“Having grown up at the beach, and knowing nothing about winter until my hiking days, I subscribed to the Michelin man when it was cold, and put on a million layers and usually ended up getting too hot, then too cold. I know better now.” Sally O’Malley Pryor, a wilderness guide, trail rider, and snowmaker in the high desert of Northern New Mexico has learned a lot about the best ways to layer from trial and error. It’s easy to think the more layers the better when you’re planning on riding in the bitter cold, snow, or rain, but that’s one of the easiest ways to get hypothermia. Sally broke down the best way to layer in cold and wet weather.
Always Start With A Base Layer
I always start with a synthetic or merino blend base layer shirt and leggings. This helps to wick moisture and sweat away from the skin while you’re riding or working so that when a break is reached I’m not shivering in freezing sweat.
When the temperature starts to drop, it’s time for a mid-layer
This, plus the base layer, is the entire outfit I will wear for riding (or skiing or hiking) when the temperatures are close to freezing, but not yet above 40. Think of this combo the same way as winter running gear: enough to keep you protected, dry, and dump excess heat generated from exercise, whether it be riding or working in the barn, without overheating me. Bottom line is this is a layer for movement! I wear a Patagonia Better Sweater (but any fleece will do) and a thick pair of riding pants.
Hands, Head, Feet: How to keep your extremities warm
For my extremities, I like Thinsulate skullcaps for under the helmet headwear, a fleecy polar Buff for my neck, ears, and chin. You can wear it as just a neck warmer or pull it all the way up to your nose and over your ears. Farm to Feet wooly hiking socks and Kinko’s work gloves for my hands.
For when it gets even colder, or you take a break, reach for your down jackets.
When it starts dipping below freezing, or I’m taking a break, I grab my 650 fill Outdoor Research down jacket. This layer traps body heat and makes you a marshmallow in a cocoon of warmth without having to do too much, great for ringside spectating.
As for down vests? YES! They are a great way to maintain core body temperature when it gets too cold to power through with just mid layers, and also leaves the arms and armpits free to dump excess heat and keep you from overheating! The only concession I have with down vests or jackets is the importance of keeping them dry–they will not work if they are wet. If you want to get real wild with your thermal layer, down pants exist too. Just saying.
And in the rain or snow…
Add a waterproof shell, be it a ski jacket, raincoat/pants or windbreaker to cut any wind or precipitation you may face if you’re venturing out on the trail. Some are insulated, some are not, some are waterproof, some are not. Think about your needs before buying anything and always check for a good warranty.
Drink water and eat chocolate to keep hypothermia away.
Better hydration means better circulation to your extremities. 1 cup of water per hour is optimal. Even just 2% loss of hydration results in 20% less functionality and reaction time in your body. Be smart, drink water, especially when it’s cold and especially if you’re at elevation, dehydration happens a lot quicker.
You should also snack a lot! Your body is working in overtime to maintain body heat, keeping your blood sugar steady will ensure you have the fuel to heat you up. As a guide, I give my groups hot cocoa with butter for a boost. Chocolate is great because it metabolizes and is used almost immediately.