-- George Leonard, The Ultimate Athlete (Avon Books, 1974)
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I usually address the subject of cold-weather clothing around this time each year, since winter is almost here and cold weather is more common, as are clothing-related questions. I wrote most of what follows for an Update a few years ago:
The secret of enjoying hiking in cool-to-cold weather is easy: you simply need to know how to dress for it. Many non-hikers wear inadequate and/or inappropriate clothing outside in winter, which almost guarantees some degree of discomfort.
This is one explanation for why some people say they “can’t stand the cold:” they aren’t wearing (enough of) the right clothing. If you’re dressed to be toasty-warm, you’ll barely notice cold temperatures and are unlikely to ever feel really chilled.
Now’s a good time for a review of appropriate clothing for winter hikes as well as for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Some of this info is included on the trip confirmation form that’s sent out when you reserve during the winter months.
By the way, for those of you who get cold easily and have trouble enjoying winter, owning and wearing the right clothing will also make life MUCH more pleasurable closer to home during the week, whenever you’re outside (heading to work, running errands, etc).
If you’re an experienced winter hiker, you presumably already know well what to wear and bring. The information below is especially for newcomers to outdoor activities in winter -- but others of you might benefit from reading it as a review.
(1) It’s important to avoid wearing cotton, as much as possible, for outdoor activities in cool or cold weather, since cotton is the “fabric that chills” (and provides zero warmth) when it’s damp or wet from sweat, rain, or snow. Instead wear synthetics, wool, or silk. If you don’t have nylon (synthetic) hiking pants, get a pair now.
(2) If you don’t already own synthetic, wool, or silk thermal underwear, buy at least two sets of tops and one set of bottoms (look for those with a heavier/thicker/warmer fabric, and make sure they’re completely cotton-free).
(3) Wear a thermal top under your clothing on all hikes and other trips from now through early March, except on unusually warm days. Add a 2nd thermal top when temperatures are likely to stay below freezing during the day (remember, temps in the mountains are usually cooler than at home, plus it can be windy). Wear thermal bottoms under your hiking pants on days when temps are in the 30s or colder (generally speaking, your upper body needs more layers than your lower body).
(4) Any regular underwear you wear under the thermals should also be made of synthetics or silk (if you don’t have them, get some when you buy the thermals). We often sweat while hiking, and underwear is very likely to get damp. Wearing non-cotton fabrics next to your skin will provide some warmth even if wet.
(5) Bring extra-warm padded gloves that are made especially for outdoor activities (NOT thin leather or other non-insulated gloves). For colder days, or if your hands or fingers get cold easily, consider purchasing super-warm (extra thick, fingerless) MITTS, which can keep fingers warm even in sub-zero temps -- although it’s rare for us to encounter extreme cold in the areas where we hike during winter.
(6) It’s important as well to have a warm insulated hat or cap, such as a thick knitted cap -- preferably one that can be pulled down over your ears when it’s cold or windy (otherwise, you’ll need separate protection for your ears).
(7) Avoid wearing a thick, heavy winter jacket or coat, which you’ll quickly overheat in while hiking. Instead bring 2-3 warm but lighter layers, which you can shed as needed: fleece or other sweaters, and/or a light down or synthetic jacket or vest, and a windbreaker or thin nylon shell (which reduces heat loss).
(8) Wear two pair of socks: a thinner “liner” sock next to your skin and a thicker outer sock (wool or synthetic). You may want to carry an extra pair in your pack for the ride home in case your socks get soaked, which can happen in wet snow.
Remember that we usually have periodic warm spells during the winter months, when daytime highs may be in the 40s and 50s, meaning we may not need most of our layers (although it’s often chilly or cold in the morning at the start of a hike).
Also, most of us warm up quickly while hiking, and we sometimes can’t feel the cold at all (many hikers often comment on how warm they feel and how rapidly they get overheated) -- especially when the sun is out and if the day isn’t windy.
BUT it’s important to ALWAYS bring the warm layers along, since it’s impossible to predict how much clothing we’ll need on a particular day (given that forecasts are sometimes totally wrong for the mountain areas, and the weather can change abruptly, with temps occasionally plummeting or rising quickly during the day). If you do start to feel cold, it’s time to IMMEDIATELY put on more layers.
Have any questions about clothing? Feel free to call me at (845)357-3380 (weekdays and some weekday evenings). And get ready to actually “enjoy the cold”!!!
-- Charlie Cook