12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter

By Michael Lanza

Staying warm while downhill, Nordic, or backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, or hiking in winter is a constant challenge: We sweat, our clothes get damp, we have periods of reduced exertion like riding a ski lift or walking downhill, and then we get cold. But as humans have known for thousands of years, it’s a matter of smartly managing and insulating our body’s furnace (and today we have much better technical clothing than animal skins).

As a longtime skier (downhill, Nordic, and backcountry), hiker, and trail runner who runs hot when moving, cools off quickly, and gets cold fingers and toes easily, I’ve learned many tricks over four decades of getting outdoors in frigid temperatures, and working for many years as a past field editor for Backpacker magazine and running this blog.

In fact, my coldest winter experience was camping on a couple of nights that dropped to -30° F in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. (I don’t recommend it.) Most people, of course, don’t face extreme conditions in winter. But even in the temperatures most of us encounter in whatever form of recreation we enjoy in the coldest season, we’ve all known moments of wishing we felt warmer—and sometimes those moments last longer than we’d prefer. Follow these tips and you will be vastly more comfortable when enjoying the outdoors in winter.

Please tell me what you think of my tips, ask any questions, or share your own tricks in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments. Thanks.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


 

A backcountry skier in Idaho's Boise Mountains.
A backcountry skier in Idaho’s Boise Mountains.

#1 Move

Clothing does not produce heat, it only helps trap the heat that your body produces. Anytime you get cold, the single 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. If someone has visibly cooled off faster than others during a break, have that person start moving ahead of the group; you will regroup before long.

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#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. I try to strike a balance between producing enough heat to keep my toes and fingers warm without sweating copiously in my core; generally, that pace has me breathing heavily but not panting.

If sweating is unavoidable because of your activity level, there may still be moments when that level drops—such as a transition from moving uphill to moving downhill. Try to smooth out that transition by slowing to a pace at which you stop or reduce your sweating but still generate enough body heat to at least begin drying your base layers. Drier base layers will help prevent a sudden chill when your activity level declines. (When camping in winter, I do that about 20 minutes before stopping to camp.)

What touches your skin matters. See my picks for the best base layers for any season.

Nordic skiing in Idaho's Boise Mountains.
Nordic skiing in Idaho’s Boise Mountains.

#3 Adjust Layers

Sometimes, whether climbing uphill on backcountry skis or snowshoes or 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 want a waterproof-breathable hard shell over a midweight insulation layer, like a fleece or a vest, to prevent you from cooling down.

For a high-exertion, high-speed activity like Nordic skiing, where your motion creates wind against your body, or a moderate-level activity like snowshoeing, wear a somewhat windproof and more breathable soft shell or a jacket with breathable insulation, to prevent excessive sweating and move moisture off your base layer more quickly.

Find the right outer layer for your purposes and you may only have to adjust layers infrequently. I’ve reviewed several pieces of apparel at this blog that perform that well, including these:

Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody (read my review)
Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody (read my review)
Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket (read my review)
Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody men’s and women’s (read my review)
Outdoor Research Skyward Jacket (read my review)

Be smart about winter. See my expert tips in “How to Dress in Layers for Winter in the Backcountry.”

A child cross-country skiing along the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park.
My son, Nate, cross-country skiing along the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park.

#4 Eat More

Your body needs more fuel in freezing temperatures to keep your internal furnace burning when you’re out for more than about two hours. Eat high-fat snacks like chocolate, cheese, 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. Keep snacks handy so you can refuel frequently; feeling a chill or fatigue is often an indicator that your body needs food. If you eat energy bars for convenience (especially when wearing gloves), choose ones that pack plenty of protein and calories.

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#5 Drink Up

In cold, dry conditions typical of winter, 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.

Get the right gloves. Click photo to see my “Review: The Best Gloves For Winter.”

#6 Don’t Freeze Your Water

I use a hydration bladder in temps down into the mid-20s Fahrenheit without the hose or mouthpiece freezing—if I keep the pack on my body (which helps warm the hose, especially when it’s running through a tunnel in a shoulder strap of my pack, a design feature of many packs made for winter activities). I also make a point of blowing back into the hose after each time I drink, to clear water from the mouthpiece and hose, which are more likely to freeze up quickly.

But in colder temps, the hose will likely freeze, so use wide-mouth water bottles or double-wall bottles like Hydroflasks instead. Store uninsulated 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.

I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Click here now to learn more.

 

#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 zippered or secure jacket pocket, so that your body heat keeps them toasty. (They would be like blocks of ice in your pack.) When 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 or a companion to lose a glove or two, quickly leaving you without the functional use of your hands and putting you at risk of severe frostbite.

