Tips for Walking during the Winter

by Sarah Rowell

With winter finally fully entrenched, the days of walking in few layers and luxuriating in the warmth of the sun are behind us for a few more months.

That doesn’t mean you need to hide away inside. As any regular winter walker knows, apply a little bit of planning and foresight and a hike in the chill can leave you with that warm glow of satisfaction.

Oh, and don't worry - you won’t have to head out of the door bundled up like a giant teddy bear! Just make use of these quick tips and the challenges of walking in the colder seasons will soon become its perks.

Winter walking: frozen fields


The body’s soft tissues are a little like Plasticine. As they warm up they become more pliable; when cold they tend to be weaker, stiffer and easier to damage.

When setting out on a walk – especially in winter, when your soft tissues will naturally be colder at the start – you should ease into your normal walking pace slowly over the first 10-15 minutes. Don’t blast off straight from the door!

Many walkers will find that doing a few pre-stretches will help as well. Check out our earlier post for a comprehensive list: the best stretches for walkers.

Take a torch or head torch

Winter walking: take a torch

In bad weather you can start to lose the light from 3pm onwards, so make sure you add a torch to the list of things you automatically take with you, along with the usual whistle, compass, and small first aid kit.

Most regular walkers, whatever their experience, have a tale or two to tell about winter trips where the light has been lost and benightment has left them wishing for a torch.

Always carry an extra layer

Walking in the cold generates heat, but as soon as you stop it can be like putting out a fire, with a rapid fall in temperature soon leaving you starting to shiver.

Make sure you bring something with you to put on and stave off the chill.

Keep your fluid insulated

If you are out walking you will still need to drink however cold it is – we naturally lose water just by breathing. Whether you are carrying your fluid in a water bottle or in a bladder, make sure it and the drinking mechanism (tube/lid) does not freeze up.

On a similar note, some snacks – dried fruit, chocolate bars, toffee etc. – will also become hard and difficult to bite if kept in exposed pockets.

Improve your traction

Winter walking: poles for traction

If there is a risk of ice or hard packed snow, you need to make yourself as sure-footed as possible.

Even if it’s not enough to warrant full-on crampons, either take poles (which add extra points of contact, thus helping balance) or invest in some microspikes, which are easily carried and can be slipped on over anything, from a running shoe to a walking boot. They cope with most lower-level ice and slippery bits.

Account for wind and wet

Both wind and wet will reduce the relative temperature, so if either one is likely then take extra layers with you – as you should if your walk climbs into the higher hills.

Consider wearing gaiters when there’s a high chance the ground will be wet or muddy. Not only will these help keep your feet dry, they’ll keep them warm.

Avoid anything more than light sweating

Sweating, while fine at the time, soon leads to clothes that are wet and damp – even the technical high-wicking ones. In turn, these become cold and clammy when your heat generation drops off because you’ve reached the top of the hill or the end of a strenuous section.

Limit the amount you sweat by adjusting the layers of clothes you’re wearing.

Walk briskly

Winter walking: brisk uphill hike

Regular readers of the Contours Walking Holidays newsletter may remember from a previous article that, in machinery terms, humans are very inefficient. We lose upwards of 70% of the energy we generate as heat.

The harder we work, the more energy our bodies requires and the more heat we generate. You’ve probably seen this in action: start walking uphill after a period on the flat and you’ll soon be taking layers off.

This can work to your benefit. Adopt a brisk pace and just a few layers will keep you comfortably warm.

Further benefits

The other great bonus of brisker walking is the cardiovascular fitness it will help you to build.

Greater fitness comes from exercising in a manner which progressively places greater stress on your body than what it’s used to. Once you’ve become used to a specific load, you need to work harder if you want to continue to improve rather than simply maintain your fitness.

In walking terms, you’ll need to tackle steeper hills or pick up the pace – and what better taskmaster than the creeping chill of a cold winter day!

Yes, it’s worth keeping in mind: if you spend a bit more time out walking this season, you’ll be able to enjoy those extra Christmas temptations without all the guilt and worry about your waistline.

Originally published 05/12/14

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