January 27, 2020 39 Comments

two trail runners in winter
Follow these tips to tackle the challenges of trail running during winter.

A cold weather run can be invigorating. During the summer, the heat and humidity can wear you down before you get started, but the cool, dry air of winter feels refreshing. Plus, familiar trails have a new look, as the bare trees expand your view of the wide-open forest.

But there are also different challenges that come with running in cold weather. If you’re new to trail running, or your dislike of the cold keeps you out of the winter woods, check out these seven tips to help you stay safe and comfortable as you tackle the trails this winter.

1. Dress in Layers

The advice passed down to you as a kid is still relevant—you should dress in layers—just don’t overdo it. It’s okay to be a little cold when you get started since you will heat up substantially after your first mile or two. A good general rule is to dress like it’s 15 to 20 degrees warmer than the actual temperature.

Your base layer should be made of moisture-wicking materials. A pair of windproof tights for your legs and a long-sleeve top make a solid base to start. From there, add a middle layer that fits loosely over the base layer and has a zipper for ventilation if needed. You can go with running pants or shorts over the tights, depending on your comfort level and the temperature. Then, add a final outer layer that resists wind and moisture and can be removed easily if needed.

As much as you want to channel your inner Rocky Balboa, this is not the time to throw on an old pair of gray cotton sweats and hit the trail. Stay away from cotton clothing, because it absorbs and holds sweat, which will make your clothes heavy and pulls heat from your body. It’s best to stick with clothes made of synthetic fabrics, wool, or a mix of the two.

2. Gain Some Traction

The ground will be harder in winter, and you might run into patches of ice during early morning runs when temperatures are near or below freezing. You can get away with regular running shoes for some light trail runs in the summer, but winter calls for an investment in a pair of shoes made specifically for trail running.

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Wear shoes made specifically for the terrain you’ll tackle while running in winter. Bruno Nascimento

For ice or snow conditions, there are devices you can pull over shoes, such as Yaktrax, that act like snow chains for tires and ensure you have a stable grip on slippery terrain.

3. Cover Your Extremities

Your head and hands will be the first things to lose heat on a run. On extremely cold days you’ll need a heavy beanie for your head, but a light hat or headband will do the trick most days. If your hands are fully exposed on a cold day, it will make your run uncomfortable and potentially dangerous if it’s below freezing. A pair of gloves and wind-resistant mittens will keep your hands safe and warm. For those windy days, a neck gaiter or mask will keep your face free from wind burn.

Also, don’t forget to take care of your feet. Proper socks are critical for keeping your toes and feet comfortable. Skip the cotton socks and wear a good pair of wool or synthetic socks to keep your feet warm and dry.

4. Light it Up

While many trails will close early in the winter before it gets dark, it’s still wise to wear a headlamp or at least have one handy—along with an extra set of batteries—on the trail. It will get darker earlier than expected, especially if you’re on the backside of a mountain. Also, bring a reflective vest or wear a jacket that has reflective properties.

5. Stay Hydrated

Often overlooked in winter, it is still important to drink water before and after your run. And bring a water bottle or energy gels if you plan on running for more than an hour. You will sweat and expend more energy in the cold than you think, and you don’t want to run into any issues on the trail.

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Use shorter strides and a slower pace to avoid slipping while running in the snow. Shannon McGee

Also, if temperatures are below freezing on an extended run, the water in your bottle could freeze. To avoid dealing with a block of ice instead of a refreshing sip of water, pick up an insulated bottle or vacuum bottle.

6. Be Prepared

Cold weather running poses unique risks, especially long-distance runs in temperatures below freezing. Two of the most dangerous risks are frostbite and hypothermia, but you can avoid them easily by taking certain precautions.

If your skin and extremities are exposed to the cold too long, your skin can freeze, which is known as frostbite. Frostbite doesn’t hurt at first, but the area will turn red and then white before it goes numb. If you suspect an area is becoming frostbitten, get indoors quickly and wrap the affected area or use a blow dryer to warm it up. Do not use hot water to warm the area. Begin with lukewarm or cool water and slowly advance to warmer water.

