Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Gear for cold-weather running

(Today on my run: A quick Monday morning jaunt up to South Sentinel Summit. The temperature was -5 degrees with light windchill. I was wearing most of the clothing I'm blogging about today, staying comfortably warm but a little too sweaty. Plus, my hat got soaked. I wonder how that happened?)

“How do you dress to go for a run in the cold?” To me, this is as multilayered a question as “what type of bicycle should I buy?” There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Just asking what the temperature is won’t work. You need to ask whether it’s night or day, and whether there’s wind, what's the wind speed, and which direction is it moving. Is it sunny or overcast? High intensity, mid-intensity or low intensity activity? Packed snow or powder? Is new snow a possibility? Rain? There are really a lot of questions to ask, but I think people often forget what I believe is most important one — how long are you going to be outside?

Certain types of insulating clothing can often protect against a wide range of weather. But there is a monumental difference in a body’s needs when you add time. I can complete my 20-minute bike commute to work when it’s 10 degrees outside wearing only jeans, regular shoes, a cotton hoodie, thin shell, hat and fleece gloves, and still feel fairly comfortable when I arrive at work. But if I was going out for an eight-hour bike ride in 10 degrees, you can bet I’d be encased in fleece and Gortex, with huge winter boots and three layers of socks. If I wore my commuting clothes on an endurance ride, I would probably die. But why is something that’s good enough for 20 minutes not good enough for eight hours?

It’s probably both a simple and complex answer, but I think of it in simple terms. Take a 98.6-degree bottle of water and put it out in the cold. It doesn’t instantly cool down. It takes time, although the rate of cooling accelerates as temperatures become colder. Eventually, the water is going to freeze. Bodies react in a similar way. Humans have the added benefit of thermoregulation, which despite typical cold-weather complaints from our whiny species, actually works very well. Bodies want to maintain homeostasis and will do everything in their power to keep it, from burning up glycogen stores to burning body fat (although this is of course the heat equivalent of burning kindling versus old-growth wet logs. If your bonk in the cold and can’t recover your calorie stores quickly, your risk of hypothermia increases exponentially.)

But the problem remains — bodies start out warm, and because thermoregulation isn’t a perfect system, will eventually cool down over time. Physical activity helps stoke the furnace (like gasoline on kindling.) But even with an unlimited source of calories, muscles and motivation wear down over time, and the body is forced to slow to a more sustainable pace (big logs, slower burn.) Therefore, the practical way to dress for long periods in the cold is to start out as lightly dressed as possible, burn through the kindling, and then add layers to protect the slow burn as the body cools down.

It makes sense in theory, but in practice, I detest the layering and de-layering process on the trail. I like to keep moving, so I tend to start hot, shed an excessive amount of sweat, and then fight for hours to keep my suddenly damp furnace from fizzling out. Simple folk logic dictates that "sweat kills," but it's never a cut-and-dry situation. There are degrees of manageability, especially when sweat gathers and refreezes on the inside of a Gortex shell, where it limits the fabric's (dubious) breathability but otherwise doesn't do much harm. It’s certainly not ideal but I manage to make it work for me most of the time, by favoring moisture-rejecting synthetic layers and vapor barriers. I can wring the warmth out of lightly damp fleece layer for eight or 10 hours, but as I learned last year in the White Mountains 100 and previous Susitna 100s, this doesn’t work so well for 20 hours or more. As time burns on, my body just keeps cooling, and after a while I am just really, really cold.

And again, this is all combatable by adding more layers, of which I am always carrying a few spare. My situation has never been dire, but I am always on the lookout for a system that’s fairly adequate for not only a wide range of temperatures, but also a longer period of time, without changing clothing or starting out too cool and never getting the furnace going in the first place.

Thus, my “one-size-fits-all” Susitna system for a decidedly not-one-size-fits-all world. This is an event that, if I finish, will take at least 30 hours and as many as 48, in temperatures that could range from -40 to +40 degrees, from dry Arctic cold to rain. Temperatures will likely fluctuate ~30 degrees or more during the event, and I'm more likely than not to see some precipitation.

