Staying Warm for Winter Sports

Staying Warm for Winter Sports

January 6, 2023 fmg-adminAlpine & Ice Climbing Fundamentals Fridays Guides' Tech Tips

It is officially winter now, and many people are eager to get outside to enjoy the beautiful winter scenery. No matter the activity, staying warm is essential to an enjoyable outing. With a little bit of planning and diligence we can turn what could have been a cold, miserable day into a fun, memorable experience. By following a few basic principles, we can begin to develop good habits which will help keep us warm while enjoying any cold weather activity. This post focuses on ice climbing, but these principles work for any cold weather activity.    

clothing for staying warm ice climbing dracula in New Hampshire

To keep it simple and easy to remember, I’ve broken it down into three principles or guidelines: 

  1. Maintain calories and hydration
  2. Dress appropriately: layer & stay dry
  3. Anticipate conditions

Maintaining Calories and Hydration

To efficiently produce heat, your body needs to be well nourished and hydrated. Before a day of ice climbing, I like to eat a dinner high in protein along with complex carbohydrates. I also drink plenty of water to get ahead of the hydration curve. The day of, I eat a breakfast high in fat and protein with at least 1000 calories, which is much more than I would typically consume. This gives me a nice foundation of fuel for the day. I also try to consume a liter of water before hitting the trail. 

Throughout the day I will snack on quick fuel such as energy gels, bars, chocolate, or candy. My hydration goal is to drink at least ¼ liter of water per hour while I’m out. I will also pack a thermos of hot tea sweetened with honey as a nice warm way to hydrate. I leave one to two liters of water and some food in my truck for the ride home. This is what works best for me and everyone has their go-to snacks and drinks, but the key point here is that if you’re dehydrated, undernourished, or both it will be harder for your body to produce heat. 

Dress Appropriately: Layer & Stay Dry

The goal when dressing for winter activities is to stay warm but not so warm that you sweat, because sweat will quickly conduct heat away from your skin. Any winter sport enthusiast knows layering clothing is a key staying warm because heat from your body gets trapped in between each layer of clothing creating insulation from the cold. By having several layers of various weights, you can add and subtract a layer as you warm up and cool down throughout the day. You want to stay warm enough to be comfortable, but you also want to stay dry.

Staying dry is simple, avoid sweating. When you leave your vehicle and begin the approach you should be slightly chilly, but as you begin hiking, you’ll quickly warm up. It’s hard to step out of a warm car into the shock of the cold and not want to put on all your layers, but as the saying goes “be bold, start cold,” and it’s true. 

staying warm hiking through the snow to ice climb

I’ve noticed that most people don’t want to start off cold but once they begin hiking, they quickly get too warm and need to shed a layer. Often, they don’t want to stop mid approach to shed a layer, so they end up sweating out their base layer and getting cold. This leads to a potential case of hypothermia or, at best, a miserable day out. Throughout the day I’m adjusting my layering system based off the conditions and my activities. It’s ok to sweat a little, but you should wear a base layer that will wick sweat and dry quickly. 

Anticipate Conditions

The most important principle is to anticipate conditions so that you can best implement the previous tips. For any type of mountain sport, it is important to be aware of the weather forecast, and there’s certainly no exception for ice climbing. The night before and the morning of, I look at forecasted conditions and planning my day accordingly. If it’s going to be brutally cold, I pack more layers and bring an extra thermos filled with a warm drink. 

Once I’m out on the trail approaching the ice and while climbing, I will continue to monitor the conditions and adjust my layering system. Not only am I monitoring the weather, but I’m also anticipating what I will be doing next. Maybe I’ll be belaying the next pitch, in which case I will put on my warm puffy belay jacket and thicker gloves. Or maybe I’m leading the next pitch, so I shed the puffy in favor of a light soft shell over my base layer and a thin pair of gloves instead of my thick ones. Regardless of what I’m doing, I am constantly anticipating the next move so that I never get too hot or too cold. 

appropriate clothing for staying warm ice climbing

Final Word

Maintaining warmth in the mountains requires a holistic system. We can have the best clothing possible, but it won’t matter if we aren’t regulating our temperature to avoid sweating too much. It’s also important that we maintain a healthy level of hydration and nutrition. If we are under-fed or dehydrated it will be much harder for our bodies to stay warm. With a little planning, you can set yourself up for a successful, memorable winter adventure.

Forrest Stavish
AMGA Assistant Rock Guide, Ice Instructor, WEMT-B

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