How to Dress for Cold Weather Walking

Cold Weather Walking: How to Layer

Two Couples Cold Weather Walking
Dressed for Winter Walking. © Jim Cummins / The Image Bank / Getty

A brisk walk on a cold, crisp day, whether for fitness or for fun, can be exhilarating and refreshing. Or it can be a direct route to frozen toes, hypothermia, or one of those to-the-bone chills that can take hours to thaw. This won't happen though if you wear the right stuff.

Rule one of dressing for a cold weather walk is to put on layers that will wick away moisture, insulate your body from the cold, and keep out the wind and rain. You'll need three layers to do this:

  • Base Layer: Any clothing that touches your body directly should be made from a fabric that will wick moisture away your skin and prevent you from feeling clammy.
  • Insulating Layer: The best fabrics for your middle layer are fleece and wool. This layer also should include a shirt or vest that you can take off easily if you get too hot (and slip back on if you get cold again).
  • Windproof and Water-Resistant Outer Layer: Top it all off with a jacket, preferably with a hood, designed to keep out the elements.

Dressing for Cold Weather Walking: Underwear

JunoActive Sport Bra
JunoActive Sport Bra. JunoActive by Junonia

Briefs: Underneath it all you should wear briefs made of synthetic fabric rather than cotton or a cotton blend. Nylon or polyester is better, as cotton will hold sweat and won't dry quickly.

Bra or Shimmel: For women, a sports bra made of a wicking polyester or polypropylene fabric is a good choice. Again, avoid cotton or cotton blends that can leave you feeling soggy or clammy, and cause uncomfortable chafing.

Another option is a shimmel or a sports top or bra that covers your upper torso to provide an extra layer of insulation for very cold days.

Undershirt: Men may want to wear a short or long-sleeved wicking undershirt. This should be of silk, polypropylene, or other wicking fabric.

Tights or Long Johns: For temperatures below 30 F, especially when winds are high, a pair of tights under your pants can help keep your legs cozy. Silk or polypropylene long john bottoms, or even winter-weight panyhose, work as well. Tights or pantyhose can also help prevent chafing of the thighs and calves.

Dressing for Cold Weather Walking: Shirts

Three Young Walking Women
© / yobro10

When walking in the cold, your shirt should be made of a wicking fabric rather than cotton or a cotton blend. Cotton holds in sweat and can leave you cold and clammy. A wicking fabric shirt will take the moisture off your skin while providing a base layer.

As it happens, many marathons and half marathons give finishers the perfect shirt to wear for winter walking, a technical wicking fabric long-sleeved shirt.

How to Dress for Cold Weather Walking: Pants

Lucy Do Everything Pants
Lucy Do Everything Pants. Lucy

Your cold weather walking pants also should be made of wicking polyester fabric. Running tights or looser-fit running pants are ideal. For convenience look for styles withy zip pockets and an elastic waistband. 

On wet or snowy days it's especially important to not wear cotton. If you venture out in jeans and they get wet, you're setting yourself up for hypothermia. In fact, if you expect to be walking on raining days, you may want to invest in a pair of waterproof rain pants. These can be expensive, but can also provide a great deal of comfort. They'll also keep the wind out and some have an inner fleece layer for very cold climates or skiing, which can come in handy in temperatures under 30 F.

Dressing for Cold Weather Walking: Insulating Layer

LOLË Emily Packable Jacket
LOLË Emily Packable Jacket. Wendy Bumgardner ©

An insulating layer of polyester microfleece, quilted down, or polyester fill, or a wool vest or wool shirt will help keep out the chill on walks below 40 F. If you hate feeling bulky, microfleece is thin enough to fit under regular waterproof jacket and dries quickly. Look for a style that's somewhat fitted so that it layers neatly under a jacket. Including an insulating layer is better than simply wearing an extra-heavy jacket because you can take it off if you find yourself getting too hot. 

Dressing for Cold Weather Walking: Jacket

Marmot Oracle Jacket
Marmot Oracle Jacket. Wendy Bumgardner © 2007

A windproof jacket is an essential for cold weather walking. It also should be water-resistant, or if you're planning to walk in the rain or snow, waterproof. If you live in a dry climate, you may prefer a soft shell jacket. Many outdoors manufacturers offer soft, windproof, water-resistant jackets suitable for walking, hiking, and skiing.

Other details to look for in a walking jacket:

  • Two-way zipper so you can easily loosen the jacket around your hips
  • A comfortable hood for rain or wind protection
  • Convenient pockets, preferably zippered
  • Armpit zippers to allow for breathability
  • A cut that will fit over your fanny pack or backpack to keep them dry.

Dressing for Cold Weather Walking: Socks

Smartwool Walking Socks
Smartwool Walking Socks. Wendy Bumgardner © 2006

There was a time when the "recipe" for hiking socks was to combine a liner made from wicking polypropylene liner with a wool sock to go over it. Now you can find socks that combine both features in one sock or you can choose non-itchy wool socks that are machine washable. The most important thing to keep in mind is the bulk of your walking socks. You don't want to wear a pair that's so thick they crowd your toes together inside of your shoes. 

Dressing for Cold Weather Walking: Footwear

New Balance 809 Trail Shoe
New Balance 809 Trail Shoe. Wendy Bumgardner © 2006

You'll need to your feet warm and dry when you're walking in the cold. One option is a  flexible running shoe that has a water-resistant and wind-resistant upper. Another is a light hiking boot or trail running shoe that's waterproof. Choose walking shoes with a flexible sole. If you can't bend or twist the shoe with your hands, your feet will be fighting it with each step.

Traction and Safety Devices

For walking on ice or snow, you may need fit your footwear out with a traction device, such as slip-on cleats, to help you get a grip on slippery surfaces. Ski poles or trekking poles can provide extra stability. If you want to have some fun in the snow, consider investing snowshoes. The ones available now are small, light, and don't require training to use.

Dressing for Cold Weather Walking: Headgear

Hat with Bill and Ear Coverage
Hat with Bill and Ear Coverage. Wendy Bumgardner ©

Covering your head will help keep your whole body warm. Some features to look for include a bill to shade your face on sunny days and ear flaps. Your walking hat should be waterproof. Besides covering your head, you'll want to keep the rest of your body from the neck up warm and cozy. Some options to try: 

  • A Balaclava: This is a hood that goes over your head and neck, leaving only your face exposed. Often you can pull it up over your mouth or nose as well when needed.
  • A Neck Gaiter or Scarf: A neck gaiter is a sleeve that goes around your neck to keep your neck warm. You may prefer a traditional scarf to use for this purpose.
  • A buff: This is a tube-shaped piece of fabric that can be worn as a balaclava, a neck gaiter, or a hat.

Don't forget sunglasses and sunscreen. Sunscreen is especially needed in winter as the sun's radiation is more intense, and less expected, especially when reflected off of snow. Protect your mouth from the sun and from chapping by using a lip balm with sunscreen. 

Dressing for Cold Weather Walking: Gloves

Columbia Fleece Mittens
Columbia Fleece Mittens. Wendy Bumgardner © 2006

Keeping your hands warm is essential. Fingers (as well as toes and nose) are especially vulnerable to frostbite. Mittens are much better than gloves for keeping your hands toasty because when they're bfunched together inside a pair of mittens your fingers keep each other warm. In severe cold wear windproof fleece mittens.

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