When your body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, you will enter hypothermia. A major symptom is uncontrollable shivering, followed by slowed reaction time and slurring of speech. If any of these symptoms appear, get inside immediately. And, if you can’t get indoors, put on as many layers of clothing as you have, get off the ground and move your body in any way possible to generate heat.

7. Let it Snow

Everything is more fun in the snow, including a trail run. While it doesn’t snow too much in Alabama, don’t pass up the few opportunities we get each year. When you do decide to lay tracks in the snow, it’s important to stay focused. Shorter strides and a slower pace must be maintained to avoid slipping, especially if you’re the first person on the snow and there’s the potential to hit some ice. This engages your core more than a regular pace, making even a short run worthwhile.

Written by Hap Pruitt for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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39 Responses

Melissa Savage
Melissa Savage

January 31, 2020

Some great info as I just moved from the sunny coast of California to the mountains of Colorado. One thing I would add is learn how to shoot a snot rocket. I spent the first couple runs in the cold wiping my nose red or stopping to blow into some tissue. If you can snot rocket on the run you are good to go. No booger hands and no piles of tissue to keep carry around. Just watch out for other runners on the trail, we don’t want any casualties.

Rebecca V
Rebecca V

January 31, 2020

I agree with all the tips, for the types of weather I’ve experienced at least. I live in the desert and we rarely dip into freezing temps. Hopefully someday I can complete some races that require travel and I will remember this article. My favorite tip is to stay hydrated. People often forget in the winter they are still losing water and electrolytes, too. It’s not just a hot weather problem. I am prone to migraines and I’ve found one thing that really helps my is to drink water with electrolytes every time I run, even in winter. My favorite is Drip Drop, it has been life-changing for me in preventing migraines after exercise. Thanks for the great info!!

OneShotWunder
OneShotWunder

January 30, 2020

Wear smart wool. It stays warm even when it gets wet! They have thin to thick tops, socks, bras (yes, they have smart wool bras) and even underwear!

Jessi
Jessi

January 30, 2020

Fog proof Ski goggles are great for extreme windy days and windchill. Prevents eyes from watering and protects more area of the face from exposure. Mittens are a must for anything -5 Celsius and below. Wear your hydration between layers 2 and 3 and use insulated hose in extreme freezing to prevent hoses from freezing. Let people know how long you will be and stay within your time frame. You can freeze to a dangerous state pretty fast especially when you are covered in sweat from running. I also have a special ski racers mask with filter for breathing to help prevent inhaling so many ice crystals when it’s very cold as extreme sport winter athletes have been known to end up with chronic lung conditions later in life from cumulative exposure to cold air. It’s not good to breathe air too cold, even if it feels ok. So I’m protecting my lungs for later in life.

Happy winter running!

Debbie Norman
Debbie Norman

January 30, 2020

I agree with your tips! I just tested them out on my recent 60 mile run for my 60th birthday. I ran through sleet, snow, rain, freezing rain, and single-digit wind chills. A wool buff was a great addition to what you list. The three things I found really important were 1) rain jacket and 2) rain pants to stay dry! The rain pants also blocked the wind very effectively…and it was howling. 3) Wool socks. My usually great synthetic running socks just did not cut it when my feet were sloshing wet. And I needed the traction on my shoes, for sure. I used devices called Stablicers, which pull over your shoes like YakTraks, but are sturdier. I cannot put screws in my shoes, because I run in minimal low stack height shoes. My Kogalla light was indispensable for running through the FOURTEEN hours of darkness. It was also helpful when the snow was coming down hard. My pacer with only a headlamp could not see because the lamp lit up the snow right in front of his face, but with my Kogalla on my waist, I could see just fine.

