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10 Essential Wintertime Safety Tips for Staying Fit Outdoors

Updated: Feb 8

If you follow Sanjana Fitness on Instagram, it should be no surprise that I love outdoor exercise as part of my fitness routine, even in the cold winter months. As part of Sanjana's philosophy of addressing health holistically, I believe exercising outdoors is a great way to practice gratitude and self-care for your body, mind, and soul.

Between growing up in rural New York, spending most of my life near the Great Lakes, and more than 16 years of cold weather training as a soldier, I've picked up a lot of helpful, cold weather safety tips along the way.

I love cold-weather exercise, and I hope your fitness exploration brings you to the same conclusion. With my cold weather safety tips for outdoor exercise, you'll be equipped to push your boundaries, step out of your comfort zone, and expand your horizons in the great outdoors.

Here are some of my top tips for cold-weather exercise.

1. Layer Up

This is the basic cardinal rule of wintertime exercise safety. Even if you're just shoveling snow (which can also be a workout), it's essential to dress in layers of clothing that can easily be added to or downgraded.

I recommend wearing two pairs of socks for extended periods of outdoor exercise. The inner pair can be tighter fitting and thinner than the outer pair. I like to wear crew-cut or long thermal socks as the outer pair because they can pull up over spandex, legging, or cold-weather undergarments to seal in a layer of body heat. Avoid layers of synthetic material, which pollute the environment and don't provide the moisture-wicking that cotton does.

I also start my base layer with tighter, thinner garments like a tank top tucked into spandex leggings. Add layers as needed. You can experiment with which layer combinations make you most comfortable outdoors when you work in your own yard or exercise near home. That way, changes can be made with little inconvenience.

I also feel a lot more comfortable when my neck is covered. When shoveling snow or hiking, I wear a scarf or gator neck to pull over my face to protect against the wind. Since this doesn't work for outdoor runs, I usually wear a beanie and a hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled up.

you need to follow wintertime safety tips for your outdoor fitness training
Wintertime Essential Safety Tips for Your Outdoor Fitness

2. Extremities First

My single best piece of advice for cold-weather physical activity is this one.

Extremities often get the least blood flow and have difficulty maintaining body temperature. You will not enjoy your time outside if your ears, feet, and hands are ice cold. Period.

I always wear two pairs of socks during outdoor activities in the winter, no matter what they are. If you're hiking, skiing, or snowboarding, make sure your feet can fit comfortably in your boots, allowing the outer layer of socks to be a little loose around the toes so as not to cramp your feet.

If you think your feet might get wet, I advise against prolonged outdoor exercise. If you can't avoid it, consider putting a plastic bag over each sock-covered foot before putting your boots on. (This isn't advised for outdoor running).

Hats are essential, especially for covering your ears. Gloves with fingers will retain less heat than mittens, so consider wearing gloves inside of your mittens for prolonged activity. The extremities will be colder than your core body temperature, so providing the added protection they need is crucial.

3. Wintertime Safety Tips for Dry Feet

It has been my experience that I can get comfortable with a mild chill anywhere except on my feet. Wear the proper footwear, and above all else, keep your feet dry!! Wet feet can cost you a lot of body heat and put you at risk for hypothermia.

On top of keeping feet dry, ensure your footwear is appropriate for your planned outdoor activity. Hiking boots should have a great grip because slips and slides are likely in the winter. Running shoes should have a great grip and cushion your foot as you run. My personal favorite running shoes are by Brooks. They never fail me and feel fantastic on my feet, which can be picky after nearly two decades of running on city streets and concrete.

4. Consider Exercise Intensity

One thing that people tend to forget about outdoor exercise in chilly temperatures is that even though it might feel different, it's still exercise. You're still working hard, and you're still sweating.

Sweating excessively can create a chill against your skin and cause you to lose body heat quickly. Consider the intensity of your planned outdoor exercise and adjust the intensity accordingly. As a baseline, do not exercise with greater intensity outside the winter than in a gym or your home gym, especially if the temperature is below freezing.

Limit intense exercise to 60 minutes or less between check-ins/ warming up indoors. Check-in frequently with the sensations in your body, especially the extremities and exposed skin. If skin becomes numb, tingly, or burns, move indoors and warm your body slowly with mildly warm heat. Be careful not to warm cold weather injuries too quickly.

5. Don't Forget To Hydrate

You need to hydrate because you'll be sweating, as with any workout in your exercise routine! Even if you don't feel like sweating, you must ensure your body has adequate hydration for exercise and recovery.

Like regular exercise, if you feel light-headed, thirsty, confused, or unusually fatigued, move inside and drink water. Water consumption should be regular and continuous, not overloaded just before exercise.

On that note, it is also important to remember not to exercise on a full stomach. Allow your body 30 to 60 minutes to begin digestion so that your energy systems are not overwhelmed with exercise and digestive functions.

6. Check The Forecast

Winter weather in the Great Lakes region and the Northeast United States can change rapidly, especially as our climate changes. Predicting severe weather is becoming increasingly difficult, so knowing the forecast in advance is crucial. Even then, prepare for extremes.

Understanding where the sun is in the sky (time of day), and the wind chill will have a big impact on how warm or cold your body feels during wintertime exercise. Add extra layers on windy days or days with a colder wind chill. Be aware of impending precipitation, sunset times (which change every day by a few minutes), and temperature changes that will occur during your workout. Generally, the warmest part of the day is in the afternoon, between 1:30 and 3:30 pm.

when snow start melting it become more dangerous for outdoor exercise
Melting Snow Is More Dangerous for Outdoor Exercise

7. Hiking Wintertime Safety Tips

Hiking outdoors in the winter has some added risks compared to other outdoor activities. The risk of getting injured through a slip or fall or getting lost on a hike can mean complications if you're unprepared.

