This is the second installment of Staying Safe. This series tackles common safety issues in being active and enjoying the outdoors safely and responsibly. Have a suggestion or a topic you’d like to learn more about? Send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Yep. Winter is here for good. The thermometer is plunging lower and lower, daylight is hard to come by, and it’s much easier to smash that snooze button and retreat further under the sheets than to pull on those shoes and hit the road. Although it’s tempting to skip it, running in cold weather doesn’t have to be torture.
By using a little common sense, running can be a safe and exciting way to experience your usual routes in a whole new way. And you could replace “running” with just about any activity here: walking, hiking, skiing, backpacking, ice climbing… you name it, it still works.
Our foremost enemy in cold weather is hypothermia, which I described in detail last week. The challenge with being active when the temperature dips is that when you run, you also sweat, and moisture is the public enemy #1 when it comes to keeping hypothermia at bay. The key to staying warm and more importantly safe in cold temperatures is layering.
Think in 3 layers:
- Base Layer (Inner): a thin layer that wicks moisture away from the skin, keeping the body as dry as possible.
- Insulating Layer (Middle): Designed to insulate and retain heat, this layer does just that: it adds a bit of warmth. There’s tons of room to play here. In more mild weather, you might eliminate this layer altogether, or add a second layer if it’s truly bone chilling.
- Weather Layer (Outer): The outermost layer should protect from whatever abuse the weather is offering – wind, water, whatever. This layer won’t keep you warm, per se, but it will keep you dry and take that nasty bite out of the wind.
This whole layering thing applies to the lower half, too, although generally your legs will create much more heat than your upper body (especially if you’re running, skiing, snowshoeing…). I personally don’t wear more than a solid pair of winter running tights. Occasionally, I may throw a pair of rain pants on top if it’s bitterly cold or really wet and wild out there. Depending on where you live, you may need that extra layer of weather protection or insulation – it’s your call.
The Runner’s World website actually has a neat app that can be a good guideline when decided what is appropriate for the weather at hand – just fill in the info and the What Should I Wear will spit out an outfit, no harrassing from Stacy or Clinton involved. (Anybody… annnnybody at all?)
Choose Fabrics WISELY!
Now that we’ve got our layering system down, let’s talk fabric. When it comes to staying warm, what is truly important is to stay as dry as possible. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. DRY is what we’re going for here.
I say this because not all fabrics are created equally when it comes to effectively handling moisture, and by that I mean sweat. The most important thing I can say here is that COTTON is ROTTEN. Cotton absorbs moisture like a sponge and as such takes a very long time to dry out. Those old cotton race tees may be comfy to lounge in, but they have no place in your winter running arsenal. On the other hand, those fancy new “technical tees” are designed to do exactly what we want – wick moisture away from your skin. Synthetic fabrics like polypropylene are great for this purpose, as are more natural fabrics like wool; in the past, wool hasn’t been the softest of options, but companies like Patagonia, SmartWool and Nike have revolutionized wool as an option, although there can be a significant price tag involved.
When it comes to the middle and outer layers, there are all kinds of options: PolarFleece, wool (again), Gore Tex, just to name a few. There are TONS of options out there, in all price points, but I will say that it’s probably best to go for water resistant as opposed to waterproof – typically, water proof jackets don’t breathe well, so you end up overheating in your own sweat. Ew.
Keep It Loose.
With all these layers, it can be easy to feel a bit like a stuffed sausage. But, be careful not to wear clothing that’s too tight. Tight clothing can restrict blood flow, making the body work harder to retain heat. It might mean buying certain items of clothing a little larger than normal, but it’s worth it. No hypothermia and NO feeling like a sausage? This one’s a no brainer.
Accessorize, But (Again) Skip the Cotton.
This is not ground breaking news, but it remains: accessorize. Picture your mom: “90% of your heat is lost from your head!” While that may not be entirely accurate – it’s closer to 50%, actually – it’s still a good idea to cover that noggin. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – that stuff about fabrics also applies to things like socks, hats, gloves, scarves, balaclavas… if you’re running, and its cold out, you should be wearing at least a hat and some gloves, and they should NOT be cotton. If it’s seriously freezing, it can help to have a balaclava to cover your mouth and warm the air up a bit before it gets sucks down, but a scarf will do the same thing.
Start Out Cold.
This may seem a little counter intuitive, but hang with me here. Much of the time, we actually overestimate how much clothing we need to be comfortable while being active in cold weather. I’ve been on countless backpacking trips, and it happens every time. We head down the trail in the morning and not 10 minutes later, we take a break to strip layers… myself included. If you’re comfortable standing around for a few minutes, you will be way too hot once you start moving. Rather than shedding layers and having to drop them off, be brave and take off one right from the start. The first few minutes may be brisk, but in the end, you’ll be happy you stripped… a layer, that is. Then again, this is the beauty of layers – you can take them off! Try it, I dare you.
Use Your Judgement.
A contributing obstacle to winter activity is the lack of daylight. When the sun doesn’t rise until 8 am and sets at 5:30 pm, it can be virtually impossible to find a sliver of sunshine in which to run if you work like the rest of us. If you do decide to hit the road before or after work, be prepared for the task. Reflective vests, headlamps, and blinking lights go a long way to make you visible on the road, and can easily save your life. It’s also prudent to carry some form of ID – Road ID carries a variety of awesome products that are light and easy to carry but still provide crucial emergency information.
Cold temps bring other challenges, too – like nasty weather in the form of snow, ice, slush, or any combination thereof. Even if you’ve got your layering system down, double check the conditions of your planned route ahead of time and adjust accordingly. This might mean throwing on some YakTrax and slowing the pace down to ensure solid footing, moving your run inside to a treadmill, or scrapping the run altogether in favor of snuggling up on the couch with some hot chocolate and a puppy. What? It happens.
Winter running can not only be a great way to stay or get in shape before the spring comes, but it can actually be a fun way to experience things in a whole new way. In my opinion, there’s no better way to spend a snow day than to feel that clean cold air pumping in your lungs, catch some snowflakes on your tongue, and gain a whole new perspective on your corner of the globe.