I love winter running. For me, one of the few places that can compete with the view from the top of a mountain is a forest blanketed in snow. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is not only my favorite poem, it’s probably the only one I actually know by heart. When I worked in Washington, D.C. my greatest respite was my commute home from work. Anyone who has dealt with a D.C. commute is probably pretty confused, but I didn’t take the constantly jammed beltway or the over-crowded and prone-to-catch-fire metro. I left my office in Dupont Circle and in just over 2 miles I hit the trails in Rock Creek Park, which would take me the remaining 12 miles home.
My favorite time of year for this wasn’t when it was sunny and 90+ Fahrenheit with 90% humidity. It was when I was in the dark and cold, and the air was calm and crisp. Snow was a bonus, with thousands of tiny crystals glimmering in my headlamp’s beam on the ground and in the trees. It was magical, and peaceful, and I felt as if I had the whole place to myself.
As great as winter running is, it of course has its dangers. I want to be clear: this post isn’t meant to be a comprehensive set of winter safety recommendations. It has some suggestions to hopefully add to your comfort and your enjoyment of winter conditions. Before venturing out, always be sure you have the proper experience, knowledge, and gear, and that you’re aware of all conditions you *might* face. Not what you’re likely to face, but might face with even just a tiny probability. Gradually work your way up from short days out to longer adventures. Learn from problems others have encountered and don’t be an idiot like I was on a November hike in Yosemite back in 2013. This is even more true this winter with emergency services in most places already pushed beyond their limit from Covid. Here in the UK, any winter adventures currently shouldn’t be overnight or involve travel from home.
Nature isn’t the only danger
I also recognize that the scene I describe in the first paragraph is one that unfortunately many women don’t feel they can safely enjoy. If one of my daughters were old enough to go out for a run, I can’t say I would feel very good about her doing it in Rock Creek Park at night. Without launching into an entirely different topic that I’m severely unqualified to speak about, I’ll only add two more things to that. First, if you’re a guy please be aware of these issues and listen to and support the women who face them. Second, if you face these issues yourself, please consider carrying mace. Not just for bears. I’d love for my daughters to one day think it’s the cool thing to do if they go off running through the woods at night.
Emergency avoidance > emergency preparedness (but do both)
If there’s one thing you take away from this post, and don’t even read anything else, let it be this: mountain rescue is not a safety net or a security blanket! Be sure you let someone know where you’re going, and carry some sort of tracking and communication device, but otherwise when you plan, prepare, and venture out, pretend that mountain rescue doesn’t exist. Your mindset must be that you’re on your own – there will be no one coming to get you and if you get in trouble you need to always know the quickest route out and be able to keep yourself warm and safe at least through the night. Then if you do experience an emergency situation and someone is able to come get you back to safety then you can be pleasantly surprised and appropriately overcome with relief and gratitude.
Now moving on to the actual topic of the post: finding greater joy and comfort in winter running. And this isn’t just about comfort, it’s also about performance and injury prevention.
The most obvious discomfort in winter: it’s cold. I’ve long been a fan of the saying, “there’s no such thing as bad conditions, just inappropriate clothing.” In the past couple of years I’ve found that that’s not necessarily true. It’s not the temperature that causes the unavoidable problems, though. It’s poor visibility, immobilizing wind, or sloppy underfoot conditions. Subzero temps (on either scale), or light precipitation and wind… those can all be addressed by wearing the right kit.
Core is key
I used to think that I was really susceptible to cold hands. I’ve collected quite the variety of gloves to attempt to remedy this problem. It turns out, the problem was usually that I wasn’t protecting my core enough. If it’s not sufficiently warm then the body essentially says, “abandon the extremities, protect the vital organs!” Moreover, it’s using extra energy in that attempt to fall back and defend the keep. Running along with a cold chest might feel manageable, maybe even nice, but if the chest starts to become unbearably cold then we’ve stopped talking about comfort and now we’re back to the issue of safety.
Second to the core are the legs. I used to overlook these entirely. I even had a saying I used for years – “tights are for the teens” (as in degrees, Fahrenheit). I would happily run around in bare legs in freezing temperatures. I reconsidered first at the behest of my coach, David Roche, who penned the article I linked above about performance and injury prevention in cold weather. It turns out, muscles don’t like being cold. And leg muscles, well, they’re kind of important when running. I’ll now start covering up my legs when temperatures are just above freezing, and just like protecting my core it also helps with overall warmth extending to my extremities.
