How to Layer for Winter Workouts Outdoors
There's an art to staying warm, dry, and happy
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Moisture plus cold makes for challenging outdoor-training conditions. Dialing in your layering so that you’re warm and dry but not likely to overheat is tricky. Overdo the insulation, and you’re apt to sweat like mad, which can cause you to become cold and very uncomfortable once you slow down. Underdress, and you risk moisture freezing on you, potentially leading to hypothermia. The following guidelines for getting your running, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing outfit just right come from my own gear testing experience over the years, as well as interviews with pros, survival experts, and guides.
The most important job of a base layer is to move sweat away from your skin so that it can evaporate rather than cause clamminess and chafing. For that reason, I like to wear extremely thin base layers. While I have tested many over the years, I still find myself grabbing an old Patagonia Capilene Lightweight Crew shirt ($49), because it’s just the right thickness, moves moisture with the best of them, and is treated with Polygiene to quash odor. (That makes a world of difference if I don’t have time to wash it between runs.) I’m too self-conscious to run in just tights, so I wear a (now discontinued) pair of Black Diamond CoEfficient pants, which fit more like tight sweatpants. They’re also made from Polartec Powerdry fabric, which has the best warmth-to-wicking ratio of any I’ve tested. Since the CoEfficients aren’t made anymore, I’ve found that the Outdoor Voices Weekender sweats ($100) don’t have quite the thermoregulating chops but are plenty stretchy and more supple next to the skin.
Look for options that have insulation where you need it but not where you don’t. Smartwool’s PhD SmartLoft Divide Full Zip jacket ($188) is a good midweight crossover piece. The stretchy merino arms and back don’t inhibit motion and are thin enough to dump heat while you warm up, while the lofty, wool-insulated front keeps your core toasty. I never wear insulated bottoms during cardio. (Remember the adage “Be bold and start cold”?) It’s fine to wear a pair of puffy pants while waiting for your friends at a trailhead, but you’ll sweat through them in a matter of minutes if you keep them on while running.
While in some parts of the world, getting wet in the winter can kill you in a few hours, you’ll be fine most places if you head out for a run in the snow or sleet without a shell. I’ve found that a waterproof membrane on top of all of my other layers will trap my sweat so that I’m just as soggy as if I’d stood under dumping snow or rain. Unless it’s really coming down, stick with your midlayer most of the time and bring a soft shell or wind shell as backup in case the weather turns really foul while you’re out. My go-to is the North Face Better Than Naked jacket ($90), because it deflects enough wind and rain without causing me to stew in my own sweat.
Cold and achy hands are a special kind of misery. Bring a pair of gloves, which you can always stuff in a pocket if your digits get too hot. My favorite pair is made by Pearl Izumi and costs $15.
A good hat can go a long way—we all know how much heat you can lose through the top of your head. A lightweight running hat that fits nice and tight while wicking moisture, like Arc’teryx’s Phase R beanie ($35), is going to keep your dome cozy. A generic fleece one will get the job done, too. My father-in-law gave me one for a Christmas Eve run in Indiana, and while it isn’t nearly as slick as the Arc’teryx, it’s warm and moves moisture well enough.