Chilly mornings, warm afternoons, and a cooling breeze. The arrival of spring beckons us outdoors. The only problem is that the tempting blast of heat and sunshine is likely just a temporary front, withholding cold precipitation or frigid gusts. This is particularly true at altitude, where spring is synonymous with sun, rain, wind, and snow, often all in the same day. Fail to dress appropriately, and you may head out for the season’s first solid hike, only to find yourself soggy and miserable ten minutes past the trailhead.
Fear not, intrepid hiker. There’s no need to pack three spare outfits in your 15-liter backpack. By employing the practice of layering, you can be energized by those brief periods of sun and still be prepared for the rest. A proper spring hike layer setup consists of three levels: a base layer to keep you insulated and dry, a mid-layer to maintain general pre-sweat warmth, and an outer layer to protect against the elements, be they wind or water-based. You want to be warm but flexible, dry but breathable. Follow this guide to layering for spring hikes and you’ll not only own the trail, but you’ll also look good doing it.
The key to proper base layering is to never forget the term “wicking.” We’re not talking about candles here. Contrary to what some claim, wicking does not mean sweat-proof. Quite the opposite, actually. Wicking refers to the ability of a textile to pass moisture through it without becoming soaked, sticky, or otherwise sad. The last thing you want is to sweat and then be wet and stinky for the rest of your hike. As a base layer, wear an athletic shirt (short- or long-sleeved, depending on the weather forecast) and a pair of long underwear. FITS makes a great pair of affordable hiking socks that you can find at local retailers or online.
Merino wool is known for its wick-ability. You’ll know if a shirt or other piece of clothing is merino wool because merino wool clothing shirt will proclaim loudly and clearly what it’s made of. REI has a number of strong options, but a trip to your local outfitter or sporting goods store can be equally as productive. Thin polyester, such as a light-weight exercise shirt like this one from Patagonia, is another strong option. Look for knock-off brands if $40 shirts make you cringe.
Although cotton is cheap and readily available, we don’t recommend it. The moment you sweat or succumb to the urge to stand in the rain in your t-shirt, your day is over. You’ll be wet until you come into close contact with a towel.
When thinking mid-layers, remember that these items are the most likely ones to end up inside your backpack. Generally worn on the upper body, mid-layers can be a vest, non-waterproof jacket, light hoody, or polyester activewear shirt. While a base layer and an outer layer are useful throughout the season, you may be too warm once you get moving to have three layers on, no matter what the weather is doing. So, you want stuff that can roll easily, such as wool or, later in the season, fleece. For an early spring mid-layer, nothing beats a good puffy synthetic or down jacket. These can be worn in the morning and evening, or in light rain, and then folded into your pack without taking up an unreasonable amount of space.
Despite being warm, fleece doesn’t bundle well and takes up a lot more space in your pack. Swap out that fleece for down in early spring when it’s likely to be quite cold until the early afternoon, or if you plan to sit around a campfire or a post-hike beer at the trailhead in the evening. Later in the season, consider wool. Not only does wool pack well, but it also outperforms nearly all other materials when lightly dampened and it’s quite comfortable against the wind.
Your outer-layer should be easy to take on and off because you’re likely to remove it at least once during your hike. The idea here is that you have a buffer against the elements that can be on call when you need it. You might end up removing the mid-layer but keeping the outer layer on because, for example, despite a light rain, you’re warm and moving — and just need to stay dry. It’s equally important that this layer roll and fold easily because you’ll need it throughout the season. While a March hike sees you keeping the jacket on, in May it may only be necessary as a precaution.
You definitely want a dependable but thin rain jacket such as these from Patagonia, If starting early in the morning, you may opt to keep your hands warm with a pair of hiking gloves, such as these from Outdoor Research. A beanie (or a Maple Leaf toque, eh) is a strong option because it keeps your ears warm, and, should a freak snowstorm manifest itself, your head will stay dry. Mountain Hardware makes a great pair of hiking pants to wear over your long underwear, with similar options for shorts to wear later in the season. Early in the season, a pair of rain pants can save the day, along with a pair of hiking gaiters to protect against a wet trail or a stream crossing.