Outdoor Research Gore-tex jacket: In the past few years I have gone from embracing Gore-tex to shunning it to embracing it again. I learned in 2006 that one must have to option of being completely waterproof during the Susitna 100, because it can rain a lot. Also, this jacket accommodates my layering laziness with two hem-to-bicep waterproof zippers, which allow me to essentially turn this jacket into a poncho if I need to do some serious sweat venting without the inconvenience of actually have to take it off. Plus, it blocks wind completely.

Skinfit waterproof pants (I’m just guessing with this link because the Web site is in German): Beat gave these to me after I brought a cheap pair of rain pants on our backpacking trip in Yosemite. They have a full-length zipper, so they can be applied without removing shoes, and the zipper can also aid in venting if needed. Windproof, waterproof, awesome.

North Face Windstopper tights: I bought these large enough to add a layer of microfleece tights underneath if needed. But even at -10 degrees, they provide a lot of warmth and wind protection while still venting moisture fairly well.

Sunice Alana Fleece Pullover: I won’t start out wearing this layer unless temperatures are quite cold, but it will offer the option for quick and effective insulation during slower-burn periods.

Underarmor Evo base layer: I’ve been using these shirts on a regular basis for three years, ever since my youngest sister bought me one as a birthday present at Nordstrom’s. It's always strange to receive a favorite piece of gear from your fashion-conscious sister, I don’t see any reason to change now.

Vasque Mercury Gore-tex shoes: Feet are warm and snow is cold, which can lead to melted snow and wet shoes and cold feet. Thus the waterproof shoes. I got a women's size 10 — 1.5 sizes too large — to accomodate lots of insulating socks. Comfortable and warm.

RBH Designs insulated VaprThrm socks: A full vapor barrier retains heat and moisture to keep shoes dry and feet warm. It's impossible to fully expel moisture in these kinds of conditions, so it's best to keep it contained.

Drymax socks: I realize that 100 miles of anything is going to wreck feet, and the only way to mitigate this is to keep them dry. Since the vapor barrier socks combined with Gore-tex shoes will retain most of the sweat moisture, I'm hoping Drymax will help hold it away from skin. I know there will be moisture against my skin, but in all of my testing, so far, so good. I will carry several of these so I can change frequently, as well as polar fleece and wool socks as backup insulation layers. Can't be too careful with feet. Blisters suck but frostbite is worse.

Mountain Hardware Microdome Beanie: I like this hat. It's warm and it doesn't make me deaf like my other Windstopper hat.

Pieces of gear I haven't yet dialed in exactly yet are a down coat, knee-length waterproof hiking gaters, several pairs of liner gloves, mitten shells, light balaclava, neoprene face mask, heavyweight balaclava, goggles, and the big one — a hydration system. I'm going to play with a few more options before I dial that one in. But the preparation is half the fun! (Not really, but I tell myself this because otherwise I have a bad habit of cobbling stuff together and hoping it works out. This is why I commute to work in cotton hoodies.)


  1. I'm planning on wearing my "wunder under" tights (lululemon), bringing my soft shell pants in case it gets super cold (Arc'teryx) (wasn't planning to bring waterproof pants, guess I could), capeline 1 baselayer (Patagucci) (bring a couple other spares, likely wool), fleece hoodie (melanzana) (probably wear the whole time), Nano Puff pullover/jacket (Patagucci) and Gore-Tex rain shell (Arc-teryx). I'll bring a backup puffy too. I will wear whatever socks I normally wear (can't remember), Sealskinz socks (depending on how cold it is), my normal trail running shoes (Roclites, not Goretex) with a couple spare pairs (one bigger pair, Mizuno). Extra hats/gloves/balaclavas. Lots of extra socks. Lots of Hydropel.

    Depending on how bad they are blisters can be completely debilitating. I hope to avoid them.

    Can we talk food? How many calories is the question I am presently pondering.

  2. I forgot to add: my fleece Melanzana skirt to go over my tights if it's inbetween temps to keep my butt warm.

  3. Oh yeah and I'm bringing those 40 Below overshoes/gaitors. I ought to see how they fare in the bathtub in case of overflow.