It's always recommended to hike with a pair or a group and be aware of sunset times and forecasted weather, including wind chill. Remember that the temperature can drop quickly after sunset, so if you find yourself far from your target as the sun begins to go down, know how to call for help.

I would like to send someone my location and an approximate check-in time after my winter hikes. That way, if your phone dies or gets wet, you have someone who knows where you are.

Also, remember that even world-class tech like my iPhone 12 and Beats headphones fail in freezing weather. Below-freezing temps can sometimes (but not always) drain your battery or cause your device to be unresponsive. If you're hiking in the afternoon or think there's a chance you could get caught in the woods after sunset, conserve your battery life.

For longer hikes or hikes through new trails or densely wooded terrain, consider packing the following items in a backpack:

  • Extra socks and gloves

  • Hand warmers (Reusable ones, please! Like these)

  • Glucose tablets, energy bars, or fruit for quickly metabolized energy

  • At least 1 liter of water per hour (Plan for about 1 mile per 20-30 minutes)

  • A personal water purifier (Like these)

  • Headlamp or flashlight

  • Charged cell phone

  • Wireless cell phone charger, if you have one

  • Flares

  • First aid kit basics like gauze, bandages, and a splint

  • A compass

  • Waterproof bags

  • Sports drinks

  • Lip balm

8. How To Tell If You Have Frostbite

Frostbite in its early stages (frostnip) can be caught early enough to prevent tissue damage. Frostnip will feel like tingling, loss of feeling, burning, or inflamed skin. Skin will change color, and a spectrum of colors is possible, including completely white, deep redness, or purple spots. Skin that becomes waxy or inflamed might be frostbitten.

Frostbite is most likely to occur on exposed skin, so wear gloves to reduce your risk of frostbite and protect your extremities!

9. Treating Cold Weather Injuries

A medical professional should treat frostbite because tissue damage can worsen without proper treatment. Frost-nipped extremities should be treated by coming indoors and applying warm heat. Avoid extreme heat or rubbing, which can further damage the skin.

The average body temperature is about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 37 degrees Celsius. When body temperature approaches 95 degrees or lower, hypothermia can set in.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, signs of hypothermia include:

Signs of Mild Hypothermia (95° F to 89.6° F // 35° C to 32° C):

  • Shivering and chattering teeth

  • Exhaustion

  • Clumsiness, slow movements, and reactions; prone to falling

  • Sleepiness

  • Weak pulse

  • Fast heart rate (tachycardia)

  • Rapid breathing (tachypnea)

  • Pale skin color

  • Mental confusion and poor judgment/loss of awareness

  • Excessive urination

Signs of Moderate Hypothermia (89.6° F to 82.4° F // 32° C to 28° C):

  • A slowdown in breathing and heart rate

  • Slurred speech

  • A decline in mental function

  • Loss of shivering

  • Bluish color to the skin

  • Muscle stiffness

  • Dilated pupils

  • Abnormal heart rhythm

  • Decreased blood pressure

  • Weakened reflexes

  • Loss of consciousness

Signs of Severe Hypothermia (< 82.4° F // 28° C):

  • Low blood pressure

  • Fluid in lungs

  • Absence of reflexes

  • Low urine output

  • The heart stops beating (cardiac arrest)

  • Coma that may mimic death

  • Death

To Treat Mild Hypothermia:

  1. Move indoors and replace wet clothing and garments with dry ones.

  2. Wrap the body in a blanket and begin slowly warming.

  3. Follow up with emergency care if the temperature does not start to rise.

To Treat Moderate and Severe Hypothermia:

Please call 911 or get to an emergency medical center right away. There, doctors may need to administer intravenous fluids, supply oxygen, or warm and recirculate your blood through an IV.

to be safe in wintertime avoid snow for your outdoor training
Avoid Snow In Wintertime For Outdoor Fitness

10. When to Avoid Exercise

I love and encourage outdoor exercise in the winter, even when the temperature is well below freezing! But based on my experience, there are some times when I recommend that you avoid winter weather activities. These include:

When You're Sick

Skipping outdoor exercise is best when you have a viral infection or feel under the weather. In winter weather, recognizing sensations, including pain, dizziness, and fatigue, can be challenging. Skip the outdoor workout when you're sick and join me for yoga instead.

When You Haven't Been Eating Enough

Are you getting over a cold? Had a busy last few days at work or home? Working in a calorie deficit? Then, skip the outdoor workout. Weakness and fatigue can also be difficult to recognize in winter weather, so it's crucial to approach an outdoor activity with the proper energy levels during the winter. While winter workouts are manageable, they can be risky if you're unprepared. Show up prepared!

When You've Recently Had a Cold-Weather Injury

Recent frostbite or hypothermia might be enough to scare you away from cold weather exercise altogether. But if not, ensure you've given yourself enough time to recover. Tissue damage from frostbite should be completely healed and well-covered before you try outdoor activities again. Be aware that tissue previously damaged by frostbite might always be sensitive to cold temperatures.

If You Have Poorly Managed Diabetes or You Are a Smoker

These conditions put you at greater risk of poor circulation and cold weather injuries.

In Summary

Outdoor fitness enthusiasts should keep in mind some important safety tips for wintertime. However, cold weather exercises are an amazing way to connect with your body and nature! Getting comfortable in cold weather takes time, but the right preparation helps. Sometimes, trial and error is needed to find your comfort zone, so make sure you know what you need before planning intense exercise or long hikes.

Be safe out there, and most importantly, be adventurous! Check out our Instagram page for more images from my favorite hiking trails all throughout the year (and the states!)

Be well, my friends.

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