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The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Humans Outside.
If you’ve recently started working on your outdoor habit, you might be spending quite a bit of time and likely some money experimenting with what works to keep you warm and happy outside, especially in the winter.
Now I have been around the block on this. I love looking back on how what I wear outside in the winter has changed over the years of my outdoor habit or since we moved here. Most of my evolution is based on stubbornness. You don’t know what you don’t know, but I also didn’t want to ask. I wanted to figure it out on my own.
Which is really silly, frankly. Because the more I do this podcast and the more time I spend with the outdoor community, the more I learn that not only are people happy to give you tips and guidance based on their own experience, not only are they incredibly kind about it, but they really, really WANT you to ask them. They want you to love going outside, too, and they want you to feel comfortable doing it.
That’s me. I am people when it comes to that. I want you to be warm, and happy and love going outside. And while I’ve got two interviews with experts on this subject that you can hear on this podcast, I’ve never spent the time to telling what it is I, Amy, like to wear in the winter. So here it goes.
But first a few caveats. You think I’m an expert? Well I’m still learning, too. And what’s more, this is the stuff I’ve found that works for me and my body. Bodies are wild things, friends, and you need to experiment with what works for yours. For example, I know my core and my hands both get very cold, so I take extra care with those. But I basically am melting if I’m doing any kind of heart rate up movement with a hat on, so I don’t wear one for those activities.
Next, Im going to talk about a lot of brand names. I’ve found most of the things I’m mentioning second hand or on clearance racks over time. But I still know that being able to afford this stuff is a privilege. You’re probably going to need to build up your gear closest over time, and that’s OK. But knowing what you’re looking to buy is a huge step towards understanding how to make that happen.
Finally, what you’re about to hear is a lot of layers — layers and layers of layers. Why is that important? Because it means if you’re too warm you can take some off and if you’re too cold you can put them back on. Having the layers handy, though, is the big secret to success.
So I’m going to give you two different scenarios for what I wear in cold weather. The first is what I’d wear if I was going for a long but not very brisk walk, or doing anything where I was standing still talking to friends. Then I am going to tell you what I wear to be active, which for me is usually running or nordic skiing. And I’ll tell you how I change it by what the temperature is.
First, for walking or little activity. To start with, I wear synthetic underwear and a synthetic sports bra to help with any sweat wicking. So that’s the base base layer.
For my legs: My favorite pair of pants for this is a pair of fleece lined soft shell pants from Mountain Hardwear. I found these in a clearance rack at an outlet store before I moved to Alaska and had idea what I needed or why. And I still wear them several times a week. The outside is a water resistant fabric and the inside is soft fleece. The outside blocks wind and the inside keeps me warm. If I’m not wearing those, on the bottom I wear a base layer legging that’s synthetic or some kind of wool blend. Mine happen to be Mammut and from an REI clearance rack many years ago, but you can find these at Costco or from less pricey brands like columbia. The idea is they help your body maintain its warmth.
Then, on top of that I put on a ski pant that’s kind of water proof and wind blocking or my pair of puffy pants. You’ve heard me talk a lot about these — I call them The Pants. They are like a puffy jacket but they are pants. They can get really pricey, but a listener recently told me Columbia makes a pair. I have a pair from black diamond and my husband has a pair from Mountain Hardwear. If it’s really, really cold I might wear my fleece lined pants with my puffy pants on top of them.
OK, so that’s on the bottom. On top for these slow activities I first wear a base layer long sleeve shirt. For me this is often a sweat wicking synthetic shirt that is designed for running, like one of those Nike dry fit tops. Another option could be wool or a wool blend long sleeve shirt. Next, we have what is called a mid layer. For me this is usually a fleece pull over of some kind or a fleece waffle top. I have this amazing light weight waffle fleece pull over from Brooks Running that I found on Thread Up. It’s my favorite option. If it’s very cold, on top of that I wear a zip up puffy vest. I have one from smart wool that I love. But my core gets really cold really easily, so I dont hesitate to rock that vest. Then, finally, I wear a puffy jacket. Now, if it’s very cold outside, below 10 degrees usually or windy, I wear a really big puffy jacket. It doesnt breathe at all and it keeps me so warm. On warmer days I wear a lighter puffy for this soft shell, fleece lined coat I have from North Face and found on a Nordstrom Rack clearance rack in San Francisco, of all places. It’s one of my favorite pieces of gear not just because it’s cozy, but because it is super bright pink and it makes me happy.