  4. Danni, I'm still pondering food as well. In Iditarod I planned 6,000 calories per day and didn't burn through even a third of it. In White Mountains 100 I carried 3,000 total and ate less than half in 20 hours, although that race had tons of checkpoint food. Su will have a little as well. I'm thinking 5,000 or 6,000 total for Su, plus the 3,000 emergency calories.

    Sounds like a great clothing set-up! The best gear choices are individual preference, of course. I mulled bringing my Arc'teryx softshell pants, but the rain pants are so much lighter, easier to put on, and I since I'm unlikely to use them for warmth, waterproof seemed more important. The skirt is a great idea. I am still considering something similar.

    I decided against extra shoes as well. I walked nearly 80 miles of the Iditarod (not in a row, of course, but pushing a bike which deserves some additional miles) in the same huge uncomfortable pair of winter boots. The vapor barrier should negate the need for dry shoes, and I'll have baggies as backups. I know blisters can be debilitating but they usually only end races. Frostbite even at its most mild takes weeks to recover, and of course serious frostbite takes toes and feet.

  5. Jill,

    Excellent post, as always. Adventures are often "gear heads" because there is no simple, one size fits all solution. It is always a pleasure to listen to someone well-versed in their area work through a certain problem set like this. This is where the rest of us learn a lot--even if we are already entrenched in our own systems.

    I would, however, disagree on one point--that the body's thermoregulation system is not perfect. Actually, it is quite the opposite. The true wonder of the human body is its ability to adapt to any environment. To some, the mountains are "unnatural." But given enough time at altitude, red blood cells increase and every minute exposed is a minute acclimatized. Looking at cold, think of the indigenous people of Terra Fuego. They lived in one of the harshest climates in the world--extreme cold, wind, weather--without clothes. And without our definition of proper shelter or nutrition. They had completely adapted to their environment. So much so, that when Westerners arrived they died off. Not because of exposure to diseases (to which the Westerners were already adapted to but they were not) like other native peoples. No, the Fuegans were killed off by blankets. Sleeping at night in the elements with blankets countered their adaptation to the elements, and suddenly, the people who had lived for centuries in a frozen wasteland, were now cold.

    I have always been a believer in the body's ability to adapt to any circumstances. After all, that is the true definition of training! Training is the adaptation of your body to an activity, in a certain environment.

    Good luck on your continued efforts to "adapt" to the conditions you will face at Susitna...


  6. It will be interesting to see how you find the clothing systems for a race like that compared to running.

    A client of mine (http://beginjd.blogspot.com/2010/02/susitna-100-race-report.html) ran last year and went pretty light...though it was a pretty mild year.

    Good luck! Look forward to following,

  7. Jill,
    Thanks for the gear info. It's most helpful. It doesn't get that cold in VA, but we always struggle with the right combination. Love your blog!

  8. I hope to avoid both blisters and frostbite. I hope it works out. I usually aim for 200 calories/hour but that slows way down at night. With a possible two days out there it's hard to decide but your approach sounds good, especially if we eat full meals when offered.

  9. Skinfit's USA website is www.skinfitusa.com , my wife's company built their site! All their cycling stuff is great too and is very quality made.

  10. I find it interesting you never really comment much about the new job. I would have thought that job would have been the perfect fit....I fear perfect jobs do not exsist.....atleast for me that is...

  11. I've been running in -10 and lower this week in CO, and -- while running -- was literally wondering what you current and ex-Alaskans wear for this. I was trying to conjure one of your frosty face pics and remember what you were wearing. LOL. Very timely.

    This AM I wore a Seirus mask like the one under "THE WHOLE STORY", and it was good but was still getting icy lashes. But maybe that's a given.

    And you reminded me I have a Mountain Hardwear Dome Perignon Windstopper cap somewhere. Duh.

    Good stuff; will digest fully later. Thx.

  12. Try this for skinfit in USA


    I believe it's the exact same item.

  13. Thanks for the great suggestions--the terrain in the White Mountains can be very similar and can add very similar changes in weather that must be accounted for when you engage in physical activity.

  14. R can you document what you said about the fuegans?? You imply they slept in the open air in tierra del fuego??? And then died when they tried it with blankets????

