Every week, I’m relatively amazed by some of the clothing choices I see among winter trail users. In fact, I believe this is one of the main reasons some runners back off of their trail use in the winter… they just don’t know how to properly dress for it! As far as I’m concerned, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”
That said, we decided to put together some quick tips on dressing for winter running. While we’re gearing this article toward running, a lot of these tips translate well to other trail uses like mountain biking or hiking. Here are our 10 tips for cold-weather running:
- Worst-case scenarios exist. This one is first because it’s important: be prepared. Don’t plan your day based solely upon what the weather is at the beginning, unless your route includes a good bailout plan… you never know what’s going to happen! One wrong step is sometimes all it takes to turn your 3-mile hike or run into an epic, 10-hour journey. Even if you’re only wearing a hydration pack or lumbar pack, carry extra gels or bars; if you’re forced to spend the night outdoors, a cheap emergency blanket can literally save your life.
If it’s cold out, a Patagonia Nano Puff Pullover or Patagonia Ultralight Down Shirt weigh very little and provide a great insurance policy in case the weather — or your ankle! — takes a nasty turn.
- Cotton kills. Seriously. There’s a reason this phrase has become such a cliche in the outdoor community: it’s true. It’s all about moisture management; cotton doesn’t wick sweat from your body, doesn’t dry quickly, and doesn’t breathe well during high-output activity. As soon as you start sweating (or get caught in a rain shower, or fall in a creek), a cotton shirt will be wet and heavy. Water conducts heat away from your body roughly 25 times faster than air! Running or hiking in a cotton shirt in cold weather puts you at real risk for hypothermia, and hypothermia can set in at temperatures well above freezing!
Luckily, this is an easy fix: wear a synthetic or merino wool top. The Patagonia Capilene 1 SW Stretch Tee is a favorite — if you ran in a 2011 Rock/Creek Trail Series race, you already have one — and the SmartWool Microweight Tee is a premium alternative to synthetics, since Merino wool regulates temperature better and naturally resists odors. There are many, many options here.
- Your head loses heat faster than you realize. Your brain is far more important to survival than your hands or feet, and your body knows it; in fact, your system will sacrifice any other body part, starting with your extremities, before it allows your brain to get cold. It’s difficult to feel yourself losing heat off of your head, but you are, and if it’s really cold out you can be losing a lot of it. Your head leaks heat: wear a hat!
Some good lightweight hat options include the Mountain Hardwear Micro Stretch Dome and Outdoor Research Radiant Beanie. If the weather is too warm for a full hat, ear-warmers can work very well, and cover some critical heat loss areas at your temples and the base of your skull; try the lightweight Patagonia R1 Headband or the windproof Outdoor Research Ear Band. Remember, if you’re wearing a pack or have some extra pockets, you can always remove your hat if it gets too hot.
- Layering is critical. Wearing a base layer can make all the difference, whether you prefer the silkweight Patagonia Capilene 1, breathable Patagonia Capilene 2 or a merino wool option from SmartWool. Check out the full lines of SmartWool base layer tops and SmartWool base layer bottoms. Some of us almost always run in shorts, but running tights like The North Face Apex Climateblock Tight are excellent in very cold weather.
Here in the southeast, it’s common to see runners using arm warmers, which can be pulled down if the temperature rises; the SmartWool Arm Warmers are a great choice (and a best-seller).
- Consider carrying a pack. For runners, it’s easy to leave the hydration pack in the car, but in very cold weather this probably isn’t your best option. This, of course, ties back to our original point about being prepared.
Minimalists can carry a handheld like the Nathan QuickDraw Elite and tie a jacket around the waist. A better option for an extended run or less-predictable weather is a running hydration pack from CamelBak or Salomon (arriving soon). Make sure your choice of pack is appropriately suited to support your plan, and leave some extra room in case you need to strip off layers or accessories.
- Plan for wind and/or rain. There are plenty of options for wind or light rain that warrant bringing along with you on your run. The Patagonia Nine Trails Jacket or Nine Trails Vest have a vented back to prevent overheating, block wind very well and are so small and light they easily stuff into a pocket; the Salomon XT Softshell Jacket and Mountain Hardwear Effusion Power Jacket are excellent, well-vented, wind-blocking options. If more significant rain is a possibility, the Marmot Super Mica Jacket or Outdoor Research Helium Jacket are ultralight, waterproof jackets worth carrying.
- Be ready to deal with wet feet if necessary. GORE-TEX or OutDry footwear options are excellent, but you’re betting that you don’t encounter water deeper than your ankles! Make sure your trail shoes also drain quickly, and don’t wear cotton socks! SmartWool running socks will keep your toes warm, draw the water away from your feet and retain their thermal properties even when wet.
- Keep your hands warm, too. You know those cotton gloves that every small race event seems to give out in the winter? Throw those directly in the trash. Unless you want to run around with your hands in your pockets, you’ll need a pair of gloves. Lightweight fleece or Power Stretch Gloves work fine; if fleece is too warm for you, try The North Face Runner’s Glove, which is windproof on the back of the hand and ultra-breathable on the palm so your hands don’t build up sweat and get cold. In nasty rain or the like, a shell mitten is perfect to slip over your gloves… how often do you really need finger function on a run?
- Maintain your caloric intake. This saying is common among several factions of outdoor enthusiasts: “If you’re tired, eat. If you’re cold, eat.” It’s important to remember that you’re burning calories while you’re out there, and for your body to warm itself it needs more fuel to burn.
Carry some extra Hammer Gels, or energy chews, or whatever your food of choice is. An extra bar isn’t a bad idea, and we feel pretty strongly that everyone can find room to carry a Honey Stinger Waffle!
- Hydrate properly. This should be simple, but it’s so much harder than it sounds! When it’s really cold, you’re not dripping sweat, and you’re not feeling thirsty… but you’re still using up your body’s water supply and you still need to hydrate. Don’t forget how critical it is to drink enough water!
Let’s face it, trail runners are going to keep running throughout the winter, no matter what the weather is like, and we’re out there right along with you. A few wise choices with our clothing allows us to stay out on the trails while remaining safe and comfortable, and nicer weather will return soon… we promise!