Legs
Base layers or leggings come in different thicknesses and provide a variety of warmth. Combine this with a pair of softshell pants, goretex pants, or other type of shell pants or overalls. This provides warmth and wind protection. Pants that come with extras, like heat venting zippers, can be extremely useful when temps warm up and you need to cool down. If the temps or wind chill will be very low most of the day, you can add another base layer or mid layer. Depending on your pants setup, you might consider carrying a hardshell pair of pants in your backpack for emergency situations like spending the night in the backcountry.
One thing to think about as you dial in your preferences, it's easier to change or switch out top layers than bottom layers because of boots, gaiters, spikes, snowshoes, etc. So, depending on the day's weather, you might consider the number of bottom layers you use as you decide on your upper-body layers.
"Snow pants" or insulated ski pants are usually too warm, don't breathe well, and are heavy for winter hiking, unless it is going to be bitter cold. But they can work if you don't have other options to start with.
The upper body is where you will be adjusting the most for heat and sweat management. The options are nearly unlimited. Start with a moisture-wicking base layer. If going with a short-sleeve shirt, maybe consider a long-sleeve shirt as a second layer.
Add a mid layer, like a microfleece or a zip-up with a hood. The outer layer should be a thinner "puffy" coat (synthetic or down) or a jacket (hard or soft shell). At least one of your jackets should have a hood for wind and cold protection. You will want both a puffy and shell in your pack because at times you will wear both. With those layers the numerous combinations will provide you with options for just about every condition.
To top it all off, a thicker warmer "puffy" coat is your best friend when you stop for lunch, spend time on the summit, or the weather gets really bad. This coat will not leave your pack on most days, but it will be essential on the rare occasions all your layers aren't enough. It's also part of your emergency overnight gear.
Head and Neck
Beanies of all fabrics, thicknesses and colors are available. Support your team or favorite brand. Skull caps are thin synthetic beanies that easily fit under helmets or under a thicker beanie if temps go low. Neck gaiters (Buff brand as an example) also come in varieties and add warmth to your neck and lower face. Again, using one or both of these items provides options.
At least one of your coats needs to have a hood. Not only does this provide warmth, but it blocks out the harsh winds and blowing snow.
Don't forget a ball cap if the weather is nice.
Face masks and balaclavas are other options, but using these with sunglasses or goggles can cause them to fog up due to your breath being forced 'up' and out. One option to prevent this to wear headband, or half a Buff, or other item that covers just your nose and cheeks, but lets you breath 'down' without restrictions. This setup, with a beanie and neck gaiter, provides complete head and face coverage. There are specialized face covers that can also work. You'll need to find the option that best fits your needs to protect your face from frostbite, windburn and sunburn.
One can't forget the importance of eye protection in winter. Wrap-around sunglasses and goggles are a must. On sunny days, sun reflects off the snow which can cause snow blindness. Ask anyone that has had snow blindness and they will tell you how painful it is. Goggles can also protect you from the sun. But their main purpose to protect your eyes on windy days, with or without sun. You'll want both in your pack.
Gloves or mittens? Why not both? Your hands are your tools in the backcountry. Protect them. Cold hands loose dexterity, causing simple tasks, like zippers, to be monumental chores. Options, like in all layering cases, are your friend. Start with a thin pair of synthetic gloves as a base layer or liner. You can find these gloves with "iTouch" technology that allows you to use your phone without completely taking off your gloves.
Add an outer layer, a waterproof, windproof and breathable glove or mitten. Mittens are generally warmer, but a good pair of gloves can be just as warm. Gloves/mittens with gauntlets or wrist straps are a great way to keep them from blowing away in the wind. Never leave your gloves on the ground. Put them in a pocket or pack if you need to take them off.
You can wear warm gloves or super-warm-Alaskan-expedition mittens, again personal preferences. Some people always have cold hands. The choice of gloves is one you should not skimp on with cheap pairs from a discount retailer. Spend the money and get a pair that will keep your hands warm and dry.
With the two-layer system, you can easily do most tasks without taking off both gloves, protecting your hands from winter conditions. You can purchase sets of the double gloves, or spend some time at a store mixing and matching until you find the right setup for yourself. For those that like the warmth of mittens, but don't like the lack of dexterity, this is a great set up.
No matter what, carry an extra pair of gloves/mittens in your pack. A lost or wet glove can turn an average winter hike into a race to prevent frostbite.
Chemical hand warmers, like HotHands, are worth the small price to help keep hands warm and fingers usable.
For most 14ers summits, especially for beginners, a standard pair of insulated hiking boots will be perfectly fine. Warmth and breathability are two factors to consider when purchasing a pair. When trying on these boots, don't forget your winter socks for the fitting. Many people will size up their winter boots to accommodate their winter sock system. This is also important because you want a boot that isn't too tight. If it's too tight, circulation is cut down and your feet will get cold.
