A Beginner’s Guide to Staying Warm Outside
Getting outdoors in the winter doesn't have to be miserable. Here, musher Blair Braverman shares her top ten tips for keeping cozy in frigid temperatures.
As a dogsledder, one of the biggest misconceptions I’ve encountered is that I must be made of sterner stuff than other people, or that I simply don’t mind being cold. In fact, I am a baby. I like soft and comfortable things, and my circulatory system is decidedly average. But staying warm in deep cold—or even, say, shallow cold—isn’t something that most people are born good at; it’s a skill that anyone can improve, and it opens up a whole season of outdoor possibilities.
Maybe you spend your winters pining for spring, dreaming of long weekends outside again. Maybe you’ve just moved to a colder place and you have no idea how the locals do it. Or maybe you’re looking for ways to get out of the house safely, without violating social-distancing guidelines. Have no fear! Here are ten principles to get you started on your warmest winter yet.
Embrace the Puff
A lot of staying-warm advice focuses on layering, but there’s nothing magical about layers of clothes; the real magic is the air that gets trapped inside them. That’s because the true goal of winter clothing is to create a layer of (warm) air that you carry around with you. Expensive cold-weather clothes? They’re just fancy ways to hold air. And any jacket you see advertised as “sleek” is more focused on making you look small than keeping you warm, which can defeat the whole purpose.
Whether you’re buying a new parka or layering the clothes you already have, focus on bulk. For outerwear, look for thick, lightweight insulation like down or primaloft—and steer clear of cinched waists or other details that make your personal air bubble smaller. When you’re layering sweaters or fleeces, add a windproof or wind-resistant outer layer (when in doubt, try breathing through the fabric) to keep the wind from blowing your air bubble away.
Hot air rises, so the longer your coat, the more air you’ll be carrying around with you (and even if it’s loose at the bottom, the warm air won’t “fall out”). At the very least, look for coats that go past your hips, so warm air can surround your torso. This is also why insulated skirts are so great—and the longer, the warmer. I like the kind you can unzip fully to slip over the rest of your outfit.
It’s a myth that you lose 40 percent of your heat through your head, but that doesn’t mean hats aren’t important. In fact, people lose heat through whatever parts of their body are the least covered, which often happen to be heads. Other common offenders include the cracks at your wrists, ankles, neck, and waist, where cold air can slip under the edges of your clothing. Add a neck gaiter, tuck your pants into your boots (or socks), and wear wrist warmers under your mittens.
Moisture can chill you quickly, so when you’re out in the cold, it’s important to minimize sweating. Your winter outfit should offer a way to cool down quickly, either by removing layers or unzipping; and if you’re going to be active (and thus generate heat), you should dress in such a way that you feel cold when standing still. Cotton doesn’t insulate well when damp, so if you wear a base layer (the layer against your skin) made of a non-cotton material like polyester, wool, or silk, you’ll feel more comfortable throughout the day. And don’t skip your antiperspirant! I have friends who even put antiperspirant on their feet to help keep their toes dry and warm.
Shoes are tricky, because they’re in contact with the ground, and you lose heat more quickly through contact with liquids and solids than through contact with air. (See also: contact frostbite; see also: why 50 degree water feels colder than 50 degree air.) So your boots and shoes need to add bulk around your feet and insulate them from the cold ground.
When you’re sizing your winter boots, leave room for extra insoles (without pinching your feet, which makes them—you guessed it—colder). I like 13-millimeter wool insoles. Then, whenever you come inside, pull the insoles from your boots so they can dry completely. And if you’re outdoors every day, a boot dryer can be a game changer. My husband swears that double boot dryers are the key to a happy marriage.
Try Hand and Toe Warmers
I know people who worry that they’ll be inauthentic if they use hand and toe warmers, or that it’s dangerous to rely on artificial warming because in a survival situation, you might not have access to it. Look: if you’re not into remote high-risk winter activities, you don’t need to overthink it. Hand and toe warmers are great. They are toasty. And you can be creative with them! I sew a little pocket into my hats, so I can tuck a hand warmer against the back of my neck, which feels super cozy. Slap a sticky toe warmer on the back of your phone and the battery won’t drain as quickly from the cold. And if you get chilled, stick a warmer in your crotch (but not directly against your skin—burning yourself causes a whole other problem). It’ll warm the blood in your femoral artery, which, in turn, helps to warm your whole body.
Meals make you colder, because blood rushes to your digestive system. But snacks make you warmer, because they’re easier to digest, and hot drinks warm you from the inside. When you head out in winter, bring a thermos and a pocketful of chocolate, dried fruit, or other quick-energy snacks. If you want to be really fancy, you can use a trick I learned from legendary musher Martha Schouweiler: fill a Gatorade bottle (or other wide-mouth bottle) with trail mix, and you won’t even have to take off your mittens to “drink” it.
Stay Hydrated—and Keep Peeing
Go to the bathroom frequently, because a full bladder will make you significantly colder. But don’t avoid drinking so you don’t have to pee—ya gotta stay hydrated, too.
Warm Up Right
Once you get back inside, it may be tempting to keep your layers on while you warm up. After all, they make you warmer, right? Nope! Your coat and your boots will hold cold, just like they hold warmth. Strip down to your base layer and bare feet and you’ll warm up much more quickly.
Fat holds temperatures, too, so if you have more body fat, it may take you longer to get cold—but it can also take longer to get warm again. Hot drinks (and/or sharing a friend’s body heat) can warm you up nicely. If you’re still chilly, a bath or shower will usually cut straight through the lingering chill. (Note: When people are very cold, hot water can cause damage by warming them too quickly. You shouldn’t take a hot shower or bath after cold-water swimming—and if you might be hypothermic, seek medical help for proper re-warming.)
Winter happens outside, but it happens inside, too—and if you want to embrace winter, embrace coziness! Drink toddies, build fires in the fireplace (or light candles), load up on blankets, get into knitting—it’s all part of the season, and there’s something special about coming inside and drinking hot chocolate by the fire as your ears warm up. It can take time to learn the intricacies of how your body responds to cold, but the process should be fun, not daunting, and you can go at your own pace. There’s no right or wrong way to enjoy winter—it’s all about embracing the possibilities and figuring out what’s right for you.