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I recently moved to Germany and am planning to do a hike in the Harz mountains. The weather is expected to be around -18°C. Most of the trail will be sheltered by forest, but the mountaintop is exposed to strong winds. I am somewhat new to the cold climate and am wondering what others would consider appropriate clothing for this day hike.

I have:

  • Down jacket (outer layer), polar fleece and microfleece (intermediate layers), and t-shirt.
  • Cotton pants (jeans), fleece pants, and long underwear.
  • Wool socks.
  • Leather/Gore-Tex boots
  • Wool beanie (hat), gloves.

Obviously the cotton pants are not so appropriate. What would be the best cold-weather hiking clothes?

After-hike edit:

The weather on the hike turned out to be much better than forecast; in particular: sunny and no wind. Two observations:

  1. The puffy down jacket quickly became much too warm to hike in and was awkwardly bulky to stow (but was wonderfully nice and cozy for breaks). I think I'll shop around for a lighter outer shell and a more compact down intermediate layer to add when necessary.

  2. It turns out that my boots were terrible for walking on compacted snow. These boots are wonderful otherwise; I think the problem is that the tread has been worn away over the years and they need to be re-soled. So I would add: check boot traction on various surfaces, and/or bring traction-enhancing devices for compacted snow/ice. Or perhaps the "Hot Weather Safety Toe Flight Boot" is simply not designed for ice? Other than this issue, my feet were perfectly warm and happy.

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7 Answers

A pant or snow pant that stops wind, like the Patagonia Guide Pants or goretex shell pants would be good. I'd say the same for the top, and outer shell that cuts wind, with the fleece underneath, and then pop on the down jacket when you've stopped for breaks. You could probably get away with just the down jacket but I find for long hikes you're more likely to get hot or wet inside it, it really depends on the model and the weight of the down. When there's lots of wind I find it nice to have a hood.

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  • Cotton pants are fine if you wear something windproof over them, like membrane pants. I use my regular manchester pants for hiking throughout the whole year.
  • Balaclava might be a good choice, so that you don't have to worry about frostbites in the face, especially in the wind. If you wear glasses, check if they stay clear when wearing balaclava.
  • Pay attention to the gloves, since hands are very prone to frostbites. It’s a good idea to have waterproof gloves and even in that case carry some backup ones.
  • Down jacket in combination with fleece might easily prove too warm. The usual rule applies: you don’t want to get hot and start sweating too much, since being wet means being cold. Make sure you can vary the clothes for different warmth.
  • Windproof hood is a must.
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When hiking in the cold you need to be able to sweat but not get cold. A good choice would be clothing that can breathe well and is lightweight and layered. Materials made with a natural wool mix are a good choice for layering under other clcothes; even when damp they stay warm. Anything that is able to wick away sweat is good. A good outer-layer shell jacket and pants needs to be able to breathe and cut the wind and cold. Pay special attention to gloves and socks as these items can make the difference between turning around and being able to carry on. You will need to rotate your glove/sock-type items, so carry extra.

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You need to have clothes for the coldest part of the trip, at the mountaintop.

  1. For that temperature and wind, I would recommend more layers. I would carry or wear at least one more fleece top and one pair of fleece pants. It may be easy to stay warm in the trees, but if you want or need to stop on the mountain top it will get really cold really fast.

  2. It's safer if the t-shirt is not cotton, and waterproof pants would be better than cotton pants. The outer cotton pants would be OK when it's this cold as far as moisture goes, but nylon pants will block the wind a lot better.

  3. Bring extra socks. The Goretex in the boots is waterproof, but it allows cold air in.

  4. Make sure the gloves are warm enough.

  5. You should be able to cover most of your head from the wind for frostbite protection. You should consider a hood, balaclava, and probably ski goggles.

  6. Bring some chemical foot and hand heaters in case you need them to prevent frostbite.

Here's what I normally use in those conditions. Everybody has their own preferences; this is just an example rather than a required list.

  1. Shirt, 2 fleece layers, and a waterproof jacket with a hood.
  2. Thin long underwear (not cotton), fleece pants, goretext pants.
  3. I carry an extra fleece top, pants, and socks (in case I get cold).
  4. Hood on the jacket, a warm balaclava, and sometimes goggles to keep my head warm.
  5. Warm boots with as many socks as I can fit without restricting the blood flow in my feet. Goretex will work, but you need more socks because it allows air in. Insulated rubber boots (gum boots) will work fine, and can handle most crampons.
  6. Gaitors if there will be much snow. These help keep your feet warm, too.
  7. Mittens, or really warm gloves. Glove liners are good.
  8. Heating pads for hands and feet (they are different), and something to start a fire with.
  9. I will always turn around if I get too cold.
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specifically the parts like "Make sure the gloves are warm enough." -- if a reader knows what gloves work for those conditions, they already know enough that they likely don't need the answer. –  Russell Steen Feb 10 '12 at 16:23
    
