How to Dress for Cold Weather Walking

How to Dress for Cold Weather Walking

Two Couples Cold Weather Walking
Dressed for Winter Walking. © Jim Cummins / The Image Bank / Getty

When walking in cold weather, you need to dress in layers that will wick away moisture, insulate from the cold, and keep out the wind and rain. From head to toe and inside to outside, here is what to wear.

Use the Layering Principle

Base Layer: Wicking fabric to keep your skin dry and prevent that clammy feeling.

Insulating Layer: Fleece or wool, vest or shirt that can be added or removed depending on how cold you feel.

Windproof and Water-Resistant Outer Layer: A jacket, preferably with a hood, to keep out the elements.

Dressing for Cold Weather Walking - Underwear

JunoActive Sport Bra
JunoActive Sport Bra. JunoActive by Junonia

Briefs: Underneath it all you should wear briefs made of synthetic fabric rather than cotton or a cotton blend. Nylon or polyester is better, as cotton will hold sweat and won't dry quickly.

Bra or Shimmel: For women, a sports bra made of a wicking polyester or polypropylene fabric is a good choice. Again, avoid cotton or cotton blends or you may end up with chafing and being soggy and clammy when you finish your walk.

Another option is a shimmel or a sports top/bra that covers your upper torso to provide an extra layer of insulation for very cold days.
More: Sports Bras

Undershirt: Men may want to wear a short or long-sleeved wicking undershirt. This should be of silk, polypropylene, or other wicking fabric.

Tights or Long Johns: For temperatures below 30 F, especially with wind, I like to wear a pair of tights under my walking pants. You can buy silk or polypropylene long john bottoms for this purpose. But a pair of winter-weight pantyhose or tights will also serve the purpose of adding another layer. Tights or pantyhose can also help prevent chafing and chapped skin on the thighs and calves.

Dressing for Cold Weather Walking - Shirt

Three Young Walking Women
© / yobro10

When walking in the cold, your shirt should be made of a wicking fabric rather than cotton or a cotton blend. In the winter, I wear a long-sleeved CoolMax or other polyester wicking fabric shirt. Cotton would hold in any sweat and you will end feeling cold and clammy. A wicking fabric shirt will take the moisture off your skin while providing a base layer.

As it happens, many marathons and half marathons give finishers the perfect shirt to wear for winter walking -- a technical wicking fabric long-sleeved shirt. I usually wear my Portland Marathon finisher shirts for cold weather walking.

How to Dress for Cold Weather Walking - Pants

Lucy Do Everything Pants
Lucy Do Everything Pants. Lucy

Your cold weather walking pants should also be made of wicking polyester fabric. Running tights or looser-fit running pants are ideal for cold weather walking. I prefer versions with zip pockets for convenience, and an elastic waistband rather than a drawstring or zippered fly.

Avoid Cotton: As always, avoid cotton or cotton blends as they will just get wet and stay wet. With pants, especially, you can set yourself up for catching a chill or even hypothermia by wearing jeans in the rain.

Rain Pants: If your walks are likely to be in the rain, you may want to invest in a pair of waterproof rain pants. These can be expensive, but can also provide a great deal of comfort. They are also windproof, and so can do double duty if you are in a windy climate. Some double layer waterproof pants have an inner fleece layer for very cold climates or skiing. That may be too much insulation if your walks are above 30 F.

Dressing for Cold Weather Walking - Insulating Layer

LOLË Emily Packable Jacket
LOLË Emily Packable Jacket. Wendy Bumgardner ©

An insulating layer of a polyester microfleece, quilted down or polyester fill, wool vest or wool shirt will help keep out the chill on walks below 40 F. I prefer microfleece as the insulating layer as it is thin enough to fit under my regular waterproof jacket without bulk, and it dries fast if I get sweaty.

Why wear an extra layer rather than just wearing a heavier jacket? You are likely to warm up as you wall. And if you are dressed in layers you can take off the insulating layer and stow it, while still wearing your jacket to keep out the wind and rain.

The LOLË jacket pictured is packable, it comes with its own stuff sack so you can remove it when you warm up. It is fitted so it will layer well under a windproof and/or waterproof jacket.

Dressing for Cold Weather Walking - Jacket

Marmot Oracle Jacket
Marmot Oracle Jacket. Wendy Bumgardner © 2007

A windproof jacket is an essential for cold weather walking. It should also be water-resistant, or if you are planning to walk in the rain or snow, waterproof. I have a winter wardrobe of two weights of waterproof, windproof jackets. One is a shell that provides no insulation. I wear it for temperatures down to 40 F, relying on my long-sleeved technical fabric shirt and perhaps adding a fleece vest.

