It takes some practice to learn what to wear for running outdoors at different temperatures in winter, just as in spring, summer or fall. To save you some of the guesswork, we share the benefit of our experience with how to choose pieces from your gear stash based on what the thermometer says. Keep in mind that everyone is different, and with practice you’ll learn exactly what you need to be comfortable at different temperatures.
Note that in winter, you should feel cool when you start, and you’ll warm up as you go (it’s not called a warmup for nothing). If you can stand outside for five minutes without getting cold, take off a layer. Overdressing for the conditions can sometimes be worse than underdressing.
Hat or no hat?
Note: people have strong feelings about headgear. If you’re a hat person, the choice becomes, at what temperature do you switch from a peaked hat or ball cap to a tuque (for us it’s around 0 C). If you hate hats, you’d be wise to wear something on your head–even if it’s just a headband or a buff–when the mercury goes below -5 C or so.
The best way to dress for cold weather is to layer technical fabrics, for maximum warmth and breathability. Many people swear by merino wool base layers, since merino is warm, naturally wicks away moisture and doesn’t harbour bacteria or odour. Some companies are even coming out with technology that adapts to your activity level, keeping you comfortably warm without overheating.
Keep your tootsies warm
You’d think that the activity of running would keep your toes from freezing, but at -10 or below, it can be a challenge to keep your feet comfortably warm. Definitely consider layering your socks (two thin layers are warmer than one thick layer), and if you do a lot of very cold-weather outdoor running, consider investing a shoe designed for the purpose, such as the New Balance 910v4 GTX, the Arc’teryx Norvan LD GTX or the Under Armour Charged Reactor Run.
10 C (balmy, by winter standards): We realize that if you live in Vancouver, this counts as cold. For everyone else: half-tights or capris are fine (or even shorts, if you’re brave). Short or long sleeves, depending on your preference. Jacket definitely not necessary (unless it’s raining, in which case you might prefer a light shell over your short-sleeve). Gloves not usually necessary.
2 C (still relatively mild): A long sleeve, possibly over a tank or short-sleeve, with half-tights, full tights or capris, ball cap and thin gloves.
0 C (freezing, but not really cold): A light long sleeve base layer under a warmer half-zip-style long sleeve, hat or buff and gloves. At this temperature you really don’t need a jacket, unless it’s very windy.
-5 C (coolish): A light layer or two plus jacket, tights, tuque, and consider a neck warmer or buff if it’s windy, and warm gloves. (We like to layer a pair of thin gloves under windproof overmitts. Sometimes the overmitts come off as we warm up.) Consider layering a pair of long shorts or capris over your tights to keep your rear end warm, or invest in some fleece-lined running tights.
-10 C (cold): This is where some folks in southern Ontario draw the line. If it’s colder than -10, they don’t go out. If you do go out, dress warmly with at least 2-3 layers on top (including jacket), and a warm hat and gloves. If your hands get cold easily, consider using hand warmers. Another idea: wear a pair of latex gloves inside your regular gloves or mitts.
-20 C (extremely cold): Layer up, and cover any exposed skin (remember faces, wrists and ankles). Add some long underwear/merino base layer bottoms under your tights. A balaclava and/or neck warmer are strongly recommended.
Note: Whatever you do, don’t run in a puffy vest. Your extremities may need extra clothing, but your core is likely to overheat. And when you inevitably want to tear off that vest, you can’t tie it around your waist, so good luck carrying it home.