Winter hazards aside, hiking in the cold can be uncomfortable -- but it doesn't have to be. Staying warm during a cool-weather hike starts with dressing in layers so you can pull clothing on and off at need to maintain a comfortable body temperature. (Pay similar attention to dressing your head, feet and hands for the cold weather; it really pays off in terms of comfort.)
Layering does a lot to keep you warm and comfortable, but there are plenty of other tricks to help you eke every last degree of warmth from your clothing:
- Put your hood on. The idea that 40-some-percent of your body heat escapes through your head is a myth, but some heat does escape and, with blood vessels so close to the surface, your head is one of the first body parts to let you know how cold it is out there. Just putting your hiking jacket's hood on over your hat adds an extra layer of insulation and protection over your delicate noggin.
- Cinch the fasteners at the wrists and hem of your jacket. This stops cold drafts and traps more air inside the jacket, where it'll quickly be warmed by your body heat. Double-check to make sure your pit zips and any other ventilation zips are fully closed.
- Close other gaps. This is more a buying decision than anything else. If you've purchased the right hiking jacket and hiking pants, they'll overlap enough that you won't get a cold draft up your back every time you raise your arms or bend over. Tuck at least one of your upper-body layers into your pants to help seal the gap even more. Wearing gaiters helps "close the gap" around your ankles.
- Don't overdo the layers on your extremities. Do consider wearing a liner glove (so you'll have some dexterity without having to bare your hands completely) and a heavier glove for insulation. You can do the same for your feet -- liner socks topped off with heavy, insulating socks. However, don't put on so many layers or such tight layers that you end up compressing your hands/feet and cutting off your circulation. At the very least, you'll end up colder than you would have been with fewer layers that allowed adequate circulation. The worst-case scenario involves some nasty cold-related injuries.
- Use hand warmers... in your hat. I'm not a fan of battery-heated gloves or boots -- but chemical hand warmers work great. Put them in your gloves and, if your hat has a brim that flips up all the way around your head, tuck them into the brim to help warm your ears. They also make chemically-heated insoles and foot warmers that you can slip into your boots -- or adhere to any part of your clothing.
- Drink lots of water. Surprise, surprise! Staying well-hydrated helps you keep warm. Cold winter air usually means dry air, so go ahead and tank up -- just don't overdo it. I like to keep a collapsible water bottle inside my jacket, where my body heat keeps it warm. If you do this, triple-check that it can't leak all over you!
- Fuel your fire. Eating lots of calorie-rich food gives your body the fuel it needs to generate more body heat. A winter hike is not the time or place to pursue a diet -- go ahead and fuel up with foods rich in healthy fats.
- Take your clothes off ...before you start to sweat, that is. Sweat is your body's built-in cooling mechanism and it works very well, so you want to adjust your layers before it kicks in. A short pause to pull off one layer of clothing or open ventilation zippers is all it takes to head sweat off at the pass; once things cool down or you go back to hiking at a slower pace, you can just put that extra layer back on.
I'd love to know: What's your favorite trick for keeping warm on the trail? Leave a comment!