How to Dress for Outdoor Winter Activities
I explain ways to be Comfortable outside Nordic Skiing or Snowshoeing
- Retain Heat, Lose Moisture
- Dress for the Occasion
- Wear the Right Material
- Three Layers
- Shopping Tips
- Final Tips
The old adage “dress for the weather” is so true. No matter what Mother Nature throws at us, blizzards, sleet, snow, chilly winds or a deep freeze , you can be active (within reason) and enjoy the outdoors in the winter, in comfort; just Dress for It!
Many parts of Ontario are covered in snow for a third of the year. Either you hide inside your cabin bored, restless or make something of it, and come out to play.
Remember all the times you suffered freezing outside; your poor fingers, toes, ears. How the day ended sooner than you had wished because you had to seek warmth inside.
Let’s improve on that scenario so you can stay out longer in comfort.
Retain Heat, Lose the Moisture
Keeping our bodies comfortable in the winter requires retaining the heat we generate. The basic science is to keep the heat in and to transfer the moisture out. How little or how much depends on the barrier between you and nature’s elements.
It is the warm air trapped in the weaves and fluffy fleece material that forms a barrier between your skin and the outside temps. How effective these layers of material are will keep you comfortable longer.
This encompasses the material, construction and insulating properties of your boots, socks, pants, underwear, fleece, jacket, hat and gloves. Seems like a lot to wear just to have some fun in the winter.
By buying and using the right apparel you can be active outside without all the bulk.
The next issue is the barrier to cold nasty winds trying to penetrate your garments, mixing with the warm insulated air and cooling you down sooner. You want an outer shell that can block most of the wind pressure yet breathe when you sweat.
Here is where it gets tricky and expensive to make garments that can do everything and do them well.
I once skied in a jacket shell that was wind and water-resistant. It did a fine job when it rained but failed to let out enough moisture doing a high aerobic exercise as Nordic skiing can be. This jacket was better suited for leisurely hikes.
Dress for the Occasion
A mistake beginners make is to wear their street clothes on the trail and overdress. These garments may have kept you warm standing at a bus stop or sitting by a firepit but will soon overheat you when active.
You should actually start your trek on the trail a little underdressed with the intent to get moving and warm-up. Aim to be in your comfort zone within 15 – 20 minutes. A few hill climbs will do it.
What should not happen is that you have to start peeling off layers. If so, this is telling you, you have overdressed… and now what are you going to do with that extra stuff?
This is why you see many seasoned Nordic skiers wearing thin tight spandex clothing. You might think they are chilled (crazy) but they are moving quickly and working hard, generating plenty of heat. And one of the most complete workouts when you get going, especially Skate skiing.
Personally, I feel more comfortable wearing a looser fleece and shell and baggy pants that are not so skin tight. I stop more often for photos or to wait for others to catch up (like my son). Here is where you can catch a chill if you stand around too long when it’s – 15C.
Wear the Right Material
The second mistake newbies do is wear jeans, sweat pants, cotton T-shirts, cotton socks, puffy parkas and big hats. This may be fashionable but will perform poorly. Best to change into this after your exercise.
One of the problems with these garments as mentioned is they wick moisture inefficiently away from your skin to the outdoors. This gets your clothing damp and wet. Cotton garments will feel cold, stiff and heavy, a problem in the winter.
Another problem is they are not sewn to fit as activewear and can rip and split.
Also if you fall into the snow these materials allow snow to cling. If you are not quick to brush it off they will melt and ice into your fabrics.
Better to choose to wear wool and polyester blends. These materials are light, perform well, retain heat and wick moisture. Wool actually still feels warm after it gets wet! A merino wool base layer is fine for low activity but choose polyesters for more vigorous outings.
Dressing in layers is key in regulating your body’s heat and moisture.
Base layer against your skin
Mid-insulating layer of fleece, thicker the colder it is
Outer windbreaker shell layer
Here is where good activewear can help regulate and keep you in a steady comfort zone for the whole day. This will require a few outings to test and use your combination of outerwear to find the sweet spot to regulate your activity level and heat output.
Most of my advice for skiers applies to Snowshoeing. A few other points to note. Snowshoeing may be for you a slower-paced trek which means you need to dress a little warmer than skiing. But if you are doing a lot of hills and your backpack is full it could be a major workout.