Jessi Chayer
Jessi Chayer

January 30, 2020

Great article! I love winter running! Wear water and hydration vest in between layers 2 and 3 to prevent freezing. If it gets really cold as it so often does here (-40 and below) I also use a hose insulator for my bladder and it works like a charm. I also have a special racing face mask and filters for extreme temperatures so that the cold air is not so difficult on your lungs to breathe. Winter sports with extreme cold temperatures have been known to cause chronic lung conditions later in life in winter sport athletes, so be careful! Protect yourself for later in life! Mittens are best for anything below -5 Celsius in my opinion, trekking poles and extra long gaiters are great for extra deep or drifted snow, I also highly recommend Icebug BUGRIP shoe varieties with tungsten carbide tips built in. I can run on a skating rink (really I’ve tried) nothing makes me feel more safe. Also for days with extreme windchill a pair of ski goggles is great. Less tears and it helps protect larger surface area of the face! And yes to layers layers layers !! Happy winter running!

Alissa Sebastian
Alissa Sebastian

January 29, 2020

Great article! I would add that ‘screwing ‘ your shoes is an inexpensive alternative to Yaktrax http://skyrunner.com/screwshoe.htm, and in my experience, works much better. Also adding a layer Vaseline to your face can protect from cold .

Catra
Catra

January 29, 2020

There is no bad weather just bad clothing choices . I have learned to embrace all seasons and weather . Great tips

Ryan
Ryan

January 29, 2020

There is no such thing as bad weather just ill-prepared people or lazy people. The latter when needing to get my butt in gear. When it’s cold run harder… you’ll warm up! If really cold keep your mouth closed as best as possible or when you eat those chews you’ll bite your now numb tongue or lip. If you’ve been there you know what I mean!

Jason
Jason

January 29, 2020

#1. Cotton is rotten. There are significant differences between clothing materials. Wool will still insulate while wet, but polyesters wick and resist water much better. Plus polyesters tend to more affordable and accessible. Both bring unique attributes when considering layers.

#2. Headlamps are the absolute worst. The angle of the light is aligned with your own eyes. This ultimately reduces viewing contrast and shadows, which help us identify rocks and slopes on the trail. The night bugs will also attack your headlamp and face during the summers too. Flashlights and chest/hip lights are better.

Rebecca
Rebecca

January 29, 2020

Definitely the best advice is to both wear AND pack layers. My hands are the first to get cold so I usually use a handwarmer & mitten combination. I will pack a pair of stretchy thin gloves if my hands get too hot. Other good tips include using warmer water in your hydration pack so it doesn’t freeze and keeping the valve close to skin. Same goes for a cell phone! Keep close to skin so it can be used in case of emergency.

Al Hendricks
Al Hendricks

January 29, 2020

I live and run at 7000’ in northern Arizona in cold winter weather (as cold as 0*F this year). I like to wear a wind-and-moisture-resistant shell as my outermost layer. I can regulate temperature by putting the hood up or down, and by unzipping as needed, or by taking it off entirely. I prefer to run in the mornings when everything is still frozen.

Cindy
Cindy

January 29, 2020

Change out of your clothes post run asap. Your body temperature drops quickly the second you stop running. Just changing your hat/beanie will make a significant different in preventing loss of body heat. I would even say, especially on long runs and in the mountains, to bring and extra hat and socks to change during the run if needed to.

Lydia Blackburn
Lydia Blackburn

January 29, 2020

Ok so I’m in Hawaii so I have no actual cold running tips but I have an amazing winter tip: Visit Hawaii and hit up the trails somewhere warm. I give this advice to all my friends! We have some amazing challenging trails- on the big island the very best is waipio to waimanu valley and back.

Keilynn
Keilynn

January 28, 2020

Make sure you put your phone on airplane mode and keep it in a warm pocket so the battery doesn’t drain from the cold temperatures!

Rob Sargent
Rob Sargent

January 28, 2020

Stay dry. Hypothermia is often caused by being wet more then being exposed to cold temps. Temps in the 40’s or even 50’s can do it, if you are out there for hours. If you sweat a lot (which I do), you can get soaked through several layers in about an hour, and unless you live in the desert, it won’t evaporate, and you will remain wet. Wicking material is important (no cotton), and I’ll often carry some dry shirts in my pack if out there more than 2-3 hours. An extra hat and dry gloves doesn’t hurt as well.

