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Get the Right Gear for Outdoor Safety and Comfort This Year

Protection from the weather boosts enjoyment of activities like running, skiing, camping and more

Two people outdoors in the snow with a dog and snow gear
Courtesy REI

Even if you're not a cold-weather person, you may find yourself outside more often this winter.

Being outdoors is one of safest social-distanced ways to stay active amid new restrictions aimed at containing the coronavirus pandemic. It's also a good way to maintain your health and well-being.

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Whether you're walking your dog or skiing, it's important to stay warm and protect yourself from hypothermia and frostbite. Having the right clothing and gear can make a big difference in how warm and dry you stay — and how much fun you have.

The type of clothing you wear affects how much heat your body loses through sweat. Avoid cotton, which absorbs moisture and can cause your body temperature to fall. Instead, wear moisture-wicking natural fibers like wool or synthetic fabrics such as polypropylene.

Make sure your clothing and gear aren't tight, which can restrict blood flow to your extremities.

Start with a focus on layering

"Whether you're walking, skiing or snowshoeing, layering is really key,” says Rachel McDonald, a field guide and instructor for REI in Seattle.

A woman standing next to a Christmas tree wearing many layers of clothing
Layers, as well as a hat, gloves and wool socks help protect Jilly Whiting during winter running.
Courtesy Jilly Whiting

The best number of layers varies, but three is standard: a base layer (underwear) that wicks sweat away from your skin; a middle, insulating layer like fleece or down that helps retain body heat; and a shell that helps block wind, rain and snow. Adjust the layers as your activity level and the weather changes, so you stay warm without sweating too much.

Lori McGee Koch, head running coach for Chicago Endurance Sports in Chicago, wears multiple thin layers in winter.

"Everyone is different,” she adds. “I know guys who will wear shorts even if it's zero degrees outside."

Protect your extremities

Covering your head, face, feet and hands is important because they're at the greatest risk of exposure.

Wear a hat to prevent losing heat through your head. A fleece neck gaiter is versatile: You can pull it up to cover your mouth, nose and cheeks, and it doubles as a face mask. Cyclists may want to invest in helmet or shoe covers to block the wind.

Have you ever had frozen fingers? It's hard to rewarm them, so keep them warm from the start. McDonald suggests choosing your gloves or mittens based on your activity, so your hands don't overheat. Consider layering liner gloves under waterproof shells, which block wind and moisture.

Sharon Trager, 65, of Anchorage, Alaska, likes to wear battery-operated heated gloves when walking her two German shepherds, Nemesis and Jack. “It can get below zero, and I need to use my hands to pick up things,” she explains.

The same goes for toes and feet. Proper footwear will help keep them warm and dry, and prevent slipping. Start with wool or synthetic socks. For more serious outdoor activity, consider waterproof snow boots with at least 200 grams of insulation. You can push spikes, available online from many sporting goods retailers, into the bottom of any shoes or boots for extra traction on snow and ice.

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Jilly Whiting, 62, of Freeport, Illinois, uses two home remedies for shoes. For “extra bite” when walking outside, Whiting pushes 3/8-inch sheet-metal screws into the bottom of her shoes (it doesn't damage them). She also bought a windbreaker for 50 cents at a thrift store, cut out pieces and glued them to the front of her running shoes to block the wind.

Air-activated hand and toe warmer packets are popular, especially if you're prone to frigid digits or have poor circulation.

The bottom of a shoe with metal screws inserted in the sole
Sheet metal screws pushed into the bottom of shoes can provide better traction in snow and ice.
Courtesy Jilly Whiting
Sheet metal screws pushed into the bottom of shoes can provide better traction in snow and ice.
Courtesy Jilly Whiting

Consider other gear for specialized hobbies

Some winter activities require special clothing and gear.

For winter camping, you'll need a four-season tent, a warm sleeping bag and an insulated foam pad underneath an air mattress. For snowmobiling, you may want thicker layers, bib snow pants and a windproof shell as you race through the cold air.

It's common when snowshoeing or cross-country skiing to heat up, and you'll likely want to shed some layers. But you need somewhere to put them. REI's McDonald recommends carrying a backpack (at least 25 liters) for excess clothing, water and snacks. It's also important because people tend to stop less for food and water when it's cold, increasing the risk of dehydration. Consider getting an insulated sleeve for your water bottle or packing a warm drink like hot cocoa.

The sun's reflection off snow is intense, so protect your eyes with sunglasses or goggles. And don't forget to protect your skin with an effective sunscreen.

For safety, wear reflective clothing or gear — even during daylight — to increase your visibility to others. Carry a battery-operated headlamp if your activity will continue after sunset.

Prepping for winter doesn't have to break the bank

You'll find no end of retailers and options for buying cold-weather clothing and gear. Experts advise basing your choices on the weather where you are, your metabolism, your activity level and your personal preferences.

You may find surprises by looking beyond the obvious. Trager likes shopping at Army Navy stores online and Costco. Whiting has found deals at thrift stores, discounters like Sierra Trading Post or Steep & Cheap, and even hardware stores.

"I got one of my favorite zip-down fleeces at a hardware store,” Whiting says. “I love being outdoors."

How to Protect Yourself From Cold Weather