Winter is here and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. With the right gear winter can be a season to savor, not just survive.
For most of my adult life I hated winter. It was always dark, it was painful to go outside for any period of time and it seemed to last forever.
I’ve always lived in the upper midwest so I was spot on with the length of winter (it’s literally 6-9 months long). During the last few years, though, I’ve upped my game on my cold weather gear and it has completely changed my attitude towards winter. An extra 5 minutes of extra prep time to pull on a few layers and the outdoor world is now open year round.
Despite living in Minneapolis, a city that prides itself on plentiful green space and winter activities, there are far too many of us still running from car to office in nothing but light jackets and sneakers. It’s no wonder all we spend so much time complaining about the weather.
There is a plethora of cheap, bulky gear out there that will keep you alive in the cold, but to thrive in winter requires more careful consideration of your outdoor outfit. My recommendations below are intended to provide maximum warmth, durability and freedom of movement at a reasonable price.
BASE LAYERS | Eddie Bauer Wool Blend
Wool is one of the best performance fabrics available. It provides excellent insulation and strength at a low weight, wicks moisture, resists funky smells and retains its insulating properties even when wet.
I’m a big fan of these wool base layers from Eddie Bauer; they’re thin, light and stretchy, yet incredibly warm and durable. When paired with just a long sleeve t-shirt, the warmth is seriously impressive.
Don’t be thrown off by the list price, Eddie Bauer has regular sales of 40% and even 50% off. Check them out anytime between Thanksgiving and Christmas or sign up for their mailing list to catch a deal.
Long Sleeve Thermal | Eddie Bauer
I used to throw a big sweater over my base layer and thought I was good to go, but bigger bulk doesn’t always mean better insulation. Once I opted for a long sleeve t-shirt instead of the sweater I found that not only was I warmer, I wasn’t so restricted by the bulk.
A dedicated thermal layer like this is a great choice, but any long sleeve shirt you’ve got lying around will do the trick too. Full synthetic or cotton-blends are preferred over 100% cotton for better insulation and durability. Anything that will maintain the layer of air between the shirt and your base layer will boost your insulation significantly.
LIGHT JACKET | Patagonia Nano Puff
At first glance, this $200 jacket seems very insubstantial for its price tag. At a mere 12oz how can it command such a price, much less keep you warm?
It’s because Patagonia’s PrimaLoft insulation is literally magic. It’s 100% polyester, impossibly warm and highly compressible. The whole jacket can be stuffed into the chest pocket. Sandwich that magic between two water and wind resistant layers and you’ve got a crazy warm jacket at an ultralight weight.
I still find it hard to believe that I can go out with just a t-shirt under this jacket and be toasty warm until the temps drop below 40°F. When mercury drops below that, just adding a hoodie or fleece underneath is more than enough to last until the weather turns bitter cold.
SHELL | BONFIRE STRUCTURE
To be honest, 2-3 layers under the Nano Puff is warm enough for all but the coldest depths of winter. I only throw a jacket over the top for long dog park excursions, snowboarding or when the temps drop below 10°F.
My go-to top layer is this Bonfire snowboarding jacket which has survived a yearly beating every winter for over 10 years. The durability of this coat is downright legendary. I’ve taken dozens of hard spills and unplanned detours through dense brush and this coat has held up like a suit of armor. The velcro on the sleeves is worn out and one of the inside pockets needs to be re-sewn, but otherwise my 10 year old beauty is still rocking like day one.
A current model will only cost you $190 which is an absolute steal for such a reliable piece of gear with a lifetime guarantee.
For a lighter and more packable shell, I highly recommend the Outdoor Research Transcendent down jacket. Outdoor Gear Lab rates it as the best value down jacket because it packs all the insulation, mobility and durability of a high end technical jacket without the price tag.