Once temperatures are under 40 F, I have a waterproof jacket that has its own lightly insulated lining. For the most severe winter conditions below 20F, I have a waterproof down jacket that the salesman said was suitable for Antarctic exploration.

If you live in a dry climate, you may prefer a soft shell jacket. Many outdoors manufacturers have soft windproof, water-resistant jackets suitable for walking, hiking, and skiing.

Details I look for in a walking jacket:

  • Two-way zipper is preferred, so I can loosen the jacket around the hips for better motion.
  • A comfortable hood to use for rain or wind protection so I won't need an umbrella.
  • Convenient pockets, preferably zippered.
  • Armpit zippers to allow for more breathability and a wider range of temperature comfort.
  • Fits over my fanny pack or backpack to keep them dry.
Top Picks for Waterproof Jackets
Plus Size Jackets and Winter Tops

Dressing for Cold Weather Walking - Socks

Smartwool Walking Socks
Smartwool Walking Socks. Wendy Bumgardner © 2006

The old recipe for hiking sock combos was a wicking polypropylene liner sock under a wool oversock. Today, you can buy that combination in one sock or you can choose a modern non-itchy wool sock that is machine washable. You need to be careful that you don't buy a sock so padded and bulky that it crowds your toes in your shoes.

Top Picks for Winter Walking Socks

Dressing for Cold Weather Walking - Shoes

New Balance 809 Trail Shoe
New Balance 809 Trail Shoe. Wendy Bumgardner © 2006

You need to keep the wind and rain out when you are walking in cold weather. I switch to a trail running shoe that is still flexible yet has a water-resistant and wind-resistant upper. Many designs of light hiking boots or trail running shoes are waterproof. But be sure to choose ones with a flexible sole. If you can't bend or twist it, your feet will be fighting it with each step.

At times, I have resorted to slipping a bit of newspaper or a Starbucks napkin under the tongue of my shoes to cover my toes and provide an extra bit of insulation when the cold wind still blows through my shoes.

Top Picks for Trail Shoes

Traction and Safety Devices

For walking in ice or snow, you will need additional traction devices. Stabilicers, Yaktrax and similar slip-on cleats can give you a grip. I also recommend using ski poles or trekking poles for extra stability.


In snow, have some fun and buy or rent a pair of snowshoes. Today's snow shoes are small, light, and take no training to use.

Dressing for Cold Weather Walking - Hat

Hat with Bill and Ear Coverage
Hat with Bill and Ear Coverage. Wendy Bumgardner ©

Covering your head will help keep the whole body warm. My favorite winter walking hat has a bill to shade my eyes and covers my ears. Look for a visor beanie or billed stocking hat for similar features. I have fleece hats with ear covers, but I find they are too warm until the temperatures are below 40 F, and be sure to check whether they are windproof.

You may prefer to wear an earband instead of a full hat.

Keeping Your Neck and Face Warm

  • Balaclava: A balaclava is a hood that goes over your head and neck, leaving only your face exposed. Often you can pull it up over your mouth or nose as well when needed.
  • Neck Gaiter or Scarf: A neck gaiter is a sleeve that goes around your neck to keep your neck warm. You may prefer a traditional scarf to use for this purpose.
  • Buff: A Buff is a tube-shaped piece of fabric that can be worn as a balaclava, a neck gaiter, a hat, etc. as popularized on the TV show Survivor.

Protect Your Eyes, Lips, and Face

Don't forget your sunglasses and sunscreen. Sunscreen is especially needed in winter as the sun's radiation is more intense, and less expected. Lip balm with sun protection will also prevent chapped lips. Both can also help protect your skin from wind and cold.

Top Picks for Hats and Ear Warmers

Dressing for Cold Weather Walking - Gloves

Columbia Fleece Mittens
Columbia Fleece Mittens. Wendy Bumgardner © 2006

Keeping your hands warm is essential for cold weather walking comfort. Mittens are much better than gloves, as your fingers all help warm each other. For more severe cold, I wear windproof fleece mittens.

For days that are just a bit chilly, I buy those cheap stretchy knit gloves and wear them till my hands warm up, which generally takes only a few minutes.

If it is just too cold to walk outdoors, consider these options:
Best Ways to Walk Indoors

Winter Safety

Continue Reading