By Michael Lanza
Staying warm while Nordic, downhill, or backcountry skiing, hiking, snowshoeing, or running in winter is a constant challenge: We sweat, our clothes get damp, 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 someone who runs hot when moving, cools off quickly, and gets cold fingers and toes very easily, I’ve learned many tricks over nearly four decades of getting out in the backcountry in frigid temperatures. Follow these tips and you will be vastly more comfortable outdoors in winter.
Clothing only helps trap heat; your body is what keeps you warm. 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.
#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 on a long, strenuous ascent, then as you get within about 10 minutes of the top, slow down a bit, to a pace at which you stop or reduce your sweating but still generate enough body heat to dry your base layers. 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.
#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)
The North Face ThermoBall Active Jacket (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.”
#4 Eat More
Your body needs more fuel in freezing temperatures to keep your internal furnace burning. 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.
#6 Don’t Freeze Your Water
I use a hydration bladder in temps down into the 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.
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#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.”
#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, 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.
Keep your noggin warm, too. See my “Review: The Best Winter Hats.”
#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.
#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.
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Find more detailed advice in my book Winter Hiking and Camping, from The Mountaineers Books.