If you’ve never tried a down fill jacket, let me tell you it’s an experience. When you’re used to a heavy and bulky winter jacket with mediocre insulation, a down puffy seems lighter than air. The extra warmth and freedom of movement is more than worth the cost of upgrading.
A similar North Face or Patagonia puffy will run you upwards of $350! Right now you can grab it at Backcountry for under $170.
GLOVES | REI Wool Liner & Burton Touch N Go
Wool liners are incredible. They give you all the dexterity to leash the dog, strap in bindings and queue up a playlist on your phone all while keeping you protected from the elements. Most of the time I prefer these over any other glove because they keep my hands warm while allowing me to do basically everything I can do without gloves on.
Instead of topping the liners with a big ski glove or mitten, I use another, slightly thicker, glove liner on top. The close fitting double layer not only keeps me just as warm, but also maintains my dexterity. More important, though, is that I can fit my hands in my coat pockets for a quick warm up.
I like the Burton Touch N Go as an outer glove because they are water resistant and have a nice grippy palm. The Burton’s and REI gloves each allow you to operate a touch screen individually, but that isn’t true when combined.
PANTS | Eddie Bauer Guide Pro Lined
I used to put on long underwear under my regular jeans and my legs usually went numb in 20-30 minutes. Adding a pair of snow pants on top was definitely warmer, but the added bulk and weight made going outside a chore.
The water resistance and fleece lining of the Guide Pro pants makes them a far superior cold weather choice. These pants are so soft, warm and stretchy it’s easy to think you’re wearing sweatpants. The mobility I have in these is actually better than any other pair of pants I own.
Long underwear still come in handy when the temps drop into the single digits. Paired with the Guide Pro’s and I have complete freedom of movement and unbeatable warmth.
SOCKS | Darn Tough Hiker Light Cushion & Extra Cushion
A few years ago I replaced a few pairs of athletic socks with Darn Tough on a recommendation from r/BuyItForLife. They worked so well I no longer own anything but Darn Tough socks. They are so great because they resist smell, dry fast, keep warm even when wet and are incredibly durable. So durable in fact that Darn Tough GUARANTEES THEM FOR LIFE.
I combine a thin and thick pair of socks for maximum warmth and function. The micro-crew length feels best for me and seems just as warm as an over the calf style, but Darn Tough has every length imaginable. You do you.
SHOES | Merrell MOAB 2
I am constantly amazed that for years I went through winter after winter just wearing the same lightweight athletic shoes. One of the main reasons I despised winter was because my feet were either freezing or I had to wear giant boots. Once I discovered hiking shoes it was love at first hike.
I bought a pair of MOAB 2‘s last fall I could not be happier with them. They are light, comfortable, water proof and versatile enough to use year round. In the winter I pair them with 2 pairs of wool socks and I have no problems keeping my toes warm. When the temperature warms I opt for lighter socks and keep on rocking.
NECK/FACE | Merino Wool Buff
Nothing can match the low weight, versatility and comfort of a wool buff. A buff is simply a long tube of fabric that, at first glance, works as a nice neck gaiter. But with a little know-how it can become anything from a hat to a dew rag to a full on balaclava.
I went with the buff originally because I didn’t like the unnecessary bulk of scarves or feel of my fleece balaclava. Now I can’t imagine anything else. Merino wool moderates temperature incredibly well and can be used from slightly cold down to the single digits. Which is impressive considering how crazy light it is. If it’s not on my face it’s easy to forget I’m wearing it at all.
Words cannot fully describe how awesome the wool buff really is. Once you make the switch, you will never need to worry about big scarves or uncomfortable face masks again.
Warm and comfortable winter gear can be a real game changer, not only for your ability to get outside, but for your state of mind.
The right gear can open up an extra season of outdoor activities and help you experience nature year round.
I think there’s something to be said about having the ability to embrace nature no matter the season. Ever since I upgraded my cold weather arsenal, my outlook has been injected with optimism. I encourage you to challenge yourself and get out there this winter and see what embracing the cold can do.