12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter
By Michael Lanza
Staying warm and comfortable while Nordic or backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, or hiking in winter is a constant challenge—we sweat, our bodies and clothes get damp, then we get cold. But it’s not impossible. In fact, as someone who runs hot when moving and cools off quickly—and who gets cold fingers very easily—I’ve learned some tricks over the years that have made getting outdoors in winter vastly more comfortable and enjoyable for me. Follow these tips and you could be more comfortable on cold-weather outdoor adventures, too.
Clothing only helps trap heat; your body is what keeps you warm. Anytime you get cold, the best strategy for rewarming is to start moving or increase your pace. Watch others in your group for signs that they’re cold, especially children, who have less body fat and mass and cool off more quickly than adults. When you take a break, make it short, to avoid cooling off.
#2 Pace Yourself
Minimizing how much you perspire in cold temperatures is critical to keeping warm, because wet clothing conducts heat away from your body. Try to set a pace that keeps you warm without causing you to overheat and perspire heavily. If sweating is unavoidable because you don’t want to go too slow on, say, a long, strenuous ascent, then as you near the top, slow to a pace at which you stop sweating but still generate enough body heat to dry your base layers. (When camping in winter, I do that 20 to 30 minutes before stopping to camp.)
#3 Adjust Layers
Sometimes, as in high-exertion activities like running or Nordic skiing, it’s impossible to avoid sweating, so adjust your clothing layers. For example, if there’s no wind and you’re exerting hard, you may only need a breathable insulation layer (like fleece) over a fast-drying, wicking base layer. If it’s windy, you may only need a waterproof-breathable hard shell to prevent you from cooling down. If you’re engaged in a high-exertion, high-speed activity like Nordic skiing, where your motion creates wind against your body, wear a somewhat windproof and more breathable soft shell, to prevent excessive sweating and move moisture off your base layer more quickly.
See all of my reviews of outdoor apparel at The Big Outside.
Apparel I Recommend:
Big Agnes Hole in the Wall Jacket (read my review)
L.L. Bean Ultralight 850 Down Jacket, $199, and Down Sweater Vest, $149 (read my review of the Ultralight 850 Down Jacket)
Marmot Isotherm Hoody (read my review)
Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody (read my review)
Patagonia Nano-Air Vest, $199 (read my review)
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#4 Eat More
Your body needs more fuel in freezing temperatures to keep your internal furnace burning. Eat high-fat snacks like chocolate and nuts, because fat is a slow-burning fuel that keeps your body going for the long haul, which becomes even more important in the cold.
#5 Drink Up
In cold, dry conditions, you become dehydrated more quickly than you realize, even if you’re not sweating much. Drink frequently. Carry a thermos with a hot drink. Add sugar to it (for quick energy) or a little dollop of butter for flavor and fat.
#6 Don’t Freeze Your Water
I use a hydration bladder in temps down to the low 20s without the hose or mouthpiece freezing—if I keep the pack on my body (which helps warm the hose). But in colder temps, the hose will likely freeze, so use wide-mouth water bottles instead. Store the bottles in an insulated sleeve inside your pack, upside-down, so that when you hold them upright to drink from them, any ice that has formed will be at the bottom of the bottle. When camping in freezing temps, don’t leave a water bottle out or it might freeze solid (and take a long time to thaw). Either empty your bottles, or preferably, fill them with hot water and put them inside your sleeping bag as heaters.
#7 Carry Spare Gloves
Do your fingers get cold easily, then become difficult to rewarm? (Mine do.) Carry two pairs of gloves, keeping the second pair in a jacket pocket, so that your body heat keeps them toasty. (They would be like blocks of ice in your pack.) If your fingers get cold, remove the gloves you’re wearing and warm your bare hands against your belly or in pants pockets against your thighs. Once the blood has returned to your fingers, put on the gloves you’ve kept warm inside your jacket, and put the cold ones in that pocket.
This is also a good method for drying wet gloves, but put wet gloves in a pocket of a waterproof-breathable jacket, where the dampness won’t make contact with your body. Plus, carrying a spare pair of gloves is a smart safety precaution in winter—you never know when a gust of wind, a fall, damage like a tear, or even an avalanche could cause you to lose a glove or two, quickly leaving you without the use of functional hands and putting you at risk of severe frostbite.
Gloves I recommend:
#8 Bring Two Hats
I always bring two hats: a really warm one for when I’m resting, skiing or snowshoeing downhill, or exerting in really cold temperatures; and a lighter one for when I’m exerting hard in moderately cold temps and don’t want a hat that’s so warm it makes me overheat. When I’m wearing the warm hat, I keep the lighter one, which may get damp from sweat, in a pocket close to my torso to dry it quickly.
#9 Pre-warm Your Gloves and Boots
Fingers and toes get cold most easily because they are the farthest parts of your body from your heart; and because, once they are cold, your brain directs the capillaries in your extremities to cut off circulation to those parts (known as vaso-constriction), to protect the body’s core from cold blood returning to the heart.
My solution: Pre-warm your gloves and boots by a heater before going outside, so your fingers and toes feel toasty the instant you put them on. (Example: While driving to go backcountry skiing, I keep my ski boots either near the car’s heater or in the back seat, rather than in the back of the car, which is colder; and I keep my ski gloves inside my jacket, warming against my torso.) When fingers and toes get cold and won’t rewarm on their own outdoors, stick chemical hand and foot warmers inside your gloves and boots. I like the Grabber and Hot Hands products from warmers.com.
#10 Dress Like A Goose
If you stop for more than a few minutes, put on a fat down or synthetic-insulation jacket immediately, to prevent your body from rapidly cooling off. Take it off right before you start moving again, so you don’t overheat.
See all of my reviews of insulated jackets.
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#11 Sit On Your Pack
The ground, rocks, logs, and all other natural objects are frozen in winter and will suck the cold from your body via thermal conduction when you make contact with them. Instead, lay your pack on the cold ground and sit on it.
#12 Worship the Sun
Just as you would seek shade when taking a break on a hot day, in cold temperatures, take rest stops in warm sunshine, and face into the sun. Ideally, find a spot that’s sheltered from the wind, or put your back to the wind.
See my related stories, “What Should I Wear? How to Dress for Outdoors Adventures,” and “Pro Tips: Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag.” Find more detailed advice in my book Winter Hiking and Camping, from The Mountaineers Books. See all of my Skills stories and my reviews of outdoor apparel at The Big Outside.
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