Is it appropriate to edit someone else's answer to build it up? I think I could add some detail and polish to this one, which is already a good start. –  Greg.Ley Feb 11 '12 at 2:13
1  
The weather on the hike turned out to be much better than forecast; in particular: sunny and no wind. Two observations: 1) The down jacket quickly became much too warm to hike in and was awkwardly bulky to stow (but was wonderfully nice and cozy for breaks); 2) It turns out that my boots were terrible for walking on compacted snow. These boots are wonderful otherwise; I think the problem is that the tread has been worn away over the years and they need to be re-soled. So I would add: check boot traction on various surfaces, and/or bring traction-enhancing devices for compacted snow/ice. –  nibot Feb 12 '12 at 14:41
    
I think rubber boots are very bad choice for long hikes anywhere. My experience: after 4 hours in the snow, my feet were wet. Temperature - around zero. Socks - single layer of thick wool socks. –  Vorac Oct 18 '12 at 15:06
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Good socks are a life saver. Its definitely worth it to get a pair of polypropylene or similar material socks.

The socks dry amazingly quickly when wet. At the end of a wash cycle the socks never need to be dried. They come out of the washer dry. Furthermore, they keep your feet very warm. On multiple occasions I've gone hiking in the snow and at the end of the hike I was the only member of my hiking party that didn't have freezing feet.

If you had to choose between decent boots and great socks or great boots and cotton socks, I would go with the great socks.

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There are 2 things that you need to watch out for: Wind chill and getting wet due to sweating.

You need to follow a 3 layer system.

  • Layer 1 next to skin to transport moisture away from the body. example: http://www.xxl.no/klaer-herre/undertoey-herre
  • Layer 2 middle layer isolate and transport moisture your fleece would do for this layer
  • Layer 3 outher shell layer to stop wind, your down jacket should be Ok for this. But the wind would go straight through your jeans.

From what you have listed the main thing that I would avoid is cotton next to the skin. I would also get some windproof trowsers.

In addition to your head, the parts of the body you need to watch out for is where the blood flow is close to the surface. That is ancles, wrists and neck. Use high boots, gloves with long cuffs, and a fleece with a high neck.

Here is some more info on the 3 layer principle: http://www.stormberg.no/no/campaign/Trelagsprinsippet/

Sorry the links are in Norwegian, you can copy paste them into google translate.

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Here's my attempt to make a truly thorough answer to the question of cold-weather clothing. Honestly many chapters of books have been written about this subject, so it is hard to give a specific answer for a specific case.

First - Generally agreed upon principles:

  1. There are three things that impact hypothermia - wind, wet, and cold. Given the right circumstances, only one of those three is necessary to seriously injure you, though usually two or three get dangerous. For example, it might not be windy, but it is cold and you are wet - this is a recipe for injury. It is certainly possible to become hypothermic on a cool summer night in the Rockies if it is also very windy or you are wet.
  2. There are two primary ways to get wet - precipitation (at these temperatures, probably snow), and perspiration (sweat). These things should be avoided or protected against if at all possible.
  3. The best way to manage your warmth safely (without sweating, but being protected from wind, wet, and cold) is layering. REI has lots of examples and more layering discussion at http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/dress+layers.html . In short, the system involves roughly three layers. The first is a next-to-skin layer that wicks moisture from your body while keeping you somewhat warm. The next layer is an insulating layer that creates dead air space to keep you warm (it also continues the moisture wicking process). Wool, fleece, and down are examples of this layer. The last layer is a shell that protects from wind and wet. Examples would be a wind shirt or waterproof-breathable jacket (of which Gore-Tex is only one example). The layers can be taken off or added as conditions dictate, thus keeping you warm, dry, and optimally protected.
  4. "Cotton kills" - This is an exaggeration, but it comes from the reality that when cotton becomes wet it no longer insulates and takes a long time to dry out. This means that cotton should be used with caution and in the right circumstances. Don't use cotton as a baselayer in cold weather or where it might get wet and put you in danger. I use cotton shirts when taking certain summer trips because it's more comfortable for me, but I avoid situations where it might harm me by not drying or by cooling me too much.
  5. Protect yourself from frostbite. This means that your face should be covered as much as is reasonable. If extremities start feeling numb, deal with the problem before it becomes serious. Exposed skin can get frostbite very quickly in cold, windy circumstances (see: http://www.atc.army.mil/weather/windchill.pdf)

Next - consider the circumstances:

Weather:

Other than the temperature (we've already established that it is very cold), we need to consider the other elements of weather such as sun, wind, rain, and snow. On sunny trips you will need something to protect you from sunburn, particularly if there is snow on the ground (the snow reflects sun back into your face from a new angle), and particularly if you are at higher altitudes (atmosphere is less dense and thus blocks fewer rays). When there is less sun, the impact is less (but not gone - don't stop protecting yourself). Wind adds another element to consider (see: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/os/windchill/windchillglossary.shtml). Rain and snow contribute to being wet, which is one of the pillars of hypothermia (from above). If there is even a distant chance of rain or snow, it would be foolish to not carry waterproof protection.

