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How to Dress for the Elements During a Winter Hike

Whether it's a hat, boots, long underwear, or a coat, dressing appropriately for outdoor activities entails staying warm and dry.
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winter hiking
Staying warm indoors while quaffing brews and watching sports on TV might seem appealing as the temperature begins its winter descent, but that doesn't mean you should go into complete hibernation. You could keep active by hitting the treadmill at the gym, but that's an exercise in boredom. So why not embrace the season instead?

The secret to enjoying a winter hike when the temperature is in the single digits is dressing properly for the conditions. While your normal clothes are enough for a 15-minute stroll through a city park, for a long hike in frigid conditions, you'll have a much better experience if you dress appropriately and stay dry.

A Hat Is a Hiker's Thermostat

It's the easiest piece of clothing with which to modulate your body heat, but also one that hikers stubbornly ignore; keep a hat on when you're cold, off when you're hot, and buckled down tight when the harsh winds blow. A hat like the Outdoor Research Transcendent Down Hat ($31.98 with $5.95 s&h, a low by $24) includes built-in ear flaps and a visor to block out the midwinter sun that lays so long just above the horizon.

In extreme weather, especially with wind, you can beef up you head protection by donning a balaclava (not to be confused with baklava, the delicious Greek dessert that could serve as emergency food if brought along on a hike). A Rothco Polypropylene GI Balaclavs (from $6.99 with free shipping, a low by $1) is made from a synthetic that doesn't soak up moisture like cotton. In winter hiking, cotton is your enemy; it gets wet and stays wet, ruining any insulating properties by turning a chill into a freeze.

Layering Keeps Your Core Warm

Wearing several layers that you can don and remove as your body temperature dictates is the way to go. Start with a lightweight synthetic like the Patagonia Women's Capilene 3 Midweight Zip Neck ($39.99 with free shipping, a low by $1), which will wick moisture away from your skin and allow it to evaporate, keeping you dry and warm.

Your second layer of clothing should be made of a heavier yet breathable material, like the Champion Men's Champion Eco Fleece Full Zip Hoodie (from $18.55 with free shipping, a low by $6). For an outer layer, try a rain jacket to keep out both rain and wet snow, and also serves to block the wind. A fabric that allows perspiration to escape while remaining rainproof is best. The Marmot Men's PreCip Rain Jacket ($79.95 with free shipping, a low by $20) is a good selection.

I usually only wear two bottom layers, since my legs are doing almost all the work, and thus generating the most heat. I first suit up in a pair of long underwear. Ladies might like these SmartWool Men's NTS Microweight Bottoms ($59.95 with free shipping, a low by $15). For an outer layer, consider Under Armour Men's Fleece Open Bottom Team Pants ($44.99 with free shipping, a low by $5), which are breathable yet, even wet, provide insulation. Some hikers prefer rain pants to match their rain jacket, but I've found them a bit too hot and annoyingly noisy while walking through the picturesque winter landscape.

To keep my lower legs and feet dry, especially in muddy or snowy conditions, I highly recommend high gaiters, which wrap around ankles and calves and hook into the top of your boots. The Outdoor Research Women's Rocky Mountain High Gaiters ($21.96 with $4.95 s&h, a low by $13) are a good example.

Put Your Best Foot Forward

The most important piece of gear, in my opinion, is footwear. Any light hiking boot or running shoe will suffice on dry urban trails, but if you are bound for the backcountry where you might have to scramble across creeks or wade through snow banks, you would be well advised to invest in a pair of boots; a good pair might last most of a lifetime, so they're a worthy investment.

Leather boots can be waterproofed with a coating for winter and wet conditions and breathe easily enough to keep you from getting cold feet. The Lowa Men's Renegade II GTX Mid Hiking Boots ($176.99 with free shipping, a low by $13) are the best around.

Along with a good boot, socks can make the difference between a happy hiker and a miserable one. Here too, think layering. Start with a light, synthetic liner sock like the RedHead Men's CoolMax Liner Socks ($5.99 with free in-store pickup, a low by $1) and then pull on a pair of the SmartWool Men's Lightweight Hiking Socks ($17.95 with free shipping, a low by $1) or other synthetic or wool hiking socks to keep your feet warm even when wet.

If you're heading out in severe conditions, think about layering your hand wear, too. I'd put on a liner glove like the The North Face FlashDry Glove Liners ($25 with free shipping, a low by $6). Cover these with some mittens — fingered gloves expose more of your hand to the air, and are therefore less warm. Slip on a pair of mittens and you're ready to go.

Sure, you may end up looking like a cousin of the Michelin Man once you're all bundled up, but that's a small price to pay for a full day of hiking through a winter wonderland. Don't let the weather trap you inside; there's a whole world to discover when snow is on the ground and ice and wind have turned even the most humble pine tree into something glittering and new.

This feature has been updated since it was originally published last year.
Contributing Writer

Tom Barlow is a freelance journalist specializing in lifestyle and consumer issues. In addition to DealNews, his writing has appeared on many websites, including Forbes.com and Aol’s DailyFinance.com.
Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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