But the other stuff is important too
Protecting the core doesn’t mean you can run around in freezing temperatures with bare hands. I used to go with the minimal choice that was bearable for gloves. Having available fingers that can manage zippers, open food packaging, etc. is important. I’ve always been a fan of lightweight gloves with built-in mitten covers like the La Sportiva Trail Gloves. Those are still my go-tos for “chilly” temperatures, but when things get really cold I’m less shy about moving up to heftier gloves. I’ve found that my hands are happier and more nimble if they’re warm and cozy throughout the run but really cold for a minute when I rip the gloves off to use my fingers, rather than being constantly a little cold in lighter weight gloves that I never need to remove. I’m still a huge fan of the flexibility provided by over-mittens, though. Mittens will always be much warmer than gloves of comparable weight.
Feet are often overlooked. As ultrarunners, we’re used to dealing with all sorts of strange things going on with our feet. The gradual onset of frostbite is not something that should be casually ignored or battled through because we’re super tough, or something. Wool socks are a must, and it might be necessary to get shoes that are a size or two bigger to allow for multiple layers of socks. If feet are stuffed into shoes without enough room for blood flow and a bit of toe wiggling then extra socks can do more harm than good. Gore tex shoes and waterproof socks are also great for extreme conditions, not because they’ll necessarily keep your feet dry in all conditions, but because if your feet do get wet they’ll provide a bit of a wetsuit-like effect to keep your feet warm.
One mistake that’s easy to make is to judge what’s needed in a race or long day out based on what’s been needed in training. In ultrarunning nearly everything is magnified in races, but this is especially the case for cold weather. Generally we aren’t moving nearly as fast in a big mountain 100K as we are in an hour long training run. The slower we move, the colder we get. And the longer we’re out, the more that matters and progresses from a slight inconvenience to a major problem. It’s also a much worse situation than getting hot. If you’re hot you can always slow down or even stop, or go lie in a cool mountain stream for a few minutes. If you’re cold, and you’re fatigued or dehydrated, the solutions to those problems are in direct conflict. This is again why if you’re headed out solo into the mountains you absolutely need to have enough gear to stay warm even if you’re forced to stop moving completely.
Zippers are a modern marvel
Saying “dress in layers” is probably the most trite thing I could say in this post (albeit very important and true) and there are tons of resources detailing how to do this properly. I’m going to expand that a bit and say dress in layers with zippers. Conditions can change quite quickly in winter in the mountains, and there can be substantial differences even between two spots 10 meters apart. A long steep climb in the sun and protected from the wind can leave you wondering why you’re not in shorts and a t-shirt. Then once on the ridgeline getting hit by the wind with snow underfoot and clouds coming in overhead it can suddenly be dangerously cold.
On my Grand Round this past summer, I faced Storm Ellen in Scotland at a time when my body was completely drained and no longer capable of regulating its own temperature. I ended up getting decked out in 10 layers up top. All but my base layer had a zipper, and on some climbs I would unzip all of them about 3/4 of the way. Once up top, they were all zipped back up. Even a lot of shell pants / trousers have zippers on the side that can be used like this for temporary ventilation.
Cold isn’t the worst enemy, wet is
Avoiding over-heating isn’t critical due to real-time comfort; it’s due to sweat that can come back to do real harm later. If base layers are wet when it gets cold again, it’s going to be extremely difficult to stay warm and again an uncomfortable situation can very quickly turn into a dangerous one with hypothermia a real possibility. This is also why having a shell is so important in any sort of wet conditions – even if it’s just clag that can slowly be absorbed by an exposed inner layer. A good shell (or two) can create its own nice dry and warm micro-climate (nano-climate maybe?) around your body. Don’t wait until you feel cold to worry about rain, sweat, or anything else that can get you wet. Stay dry at all costs!
Be prepared to abandon ship
Being able to recognize an unacceptable level of risk is important across pretty much all decisions we make. Risk is basically the probability that something can happen times how bad it would be. The “how bad could it be” part of the equation is high if solo in the mountains in winter. The probability of something going wrong can change quickly, and when it does we need to recognize it immediately and escape. During these outings I’m constantly considering changes to internal and external conditions and forcing myself to answer the question, “is it worth it?” in terms of the most up to date risk / reward profile.