Jess
Jess

January 28, 2020

Bring a buddy! Trail running, especially in the cold, is way more fun with a friend. Either with two legs or four. Although, I live in Florida so what do I know! Happy Trails!

Lisa Byrne
Lisa Byrne

January 28, 2020

Thanks for the article.

Here on the shores of Lake Superior, where winter may last 6 months (or more), we have developed some techniques for dealing with the cold. As stated the article layers are great; starting with good wicking base layers, ending with a wind – proof layer and adding insulating layers as needed. Since I will run outdoors no matter the temps (-20F air temp? No problem, just add more layers) I have a wide array of gear on hand. Personal favorites:
– gaiters for my shoes (RM Gear) – keeps the snow off my ankles and add a little bit of warmth since they are moisture and wind proof
– wool balaclava – keeps my neck, side of head, chin and most of my face covered while still allowing me to breath
– wool hats (I knit my own in various weights, but many companies make great options)
– neck gaiter/buff (on really cold days I will layer with balaclava, hat, and buff and possibly add the hood of my outer layer)
– down mittens on below zero days (Blackrock Gear makes awesome stuff, my favorites are the Foldback mitts, which allow a bit of venting if needed). When temps drop into the double-digits below zero I will layer a thin pair of gloves underneath
– screw shoes are a simple, cheap solution to deal with icy roads/trails

Be prepared for epic eyelash/eyebrow frost!

BRANDON ROOT
BRANDON ROOT

January 28, 2020

Loved all these tips. I like to keep a small external battery with me and my phone. Some trails get tracked out differently in the snow, and it’s nice to be able to pull up a map on your phone to ensure you’re still in the trail. The cold can also drain a phone battery more quickly so it helps to have some extra juice 🔋
I also will usually keep an emergency bivvy on me for longer runs or unfamiliar areas

Chris
Chris

January 28, 2020

All great tips. I much rather run in the cold than heat. I’m a big fan of the layering up. Start off comfortable and shed layers as things heat up.

Adolf Neufeld
Adolf Neufeld

January 28, 2020

Carry a small emergency kit which contain matches, some hot paws and a granola bar.

Laurie
Laurie

January 28, 2020

Great article! Here in the PNW we don’t get a lot of snow but plenty of wind and rain so a solid waterproof (but breathable) jacket is a game changer. Also, I’ve found for cold fingers and toes regular socks (as opposed to toe socks) and mittens (instead of gloves) let your digits “hug each other” and stay warmer on those really cold runs.

Brandon
Brandon

January 28, 2020

If there’s fresh snow, make sure to bring a compass (or watch/phone with a compass). Sometimes it’s tough to locate the trail, and you don’t want to be unintentionally running in circles!! Depending on where you’re running, it’s also smart to carry a survival bivy and extra food, just in case…

Kristen Lukens
Kristen Lukens

January 28, 2020

I think traction is often overlooked in winter but I wear my Kahtoola Microspikes even if there is no ice and just snow. I also bring along poles on the trails to help with balance. They have saved me from faceplanting so many times! I also usually bring along a buff. It can be a neck warmer, ear warmer or Kleenex when needed! The last piece of equipment I bring is my Kogalla light. I love it. Never going back to relying on just a headlamp. Never!

Karen
Karen

January 28, 2020

Great article! Appreciate the tip on hydration, definitely overlooked in the winter. A tip to add for lighting it up; I use my Kogalla light for all night running which happens more often in the winter. I use small bungee cords to carry the light on my waist. Its easy and keeps the light secure on top of all my layers.

ken michal
ken michal

January 28, 2020

Winter running is pretty much the same as year round running here in San Francisco! ;) Of course, nights are much longer so good lighting makes a difference!

All Day!
~Ken

Helgi Olafson
Helgi Olafson

January 28, 2020

I love winter running! I’ve also grown into snowshoe running. So much fun!

