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How to stay warm when hiking

Winter is upon us, and if you're someone who feels the cold getting outside and grabbing some fresh, crisp winter air might not sound all that enticing. However, with another potential lockdown looming and most people's ability to meet only outdoors at this stage, better to be happy, warm and dry than soggy and miserable while doing so. People don't like hanging out with misery-guts.

So how do you dress to stay warm when out on a walk?

1) Get layering those clothes

It can be cold, wet and windy in winter. You'll want layers to wick moisture (more on that in a moment), trap warm air and keep you snug, and stop you getting wet. So you'll need to wear a base layer, mid layer and at least a hard shell waterproof (not weatherproof) that can stop wind and rain getting into your cosier layers underneath. Some waterproofs can be '3-in-1' which basically means there's a detachable zip-in fleece already built into the waterproof. I've a Jack Wolfskin one, and it's fantastic.

Your legs don't tend to get as cold due to all the movement. However if you're on a particularly long or exposed walk, consider thermal leggings or similar underneath your trousers.

Wearing wet clothes (even with sweat from exertion) for a long period of time in low temperatures isn't a good thing. The other benefit of layering is to add and remove layers throughout your hike so you can stay warm and comfortable without overheating and getting sweaty. It’s really important to stay dry, even if you're creating that moisture yourself. Getting wet on a cold day can possibly lead to hypothermia, and failing to maintain body heat could also lead to frostbite, so channel your inner ogre, be that onion and add some layers.

The general rule tends to be more layers are better than thicker, fewer layers. This means more pockets of warm air are created, and you stay better insulated. However, not all layers are created equal.

2) Pick the right materials

It sounds counter-intuitive, but if you’re wearing enough layers in the cold and exerting enough energy on your hike, you’re going to break a sweat.

In most circumstances this isn't a big deal. But if you start to perspire heavily during winter hikes and find yourself wearing the wrong materials this can become a problem. As sweat evaporates when drying, it rapidly lowers your body temperature (which is what normally it is supposed to do). However in colder and sometimes windy walks this is actually the exact opposite of what you want to happen.

By ensuring you choose clothing materials that wick away moisture (draw it away from the skin), you can avoid unwanted chills. Anything clothing made from bamboo pulp or synthetic materials such as nylon are perfect. If in doubt, grab yourself a technical base layer, they are designed for just this job.

So, leave clothes made from materials such as cotton and silk at home, and use fibres such as wool, down or similar for your heat-absorbing mid layer.

We've a full guide coming up on layering, so check the blog next week for a full head to toe guide.

The right food and drink

In general you can't go wrong with a flask of tea, coffee or hot chocolate (or Vimto, if that's your thing). Food like chocolate and peanuts are also known to keep you warm in cold weathers.

However, despite the old wives tales, whisky actually can lower your core body temperature, so don't bother with this one for keeping warm. (Just keep it for fun!)

Protect your extremities

This might seem basic, but you'll lose more heat through your head, hands and feet than you will through your core (especially if you layer up as above).

Protect the head

Your head is the part of your body most exposed to the elements and one of the biggest areas of heat loss across your entire body. Thick wooly hats offer perfect insulation – and protect your ears from that horrible achy feeling you get when too exposed to cold wind. Any beanie or bobble hat will do, or a flat cap in a pinch. Just don't rely on baseball caps.

Scarves, snoods or balaclavas are also not only effective at shielding your face from cold blasts of wind, they also help to contain the warmth from your breath and keep you dry in rainy conditions. Wrap your head and face up warm, and you'll immediately feel the difference.

Guard those fingers and toes

Socks and gloves made from a mixture of Merino wool and nylon are often recommended as the best choice due to their hybrid qualities. Gloves with a waterproof layer can be of great benefit as well, essentially completing your waterproof outer shell.

The durable, synthetic nylon component helps to ensure the socks or gloves remain intact and odour-free,   while the natural fabric of the wool is breathable and traps warmth in wet conditions, when other materials would fall short.

Your feet in particular always will need protection all year round. However, during the winter you face different challenges. Staying dry is vital, (as we now know). Adding insulation is also a massive pro, so again merino wool or similar socks (or thick winter hiking socks) will help keep you warm and dry throughout your walk and prevent cold seeping up into your feet from the ground.

However, make sure to avoid clothing that is too tight, as this can cut circulation, leaving extremities short of vital heat and oxygen. Make sure to keep watches, gloves and sleeves etc not tied too tightly.

If it's particularly cold and windy, always make sure you cover your skin as much as possible. Any skin that is exposed to freezing temperatures and cold wind is prone to frostbite. Take special care of your nose, cheeks, ears, fingers and toes. However, if you're off on a weekend walk through somewhere like Styal Woods, you can leave the balaclava at home.

Always dress for the intensity

It's very easy to over-complicate things, but in general if your walk is more exposed, generally more layers are better. If you've a hard climb then you can sweat too much and saturate your base layer, so bring a spare or avoid having too many layers on the way up. Equally have a spare warmer layer for the way down, where you are likely to exert less effort and therefore generate less heat (and become prone to more heat loss).

However most people are not seeking to climb something like Scafell Pike in the winter and instead are just looking for a good walk around a park or wood you'll be fine with the standard boots, trousers, base layer, mid layer and outer shell approach. Protect your head and hands, and don't get your feet wet. That's it.

Don't let bad weather get you down

It's important you look after your mental health, so don't let the cold wet weather stop you and remember to get out walking. And if you need inspiration, we've plenty of that.


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