Clothing for the High Country

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This section refers to clothing only, see the equipment section for more information on what gear to carry.

If you are new to hiking in the outdoors you will probably have a problem with the number one rule of proper clothing. Cotton Kills! I know you've grown up wearing those cotton long-johns and feeling the warmth of denim and flannel. I love my flannel sheets as well, but they only work well because they stay dry in my house. In the backcountry clothes get wet, especially when you need the warmth most. So am I exaggerating when I say cotton kills? Not at all. Afternoon thunderstorms in Colorado turn clear blue skies to a black mess dropping soaking hail in a matter of minutes, and turn your warm cotton clothing to heavy, soaked, worthless rags. Cotton, when wet, does not insulate. In fact since it holds the water against you for long periods of time it adds to the speed in which you will be loosing body heat. The afternoon thunderstorms can also drop temperatures by 20 degrees in a matter of minutes. Now if you are wearing soaking wet cotton clothes, the temperatures are in the 40's, and the wind is blowing you had better find shelter and heat fast or hypothermia will get you. I like to refer to the hikers I see that are obviously new to the backcountry as "Cottoneers." Don't worry though, we all have to start somewhere. Fortunately for those reading this you can avoid some of my early mistakes (go to my pictures of my Mt. Huron hike to see me as a Cottoneer).

Below are a couple of concepts to keep in mind with your clothing, then are lists of my suggested clothing for different seasons.

Synthetic Fabrics

After that overdramatic intro I should probably delve into what are good choices of fabrics.

PolypropeleneThis makes an excellent base layer fabric. i.e. Long-Johns, long sleeve shirt. This fabric helps pull moisture away from the body and dries very quickly. It's also very cheap, but not extemely durable.
CapileneGreat fabric for shirts, boxers, pants. Durable fabric and comfortable, but not cheap.
PolyesterI know, you hear this and you think 60's leisure suite. However it is a fairly durable, affordable, and warm fabric. Good for most types of clothing.
FleeceI know this is made of Polyester, but it is created in a unique way that it deserves its own category. Fleece is an excellent insulating layer, it is very warm, dries very quickly, help repel water, and is fairly durable. Windproof fleece makes a great shell, non-windproof is excellent to add warmth beneath windproof or waterproof layers.
Nylon Very durable. Usually used as a shell layer blended with other materials. Dries well, not very warm.
Wool Durable, dries quickly, and warm. Wool is beginning to make a comback as a clothing choice due to new processes that weave it tighter and can keep the fabric from being "itchy." Socks made with SmartWool are fantastic.
Gore-TexGore-Tex is not a stand alone material. It is always integrated with other materials. However it revolutionized clothing. It is basically a layer of material that is porous. The pores are large enough to allow water vapor (i.e. sweat) to pass through freely, yet the pores are small enough that liquid water (i.e. rain/snow) cannot pass through. This allows the sweat to escape and keep the rain out, the result is you will be about as dry as you can be in any condition.


Laying is a skill that will allow you to maximize your comfort while exercising in the outdoors. The basic principle is to wear a number of layers to reach your desired level of insulation instead of one large layer. Simple enough. However, let me add a few points to help insure you get the maximum benefit of these layers.

To start, never layer two waterproof layers on top of each other. A waterproof layer should be your shell layer and the rest should have good breathability.

Next, try to use a good wicking material like capilene or polypropelene next to your skin. This will help speed the evaporation of any sweat.

Try to respond to your need for additional or fewer layers as soon as possible. This will help reduce how often you will be shedding or adding layers. For instance if you wear too many layers too long you will begin to sweat heavily. Once you do shed the extra layers the sweat will then evaporate quickly and you will become cold causing you to need to put layers back on. This cycle can repeat all day long unless you stabilize it by shedding the extra layers as soon as you think you comfortably can.

Also change layers pro-actively. When you stop for a break, put an additional layer on right away knowing that your body will cool down due to inactivity. Also just before you begin excersising, you should feel a little chilly (not cold) with what you are wearing. Once you begin to excercise you will warm up.

The part of you that is cold or hot may not be the place you need to add or remove layers. My rule that is generally laughed at until put into practice, is that if your feet are cold you need to put on a hat. Your body will cut off blood supply from extremities to keep your brain warm. If you can keep your head warm, the blood flow will be increased to the exremities to keep them warm.

Clothing Recommendations

The recommendation below are simply what I wear. Personal comfort, budget, and gender differences will alter what you find to be best.


Summer in the high country is glorious. The alpine plants have a short time to grow, flower, and seed before the snow falls again; so they go all out. If you catch a good weekend, entire hillsides will be covered with flowers of every color. Summer also has afternoon thunderstorms, and drastic temperature changes. The key to summer clothing is preparedness. On a nice day that stays nice, proper shoes, socks, shorts, t-shirt, and sunglasses will be all you need. However you should carry some extras in case the nice day turns out to be not so nice. Assuming a nice morning (which they almost always are in Colorado):

This section refers to clothing only, see the equipment section for more information on what gear to carry.




I find fall to be the best time to get into the high country. At least until the snow starts to fly. Until then there is little snow to contend with, afternoon rainshowers are less frequent, and crowds aren't as bad.

This section refers to clothing only, see the equipment section for more information on what gear to carry.




Spring is a tough time of year for high country treks. Snow can still be very deep, run-off can make the trail a muddy mess, and afternoon thunderstorms can drop the temperatures below freezing. Staying dry is the key in spring. Snow will be soft in the warm temperatures so as you slog through it your clothes must be able to repel it all.

This section refers to clothing only, see the equipment section for more information on what gear to carry.



Winter in Colorado's high country can run from October through March, even into May during a bad year. Conditions vary widely throughout the year and throughout each day. Winter winds can reach sustained speeds of 60 to 80 mph that don't let up all day. Hazards such as avalanches and white-outs can kill even the most prepared hiker. High Country expiditions in the winter are best reserved for those with experience, training, and strong physical fitness. Colorado's high country is a mountaineering playground in the summer, but in winter it can become a serious mountaineering challenge.

This section refers to clothing only, see the equipment section for more information on what gear to carry.

What you wear in winter varies widely from day to day and moment to moment. The wear list is an idea of what I wear on most trips. Several items will spend some time in the pack based on conditions.