Layering in winter

Living in a cold weather area you need to be prepared for different weather conditions if you want to be outside and active. It’s not an option for me to forgo being outside for 4 months out of the year, especially since I despise things like treadmills. That’s OK though because I’ve found that being active in the cold can be a ton of fun, and there’s a lot of advantages to workouts in the cold compared to the summer. Being able to do this requires being smart and having a plan with your gear.

More than any other time in the year gear is key to enjoying being outside. When the temperatures drop it’s easy to put on more clothing. In the summertime you reach a point where even being totally naked isn’t cooling enough. Yet, it’s important to be smart about how you layer up and so we’re going to talk a bit about good layering techniques for winter time activity. Keep in mind that warmth is often subjective, so what works for me may not work for you. Take what I write here as general guidelines and then experiment and see how you need to tweak things to best suit your body.

Base layers

Base layers are key to staying warm and active in the winter time. Merino wool is an incredibly popular base layer as it keeps you warmer and drier than many other synthetic layers. Plus, it doesn’t smell bad due to the natural chemicals in the fabric and so you don’t need to wash it as often. A merino wool base layer can last for years and years. Even if you can’t get merino, any type of base layer will be a good start to your layering strategy. One caveat, I have never felt the need to use merino wool for my legs. I have a high tolerance for cold on my legs and so I usually just wear a synthetic pair of tights or a fleece lined jogging pant.

If the temps are going to be above 20°F (-6°C) I will just wear running pants and my merino wool top and call it good. Below that I start to build off this base layer on top (and tights on the bottom) to get to my desired layers of clothing. The key is always starting from a minimal layer that you know is comfortable and works for you, and then start building from there.

The beauty of layers

Once I check the temp and know what I’m in for, I build up the rest of my layers strategically to be just a little bit cold when I walk out the door. Depending on the activity you’ll want to tailor your layering for the level of effort you’re going to expend. Running is a high volume activity and your elevated heart rate is going to warm you up very quickly. I know that I don’t need more than a couple of layers for most moderate temperature mornings, despite feeling quite chilly when stepping out the door. Within 0.5-1.0 miles I’ll be perfectly warm. The beauty of layers is that if you ever overdress you can shed a layer at any time. Don’t be afraid to flashback to the 1980’s and tie your coat or shirt around your waist! If you’re working hard you want that sweat to evaporate, and it’s hard to do that under a ton of thick layers of clothing.

Biking is another high volume activity and fat biking on packed trails can give you quite the workout. The main difference is that you’re not moving your fingers and toes as much, so it’s important to have a warmth strategy specifically for those regions. For the rest of your body though I stay pretty similar to what I wear for running. When I attempted Tuscobia this year the temps were -5°F (-20°C) at the start and I wore three thin layers on top with a lined biking jacket to help protect from wind. When the sun was out I was actually unzipping the jacket (and my merino wool layer) to vent some of that warm, moist, air away from my body. Once it got dark I just zipped back up and I was still warm enough to feel comfortable even when the temps dropped another 10 degrees (F). In retrospect I could have easily dropped at least one of my layers until the sun went down.

That’s why layering is so important. It gives you options! If you’re not comfortable starting out being cold, wear something that’s easy to shed in the first 15 minutes of your activity. If you’re worried that you’re going to slow down too much (dropping your heartrate) and start to get cold, toss a light weight coat into your pack that you can put on to add another layer. Thin Houdini® style coats (I like the Parajax myself) are perfect for turning all your body heat back in on yourself and getting you warm again.

Protect the core

Finally, with all of these layering strategies, consider protecting the core of your body first. Your heart is the engine that drives blood to your extremities. If your core is cold, your body will tell your heart to not push as much of that warm blood away from the central organs and you’ll end up with cold fingers and toes. When deciding where to add layers, I always favor more on my core versus other parts of my body. That doesn’t mean you should neglect your legs (people love quilted running skirts, and I need to buy one sometime soon), but you can approach your layering strategy differently for each part of the body.

I’m not going to spend much time talking about extremities, except to say that layering can also be key for fingers and toes. I will often wear a thin pair of gloves and then use an over-mitt to cover them when it’s extremely cold. This gives me options for removing and adding layers as I need to throughout an activity. Toes are a bit more complex, as adding and removing socks can be difficult in the cold. I would always start with a good merino wool sock as a base and then experiment from there. There are also some overshoe options and leg gaiters that can serve the same layering purpose.

Layering on a budget

One of the beauties of being active outside is that you can do it solo and on the cheap. All of this layering talk may sound daunting, especially when you start checking prices on merino wool layers. But there’s a lot that you can do without breaking the bank. I never want it to feel like being active in the winter is only an option for people with financial means. I think that everyone should be able to be outside as much as they want, even if you need to be a little more creative.

Despite its shortcomings when running in the summer, cotton t-shirts can be quite warm in winter time. Layer a couple of t-shirts under a simple sweatshirt or hoodie and you can withstand some very cold temps while running. If that’s still not warm enough, just keep adding cotton shirts until you get to where you feel best. The same goes for pants. There’s nothing wrong with wearing shorts under a pair of pants to help keep those regions warmer. If you have old socks you can cut the ends off and use them as arm and calf warmers as well.

If you’re lacking in the glove department a cheap pack of latex or nitrile gloves make an awesome vapor barrier for your hands. Despite ending a little wet, your fingers will stay nice and toasty. The same goes for your feet. Some bread bags under your socks will keep heat in and help your toes stay warm. Though, use caution with vapor barriers for long duration events (4+ hours) as you can end up keeping your hands and feet wet for longer than is healthy for the skin.

The main point here is to get creative with layering. Take a look at whatever is in your closet, and you can probably find enough things to keep warm and still be active all winter long. You don’t need to go out and spend tons of money on expensive wool layers right away. Do what you can in the meantime and eventually you’ll decide which pieces are the best to invest in for your body and your activity.

The key is to get out there and enjoy as much of the outdoors as you can, no matter the weather.


Beer, running, and geeky things.

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