  15. Boyd--there are several different tribes of "Fuegans." I'm referring specifically to the Yamana. Their demise is best told by Lucas Bridges, son of an early rancher who settled the island (and through political deals claimed the territory for Argentina). Lucas grew up amongst the Yamana, his father (or him, I don't recall exactly) producing the primary record of the Yamana language. Lucas later wrote the story of the Yamana in his book "The Uttermost Part of the Earth."

    Another great resource is "The Voyage of the Beagle." Darwin actually believed the Yamana to be the missing link... That speaks to the degree the Yamana had adapted to their environment.

    At any rate, I only said that they their shelter is not what we would consider shelter--not necessarily open air! Although, from my own viewing of what's left of some of these pits they lived in, from our perspective they might was well of been completely out in the elements. And they did not die over night from blankets, but from the unsustainability of their traditional life on the island after losing their adaptation to their environment. The gift of blankets was the first--and major--event in that process though.


  16. Bill,

    I have both the vento and scudo pants. The scudo pants are waterproof and have full zips, the ventos are a very light wind-resistant layer. They're great as well but not the same item. The skinfit USA store doesn't have the whole inventory yet available, and some of my favorite items are still missing. I usually pick up stuff when I visit my family in europe. Especially the Scudo jacket and pant are pretty much the lightest waterproof breathable stuff I have found so far - but at the cost of robustness of course. I also like their baselayers and performance layers, that's what I usually wear. I really like all of my skinfit gear ... worth looking into. Pricey though.

    Also to note is that the OR jacket is quite great. I have an Arcteryx ALpha LT jacket from the same fabric that's more expensive and I am really jealous about the long hem zips (pit zips never work well for me ...) and the Arcteryx doesn't even have a double main zipper. I really wish I had the OR jacket instead.

    We switched to Gore-Tex shoes after talking to Jamshid, who finished Su 10 times and always has warm feet - which may not be related to gore-tex, but it seemed worth a try and so far has been much more comfortable in the cold. You have to deal with wet feet either way, for which we want to use hydropel if needed (though the drymax socks work best without anything applied).

    Another thing I've been experimenting with is RBH vapor barrier stuff. The mittens are incredible and super-versatile. The shells can be used for other gloves/mittens. The shirt is more tricky to use - once you sweat a lot it does become very uncomfortable, but still works - your insulation layers stay bone-dry - but you do feel cold and clammy - just not really cold. I've been using the shirt as my only layer in ~20 degree weather without problems. My plan is to switch to VBL once I sweat less (usually I stop sweating so much a few hours into a race).

  17. Thanks for the most excellent gear review, Jill. I will study it well.

    Since every time I attempt to head to the snow (first in California and most recently in Utah) it seems to end up being +40F, I have been unable to test any of my serious cold gear. I'm simply going to have to over-pack and figure out what works out there on the trail. Hopefully, my normal pigheadedness that gets me through 100-milers doesn't end me in trouble....

    ...then again, I could end up bringing the sun to AK with me and we all have to try running 100 miles in a giant miserable slush-pool.

  18. Hi, Jill, one idea for your feet. Given that the vapor barrier socks can leave your feet swimming in moisture, I agree with (and frequently use) a wicking liner sock as well. I have found, however that I have a tendency to chafe between my toes when my feet are wet. About 4 years ago, I started using Injinji toe socks, and the problem has completely disappeared. I thought I would be bothered by the material between my toes (I have 'Princess and the Pea' feet), but found it to be a non-issue. Now, when a trail run or ultra requires a stream crossing, I have no issues with chafing, and blisters are all but a thing of the pass. Same with under vapor barrier socks. You might wasnt to get then a look. http://www.injinji.com/

  19. Thanks for all the gear suggestions!

    Lloyd, I've used Injinji toes socks in two of my three 50Ks in California. I'm a fan. My only reservation about them is the mittens-versus-gloves issue, where gloves are generally colder because fingers are separated from each other and can't circulate heat as well. I'll probably stick to "mittens" for my feet in Susitna, but hope to change socks often.


Feedback is always appreciated!