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How to dress for cold weather hikes

By Joe Miller | November 10, 2020 | 5 min read | Healthy Lifestyle

Backs of two women in winter gear hiking beside a lake

Winter doesn’t have to keep you inside. Layer up and enjoy the cold weather ahead.

A few years back, I ran 6 miles one day in 32-degree weather and mountain biked 15 miles the following day in 23-degree weather. The reason: technology. Specifically, the high-tech clothing that allowed me to weather temperatures that are about as cold as we get in North Carolina.

Personally, I need to get out, no matter the weather. So I’m willing to spend the money it can take to help me cope with the elements. But I got to wondering: Do you really need to spend $500 (or more) on clothing that will insulate you from the cold?

No, it turned out. I went to a local big box store and outfitted myself with gear that promised to do a comparable job. The price tag for my new winter wardrobe: $69.35. Granted, the clothes didn’t provide quite the level of insulating protection, and they likely wouldn’t last as long. But, as I would learn over the ensuing winter, they did what they needed to do.

The point: you can dress for the cold without breaking the bank. Here’s what to look for as you “layer up” to enjoy a winter outdoors.

First, a quick word about layering and why it’s important. Build up a sweat on a winter workout, cold air penetrates to your skin, the cold air finds an ally in the sweat, and together they can drop your body temperature to dangerous, life-threatening levels. It may not be quite so severe on a neighborhood hike, but it certainly will make you uncomfortable.

If you’re uncomfortable, you likely won’t be inclined to head out for another walk anytime soon. Which is why the most important layer in your layering system may be the base layer, the layer next to your skin.

Woman hikes by icy river in the winter

Base layer

Whatever your base layer is made of, make sure it isn’t cotton. Sweat sticks to cotton. The sweaty cotton sticks to your skin, your body expends lots of energy trying to warm your cold, sweaty skin, and you run the risk of hypothermia. Thus, your base layer should be made of a synthetic or high-tech wool that wicks the moisture from your body (it should also be as close to your skin as possible). Dry skin equals warmer skin.

Insulating layer

Above the base layer, wear a slightly heavier layer that helps create a pocket of air warmed by your body between it and the base layer. Synthetic fabric is again preferable, even something as basic as a polyester long-sleeve T.

Outer shell

An outer shell is especially important when the weather gets into the mid-30s or lower and there’s even a slight breeze. An outer shell is generally a less-porous fabric that sheds rain and wind. A good outer shell will also have some sort of vent system to keep condensation from building inside: zippers in the armpits is one popular option as is mesh under the arms and along the side of the torso.

Workout pants

If you’re not the type of person likely to head out in even a light rain, any pair of pants that doesn’t inhibit movement will do for an aerobic walk. You probably already have something serviceable in your closest. If not, a pair of synthetic workout pants will work fine.

Coverings for the extremities

A hat and gloves are key. Most of your body heat escapes through your hands and head. If you have them covered, your body acts as a more efficient furnace. And if you find your furnace running too hot, shed the hat and/or gloves for immediate relief.

Socks are also important: invest in heavier wool (or, again, synthetic) socks to keep your feet warm and to keep them dry as well.

It may take a walk or two to dial in a layering system that works: not all of us are comfortable in the same temperature zone. But figure it out, and you’ll no longer let a little cold keep you from the outdoor outings you’ve come to enjoy over the past several months.

For more hiking tips, every Friday around 8am, I offer hiking tips and suggestions of places to go on my Facebook Live Morning Walk with Joe report. Tune in at