Well, it’s finally getting cooler outside. Maybe late fall is here at last. It’s been a little rainy, too. Colder weather…chilly rain…yes, winter may be here at last. Do cold or rainy days mean the end of outdoor adventure? Not at all! In fact, many outdoors enthusiasts (myself included) relish those winter days afield. Without getting too poetic about it, there’s something kind of magical and mysterious about hiking (or, yes, you know me, even fishing) when the skies are gray and the temperatures are in the 34s or 30s or below. It’s a heady experience, and it’s addictive. It really is.

The key to enjoying it is to stay warm and dry.

That’s what I want to talk about with you this week – the challenge of staying warm and dry in the wintertime outdoors.

Let’s look at the “dry” part first. 

As anyone who’s ever hiked in the rain can tell you, it takes very little rain to get you totally and completely soaked. Even a light mist will turn that dry sweater into a soggy, chilly burden. The key is to keep the rain off of you, and the way to do that is with a breathable rain jacket.

Breathable jackets are designed to keep you dry without making you all sweaty. The fabric from which they’re made is manufactured with tiny pores which are too small to allow molecules of liquid water (rain) to get in. However, those same pores will pass smaller molecules of water vapor. That means that as you perspire, the water vapor doesn’t stay trapped inside the jacket (which would make you feel clammy and chilly) but instead escapes through the pores. The jacket “breathes,” in other words, and you stay dry. 

What about keeping the rain off the lower part of your body? Some go with breathable hiking pants. Others use a breathable poncho, which is longer than a rain jacket and which thus keeps the lower half of you dry better than would a jacket alone. I have a breathable poncho as well as a breathable rain jacket, and I use them both. But if the rain is heavy, then the poncho does a better job of keeping my lower body dry.

While thinking about staying dry, don’t forget your head. Most breathable jackets have a hood to keep your head dry. If yours does not, you’ll want a hat too. A breathable hat does for your head what the breathable jacket does for your upper body, but just about any sort of water-resistant hat will do. Note, however, that a typical ball cap won’t cut it when it’s cold and rainy. It offers no insulation and soon gets soggy, leading to the dreaded condition known as “cold and soggy head.” And when you’re hiking, that’s no fun at all.

Now – what about the “warm” part of that equation?

The key to staying warm in the wintertime outdoors is to layer your clothing. Start with a thin “wicking” layer next to your skin. Such garments are designed to “wick” perspiration out and away from your skin and help you avoid feeling clammy and chilled. 

On top of that, put an insulating layer of some sort. This can be a wool or wool/cotton blend shirt (which works as long as you keep it dry) or a fleece pullover. The outer layer is your wind and water barrier, typically your breathable jacket.

The same idea applies to your feet. Cold, damp feet make for a miserable outdoor experience, but that doesn’t have to be a problem. Try layering your socks (with thin wicking socks next to your skin and thicker wool socks on the outside) or wearing one of the engineered cold-weather hiking socks that are now available. Also, make sure that your hiking shoes are not too tight, for too-tight shoes will reduce circulation and soon make your feet feel cold.

Pay similar attention to your hands. You’ll lose a lot of heat through uninsulated hands, but it’s easy to keep your hands warm even on very chilly days. I like wool or synthetic gloves with open fingertips; the glove keeps my hands warm, while the exposed fingertips make it easy to operate my GPS or use my camera.

On extremely cold days, take along a couple of those warming packs too. They can make a real difference.

If you’re not sure how to configure all of this, talk to the folks at an experienced outdoor outfitter. They’ll help you get the gear you need to enjoy the out-of-doors even when it’s cold and wet outside – and when you do, I guarantee that you’ll discover a side of the outdoor experience that you won’t soon forget So look for me on the trail in the coming weeks – yes, even if it’s cold and wet and rainy!

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