Nature of Trip:

If the trip is a gentle stroll through high meadows, close to safety, there is more wiggle room when it comes to gear. If the trip is a 25 mile boulder-bash far from safety (perhaps from a hut or deep in the wilderness), you can't afford to cut corners with your clothing. This question specifically seems like an intermediate, which would require some careful consideration.

Skill, attitude, and experience of hiker:

Some hikers have many particular systems designed to be used in specific circumstances. Those systems won't work for everyone, so we have to be careful in making specific recommendations. As a guide, for example, I would instruct my students not to bring a single scrap of cotton with them on an intermediate day hike (aside from a bandanna, perhaps). If I were doing the same day hike, I might wear mostly cotton - it depends on the circumstance.

Finally - Some recommendations:

  1. Layer up.

    Baselayer: Wear a synthetic or wool baselayer on top and bottom (examples: Capilene from www.patagonia.com and baselayers from www.smartwool.com)

    Insulation: Wear (or carry, if the effort will be high) a mid-weight insulating layer such as a fleece top and bottom (examples: Aspiring Hood from www.icebreaker.com and Vermillion Thermal Jacket from www.golite.com)

    Standing insulation: When you stop (particularly if you will be stopping long-term) you will probably need more insulation to keep you toasty. A down jacket is very common for this. Lower fill ratings (500-650) will be heavier and bulkier for their warmth but are also cheaper (example: Beartooth jacket from www.golite.com). Higher fill ratings (700-850) will be lighter and more packable for their warmth (example: Bitterroot jacket from www.golite.com). I personally love my down to have a hood on it (it keeps me warmer at night, too), but that is up to preference. Most people keep a down in the top of their pack, ready to be taken out when stopped.

    Shell: If there is zero chance of getting wet from rain/snow/etc, there is little need for more than a wind jacket (example: Trail Wind Hoody from www.marmot.com). If there may be precipitation, use a waterproof-breathable shell. There are thousands of these on the market, so there are lots of possibilities there. A hood is very nice to have for this layer, both for your comfort and safety. If you aren't into hoods, that's okay - just make sure you have total coverage for your head and neck.

    Hat: Wear one. A balaclava (a type of hat that covers your head and neck while leaving a hole for the necessary parts of your face) is useful for very cold environments, and can protect your face from frostbite. Something with a brim can help shield you from sun, also (REI sells a selection of balaclavas at http://www.rei.com/search?query=balaclava).

    Gloves: Dependant on circumstances. I know people who make do in very cold environments with simple liner gloves (example: WindWeight Glove from www.blackdiamondequipment.com), at least when all they are doing is hiking in cold places, but I use a much warmer glove (such as the Ambit or Alti Glove from www.outdoorresearch.com) almost all the time (I have cold hands). Keep in mind that a big glove reduces your dexterity, so it is a good idea to have two pairs - one liner set and one big warm set. Mittens are a good option for really cold situations.

    Socks: Again, dependant on circumstances. I wear thick wool socks most of the time (www.smartwool.com), but I occaisonally wear a set of synthetic liner socks if the conditions are wet, because they wick more and prevent blisters better (for me, at least).

    Gaiters: These wrap around the top of your boot/shoe and go up your ankle. They can be found in a variety of sizes and styles. I only wear them in deep snow, but some people wear them all year long to protect their ankles from wind, cold, or scrapes. www.outdoorresearch.com sells a large variety of them.

  2. Experiment with your layers. On a day hike, you don't have very much risk, so experiment with what you have. Take a backpack that contains many layers and try them out. It will give you a better perspective for when you really need them.

  3. Start cold. If you start a hike feeling chilly, you're in the sweet spot. If you start warm, you'll get too hot and sweat (which is bad).

  4. Pay attention to your body. Are you freezing with all your layers on? You should probably turn around. Are you sweating like a pig but don't want to ruin your momentum? Don't risk it - take off a layer. Did you barely survive the last trip you took? Assess your system and adapt it for the future.

  5. Go on trips with other people. Ask and observe. Find out what other people use and what works for them. There are ten million opinions on what really works and what doesn't - try to separate the wheat from the chaff.

There. I'm sure there are things I missed, but I tried to keep it concise but thorough. Feel free to add or modify.

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I'd only comment, that it does take more than 1 of the 3. Wet won't give you hypothermia in 110 degree heat no matter how wet you get. –  Russell Steen Feb 15 '12 at 21:19
    
Generally true, Russell. I'm sort of splitting hairs. However, if it is -40 degrees outside, and there is no wind or wetness, you still could get injured. According to the army reference sheet I linked to, you could get frostbite on exposed skin within 45 minutes. Even a slight breeze would amplify that. Pretty rare, of course, so for all practical purposes you're absolutely right. –  Greg.Ley Feb 16 '12 at 18:45
    
@Greg.Ley Thx, very nice to read! It is a good overview and I would like to read further if you have more ressources. Only one part is a bit odd and I would leave it out: Did you barely survive the last trip you took? Assess your system and adapt it for the future. –  bashophil Dec 14 '13 at 3:15
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