Once you get off the set path and do a little bushwacking in the deeper snow you are at risk of getting a boot load of snow. Either consider boot gaiters that cover the area where the boot end and the pants begin or snow pants that come down around below the boots.
Other entry points for snow; pockets, wrist and neckline areas should be tight to block snow from entering. If you trip and fall over into a metre of the fluffy white stuff you will understand the situation quickly. lol
Pockets – You can never have enough pockets. Look for deep pockets that zip closed. Velcro is OK but it only takes one time to have a spill and loose stuff in the snow to know that securing valuables in a zipped area will save you much grief. And at some point, you should use a backpack to carry things.
Vents – Look for jackets that have zippered vents under the armpits. Undershirts and fleece tops should have a zipper that comes down halfway from the neckline or opens completely.
Noisy clothes – Picture yourself out in the quiet solitude of a forest winter wonderland. As you move along the only sound is the swooshing sounds of your clothes rubbing. This could get annoying. Look for a softshell material for a jacket and pants.
Low-Stick Materials – If you are still prone to falling over or you fancy heading into deep snow wear materials that snow does not cling to. If caught in a snowstorm you will appreciate this.
Where to Shop – If you try to shop for garments specific to Nordic skiing or tailored to Snowshoeing, there is little out there on the racks. For the Nordic racing crowd, they need the edge but for the rest of us, we can look elsewhere to suit our needs.
Both Cycling and Running are very similar activities with a much large audience. Shop in those departments online or in the aisles of sports stores to find suitable ski and snowshoe activewear. Look in the fall through the winter into the spring, you will find cold weather apparel for cyclists and joggers.
Hat – small thin hat, not too bulky
Gloves – you need a good grip on the palms to hold onto the poles. Finger gloves work on milder days, while mitts can keep the digits warmer when it gets colder. I also use thin inner gloves as I am always removing a mitt to shoot pictures.
Neck warmer – optional, great on a frosty day, pull it over your mouth and nose to warn your breath, and as a covid mask too.
Undershirt – a tight fight polyester long-sleeved shirt with a soft non-itch inside feel
Underpants – polyester full-size briefs/panties with tight-fitting long underwear on top. Buy two types, thin leggings and a thicker fleece blend for those frosty days.
Pants – non-stick snow material, either tight or loose fit, some favour in front wind-breaking material which I think is a good idea and the back breathes more.
Fleece Top – buy two kinds, a thin and thick version depending on how cold it is.
Shell Jacket – full length or waist height, windproof with zippered arm vents (if you can find them). Plus a hood that rolls up under the collar is a blessing in a snowstorm.
Socks – use a wool blend 40% or greater, wear one good pair, not two pairs in a boot which gives too much motion resulting in less ski control and perhaps blisters.
- Change Socks – I change into dry wool socks before putting on my ski boots. If you are out for a backcountry full day trek you might appreciate a change of socks midday.
- Pack Extra – An undershirt and fleece top to change into for the way home or have a full set of clothes if able.
- Warm Boots – Keep your ski boots warm in your car’s cabin not the trunk on the way up to the trailhead
- Eat Well – Have a proper high carb meal in the morning before you go out and bring some type of energy bar foods for the trails to top up your gas tank.
- External Heat – Glove warming packets and electric socks are an option if you are having problems with generating your own heat on the hands and feet extremities.
I have included some links on this page to sites that I believe offer good quality apparel. I may get a small referral fee if you shop at these suppliers using my links. This is at no extra cost to you.
There is an eco-friendly movement recently to recycle old fibres to make into new garments. Patagonia is a leader in this cause and sensitive about its carbon footprint. I am delighted to be able to represent them.
Some items get expensive I know. Think of it as an investment in comfort and safeguarding against frostbite and the nasty Canadian winters we can get stuck in. Also, consider it as a little insurance to better your odds when the going gets tough or there is a problem. They usually last longer too.
Check used clothing stores for older similar garments good for the trail. And try ski swaps at Nordic ski club events they may have gently worn garments.
So there you have it, a basic getup to take on Ontario winters and enjoy them. As mentioned, modify your wardrobe according to the activity and weather outside.
Then get out there and Go for It!
For more info on this topic :
Salomon – How to Properly Dress in 3 Layers
Outside Magazine – Dress for Cross Country Skiing
Play safe, stay warm – Dan R.