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Foolproof ways to avoid Alaska's winter chill when playing outdoors

  • Author: Alli Harvey
  • Updated: June 25, 2016
  • Published January 19, 2016

At some point in my adult life, I realized I was prone to getting cold and staying cold while playing outside in winter.

This scared me. It really hit home when one day after skate skiing from my house, I arrived home and found my hand and forearm were too cold to properly fit my key in the lock. I fumbled a while before I finally got it, using my other hand to brace the hand with the key semi-clasped between my gloved fingers. Inside, I stood in a hot shower for a long time.

I warmed up eventually. But I was rattled by the experience. I shouldn't have become so cold that parts of my body weren't functioning properly.

In a state that hosts winter for more than half the year (at least in fits and starts), it's important that I am able to comfortably and safely play outside when it's cold. I know people who are far better at this than me and others whose definition of staying warm in winter begins and ends with their remote auto start.

My skill level is somewhere in between. Now I can comfortably go outside in Anchorage-level cold for a full day and arrive home warm, but I am still cautious about longer stints and such activities as winter backpacking.

Here are some of the things I've learned along the way to stay comfortable.

Starting out cold

This one is the hardest. Based on temperature, my experience and the level of activity, I try to wear less than what I'm comfortable with stepping outside in. For instance, if I'm heading out for a walk when it's minus-20 (which, frankly, may never happen again in Southcentral), I will wear most of the layers I own.

If I'm going running at 20 degrees, I wear only one layer of running tights, a thin synthetic long-sleeved long underwear shirt and a paper thin but windproof jacket. With the $5 sock-like gloves I pick up at Walgreens and a headband, I start cold and cursing myself for layering poorly (every time) but within 15 minutes I am always warm.

Overdressing causes me to sweat more, which eventually makes me to feel colder. It also means I have fewer available dry layers if I need them. Overdressing also makes me feel hot and uncomfortable, not a fun way to feel nor an incentive to get back outdoors again. Better to conclude outdoor recreation on a high note.

After getting started, the trick is moderating my pace. Whether running, hiking or skiing, breaks are good — but they need to be brief. Once I'm warm and sweaty, the cold can set in if breaks are too long.

What I eat and drink matters

Maybe this is a no-brainer but eating and drinking matters, before, during and after outdoor exercise. Depending on the level of activity and what I can stomach, I prepare accordingly.

Generally, the more remote I go or longer I plan to be outside, the more food I'll bring. If I'm hiking, biking or skiing, for example, I get serious about snacks. I don't mean serious like the kind of obnoxious testosterone-powered idea of protein bars and calibrated "performance" food, whatever that is. Maybe "food" should be in quotations instead of "performance." I mean, I like to eat, and eating good food keeps me comfortable outside in the winter. It's a win-win.

Snacks stuffed in my backpack could be leftover pancakes from breakfast, studded with chocolate chips, apples, almonds or bananas, and maybe made into a sandwich with PB&J. Medjool dates and walnuts, available at Costco in bulk, are a great winter-running snack because they're easy to digest and full of carbohydrates and fat. Cheese always wins on hikes. Peanut M&Ms are a favorite. Recently I brought a stack of eggnog crepes leftover from breakfast (see a pattern here?) on a winter bike ride. My surprised friend ate one cautiously — then two more.

Experts say that staying hydrated helps you stay warm. I've found this to be true-ish. Icy cold water, as it often becomes after a little while outside, makes me feel colder (surprising, I know). I have a friend who brings warm water in a small canteen, and I think I'm going to move in that direction.

Still, drinking enough fluids is inarguably important, and this leads me to my final tip: hot tea. I bring a huge thermos of hot tea to the trail head, or wherever I'll be finishing. After I'm done, I pour the first cup before doing anything else.

Ticking clock

This sounds paranoid, but there is little time to waste getting warm once I'm done. Reflecting on my experience trying to unlock my door after skate skiing, what I believe happened is that I cooled off too much during my walk home from the trail. Now, I keep that cooling-off time short, so the cold doesn't settle in my core.

I remember as a kid the skill I admired most in one of my aunts was her ability to change undergarments without removing her shirt. I'd like to think I've also mastered this skill, although it's admittedly more difficult with sweaty layers and especially a sports bra (just in case, I'm sorry/you're welcome, Seward Highway). I pull on a dry long-sleeved shirt, peel all the cold, wet layers off, and then I pile on the jackets — one fuzzy one and a down one on top. Then I start drinking tea.

My system works well, and I don't become chilled. Over time, this set of tools to prevent getting chilled has allowed me to feel more confident playing outside in the cold. I am constantly learning more and pushing myself a little harder to enjoy winter more.

So far, so good.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.

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