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Dressing for Outdoor Winter Fun

Dressing for Outdoor Winter Fun

Now that the holidays are officially behind us, it seems that we’ve truly been thrust into the heart of winter! You can do one of two things: either hibernate inside, clinging to notions of Springtime, or you can embrace winter whole-heartedly, pull on your layers, and get outside.

If you’re familiar with my 8 simple ways to cope with shorter days, you’ll know that I strongly advise the act of getting outside as one of my favorite methods of making these colder months not just something to survive or endure, but a time to thrive. 

Part of this means dressing the part. And although most people in New England are no strangers to a harsh, varied wintery climate, I still find that it’s not always straightforward to people how to dress to best optimize any given activity in a way that is comfortable and safe. It’s not unusual, for example, to see someone totally decked out in downhill ski gear when they’re just trying to go cross country skiing (or vise versa). You wouldn’t, for example, wear the same outfit for a snowmobile ride (the one that makes you feel like a marshmallow) as you might to go snowshoeing or winter hiking.

Some Basic Tips

 Dressing for physical outdoor activities — like snowshoeing, hiking, or cross country skiing — can be somewhat of an art, and it’s important to get it right, because embarking on these sorts of hobbies can bring us out onto remote trails, away from immediate warmth, shelter, and emergency care (not that you should always expect the worst when you’re just going for a leisurely jaunt!) With some simple tips, you can pull on layers that will serve you well and keep you warm.

  • Dress in layers. Activities that require physical activity are bound to warm you up pretty fast. Layers are ideal, because you can shed them as needed (be sure to leave room in your backpack for this very purpose when you head out.) 

  • Try to avoid sweating. This one may seem odd, but it’s important to pay attention to this during winter activities. Sweating will make you damp, which increases your chances of rapidly cooling down when you stop to take that water break, turn to traverse a windy field, or when you start a descent down a long hill. The moment you start feeling that you’re heating up, take off one of your layers to prevent excessive sweating. 

  • Bring a headlamp. I almost always have a headlamp stashed in my backpack. It’s good to be in the habit of keeping one with you, given that days are so much shorter this time of year, and sometimes unexpected events can occur. 

  • Be prepared for wet conditions. Often times, if it’s actively precipitating OR I plan on doing a fairly strenuous ski or hiking route, I’ll bring some replacements: a light hat and gloves for the first half, and a heavier hat and mittens for the second. If it’s snowing, your first hat may eventually soak through, so it’s good to have a dry substitute for later. I like having mittens available in case my first pair of gloves get damp or I plan to take a longish break at the viewpoint. 

  • Brief Overview of Hypothermia

    In the winter, it is particularly important to pay attention to your body while you’re out on the trails. Hypothermia is when your body’s core temperature drops to a level that impairs normal cognitive and muscle function. Wet clothes, dropping temperatures, lack of fuel for the body or injuries acquired on the trail can contribute to hypothermia. This is why packing appropriate clothing and ample snacks is so crucial when embarking on your adventures, in addition to always telling someone back home when you expect to return, where you’re going, and what trailhead you’ll be parked at, so that if you don’t show up, someone can call for help immediately in the event that you might be injured out on the trail.

    The Layers

    Much of this is subjective, and, of course, it can greatly depend on varied temperatures in addition to what type of terrain you’ll be on. However, these are some of my general suggestions, assuming that you will be snowhoeing, cross country skiing, or hiking (in other words, exerting physical energy) on gradually hilly terrain! You’ll notice many similarities between these and dressing for hiking in the mountains in autumn, but with an increased emphasis on warmth.

    Types of Materials to wear

  • DO NOT wear cotton 
  • Though this may seem overly foreboding, “Cotton kills” is a phrase sometimes heard in the outdoors community. Sweat, stream crossing mishaps or rain and mist will soak through cotton clothing, causing it to lose its insulation. Though this may feel good initially if you’re hot from all that physical exertion, it’ll eventually cause your body’s temperature to drop rapidly once you stop moving to take a break, or you hike into exposed areas above treeline where it may be cold and windy.

  • DO wear quick-dry synthetic materials and wool.
  • Synthetic quick-dry blends designed specifically for physical exertion and outdoor adventures won't lose insulating capacity the way cotton will, plus it (surprise!) dries more quickly. Wool garments are known for their superior ability to maintain our body’s thermoregulation, even when wet. Merino wool is an excellent choice

    Base Layers

    Base layers are the garments that are closest to our skin. In the winter, include:

    • Wool socks. I prefer Darn Tough socks of medium thickness for physical winter activities.
    • Synthetic/wool underwear & sports bra. Stay away from cotton; once these garments get damp, it can make it very difficult to stay warm, even if your other layers are dry! 
    • Quick-dry/synthetic long underwear tops and bottoms. You can typically get matching tops and bottoms, either as light-weight, mid-weight, or heavy-weight. I personally prefer light-weight (especially if I’ll be going up hill a lot) but for colder days, mid-weight long underwear is great. Save the heavier ones for downhill skiing or snowmobiling.  


    These layers go over the aforementioned based layers. For me, these typically include:

    • Nordic ski pants. These are water resistant, insulated, and made for physical activity (they are not snow pants; snow pants would be too heavy). If you don’t have something like this, you might also consider wearing hiking or some other kind of athletic pants over your long underwear.
    • Another light, long-sleeved layer. I prefer one that can easily zip or button off as needed. This might come in the form of a micro-fleece, a synthetic athletic top of some sort, or a thin wool sweater.
    • Lightweight insulated vest. Vests can do wonders! They are easy to take on and off, and can bundle up nice and small if you need to stash it in your bag. I rely heavily on mine for thermoregulation. Opt for micro-fleece or polyester/nylon blends.


    Outer Layers

    • A winter shell. These are designed to be waterproof and windproof. I don’t recommend a heavy winter coat, though. You’ll get too hot!
    • A shell lining. Some people choose a thin down “puffy” jacket for this purpose. Mine’s polyester. It’s one of those layers that I usually don’t wear while I’m actually moving, but I always keep it with me for additional warmth during water or snack breaks. I also put it on if I’m about to start skiing downhill for a while after a long climb!
    • Hats, gloves, mittens, and a buff or neckwarmer. Like I said earlier, it is sometimes worth bringing a “light” set of hats/gloves along with a heavier set of a warmer hat/pair of mittens if it’s actively precipitating, if you plan on going downhill for a long time after a climb, or if you plan on spending any extended time in an open windy area such as a field or an alpine zone on a mountain.


    Have fun.

    All it takes is some basic preparation in order to have a wonderful time out in the snow. If you tend to run cold, you may find that you need additional layers not listed here. If you tend to run hot, you may balk at my list of suggestions, thinking you’d be sure to overheat in that! Do some experimenting, and remember to leave a little space in your backpack so that you can experiment as needed with de-layering! Don’t forget to bring some water and a granola bar.

    Happy New year!


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