Always know the quickest and best exit from every spot along the route. GPS devices and phones are great, but those aren’t 100% reliable. Have a map and compass and a familiarity with the map before heading out. And always have a headlamp (or two or three)! With the shorter days it doesn’t take much for a run to get extended beyond dusk, and getting stuck out there as the temperatures drop even further can quickly get dangerous.
In the brief window when Wales was open to visitors before the Covid curve started flattening against the wrong axis in December, I went to the mountains for some winter solo fun. I was having a great day out when I face-planted into a bog. I was completely soaked through from head to toe. My hair was wet, all my inner layers were wet, my pack was wet (which is why it’s a good idea to put spare layers in ziplock bags). I had nothing dry left. I continued along for a bit just fine, but as evening approached the temperatures began to drop and the wind picked up. Cold + wet is dangerous; cold + wet + wind is the absolute nightmare scenario. I knew the situation would only get worse, and pulled out my map to find the quickest way off the tops and back down to the road. I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to finish my planned run that day, but it will be there another day and now so will I.
It’s not just about body warmth
Food and water are always important for mountain running, and in winter they can be much trickier to manage. Food can be difficult to open with gloves or cold hands, and can freeze and be difficult to eat. Calories are another ingredient to staying warm, though. One thing I like to do is take the next thing I’m going to eat and stick it up my shirt sleeve, like a little oven to warm it up before enjoying.
Water is even more difficult. Many of the usual sources could be dry or frozen. Always plan ahead where to refill, and consider whether something to break through the ice might be necessary. Sometimes giving a forceful (and careful) heel kick to the edge of the ice can do the trick. If in doubt, carry extra water to ensure you don’t run out between viable sources. We might not be sweating as much as summer, but the dry air causes a lot more water to be lost through the skin and mouth. And don’t eat snow! You can bottle it and let it melt first, but don’t eat it directly – that will cause further dehydration.
Bottles, particularly valves, can also freeze. Having a shell that fits over your vest can usually take care of the problem. Another solution for moderate freezing conditions is to put a wool sock over the top of the bottle. Bonus: emergency pair of socks (or gloves)! Also try to alternate sips between bottles to keep the valves from freezing solid.
I made this mistake myself on my most recent winter excursion: an attempted solo unsupported mid winter Bob Graham Round. Everything was going great, and it was an absolutely beautiful day and incredible experience, but I over-estimated the availability of water and slowly became dehydrated to the point that I had to stop with just one short section left.
My kit list from last year’s Spine Race can be found at the bottom of my race report.
For my recent failed solo unsupported mid winter Bob Graham Round, below is what I took. Note that I have relationships with many of the companies mentioned below and much of the gear was provided to me. For a full list of those companies, and in some cases discount codes, see this page.
- La Sportiva Blizzard GTX (the built-in studs did remarkably well)
- XOSKIN wool toe socks
- Dexshell Hytherm waterproof socks
- XOSKIN tights
- La Sportiva Radial Pant
- La Sportiva Zagros GTX pants
- XOSKIN form-fit long sleeve top
- La Sportiva Combin Down jacket
- La Sportiva Zagros GTX jacket (tied around my waist much of the time)
- La Sportiva Skimo Gloves
- La Sportiva Race Overgloves
- Generic knit Santa hat
- La Sportiva Beta Beanie
- Janji neck warmer
- Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest 5.0
- Ultimate Direction Race Belt 4.0 with Adventure Pocket (I really like the additional easily accessible storage a waist belt can add)
- COROS Vertix with approximate route loaded
- Bob Graham Round Harvey map
- Baseplate compass
- Garmin eTrex 32X with OpenStreetMap topo maps loaded
- Backup pocket compass
- Phone with OS Maps loaded
- OpenTracking GPS tracker and satellite communication device
- Petzl NAO+ with extra battery
- Petzl Actik Core
- Petzl Bindi (always have backup lights)
- Extra in pack
- First aid kit
- Kahtoola microspikes
- Dry XOSKIN form-fit long sleeve top
- La Sportiva Rook long sleeve
- La Sportiva Odyssey GTX jacket
- La Sportiva Merak soft shell jacket
- Blizzard 3 Layer Survival Blanket (bulkier, but highly recommended over a standard Sol Bivvy for solo outings in true winter conditions)
- Small battery recharger