An Expert Guide to Layering for Your Fall Camping Trips
Camping & Hiking Expert Kat Smith breaks down your essential apparel layers when camping this fall so you can stay toasty and prepared.
There’s nothing like a camping trip or long hike in the fall; every wooded trail, every mountain overlook, and every scenic byway out to nowhere and everywhere becomes an Instagram-worthy photo op. Mother Nature shows off the bright oranges, reds, and yellows of the season with the always-present contrasting pops of dark green from the pines scattered throughout.
With these beautiful views comes shorter days and crisp air, and suddenly you may find yourself shivering in just the hiking shorts and lightweight shirt that you were able to wear all summer long. But the changing weather is certainly no reason to miss out on what is the best camping and hiking season of the year. Instead, grab a few layers and keep up with the weather as it transitions from the dog days of summer to the brisk days of autumn and then to the downright-cold days of winter.
When heading out into the wilderness during the fall and winter, not just any warm clothing will do. Dressing in layers allows you to control your body temperature by adding or taking off pieces as the air temperature and your activity level changes throughout the day. Having a base layer, a midlayer, an outer layer (or two), and accessories to cover your ears, hands, and feet, will give you full control over regulating your body temperature and staying warm.
For camping and hiking, the key features to look for are light weight and breathability. A layer’s breathability will prevent you from breaking into a heavy sweat (which will later freeze) while you’re working hard summiting that peak; layers that are light and packable will fit more easily into your pack and won’t take up valuable space or weigh you down.
So if you’re interested in doing some leaf-peeping or shoulder-season camping for the first time, or you need to upgrade some of your well-worn, beat-up layers, take a peek at the list below. It features my favorite camping and hiking layers in the categories mentioned above, so you can stay warm and comfortable (and dry), no matter what the season’s weather brings.
Baselayers are the first layer that goes on and are in direct contact with your skin. Normally pretty tight-fitting, baselayer tops fit easily underneath jackets, sweaters, and fleeces, and can have the amazing ability to regulate the wearer’s body temperature. Once the daytime temperature warms up or your heart rate gets going, your baselayer can easily be taken off (and put back on later, as needed).
The Smartwool Men’s Classic Merino Thermal Merino Base Layer Crew and the Smartwool Women’s Classic Merino Base Layer Crew are my favorite baselayer top options. These 100% Merino wool tops are not only super soft, warm, and comfortable, but they wick away moisture and sweat, are breathable, quick-drying, and even odor-resistant.
A variety of colors, patterns, and even styles (check out the Smartwool Men’s Classic Merino Thermal Base Layer Quarter-Zip) allows this to be a stylish, stand-alone top once you shed all your outer layers. It’s also versatile enough that I use it while hiking, camping, skiing, mountain biking, and even for a cold, early morning commute on my bike. Further, Smartwool sustainably sources and uses plant-based dyes in their wool.
Baselayer bottoms are not worn nearly as often as baselayer tops, but are a key item to own when cooler fall and winter temperatures start to set in. The Smartwool Men’s Classic Merino Base Layer Bottom and the Smartwool Women’s Classic Merino Base Layer Bottom are the pants version of the baselayer tops I mentioned above, and they possess all the same features. The slim-fit design will fit nicely underneath a pair of hiking pants, snow pants, or sweat pants, and the flatlock seam construction allows for comfort without sacrificing function.
Midlayers can come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and weights. From knit sweaters to fleece quarter zips to vests, there are many options to choose from.
Generally, your midlayers will fit looser than your baselayers so that they fit comfortably on top, but they are also still slim enough to fit underneath a shell or insulated jacket. I recommend the Columbia Sweater Weather Half-Zip (and there’s a men’s-specific version, too) because it’s insulating and warm without being too bulky. The active fit allows me to wear my baselayer underneath, but the lighter weight allows me to move freely and comfortably; and, I don’t look like the Michelin man if I add an outer layer!
Outer layers are your primary protection from the elements, and there are many different varieties. From insulated, super-warm puffy jackets to waterproof rain shells that boast being ultralight and packable, there’s an outer layer for every climate and every trip.
A puffy jacket is typically well insulated and therefore very warm. For this style, there are a variety of weights, from the lighter and ultra-packable The North Face Women’s Thermoball Eco Jacket (and men’s version), to the heavier, bulkier (and therefore, warmer) Marmot Men’s Shadow Jacket.
While some insulating materials will perform decently in wet conditions, others, such as down, do not. Since many puffy jackets are made with down insulation, they are a great go-to for cold, dry temps, but maybe not the best choice for rainy and wet conditions. Whenever I am heading into the desert in late fall or early spring, I always pack my puffy jacket.
A shell_ _may not be quite as warm as a puffy jacket, but features such as waterproof, windproof, and breathable make it an essential piece for anyone who spends time outdoors. The Outdoor Research Women’s Helium Rain Jacket (and men’s version) is my go-to shell to stay dry and protected from those summer mountain storms.
With little or no insulation, warmth is not the name of the game for this shell, but the taped seams, waterproofing, and packability (it packs up to be the size of your palm) make it the perfect rain shell to have in your pack at all times—just in case inclement weather rolls in. And if a storm brings cold temperatures with it, just add some layers underneath (hello baselayer and midlayer) to add that insulation and warmth that the jacket itself lacks.
While there are plenty of options for waterproof, insulated jackets, many hikers and outdoor adventurists heading out in the shoulder seasons opt for a shell. It provides more versatility and it is typically much less bulky and more packable.
Accessory layers are often overlooked, but they make a world of difference on those early morning hikes and evenings hanging out around the campfire. Accessory layers—such as socks, beanies, gloves, and balaclavas—are small by nature, and therefore easily packable.
Darn Tough Women’s Hunter Boot Heavyweight Socks with Full Cushion are my go-to late fall and winter camping socks. Designed for hunters heading out in the coldest winter conditions, these socks will keep your feet toasty warm even on the coldest nights.
For people who perhaps don’t have a cold-feet problem as I do, Darn Tough’s midweight and lightweight versions of these same socks are great options. Made in Vermont, Darn Tough socks are made from merino wool, so they are breathable, quick-drying, moisture-wicking, odor-resistant, and soft and comfy.
When I am camping, the first thing I do once the sun disappears behind the mountains is put my beanie on. The Flylow Longshoreman Beanie is a functional and stylish beanie that will keep your head and ears warm and cozy all fall and into the winter (and then into the spring!).
Whether you’re hiking, trail running, setting up your campsite, or taking your dog for a walk, don’t let cold hands make the task more difficult and less enjoyable. The Burton Women’s Touch n Go Liner are warm, breathable, quick-drying gloves that aren’t bulky. The slim fit maintains your dexterity, and they are even touchscreen compatible. Layer them underneath a heavier pair of gloves or mittens in the winter or when on the mountain.
Whether you are heading out for an early morning run, hitting the trails to see the amazing autumn foliage, or setting up base camp for a late-fall camping trip, stay warm and cozy with the right layers. This is an amazing time of year to get outside and don’t let the cold weather stop you. Reach out to me or another Curated Camping & Hiking Expert for assistance finding the perfect layers for you!