If you don't have insulated boots, you might be able to wear your summer hiking boots. This isn't advisable because of the "what ifs" of winter conditions. But if you do use your summer boots, just be careful not to overstuff them with thick socks and cut off blood flow to your toes. Loosen the laces before you even put them on.
As your experience and skills grow, you will eventually need true mountaineering boots, and a matching pair of crampons, to climb the harder 14ers, or to cross steep and icy terrain. Mountaineering boots are perfectly fine for all 14er summits, if you want to go that route. Many hikers wear mountaineering boots all winter.
Your choice of socks will depend on how much insulation your boots have, and your personal preference. A synthetic friction or base layer sock (layers) can help wick moisture away, which is important to keeping your feet warm and dry. Sweaty feet can lead to frostbite. Match these with wool or wool-blend socks to add warmth and comfort.
If you find that your feet tend to get cold, or just want to help ensure they don't get cold, some people will slip a chemical hand warmer between sock layers right near the tongue of the boot to help keep their feet warm. Just have to find a comfortable spot to place it. Watch that you don't burn your skin.
Adding a pair of gaiters can prevent ice buildup on your boots and pant legs. This helps keep your feet warm and dry. It also prevents snow from going up your pants legs. This is critical during days where you are hiking through deeper snow, even with snowshoes. It is also important on long days or overnight trips to keep your pants dry as frozen pant legs are not fun to wear and only help hypothermia happen more quickly.
There are several brands, sizes and materials for gaiters. Find the pair that fits your boot and calf.
Softshell vs Hardshell
Softshell coats and pants are water resistant and highly breathable. Hardshell, like goretex, are waterproof and are not as breathable. The difference in water resistance and water proof will show itself after a long cold rain or time spent in wet snow. And that is why for most people hiking in Colorado's winter, softshell is usually a good choice, because of the dry snow and lack of rain. The softshell will let out the body heat from the aerobic workout you get hiking up a peak.
Though, if you plan on being out in harsh winter conditions or overnight trips, go for the hardshell, which usually costs a bit more. If you want to cover all chances of conditions, and have the money, a hardshell might be the better option. But, if you hike hot and sweat a lot, softshell is the better jacket for you. Many people carry both as part of their layering system.
Here is a YouTube video that goes over the differences with a bit of backyard science. (It's a cycling video, but the info is good for hiking.)
This YouTube video discusses hardshell and softshell pants.
Puffy: Synthetic vs. Down
Down, made from goose or duck plumage, is naturally lightweight. This makes down jackets light, very compressible, breathable, resilient and warm. The cost for quality down jackets can be high. The one major flaw, it doesn't do well when wet. Some companies are making down jackets with moisture protection.
Synthetic is usually polyester and isn't as light as plumage. But what it does better than natural fibers, it holds heat when wet and dries faster. It is also cheaper than down.
Moisture from rain, melting snow, or sweat can seep into your puffy. Your choice of puffy filling should reflect the normal condition of your hikes and weather. Both are good options for hiking in the Winter 14ers. But, will you be using them in other environments.
Here is a good video explaining the difference and goes over the pros and cons of each.
One word of caution: neither are great around a campfire as the sparks will instantly melt the outer fabric. Also, make sure to put them in your pack when hiking through trees and brush as the fabric will snag.
If you are a heavy sweater, consider carrying an extra base layer or two to change into at treeline before the winds pickup. The same for socks, change them out if they get too wet. Look for jackets with "pit zips" or other ventilation options. Even on very cold mornings, never start out a hike if you are warm and comfy. Take off a layer or two immediately to cool down as you're about to generate some body heat with your walking. As a general rule, you should be just warm enough when hiking, but quickly start getting cold if standing still or sitting down.
Avoid cotton. When cotton gets wet, it takes a very long time to dry, which can leave you feeling damp, cold and miserable. Synthetic and wool layers dry much faster and will move perspiration away from your skin.
Extras / Emergency Gear
For winter excursions having an extra layer, a second pair of gloves, a second beanie, and spare socks can mean the difference between a successful summit and a cold uncomfortable day that causes you to turn around or possible frost bit. These are also extremely important if things turn bad and you are stranded out at night or waiting for search and rescue.
While you may never intend to spend the night out, there is always a chance you will need to. There is also the chance that the weather forecast was wrong and the storm you thought was coming in later in the evening is now hitting just as you are getting to the summit. Consider carrying the following items to help keep you warm for unexpected conditions:
- Extra pair of heavy gloves.
- Extra balaclava or head covering.
- Extra heavy socks
- An emergency bivy (SOL makes some great lightweight bivy products)
- Backup puffy jacket (light weight, but really helps keep heat in if you need it)
- Spare batteries for a GPS device/headlamp and battery pack for cell phone
- Spare set of hand warmers or bigger body warmers
- Candy bar or two (Critical if you need to get some calories and have eaten all your food)