Learn Gear A guide to hill walking clothing and layers

A guide to hill walking clothing and layers


It’s no secret that British weather can be changeable and downright unpredictable. Blue skies in the morning can swiftly turn black, bringing in fronts of rain, hail and sometimes snow. No wonder we always talk about the weather! In this article we take a look at what clothing to wear when hill walking and how to layer it to stay warm, dry and comfortable in cold and wet conditions.

The standard hill walking layering system includes a base layer, an insulating middle layer and a weather-proof outer shell. You can add more layers if you prefer and with experience of different weather and activities, you’ll figure out what combinations work best for you.

Base Layer

The base layer is worn next to your skin. Its primary role is to wick away (disperse) sweat or moisture from your body. Choose something that’s close-fitting, and stay away from cotton which retains moisture leaving you uncomfortably damp and clammy, then cold. Man-made fibres have great wicking abilities, while Merino wool has natural anti-bacterial properties. Some outdoor clothing combines the two for the best of both worlds. Base layers come in a variety of thicknesses, suitable for warmer or cooler weather and more or less vigorous activity.

Middle Layer

The mid layer provides the main source of insulation and helps prevent heat loss by trapping warm air around the body. Ideally a mid-layer will be breathable enough to allow moisture from the base layer to escape. A wide variety of options are available, but fleece is a great all-rounder since it retains much of its insulating properties even when damp. Sometimes thin down jackets or gilets are used as well, but it’s worth noting that down loses its insulating properties once it gets wet.

In windswept and cold conditions, many people turn to a ‘softshell’ for a degree of extra warmth and versatility. There are different kinds of softshells with different properties, but generally this is a mid-layer with some degree of wind and water resistance, and good breathability. This means an outer layer isn’t needed until conditions really deteriorate.

Outer Layer

The outer layer is your main protection from wind, rain and snow, and allows the inner layers to function properly when the worst weather arrives. Outer layers should provide a windproof and waterproof barrier to keep you warm and dry. Ideally, it will also allow moisture to escape, but the key is finding the balance between weatherproofing and breathability.

Other useful features include a hood that allows for decent visibility, pockets that can be accessed while wearing a backpack, and perhaps a pocket that is big enough to hold a folded map. You might want to use the outer layer for climbing as well as hill walking, consider whether the hood will fit over a helmet and whether the jacket allows for full freedom of movement.

Along with a waterproof jacket for your top half, waterproof over-trousers provide a great deal of comfort, especially when on long hikes in the rain.

WATCH: Outdoor jacket types

Down Jackets

Down jackets are quilted and filled with the soft warm under feathers from duck or geese, which provide excellent insulation and so are generally very warm. When your body is working hard and sweating, they aren’t generally needed. When you stop you cool down very quickly, so they’re invaluable for lunch breaks on cold walks, to throw on when you reach a chilly summit, or any other time you’re less active.

Down is rated in two ways, on fill power and down quality. Fill power is basically how much space the down occupies, which translates into warmth as it traps more air. Down quality measures the mix of pure down to small feathers, which can be expressed as a ratio or a percentage. The purer the down the better, which effectively means you'll be warmer. Down jackets have a high warmth to weight ratio, and are generally very lightweight and packable. Make sure to look after your down items carefully, as they lose their insulating qualities when wet, and sometimes never fully recover.

If you’d like to know more about the source of down and animal welfare, the Responsible Down Standard independently certifies down against animal welfare requirements and tracks it from the source to the final product.

Synthetic Jackets

Synthetic jackets use insulation that is completely man-made. Providing a combination of warmth and breathability, they are able to regulate your temperature across a wide range of conditions so can be worn on the move and when stopping, for example to read a map, take photos or have a snack. Lightweight and fast drying, synthetic insulation is still effective when wet.