Adventures in Alaska Winter Running and How I’m Still Learning

An awesome run to a glacier

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We’ve been in Alaska 3.5 years, and I’m still learning how to do it right. And more than anything else, it’s dressing for the weather that continues to get me, particularly when it comes to running.

Heading outside in Alaska in an exercise in understanding how to properly layer for the conditions, and then being more prepared than you hopefully need to be, just in case. A day’s temperature report is based on wherever the weather station is physically located. But temperatures can vary five to 10 degrees within even just a mile or two thanks to our topography, and the difference between five degrees and -3 can feel pretty pretty intense.

That’s especially true when you’re already trying to wear exactly the right amount of clothes and not one stitch more because you’re running. Too much and you’re sweating, getting wet and at risk of getting cold that way. Too little, and now you’re cold because you don’t have enough on. Dressed for five degrees and now, suddenly, it’s -3? Now you’re cold. Get cold? Better have an extra layer in your bag that you can put on — and cross your fingers that you can warm up again.

Then there’s your water. Drinking is extra important in cold weather because it helps you stay warm. But the hose on a traditional hydration pack will absolutely freeze, so you’re going to need a different plan. Small bottles next to your chest in a hydration pack are a good idea, but if they aren’t just right they’ll freeze, too. Making it work is a matter of finding the right thing for you.

Since moving here in 2016 I’ve learned a lot — and I mean a lot — about running in cold temps. But on a recent cold run I discovered that I still have more to learn. That’s because running in the cold is not simple. “Cold” can be a whole host of temperatures and conditions, and what you do for each is dependent on so many factors, including distance, actual temperature, humidity, ground conditions and more.

While I am still learning, I must say that my cold weather clothing choices have improved dramatically over time. Case in point:

Do not dress like this for winter running

But I still have a lot of work to do. And so, instead of writing a post about all the things I know, I’m going to tell you about all the things I’m still figuring out paired with where we are right now.

What I’ve learned (so far) about winter running in Alaska

What to wear. What to wear for cold weather running is wildly dependent on exactly how cold we’re talking about. Typically I wear: long sleeved tech shirt, fleece running tights, wool socks, fleece jacket with insulated core, lightweight running gloves, warm mittens and a Buff over my ears.

That works pretty well as long as it’s not windy and above five to 10 degrees or so. And here’s the part where I’m still learning, big time. This last run started at about 3 or 4 degrees and then got colder from there. I was great in the clothing mentioned above for about the first hour. After that is when the temperature dipped, and I started to get cold. I added hand warmers to my mittens, but they didn’t do much. Borrowing a friend’s Patagonia Nanopuff jacket plus adding a fleece hat helped a ton, but my hands never did recover until we were safe inside our cars are 12 miles. I probably could’ve kept going for awhile as I was, but it wasn’t comfortable. I definitely have more to learn on this subject.

Name brand isn’t always best. Most winter runners I know have hacked together through trial and error a kit that works well for them. My friend Rachel, for example, runs in these large, off-brand fleece mittens that she found by chance online. I found the mittens I wear in temps above 35 degrees in my son’s backpack one day. They weren’t ours, but they are now.

While there definitely are great products made especially for winter running — my favorite fleece winter tights from Athleta come to mind — the most important thing is finding something that works well for you, and that doesn’t always mean spending a lot of cash.

Hydration is hard. I haven’t figured this one out yet. It’s extra important to focus on hydration while winter running, thanks to the amount you’re sweating, how not thirsty you naturally feel thanks to the cold and this weird thing about humans that make us need to pee more (and, therefore, require more rehydration) when we’re cold. But a hose on your hydration pack is going to freeze, as will the tops of any small bottles unless you have them tucked in and kept warm with strategically placed hand warmers. Some people wear their hydration hose under their jacket, but that could lead to other discomforts. I thought I was good to go today, but both of my small bottles froze solid, despite being close to my body.

Terrain creates problems. Snow? Ice? Dry but really cold? Icy patches but mostly dry? Each condition changes what kind of shoes you will look to use. But how do you pick? For me, it’s an exercise in risk management. In snow and ice a Gortex, insulated, studded shoe is my favorite option. Cold and icy but otherwise not wet? I have a slightly worn pair of my favorite Altras studded with screws to help me not slip. Cold and dry? My feet tend to stay warm, so it’s regular road shoes for me. Mixed between ice and dry? Tough call and mostly a gamble. If ice isn’t close to the majority of what we’re working with, I’m going with my road shoes, since running on studs without reason can be pretty uncomfortable.

Be prepared. My most recent major mistake was in not packing properly. It all got started on the wrong foot when the bottles in my hydration bag leaked overnight, soaking my two favorite buffs and the pack. Since running in sub-zero temperatures with wet stuff would be a really dumb idea, I had to source different gear at the last minute and use a smaller bag. That meant carrying less stuff.

But had that not happened I still would’ve been underprepared. At the most I would’ve carried a second light jacket in addition to the hand warmers, hat and extra buff I fit into my smaller Osprey pack. What I needed was an additional warm, insulating layer that I currently don’t even own. (Guess I’m doing some shopping!). I probably could’ve used at least one more pair of hand warmers. And I’m going to have to address this water bottle problem again because those suckers froze solid.

Even with more than three years living here and a lifestyle focused on doing things outside, I’m still daily learning things I don’t know about dressing for and experiencing the outdoors.

They say there is no bad weather, just bad clothing. Here’s to many years of continually learning that is true.]

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