Many people think it’s too cold for outdoor adventures in the winter, but you can stay warm outside in winter easily, if you know how to prepare. There’s a very true phrase you’ll hear over and over again from enthusiasts: “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”. As far as I can tell, it’s some kind of Scandinavian proverb, although the first time I heard it, I was living through my first winter in Portland, Maine. The truth is, going outside in winter is a blast: no crowds, no insects, and, if you’re lucky, a beautiful snowy landscape go traipsing through.
There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.Scandinavian Proverb
Here in the Great Frozen North of Cleveland, Ohio, the average January daytime high temperature is a scant 34 degrees Fahrenheit (with an overnight average low of 23). We also boast an average January snowfall of 18.7 inches, thanks to our proximity to Lake Erie. In short: winter, in Cleveland, can be brutal. Lake-effect snow, biting wind, and a daytime temperature just above freezing means that we have to get pretty good at keeping warm if we want to venture outside.
The key to staying warm is to remain dry. Getting wet (even a little damp, from sweat) is a good way to open yourself up to hypothermia, a potentially fatal condition where your body loses heat faster than it can generate it.
If you’re looking to hike, camp, or otherwise get outside in the cold, here are some things you’ll need to know before you go:
Choose the right layers & the right fabrics to stay warm outside
The trick to staying warm in cold weather is to stay dry. The second trick is to dress in layers, which is how you stay dry. You’ll need to dress yourself in three layers of clothing: a skintight base layer, heat-trapping insulation layer, and a waterproof, windproof shell.
Your base layer should be skintight and moisture-wicking. This layer is meant for drawing perspiration away from your skin — if your skin is damp, you’ll catch a chill (and, potentially, hypothermia). There are several synthetic fabrics that are awesome at wicking moisture, or you can opt for natural wool.
Next, your insulation layer consists of fluffy, heat-trapping materials to actually keep you warm by preventing your body heat from escaping. Polyester fleece, synthetic insulation, down, or wool are all good options for insulating layers.
Finally, your shell is what protects you from the wind and rain. A waterproof, breathable shell (like a high-quality rain jacket) will afford the most protection, but for less severe conditions, a water-resistant jacket, windbreaker jacket, or soft-shell jacket could also work. In conditions that include snow or ice, you may want to wear rain pants or snow pants as a shell layer on your lower body.
Be aware of what fabrics you’re choosing for our layers. Avoid cotton at all costs. Cotton holds onto moisture very well and becomes very, very heavy when wet — because of this, it becomes saturated very quickly and is a very poor insulator. Instead of moving moisture away from your skin, cotton will hold moisture right next to your skin, which is exactly what you don’t want — this can lead to hypothermia, and potentially death. Check labels before getting dressed and avoid cotton, cotton/poly blends, corduroy, chambray, denim (including jeans), flannel, pima/supima, and duck fabrics. Cotton kills.
Psst — you don’t have to go broke buying new clothes for your layering needs — see my guide to spending less on outdoor clothing and gear for options that won’t break the bank!)
Wear the right footwear
Don’t forget your feet! You’ll want to try treat them like the rest of your body and keep them as warm and dry as possible.
Remember, you want to draw moisture away from your skin, including on your feet. Opt for a good pair of medium- to heavy-weight wool-blend socks. You can also buy thin liner socks that will be help transport perspiration way from your feet to your outer sock layer (bonus: liner socks can also help prevent blisters). Your liners and socks should fit snugly, but not be too tight — the heel cup of the sock should conform your heel, and there should be no fabric bunching around your toes or ankle.
Opt for a waterproof boot, even if you usually hike in shoes. You’ll want the waterproofing in heavy snow, slush, or ice, and the extra coverage and ankle support is nice to have in winter conditions. Keep in mind that Gore-Tex (the waterproofing used in most outdoor gear, including boots) is not foolproof, and also prevents moisture from leaving your boot as fast it might otherwise — bring along an extra pair of socks, and swap them out if your feet start feeling damp.
Gaiters (pronounced “gators”, like “alligators”) are protective covers for your lower leg. They slip on over your pant legs, and cover the top of your boots to prevent ice, snow, and slush from entering the top of the boot. If you’re going to be out in heavy snow, they come recommended to help prevent getting your feet, ankles, and calves wet.
Don’t forget your head & hands
Ah, the age-old dilemma: gloves, or mittens? Mittens tend to be warmer than gloves, because your fingers will generate more heat when not separated by fabric, but gloves offer greater dexterity. If you’re going to participate in an activity where you’ll be handling lots of gear or generating lots of body heat, go with gloves. If warmth is your sole concern, mittens might be better. Whichever you choose, bring along an extra pair in case the first get wet during your adventure.
You can also opt for liner gloves, which are thinner, and a waterproof mitten shell to wear over them, giving you the best of both worlds. Similarly, you can also purchase mitten liners, and glove shells.
Don’t forget your head: a beanie hat is suitable for almost any outdoor activity, and prevents heat loss from your head. Go for one that is long enough to cover your ears. Alternatively, if a hat is keeping you too warm, you can cover your ears and prevent frostbite with a fleece headband.
Neck gaiters (such as those made by Buff) are getting really popular now; they can be worn several ways and can function as a scarf, face mask, headband, and/or makeshift hat. I often wear a neck gaiter underneath my hat to ensure that my ears are always covered. If it’s very cold and you need to keep your cheeks and nose covered, a balaclava is probably a better option than a neck gaiter. And if the wind is blowing, or if you’re participating in an activity like downhill skiing, large sunglasses or goggles can help keep your eyes from becoming dry (and, therefore, cold).
Eat well & stay hydrated
Drink plenty of water while outside in winter! Hydration is just as important in the cold as it is in the heat. The air is drier in winter, which diminishes your body’s thirst response, and it also causes sweat to dry more rapidly… also, your moisture-wicking base layers will be drawing that sweat away from your skin… and all of this adds up to you not realizing you’re becoming dehydrated. (Plus, do you know what dehydration brings with it? Increased risk of hypothermia.) Even if you’re not thirsty, make sure you’re drinking water when outside on the trail.
If you’re out in extreme temperatures, be mindful that your water supply may freeze. Flip water bottles upside down in your pack, as they often freeze from the top — flipping them will prevent them from freezing near the spout and give you drinkable water for a longer period of time. If using a reservoir, blow air back into the hose or pinch the bite valve while holding it above your head to push water back into the reservoir and avoid it freezing in the hose or valve. Keep your water bottle or reservoir hose insulated as well as possible, and avoid metal bottles, which not only freeze quickly, but can also flash-freeze to your lips while drinking if the temperature is cold enough.
Keep your energy up by packing hardy, high-calorie snacks for your outdoor adventure. Your energy expenditure will be greater during any activity thanks to the cold temperatures and extra gear you’re wearing and carrying, so plan on carrying more and hardier food than what you would bring along in summer. You could also bring along warm food or drinks in a thermos or insulated bottle (I recommend a YETI Rambler tumbler, or similar insulated container) and enjoy coffee, tea, or hot chocolate on the trail for a warm-up and potential calorie boost.
Enjoy better living through chemistry to stay warm outside in winter
Chemical heat packs are tiny, pocket-sized miracles. With just one squeeze, you can have a little bit of warmth stowed away in a pocket, mitten, or the toe of your boot. There are even warming insoles you can buy for your boots!
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, and receive commission payments for purchases made through Amazon links in this post.