Like many Americans this year, Jennifer Cavey has found herself outdoors more than ever. Always someone who enjoyed walking for exercise, Cavey has greatly increased her miles since March, using her time outdoors as a place not only for exercise but also as a welcome respite from the stress of the pandemic. Now that winter is approaching, however, the 50-year old attorney from Ellicott City, MD, is wondering if and how she’ll be able to keep it up.
“Typically in the winter, I go indoors to the mall for a warmer space to walk,” she says. “I don’t like exercising in the cold unless I’m skiing. I’m dreading winter.”
For Cavey and the thousands like her who turned to the outdoors when the pandemic shuttered gyms and other indoor attractions, this winter doesn’t have to put an end to their new habits. The answer is in finding the right gear, experts say. And the good news is that you don’t have to spend on fortune.
“As long as you think strategically about the fabrics you’re wearing and adjust your layers as needed, you can keep up your walking and running habits even on the coldest and wettest days,” says Kassondra Cloos, a freelance writer who reviews gear for publications including the Travel Channel.
Cloos puts a priority on a few key pieces to make it through the colder, darker season. Her first recommendation is a neck gaiter, or buff, she says. “They are extremely versatile for covering your head, your ears, or even wrapping around your wrist to wipe your nose. You can never have too many.”
Another tip: avoid cotton. “There’s a saying in the wilderness — cotton kills,” says Cloos. “It never dries and once it’s wet, it will chill you.” Instead, she opts for wool, which keeps you warm even when it’s wet.
When it comes to layering, Cloos says to keep in mind that you need to start out feeling cold in order to avoid overheating when you start moving. Think along the lines of a base layer on your top, potentially a pair of insulating “short johns” under your pants or leggings to keep your upper legs and back end warm, and an outer shell or vest to protect against the elements. “Also make sure your layers work well together and don’t lead to discomfort or chafing,” she emphasizes. “Try a test run indoors before you head out.”
Don’t neglect your head, hands and feet, but you don’t need to overdo it there, either. “A lightweight beanie with a gaiter as backup will cover most conditions,” says Cloos. “With socks, I recommend wool, which is available in a variety of weights. For gloves, something lightweight with an ‘e-tip’ for using your phone will usually suffice.”
Finally, when it comes to your feet, consider investing in a pair of traction devices like the popular Yaktrax, to keep you from slipping and sliding when wintry precipitation falls. An entry level pair will run you $19.99.
With those guidelines in mind, here are pieces of gear to hit all price points.
Affordable yet Functional Clothing Options
There are several places to find outdoor clothing without breaking the budget. One of the best options is to look into used gear, especially if you’re uncertain what you might like or how dedicated you might be. Try online used sites like Steep & Cheap, Gear Trade, Gear Swap, REI , and The North Face Renewed. For instance, you can pick up a pair of The North Face women’s winter warm mid-rise tights on the Renewed site for $42.50, compared to $89 on the regular site.
Want new but don’t want to spend a fortune? You can’t go wrong with relative newcomer to the U.S. market Decathlon. The brand covers every sport under the sun, all at bargain prices. You can pick up a women’s outer shell for under $20, for instance. Cloos also puts in a plug for REI’s store brand for its affordable, yet high-quality pieces.
Top of the Line Brands
If you want to go with Cloos’s favorite winter material, wool, there are several high-end brands that should offer you made-to-last quality. Consider Icebreaker, Smartwool, or Kari Traa. Icebreaker’s women’s merino 200 long-sleeve crewe thermal, for instance, will set you back $95 or more, depending on the color and pattern.
For high-end synthetics and everything in between, brands like Patagonia, The North Face, Marmot, and Cotopaxi serve up durable, functional outdoor clothing with a higher end price tag attached. The men’s Drop Line 1/2-zip jacket by Marmot, for example, runs about $85.
These brands are built to last and endure most conditions you throw their way, so if you’re sold on an outdoor activity, they can be worth your investment.
Try Before You Buy Gear
If your time outdoors has inspired you to expand your activities and really embrace all that winter has to offer, you might be considering snowshoeing, skiing, or maybe fat-tire biking. The downside? These can be expensive hobbies to start.
Trying before buying is a perfect way to sample an activity without sinking too much into it.
REI Co-op has an extensive gear rental line, available at many of its stores across the country. “Our rental business exists to serve the needs of people who want to try things before or without making the leap into buying,” says Ken Voeller, manager of re-commerce. Voeller says that weekend rentals are their most popular option, and snowshoes tend to be in highest demand.
In all cases, whether renting or buying, know that like last summer, outdoor gear is a hot-ticket item and will go fast. Voeller says that snowshoes, in particular, are likely to sell quickly. “We saw this with bikes over the summer,” he says. “If you’re looking to buy, we recommend buying early.”
As Cavey looks ahead to the winter, she doesn’t expect to purchase any larger gear, but she does plan to add new outdoor clothing to her line up. “I expect my holiday wish list will be full of it,” she says. “I also suspect my threshold for being cold will improve and that I’ll be braving the elements more than ever before.”
This story has been updated to correct Kassondra Cloos's title.