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Outdoors/Adventure

Discomfort can be a hurdle to getting outside in winter, but the right gear can keep you warm and motivated

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: November 7, 2020
  • Published November 7, 2020

Many Alaskans may be bracing for a winter of getting outside for exercise instead of hitting the gym. Wondering where to start? It’s not as daunting or complicated as you may think.

There are easy ways to go outside during the winter that require minimal gear, skill or planning. That’s walking and running. Both require only footwear, layers, visibility and that most elusive and sought-after factor: motivation.

Footwear

Let’s start with the part of you that will actually touch the ground. Look at shoes as the foundation of getting outdoors in the winter. I like to think of them as a version of my car: Shoes will get me from point A to point B, and will endure wear and tear.

They need to be inhabitable (read: comfortable), and they’re worth a pretty significant investment. I buy nice shoes and I wear them into the ground.

You can buy a reasonable pair of running shoes for $120-$200. Look for Gore-Tex for quality waterproofing.

I wear my normal running shoes year-round, no problem. But when the roads are icy, I will sometimes switch to Ice Bugs, which come with amazing micro-studs for excellent traction. For external traction, try Kahtoola Nanospikes, the kid cousin of the ubiquitous-on-Alaska-trails Microspikes. Wear these over boots and other shoes, too, for great traction without any impact on stride.

Please note that not all external traction systems are made equal — I’ve tried many brands that pop off or change my gait. I vouch for Kahtoola.

For walking, you need a shoe or boot that’s snug and light enough that you’re not shuffling, but still warm. Wear long, thick socks to avoid that grade-school feeling of an ankle sock slowly migrating its way toward your toes, resulting in heel blisters. Standard hiking boots are great.

For very cold conditions, many Alaskans swear by Steger Mukluks for comfortable, lightweight warmth; I love Manitobah Mukluks because they’re all of the above, and Indigenous-owned and operated.

Chemical toe warmers are handy for those really cold days. Costco sells them in bulk. Also: Store your shoes inside! I’ve ditched my snowy boots at the door only to find shoe-sicles a day later when I need them again.

If you’re running, don’t worry too much about warmth. If it’s single digits or below, I will sometimes layer up with sock liners and thicker running socks. But I’ve never needed toe warmers while running, even when it’s very cold out.

Snowy? Sometimes my feet get wet when the powdery snow makes its way into my shoe. Try running gaiters. Myself, I have not yet invested in these because the duration of my runs and the level of my discomfort isn’t enough to merit the purchase. But for anyone routinely running on snowy surfaces, gaiters may be a wise investment.

All Harvey's running pal Jill Ajo is ready for a winter run in Palmer. (Photo by Allí Harvey)

Visibility

Throw on a headlamp if it’s dark. There you go!

Really, though — I wear my old needs-to-be-replaced headlamp for visibility and it works fine. I should wear more reflective gear where I run or walk, but there are so few cars and I can see them coming from such a long way away, I typically just veer off way to the side as they approach.

That said: Do as I say, not as I do. Try a lightweight and cheap yellow safety vest that won’t cramp your running style but will provide plenty of visibility. You can buy reflective tape to stick on your external layers so you light up when cars approach.

Friends wear all sorts of bling — the blinky rave bracelets, for instance, work well outside of mittens or gloves.

And fancier headlamps probably offer a more comfortable run. I’ll be investing in a brighter light this winter. Black Diamond and Petzl are well-known go-to brands. There are lighter-weight, running-specific options that I’m sure are lovely, but seriously, any reasonably lightweight headlamp will do.

Protect your lungs

A friend from the Lower 48 described it as “light waterboarding,” but I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to wear something over your face when it’s cold.

By cold, I mean I wear a balaclava when it’s 20 degrees or below, but everyone has their own comfort threshold.

I’m asthmatic so my lungs are more sensitive. When I don’t wear even a thin layer over my mouth in the colder temps, my lungs bark at me the rest of the day. Why create another reason to stress over lung afflictions these days?

Layers

Start a little cold. Avoid cotton. Wear layers to trap warmth. For running, try a buff or something similar; I only wear a hat when it’s in the negative temps and I’m heading for a (brief) run.

Know that you will warm up as you get going, even if it feels impossible at first. And for the love of God, let go of fashion — the colder the weather, the more you’ll probably look like Michelin-man-meets-Christmas-tree, and that’s OK.

Motivation

Finally, and most importantly, there are a million reasons to not kick your own butt out the door.

Don’t fall prey to them. Make the decision, do your best to prepare and get yourself out there.

That, I promise, is the hardest part.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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