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How to Properly and Safely Dress in Layers for Cold Weather Exercise

By John Fainsan, PT, DPT, MS, OCS, MTC, CSCS, CDN | January 21, 2022

“There’s no bad weather, just bad gear”. I paraphrase but this is a common Scandinavian saying.

As we get deeper into the winter, the common complaint that patients tell me is that they don’t go outside because it’s cold. Aside from slipping on an icy day, cold weather shouldn’t prevent you from going outside. Unless you have a robust home gym, getting outside is one of the easiest (and fun) ways to get your exercise in. Some of these activities include walking, hiking, biking, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, etc.

The one thing that surprises me is that most people don’t know how to dress properly in cold weather. This is especially true when people are doing cold weather activities. This is where the 3 layer system is key when dressing up your upper body.

  1. Base layer
  • The base layer serves to wick moisture from your skin
  • Avoid the use of cotton as it retains moisture.
    • After a strenuous endeavor, cotton will stay wet with sweat and you will start to feel cold and clammy as you are resting and recovering.
  • My preference here are synthetics or wool.
    • Synthetics are a bit cheaper in general and easier to care for. However some have the disadvantage of retaining body odor over time.
    • Wool requires more care and can be itchy or irritating to the skin for some people.
  1. Middle layer
  • The middle layer serves to create insulation while being breathable.
  • This allows the moisture wicked away by the base layer to evaporate while you stay warm.
  • My preference in the middle layer is fleece for moderately cold weather.
  • For very cold weather my preference is down and synthetic down.
    • Down midlayers have the best weight to warmth ratio and are very packable for travel. The disadvantage is that if it gets wet, it doesn’t keep you warm anymore.
    • Synthetic down jackets, while not as warm as natural down jackets by weight, will keep you warm even when wet. (I do use my middle layer a lot as a casual, “stand alone”  jacket when running errands around town.)
    • Many down and synthetic down jackets have some level of water resistance.
  1. Outer layer or shell
  • The outer layer or shell serves as your protection from the elements.
  • My preference is a water resistant soft shell for light moisture like light snow. Soft shells allow more breathability when doing high output activities.
  • Breathable hard shell for heavier wet conditions, like freezing rain or heavy wet snow. Hard shells are more waterproof and offer more protection from the elements but less breathability.

Another must for dressing up your upper body is wearing hats and gloves. Its no secret that we lose a lot of heat through our head and extremities.

Shed layers as you get warm and add them back on as you get cold.

Now Get out there and get after it. No excuses.

About The Authors

John Fainsan, PT, DPT, MS, OCS, MTC, CSCS, CDN

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