How to Play All Day in the Snow Without Freezing Your Ass Off

 In Gear, Learn Hiking, Skills, Survival
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You’d kill to be a natural-born snow bunny who’s toned, tanned, and glowing with health all winter long. Problem is, the mere thought of snow hiking, winter camping, or all-day shredding makes you shiver. Because no matter what you do or wear, you just can’t stay warm in snow.

People tell you to dress in three layers and buy this-or-that magic gear item. But it seems like your body needs some extra help staying comfy in the cold.

If this sounds like you, please know you’re SO not alone. There’s me, for one. If I dress like everyone else in the cold, I’m so frozen in 30 minutes that I’m slurring my words and can’t unzip my pants to pee.

But I’m also living proof that there’s hope. I promise you that with a few adjustments to your clothing and habits, you really can stay warm in snow.

And no, I’m not going to tell you to run out and spend a ton of money on this. You can totally enjoy most winter sports without a down expedition suit and gloves suitable for Denali.

So without further ado, here are some “stay warm in snow” tips I learned from Colorado mountaineers (who regularly hike in wind chills up to -40 degrees F).

Fuel that furnace

Rule number one: to stay warm in snow, you first have to make heat. And in cold conditions, it’s going to require more than your normal caloric intake.

During more intense activities like hiking and ski touring, carry carb-rich foods and eat often (at least once an hour). Stash bars, energy chews, and goo in pockets so they’re easy to reach on the go. If you can’t get into a regular snacking rhythm, use the timer on your watch or phone for reminders.

For winter camping, ice fishing, and less intense activity, mix in some fat and protein. Try adding butter to your oatmeal, bacon bits to your soup, or nuts to your dried fruit.

Pro tip: consider bringing a little thermos of hot drink or soup. Not only is it going to help you stay warm in snow, it’s going to taste amazing and provide a real morale boost.

Hot soups and drinks also help hydrate you, which is another key to staying warm in snow. Drink your normal 2 to 4 liters, depending on activity, and try not to hold your pee too long. (Weird but true: your body uses energy keeping pee warm.)

Finally, don’t restrict or count calories during winter sports. If you’re tempted, consider that winter campers burn 3,000 to 6,000 calories a day. Eat often and freely. Save your paleo challenge or low-carb diet for the rest of the week.

How to Stay Warm in Snow All Day Long

Rock some cozy headwear

Now I know it doesn’t make for the sexiest Instagram pics, but one major reason people can’t stay warm in snow is that they don’t cover their heads and necks properly.

Cover your head with multiple layers just as you would your body. Hoods are ideal for insulation and wind protection,  because you can slip them on and off without digging in your pack. (If it snows, remember to put your hood up or tuck it into your jacket.)

If your sport requires a helmet, find a thin fleece or wool layer to wear underneath. Then pull your jacket hood over your helmet for extra warmth. (Note: some jackets are especially designed for use with helmets. Take your helmet along when you’re jacket shopping to make sure the hood fits comfortably.)

Also, be sure to cover your neck with a gaiter, Buff, or balaclava.

Finally, in windy conditions, cover your entire face with a clava and goggles. This is just as helpful for hikers as it is for skiers. Yeah, it’s annoying and kinda claustrophobic. But consider that once the wind chill hits -20 degrees F, exposed skin will freeze in about 15–30 minutes.

How to Stay Warm in Snow All Day Long

Don’t sweat it

One of the worst things you can do when you’re trying to stay warm in snow is sweat. Which is a bummer, because you’re out there to get some exercise, right?

But if your clothes are soaked, you’re going to start shivering the moment you stop and rest. And if the wind kicks up, you’re going to feel screaming barflies all over your skin.

To avoid this, make sure to wear good wicking long underwear (also called a base layer) next to your skin. Wool, nylon, and polyester blends are all good choices.

This also applies to both your panties and bra. Cotton undies will hold in moisture, feel clammy, and could freeze in extreme temps.

If you’re going to be exerting (hiking, skinning uphill), start cold. Just before setting off, remove enough layers to feel the chill. Move just slowly enough to avoid soaking your base layer with perspiration. (Note: this is easier to do when you’re alone. If you’re traveling in a group of fast friends, bring an extra base layer you can slip on if the first gets too damp.)

How to Stay Warm in Snow All Day Long

Beat cold feet

If you skipped straight to this section, welcome to the club. Among the badasses I know, more have trouble with icy toes than any other body part.

When it comes to keeping your feet warm, good footwear is key. And what works can be pretty individual. My tentmate in winter camping class actually went through about three pairs of boots with various socks before she found the magic bullet (Sorels, in her case).

Of course, boots can be pricey, so it’s best to test before you invest. When possible, try borrowing (or even renting, when available) pricey footwear before committing. Some options to consider:

  • Backpacking boots. Run-of-the-mill hikers can sometimes work for shorter day hikes and snowshoes — especially if waterproof and combined with heavy socks.
  • Insulated hiking boots. A good option for winter backpackers, snowshoers, and campers who want to stay warm in snow.
  • Duck boots. Tall insulated boots with rubber toes. I’ve got a few friends who love the Sorel brand of these for snowshoeing and winter camping. Costco also sells an off-brand version, which I’m super curious to try.
  • Mountaineering boots. Boots that are compatible with crampons. Usually insulated with a super rigid sole. Expensive but worth looking into if you’re interested in climbing steep snow or ice.

When fitting your winter boots, make sure they’re roomy enough to accept a thick winter sock and chemical toe warmers. Assume that all tight spots will morph into frozen spots the minute your step outside. (Case in point: my slightly undersized mountaineering boots are actually warmer when I take the toe warmers out. I wish I’d opted for something roomier.)

How to Stay Warm in Snow All Day Long

Duck boots

Unfreeze your fingers

Cold hands, warm heart, my ass. I don’t know about you, but I’m a right bitch when my hands are freezing. So for the sake of everyone else, I wear several layers on my hand.

First is a liner glove, which varies a bit by activity. I like the tighter neoprene kind on days when I’m going to have to grip an ice ax or tie knots. And there are fleecy and even puffy liners for sports where you just want to stay warm in snow.

Because liners are usually the first things to get wet, I bring multiple sets — sometimes up to three on a long day of mountaineering or winter camping.

Next, I throw a couple of chemical warmers in my overmitts and slide them over the liners. I prefer mitts with leashes that I can attach to my wrists. This keeps them from sliding down the mountain or blowing away. (But be careful when your gloves are dangling that they’re not catching snow.)

I do pretty well in liners, overmitts and warmers, but some people add an insulated glove (fleece or fill) to that system.

How to Stay Warm in Snow All Day Long

Talk to doc

Some people just run colder than others. But if you’re really struggling to stay warm in snow, it might be worth talking to your doctor.

Certain medications can make you more of a freeze baby. Also, some people have a condition called Raynaud’s disease that makes them super cold-sensitive. (It doesn’t mean you can’t stay warm in snow. But you might have to be more careful than your friends.)

Finally, smoking cigarettes can also make you colder faster, because it constricts your blood vessels. So here’s a great excuse to get the help you need to quit. You’ll enjoy the outdoors so much more.

How do you stay warm in snow? Comment to share your tips!

stay warm winter hiking

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Originally published Feb. 7, 2017. Updated Nov. 20, 2017.

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