Preparing for Cold Weather Adventures: A Guide to Layering

"To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand out in the cold." - Aristotle


Winter weather doesn't have to mean hibernation; it is entirely possible to be comfortable and warm while you enjoy the outdoors, even as the temperatures drop.

In the last post, we talked a lot about how to stay warm and as dry as possible while winter kayaking. However, many winter activities tend to take place off the water and for that, it's important to know some of the basics of layering.

We all know that layers keep you warm. But did you know that it's not just about how many layers you have on and more about how you layer? Despite having lived in New England for my entire adult life, I found myself shying away from winter outings that went beyond my front porch because no matter how many layers I had on, I couldn't seem to be able to stay warm. It took me years to learn that the key to staying warm wasn't random piles of layers but, rather, smart layering that was both efficient and effective.

So let’s talk a bit more about smart layering. Layering can be intimidating; there are seemingly infinite options for clothing that seem “techy” and suitable for outdoor adventures. We like to try to keep it simple so that the choices can feel less daunting. Below is a guide that focuses on three principles to layering that will serve you for any outing, keeping you comfortable regardless of ever-changing temperatures, precipitation, and wind.

Base Layer:

Your base layer is your next-to-skin layer that wicks away moisture. In the cold winter months, moisture that accumulates from sweat acts as a conductor of heat away from your body. Wicking materials like polyester or merino wool will effectively wick moisture away from your body and keep you warm and dry on even the most high-output adventures. This layer should fit snugly to prevent chafing and maintain space for the insulation that rests above it.

Insulating Layer:

Over your base layer should be an insulating layer that traps the heat your body creates in pockets of air. This layer might be a synthetic insulator, down or wool. Down is a common insulator as it is highly packable and extremely warm – the catch being that it loses some of its insulating power when it gets wet. Synthetic or wool is best for high-output activities, while down insulation is great for more relaxed adventures. On the coldest winter days, multiple layers of insulation may be necessary to keep you comfortable. Keeping an extra puffy jacket or fleece on hand is a great habit when adventuring.

Protective Outer Layering:

The last piece of the layering puzzle, the weather-proof shell, should act as a defense against wind, snow, and precipitation. Without a shell, wind and moisture can strip you of the warm air you worked so hard to generate! Some excellent, less expensive outer layers come with built-in insulation, such as dedicated snow sports jackets. Other, more versatile layering systems will include a waterproof, wind-proof dedicated shell. Depending on the nature of your activity and the weather conditions, you may elect to bring a more rugged, abrasion-resistant, fully waterproof jacket, or you might opt to go for a soft shell, designed for light wind and water resistance.

Adventure East will provide you with high quality snowshoes, microspikes, and trekking poles to make walking on snow and ice safe and enjoyable. However, we recommend keeping the following in mind while preparing for an adventure:

  • Footwear – Remember what we said about the importance of moisture wicking material next to your skin! Wool socks will wick away moisture better than any other material. Water-resistant, insulated boots are best for winter hiking. They can be expensive, so doubling up on wool socks and using toe warmers will work if using non-insulated boots. We recommend trying on boots with the socks that you intend to wear. You may need to go a size up to accommodate thicker socks or liners.
  • Eyewear can be helpful – Snow is bright and reflective! Having a pair of sunglasses handy is a great idea.
  • Headwear – We’ve all heard that old saw that we lose most of our body heat through our heads. While that is not entirely true (we lose heat through any body part that is exposed), you do want to wear a hat. Not only will it limit exposure to the cold and elements, but it will help protect your ears as well. So don’t forget your warm, comfortable hat!
  • And… - Don’t forget a warm pair of gloves. Neck warmers, buffs, and hand warmers may be necessary too, depending on wind and temperature. Be sure to check the weather conditions before heading out on a cold weather outing.

We hope that this guide helps you adapt to any weather conditions and make the most of your outdoor experiences. Do not hesitate to reach out with any questions.

See you at the trailhead!


*tips courtesy of Nick Auerbach, Winter Programming Coordinator

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