By Michael Lanza
Staying warm while skiing or riding at resorts or in the backcountry, Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, or running in winter is a constant challenge: We sweat, our clothes get damp, and then we have periods of reduced exertion like riding a ski lift or walking downhill, when we cool down. 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.
Clothing does not produce heat, it only helps trap the heat that your body produces and protects you from wind and precipitation. 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; the optimum pace usually accelerates my heart and respiration rates to comfortable levels without me struggling for breaths.
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.
#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.
Be smart about winter. See “The Best Clothing Layers for Winter in the Backcountry”
and “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 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.
#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 than the water reservoir inside the pack, which is close to your back and warmed by your body heat.
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 hours to thaw if it does at all). 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 warm and happy. See “The Best Gloves For Winter”
and “The Best Mittens 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 taking a break or not exerting hard (unless I’m wearing a helmet) or even exerting hard in really cold temperatures; and a lighter, more breathable one for when I’m exerting hard, like climbing uphill, in moderately cold temps, when a hat that’s too warm would make me overheat; that’s the kind of beanie-style hat I’d also wear for aerobic winter activities like Nordic 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.
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#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 once they become cold, your brain directs the capillaries in your extremities to cut off circulation to those parts—a biological reaction known as vaso-constriction—to protect the body’s core from cold blood returning to the heart.
As anyone who’s experienced it knows, that can be unpleasant at best and painful at worst.
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.
For example: While driving to go 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.
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#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 “The 10 Best Down Jackets” and
“How You Can 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.
Find more detailed advice in my book Winter Hiking and Camping, from The Mountaineers Books.
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42 thoughts on “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter”
To add to the “cover the face” comment below: I have several neck gaiters (fleece, light synthetic, and light wool). I find the wool blend from Ridge Merino is superior to the others in breathability, protection, and recovery when downhill skiing – it imperceptibly layers under my helmet, covers what remains of my face below my goggles on the lift, and dries quickly/feels less damp than the others when I pull it up again after the run when requiring protection/warmth. It doubles as headband/ear warmer if needed when I take my helmet off. It is as key in my winter pack as my Buff is in the other seasons.
Thanks, Melissa, great suggestion.
Thanks for your effort in writing this all in one place! I am always sharing these kind of winter tips when going backcountry with new people, where knowing to put your mittens in your shirt or taking a hot water bottle to bed with you can really make a huge difference in their comfort.
Thanks for sharing these tips, Jennifer, I’m sure your friends appreciate them, too. Have fun.
I’ve noticed no one in any of the pictures has their faces covered, so here’s another tip — Wear a face mask for the less physically strenuous activities. I keep one in my coat pocket. They tend to be more breathable and portable than scarves, and they’re great at keeping your face warm.
I completely agree, Bethany, and I wear a facemask most often on cold days of alpine skiing. It’s much better than a scarf. A Buff or similar full head pullover and face cover is good, too, and fits under a helmet. Thanks for the suggestion.
Well said, all good tips, thanks.
Preparing for another January pheasant hunt in Kansas. Some years a t-shirt and this year, sub-zero with 15 knot breezes. Brrr…….
Little Hotties have been a go-to in the past. Tuck them in a pull over hat with a pocket for the Hottie. Tucked them in my socks above the ankle. Tucked them in a pocket built into the top of a glove or mitten. But, this year I am off to REI to see what new products have been brought to market. Thank you for the Warmers.com link.
Back to Kansas: 5 inches new snow came New Years Day. My Keen, Gore Tex lined boots are fine as long as I keep the snow from sifting into the boot around the ankles (that snow melts and you generate moisture from within the boot = cold feet). So, now I gear up on snowy mornings with short gaiters to keep that snow out.,
Spare gloves staying warm – now THAT is a simple and logical “hot” tip. Thank you!
Two styles of hat – great tip.
I move a lot during the day in Kansas, and that requires one set of layers. But as the sun sets and we sit in the prairie grass waiting for prairie chickens to fly over, and it gets colder and colder, that is when I would love to pull out a puffy down jacket from my pack. Will plan accordingly.
Adventure safely and passionately outdoor friends.
Thanks for sharing those comments, John.
Thanks Micheal! Live up in Canada and when winter hits I refrain from fun outdoor activities like skiing and ice climbing because it is hard to handle the cold and have fun at the same time. I’m familiar with many of your tips but I like tip #7 about warming your gloves on your body when you’re out there. Thanks!
Thanks for the comment, Carly. That’s actually one of the tips I personally use the most because it’s so easy and effective.
Thank you Michael!
My wife and I love climbing mountains where harsh weather conditions can be encountered.
We like to read this type of article to check what other people do, and review new equipment technologies. We agree with and practice the tips you you listed. Thank for helping our outdoor community!
You’re welcome and thanks for the nice compliment.
I appreciated the common-sense solutions. Will be heading out to hike the Lost Coast Trail in January where it is rainy, cold and always windy.
Thanks for the thumbs-up, David. Good luck on the Lost Coast. I backpacked it in November, also a time of year when it’s chilly, windy, and wet there. Bring a sturdy tent; I recall it can be a difficult place to find a protected campsite.
Very helpful advice! Thank you!
You bet, Michele.
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.
Thanks for the comment, Tristan, and have a great time with your family in that cabin. My family has a long-running annual tradition of skiing to a backcountry yurt during the holidays every year, and we’re going again soon. The best part is being together in a place where there’s no cell service or wifi! Enjoy.
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.
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.
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!
Hi Jenny, I’m sure it’s cold enough in the U.K. in December for you to put many of these tips to use. Stay warm and have fun!
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.
You’re right, and I’ve done just that in a pinch. Thanks.
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.
I agree, Jamie. Tip no. 9. Thanks for commenting.
Me too! My favorite mittens (the only ones that have ever worked) are Fox River double ragg wool mittens. If it’s too cold that my hands will go white before my movement is enough to warm me (usually 1/4-1/2 mile), hand warmers are a must. Very important to be proactive when dealing with cold.
Thanks for that suggestion about mittens, Lonna. Stay warm.
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.
Thanks, Dustin. Yes, avoiding cotton is one of those fundamental rules about all layers of clothing for the outdoors, in every season.
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.
Hi ES, yes, mittens are definitely warmer than gloves. Thanks.
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.
> 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.
Glad they’re helpful, Kate. Go have some fun out there in the snow.
Thanks for the tips! I’m new to snow conditions and your tips are going to make all the difference in sure.
Thanks for the post! I used to live in Wisconsin as a kid so #12 is very true! But the past 10 years I’ve been living in the south, and just recently I decided to move to Colorado with my girlfriend so this should hopefully save my butt!
Great tips. #12 is very funny. Worship the sun. That’s cool. Haha. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, really appreciated.