Whether for fitness or fun, a brisk walk on a cold, crisp day can be exhilarating and refreshing. It can also be a direct route to frozen toes, hypothermia, or one of those to-the-bone chills that can take hours to thaw.
You can prevent these issues with the right gear. As the old saying goes, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” Here are 11 items to add to your cold-weather workout wardrobe.
Layering for Cold Weather Walking
The first rule 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. Here are the three layers you’ll need:
- Base layer: Any clothing that touches your body directly should be made from a fabric that will wick moisture away from your skin and prevent you from feeling clammy. A good choice is polyester.
- Insulating layer: This layer can be a shirt or vest that you can take off easily if you get too hot (and slip back on if you get cold again). The warmth of the insulating layer will depend on the temperature. Polyester fleece, wool, or down works well here.
- Windproof and water-resistant outer layer: Top everything off with a jacket designed to keep out the elements. Look for breathable jackets and pants that will let your body moisture evaporate, but keep out wind and rain (for example, those made from GoreTex). A jacket with a hood provides extra protection.
While they might be more function than fashion, don’t forget about your under layers. Just because no one will see them doesn’t mean you can skip these layers, which are crucial to staying warm and dry.
- Briefs: Wear briefs made of synthetic fabric rather than cotton or a cotton blend. Nylon or polyester are better choices than cotton, which will hold sweat and won’t dry quickly.
- Bra or shimmel: If you wear a sports bra, look for one that’s made from wicking polyester or polypropylene fabric. Avoid cotton or cotton blends that can cause uncomfortable chafing when they get wet with sweat. A shimmel is a sports top or bra that extends down over your lower torso, providing an extra layer of insulation for very cold days.
- Undershirt: You can also wear a short or long-sleeved sweat-wicking undershirt. Look for one made from silk, polypropylene, or another wicking fabric.
- Tights or base-layer bottoms: When the temperature is below freezing and the winds are high, keep your legs cozy with a pair of tights or base-layer bottoms under your pants. Silk or polypropylene long john bottoms (or even winter-weight pantyhose) will also work. Wearing tights or pantyhose can also help prevent thigh and calf chafing.
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 away from your skin while providing a base layer. Many marathons and half marathons give finishers the perfect shirt to wear for winter walking—a technical wicking fabric long-sleeved shirt.
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 with zip pockets and an elastic waistband. Pants that are fitted or have elastic around the ankle will help keep cold air out.
Note: On wet or blanketed days, it’s particularly critical to not wear cotton or denim. On the off chance that you adventure out in pants and they get wet, you’re setting yourself up for hypothermia.
If you expect to be walking on rainy days, 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 below freezing.
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 degrees Fahrenheit. If you hate feeling bulky, microfleece is thin enough to fit under a regular waterproof jacket. Polyester microfleece also will dry quickly if it gets wet. Look for a style that’s somewhat fitted, which will help it neatly layer under a jacket.
Including an insulating layer is better than simply wearing an extra-heavy jacket because you have the option of taking off this layer if you heat up, yet still having the protection of the outer layer.
Outer Layer Jacket
A windproof, water-resistant jacket is essential for cold weather walking. If you’re planning to walk in the rain or snow, a waterproof version is best. 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 include:
- Armpit zippers to allow for breathability
- Comfortable hood for rain or wind protection
- Convenient pockets, preferably zippered
- Cut to fit over your fanny pack or backpack to keep them dry
- Two-way zipper so you can easily loosen the jacket around your hips
Staying dry is critical to prevent getting cold. While a waterproof jacket is your first line of defense, an umbrella will also help—especially in a sudden downpour. Invest in a lightweight, folding umbrella to carry along just in case. If you are walking with an umbrella, switch hands every 10 to 15 minutes to avoid muscle aches and imbalanced walking posture.
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.
You’ll need to keep your feet warm and dry when you’re walking in the cold. One option is a flexible athletic shoe that has a water-resistant and wind-resistant upper. Another option is a light hiking boot or trail running shoe that’s waterproof. Many shoe and boot companies have lightweight styles to keep you dry. Coating your shoes with a water repellent fabric treatment is another option.
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.
When waking for fitness, choose a waterproof athletic shoe or trail running shoe.
If you are walking your dog or strolling at a slower pace, you may go with a Wellington-style rain boot, duck-style rain shoe, or snow boot. However, be aware that these are usually styles that are either inflexible or don’t provide needed support. They are best for walking shorter distances at a slower pace.
Traction and Safety Devices
For walking on ice or snow, you might need to add a traction device to your footwear, such as slip-on cleats. You could also choose shoes with cleats built-in 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 in a pair of snowshoes. You can find many that are small, light, and don’t require training to use.
Head, Neck, and Ear Coverings
Covering your head helps keep your whole body warm. Some features to look for in a winter walking hat include ear flaps and a bill to shade your face on sunny days and keep precipitation out of your eyes on gloomy ones. Your walking hat should also be waterproof.
In addition to keeping your head covered, you also want to keep the rest of your body from the neck up warm and cozy. You can go with a classic scarf, but there are also other options you might want to try:
- Balaclava: This is a hood that goes over your head and neck, leaving only your face exposed. You can usually pull it up over your mouth or nose as needed.
- Neck gaiter or scarf: A neck gaiter is a sleeve that goes around your neck to keep it warm. You can also use a traditional scarf to use for this purpose.
- Buff: This is a tube-shaped piece of fabric that can be worn as a balaclava, a neck gaiter, or a hat.
- Ear band: If your ears get especially cold, ear bands and other ear warmers are a great investment.
While you likely would never forget sun protection during a summer workout, you also need your sunglasses and sunscreen in the wintertime.
Sunscreen is especially important in the winter months when the sun’s radiation is more intense and less expected—especially when reflected off of snow. You can protect your mouth from the sun as well as from chapping by using a lip balm with sunscreen.
Fingers (as well as toes and nose) are especially vulnerable to frostbite. Mittens are much better than gloves for keeping your hands toasty. In severe cold, wear windproof fleece mittens.
If you don’t like wearing mittens because they make it harder to do things like use your phone, many gloves have electronics-friendly fingers. Look for pairs that have an over mitten to keep your hands warm when you aren’t on your phone.
Besides gloves, you might want to consider carrying single-use handwarmer packets on very cold days.
You need water in winter as much as in summer. If you’re taking a stroll through a public park, keep in mind that drinking fountains might get turned off during the winter. Make sure you bring a water along to stay hydrated.
If you usually carry your water bottle in your hand, you’ll quickly discover that it makes for cold hands in the winter. Instead, carry it in a single-bottle pack or small backpack. For longer walks, try a hydration pack.