How to Stay Warm Outside in Winter

Posted: Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Spring may be just around the corner, especially if you live in some of the southern states, but there's still time for more winter weather.

If you've ever felt discouraged by the cold, don't let it keep you inside anymore! Staying outdoors and active improves your mood, fends off winter weight gain, and keeps your vitamin D level high. Today, we're sharing 5 simple tips for staying warm that will help you play outdoors all day, even in winter weather.


1. Keep Your Hands Warm

Research has found that women really do have colder hands than men: when temps drop, the blood vessels in women’s hands constrict more so that blood flow is diverted to the core. The benefit is that women’s core temps stay high, and thus help protect against hypothermia. But it also means that keeping your hands warm is more challenging for women.

So are mittens or gloves better? The answer depends on you, the activity, and the outside temperature. If you’re doing something highly aerobic, or you require manual dexterity, then gloves can be fine. But gloves are like sleeping bags – they don’t contribute warmth, they retain the warmth you have. Fingers lose heat faster when they are separated; if you can't find a pair of gloves that keep your hands warm, you are likely to find mittens preferable.

And what material should you use?

  • Wool is the only material that keeps your hands warm if your gloves or mittens get soaked.
  • Synthetics will dry quickly but they lose insulative capacity.
  • Some gloves and mittens are made of GoreTex or a waterproof material and may be useful in damp conditions, but tend not to work in very wet conditions.

A pair of glove liners under a pair of thicker gloves can give you manual dexterity and help keep your hands toasty. However, if you are someone whose fingers don't stay warm in gloves, wearing glove liners under mittens will actually make your fingers colder than if you just wore mittens. Personally, my hands do better if I just whip my mittens off when necessary.


2.  Wear Layers of Clothing

Your goal when recreating outdoors is to stay warm while sweating as little as possible. Several lighter layers both provide more insulation and are much more adjustable than one heavy layer. The only time you might need a down parka is when you are standing around or otherwise not active. Bring a daypack so you have some place to put your extra layers as you warm up or take a break.

Here is a basic layering system:

Start with a BASE LAYER of silk or "lightweight" synthetic long underwear and liner socks. These materials draw moisture away from the skin (this is called "wicking") and help keep you dry and therefore warmer.

Over the base layer wear a second, MEDIUM-WEIGHT layer on your upper body such as "expedition-weight" Capilene or Polartec, and wool pants or a synthetic equivalent such as Polartec or Capilene fleece.

Over the second layer, add a third HEAVY-WEIGHT layer. This should be a thick material such as wool or fleece. Typically this layer will not be necessary, even in cold weather, as long as you’re active. As soon as you stop for a break, put this on. If you're overheated, you might think you want to cool down. You don't, at least not abruptly. By the time you think you’re just right, your body temperature is on a downward trajectory that will overshoot. If it’s raining or windy, you will also want to add the outer layer described below.

This fourth and final layer is called the OUTER LAYER. This layer is for protection from wind and rain and should be a parka or jacket made of a coated nylon or a waterproof/breathable fabric like Gore-tex, HellyTech, Membrane, H2No, or Ultrex. The goal of this layer is to keep water out - you never want your other layers to get wet.

Before making this important purchase, be sure that this outer layer fits you properly. It should be large enough to fit over all your layers without constricting movement. In particular, the hood needs to be effective. It should shield your face from the rain and turn with your head. Movement of your arms should not interfere with the hood. Put on a daypack; can you still raise your arms? Lastly, the wind pants. They should be comfortable, allow enough room for your layers, and permit free movement of your legs (for example, can you crouch comfortably?). Partial or full-length leg zippers are useful for easily putting your pants on over your boots.

Even when it is not raining or windy, we lose heat from convection, the movement of air against our body. This final, outer layer eliminates that and keeps you substantially warmer.

When you start hiking or recreating outside, you should be just a little on the chilly side. If you're already warm, you will quickly overheat. Before you overheat, you should pause and remove a layer to prevent yourself from sweating. On a cold day I often start with my lightweight and midweight layer with my outer layer over that, and then pull off the midweight as I warm up.


3. Don't Wear Cotton

In the discussion of layers, we mentioned several kinds of synthetic materials. You should never wear cotton when recreating outdoors, especially when it's cold! The reason is that cotton absorbs moisture like a sponge and then keeps it next to you. The damp material will cause you to chill severely in cold weather once you stop for a break.

This is just as true for underwear as for t-shirts. A cold, clammy cotton bra next to your skin is uncomfortable at the least and can lead to severe chilling. You will be warmer if you stop and take your bra off, even though that means temporarily exposing a lot more skin to the elements. Prevention is better yet! You can either choose not to wear underwear or invest in one made of synthetic materials that wick sweat away.


4. Stay Hydrated 

The most important part of staying hydrated is to drink plenty of water. Even if you're not sweating, you lose moisture simply because the air is so cold and dry. Like heat, moisture seeks equilibrium between places where there is plenty (inside your respiratory system) and places where there isn't much (the outside air). When you become dehydrated, your body functions less efficiently and you get cold more easily.

Do not drink alcohol until you are off the trail and back in your cozy lodging. Alcohol packs a double whammy in the cold. First, it causes your blood vessels to dilate. That makes you feel warmer, but it causes your body to lose heat faster. Second, it impairs your judgment. Hypothermia, the condition caused by excess heat loss, does the same thing. And, of course, you really want to keep as many wits functioning as possible when you are out in the cold. Alcohol can also contribute to dehydration if the alcohol content of your drink is above 10% and you drink large amounts.

Another key aspect of staying hydrated is protecting your skin by keeping it protected from the sun and well moisturized. Chapped skin is not only painful, it means that the protective barrier of your skin has been damaged. Moisturizing cream with an SPF of 15 or greater will prevent that. 


5. Should You Wear a Hat?

Well, yes, of course, it makes you look outdoorsy! And there are so many cute hats these days. We used to think that wearing a hat would prevent a large amount of heat loss because of the rich network of blood vessels that feed your brain. However, recent research has shown that heat loss through your head accounts for about 7% of your heat loss.

Of course, 7% is not insignificant, and that, plus the fact that hats make you feel cozy, makes them well worth wearing. If you have short hair, then a hat will keep your ears from getting chafed by the cold.


6. Eat Lots of Snacks!

This is my favorite tip! I started winter camping when I heard that polar explorers had to eat 5000 calories daily just to maintain their body weight. That might be a little excessive for a couple of hours of hiking or skiing, but there is no doubt that the snacks you brought with you, washed down by the thermos of hot tea you happen to have in your pack, are not only tasty but also essential for staying warm.

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