As the article informs, it is very important to be prepared. You never know what could happen out there! Bring more food, to. When the body is fighting to stay warm, it burns more calories. Proper gear, proper choices, extra food. That, and being trained up for your adventure will save your life.

Tim S.
Tim S.

January 28, 2020

Two roads diverged in a snow laden wood as day became night and I – I took the one less traveled by following the beam of my Kogalla Ultra Trail Light, and that has made all the difference. (Thanks Robert Frost for your Poem that sent me down the path to this post. -TS)
Killer Tip: Keep your light (torch) charged so you can ALWAYS SEEK FUN!

Jeremy Haddock
Jeremy Haddock

January 28, 2020

Covering your extremities is very important when it is cold. However, I’ve also found that on harder efforts or climbs, my hands get sweaty. If I sweat in my gloves, that increases the risk of freezing later. This is why I’ll often have two different pairs of gloves with me on winter runs. A thin pair, typical for running, and a thicker pair for when I know my hands are more likely to be in the snow. This way, I have three options: bare hands if I get too warm, light gloves, and the heavy ones for the slow moving sections or scrambling up a snowy slope. There is no bad weather, just insufficient gear.

Michelle
Michelle

January 28, 2020

Great article! My tip: run with a friend, especially in the dark and snow! It takes your mind off of mountain kitty’s and getting cold! Also, mooch off their light until your Kogalla comes in the mail!!

Kim
Kim

January 28, 2020

Kind of funny that the photos are runners in t-shirts and shorts, or very little snow. I think you need real winter running photos to go with this article. Many of us live where there is so much snow and cold that we have to wear warm layers, carry an extra jacket, run loops on a plowed road because trails have deep snow. etc.

Cassandra
Cassandra

January 28, 2020

When I run long distance in winter, I have some minimum gear that I take with me, even if I don’t think I’ll need it. That usually includes a pair of lightweight liner gloves, a headlamp (extra one if I’m running at night), and a water filter. If you’re running in really unknown territory, a compass is always a good idea. Also, a great way to add traction to a pair of (old) shoes is screws! You can use either the screws specifically made for running, or use sheet metal screws with hex heads, usually about 3/8" long.

Casey
Casey

January 28, 2020

Spikes really are the way to go for packed down icy trails. Yaktrax are just okay in my opinion though, Kathoola Microspikes are gold!

Barney
Barney

January 28, 2020

1. Wear two pair of socks. Major key alert! I always wear two pairs of socks, for life.
2. Get some hand warmers & you can even throw them in your shoes.
3. If possible (depending on where you’re at and your automobile) you can drive first and lay tracks with your tires to run on!

Charles Lipeles
Charles Lipeles

January 28, 2020

Winter running is awesome. Less people, no sweat, and the malamute loves it. Do the lighting right – kogalla on the waste (I love line combined with a Salomon belt pack) and a small headlamp as needed for focused lighting. Great, practical article.

Ryan
Ryan

January 28, 2020

My tip….avoid running to trailheads off the beach when they say there’s a chance of sneaker waves. I lost my UltRA kogalla hat getting hit with a massive wave, but I’m alive still! Losing my favorite hat was horrible, but being alive isn’t.

Ben
Ben

January 28, 2020

Great article. Winter running is my absolute favorite. A tip I’d share would be about keeping my hands warm. My hands have poor circulation, they are the first to go in cold conditions. I have found if I keep my arms warmer with an added layer, like arm sleeves because it’s easily adjusted, it keeps the blood warmer as it reaches my hands. Also, I use mitts instead of gloves. Bringing my fingers closer together allows my digits to work together to produce more body heat.

Trevor Fuchs
Trevor Fuchs

January 28, 2020

Great tips guys!

Kenzie
Kenzie

January 28, 2020

Great tips! I also suggest long socks regardless of whether you choose wear long tights or not. The gap created between your tights and ankle socks is the perfect incubator for frostbite on expose ankles. Most people don’t realize they’ve had ice packed onto their ankles until it’s too late.

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