Next we have the important extremities. On my feet I wear warm wool or wool blend socks. I have a pair of ice bug winter boots that I won at a giveaway. They have amazing traction and they are incredibly warm. On very cold days or if Im standing around a lot, I also use little chemical toe warmers. On my hands, which tend to get very cold, I wear a very light weight liner glove designed to wick sweat, followed by fleece mittens and, over them, warm water resistant mittens. Inside my mittens I often place hand warmers. I’ve tried the battery-powered gloves, but the batteries don’t last long enough in very cold conditions.
Around my neck I will typically wear a buff or neck gaiter. On very cold days Ill wear a balaclava in addition to that or pull a buff up over the back of my head and around my face. Then, on my head Ill wear a warm hat. My fleece, vest and jacket all usually have their own hoods, so dont be surprised if you see me rolling with all three of them on at the same time. I know I look silly but I am warm and happy!
OK, so that’s standing around or slow movement system. Next let’s talk about being very active. Im going to use running as an example, but this is basically the same for nordic skiing, too.
And a tiny little caveat on this. What I’m about to describe works really well for me for about 12 miles or somewhere around 90 minutes to two hours. And I’ve just not cracked the code on staying warm after that. Also, runners listening to this will probably have their own preferences. But this will give you an idea of what works for me, at least for a few hours.
On my legs I wear a pair of fleece running tights. These are close to my body and do not have a base layer under them. If it’s under 15 degrees I usually also wear a short skirt to give my legs some extra warmth. My favorite is a puffy mini skirt made by smart wool, but I’ve been thinking about trying to get on that’s a little longer, maybe going to my knees. See? Even doing this all the time doesn’t mean you’re finished experimenting.
On top I wear a version of what I described earlier, but usually less layers. I have a fleece jacket that has some extra core insulation — kind of like wearing a vest and a fleece in one — and I wear over the same long sleeve top I described earlier if it’s warmer than 10 degrees or not windy. If it is windy or colder I will wear my fleece top with my puffy jacket on top and run in that. Because Im expending a lot of energy I’m sweating, so I want to make sure that sweat can move away from my body so I dont get too cold.
I wear the exact same system I described earlier on my hands. On my feet it’s the wool socks combined with winter running shoes, sometimes ones with spikes made into the bottom of the shoe to help with traction. Depending on the temperature, I might wear the buff around my neck. But unless it’s less than 5 degrees I typically do not wear a hat. Instead, I wear a buff around my head like a headband, covering my ears but letting heat out the top of my head. For whatever reason wearing a warm hat while I run is a great way for me to feel hot in some places and cold in others, and that’s not what I want at all.
Ok but almost as important as what I wear while running is what I do within minutes of stopping: i change my clothes. I get out of that wet sports bra and shirt and jacket set up and into something dry. I rarely am really cold while I run. But I often am really cold when I stop running, and that is entirely because I am dressed to keep moving, then wet, then not moving anymore. By changing into dry things immediately I make the entire experience much, more more pleasant.
As I said earlier, the most important part of knowing how to dress in cold weather is setting up a layer system that works for you and your body? Core doesnt get cold? Layering it is just going to make you hot. Feet get really cold instead of your hands? Maybe you need to look into really warm boots and socks and don’t worry as much about gloves. While this is going to be a challenging journey as you learn to spend time outside in all weather, I promise it will bring rewards later as you continue to lean on your new found expertise.
When this episode is released my family and I will be fresh off a vacation somewhere warm and not quite back to record new episodes, so I’m recording this for you ahead of time. But you can see pictures from my adventures, as always, on Humans Outside on Facebook and Instagram. I promise they include plenty of photos of me bundled up like a giant marshmallow.
Until next time, we’ll see you out there.