Lastly, mittens are warmer than gloves because fingers benefit from their collective warmth, and get cold more easily when isolated. Whenever dexterity isn’t critical, or in extreme cold, wear mittens instead of gloves or over light gloves.

Keep your fingers happy. See my review of “The Best Gloves For Winter.”

Backcountry skiing in the Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.
Backcountry skiing in the Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

#8 Bring Two Hats

For any outing on which my exertion level or the temperature will vary, I always bring two hats: a really warm one for when I’m resting, skiing or snowshoeing downhill (unless I’m wearing a helmet), or exerting in really cold temperatures; and a lighter, more breathable 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 (the same kind of beanie-style hat I’d also wear for aerobic winter activities like skate-skiing or running). When I’m wearing the warm hat, I keep the lighter one, which may have gotten damp from sweat, in a pocket close to my torso to dry it quickly.

Plan your next great backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail, Wonderland Trail, in Yosemite or other parks using my expert e-guides.

 

Backcountry skiers in Oregon's Wallowa Mountains.
Backcountry skiers in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains.

#9 Pre-warm Your Gloves and Boots

Fingers and toes get cold most easily because they are the parts of your body farthest 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.

Shopping for new gear? Start with the menu of all my reviews and buying tips at my Gear Reviews page.

#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.

Which puffy should you buy? See my “Review: The 10 Best Down Jackets” and
Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?

#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 if you sit on them. Instead, lay your pack on the ground and sit on it.

A backcountry skier at Baldy Knoll in Wyoming's Teton Range.
A backcountry skier at Baldy Knoll in Wyoming’s Teton Range.

#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. Keep in mind when planning trips in advance, especially when taking out people new to winter outdoor activities, that you can improve the chances of them enjoying it by taking them out in March or early spring, when the sun is much higher and warmer and days are longer than in December or January.

Find more detailed advice in my book Winter Hiking and Camping, from The Mountaineers Books.

 

Tell me what you think.

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20 thoughts on “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter”

  1. My family is going to our log cabin for a few nights soon so that we can all spend some time together in the woods. It usually gets really cold in there though so I want to find some new ways to stay happy and comfortable on our trip. I appreciate you explaining that we need to drink more water because we get dehydrated quickly in the winter, so along with that, and more blankets and quilts, we should stay plenty warm during this trip.

    Reply
  2. My skiing jacket is super warm but the second that I take it off I turn into an Icicle. I will try layering it with a long sleeve to keep from getting too cold. Thanks for the tips, I will keep them in mind for my next outdoor adventure.

    Reply
    • Hi Leviticus, a layering system is the way to go, but the other big factor is your activity level–how much heat your body is producing. Dress for your activity level. Good luck.

      Reply
  3. This is perfect as I’ll be heading on a winter camping trip pretty soon! I know the UK is certainly not one of the coldest parts of the globe, but it’s chilly enough for me in December!

    Reply
  4. Great article. In an emergency (or when you underestimate how cold it’s going to be) you can always use a warm pair of socks as mittens. Not nearly as good as gloves or real mittens, but they will get you back to town or your car.

    Reply
  5. I’ve had issues with keeping my hands and fingers warm in the past. My go to solution now is to put some hand warmers in my mittens (not gloves). Once my hands are nice and toasty, I pull the handwarmers out and put them next to my water bottles to keep them from freezing. It’s worked wonders for me.

    Reply
  6. Great post Michael! I always make sure me and family bring some spare gloves and hats and a hoodie or fleece jacket at the pack for the sake of layering. I just want to add something. Avoid wearing cotton socks. They get cold when your feet start sweating. We always wear ones made of wool.

    Reply
  7. Hi Lois, layering is a challenge, and it’s really about experimenting with combinations that keep you from sweating too much, depending on your pace and the ambient temperatures and wind chills. Part of the secret and thinking about using your pace to help regulate your body temperature, too.

    Reply
  8. Thanks for the tips. Layering is always a puzzle for me. I never seem to get it right. I do carry extras of gloves and hats, because I do sweat a lot. And I always have survival stuff (firestarter, lighter, handwarmers, etc.) so I can deal with situations that may come up.

    Reply
  9. > Do your fingers get cold easily, then become difficult to rewarm? (Mine do.)

    I have the same problem. I find that mitts help much more than gloves for keeping my fingers warm. If it’s not too cold out, I often bring mitts and gloves. If it’s very cold, gloves do little for me as far as warming up so bring two heavy-duty mitts.

    Reply

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