How to Stay Warm Outside in Cold Weather

Building a fire is one of the best ways to get some warmth when it's cold outside.
A campfire like this is one of the best ways to stay warm outside in cold weather.

When you’re outdoors, knowing how to stay warm outside in the cold can be more than a matter of comfort.

It can aid in your survival! (Plus no one wants to hear you whine about how cold you are) Luckily, extremes usually don’t come into play like that. However, unpredictable weather or getting lost off the trail can throw anyone for a loop.

In this article, I’m going to cover what you can do to stay warm outside. – even in the most frigid conditions!

Wear Layers to Retain Your Body Heat

As I covered in my article what to wear hiking, layers are essential to staying warm! Preparation is one of the most important factors when it comes to outdoor activities. That means if you don’t bring enough to wear, that’s just the situation you’re stuck with.

Starting with underwear, it should be made out of a synthetic material like nylon or polyester. The reason you want those is that unlike cotton, these materials don’t retain water, and they dry much faster.

As a result, you won’t have a bunch of sweaty, wet clothing making you colder than you need to be. Trust me. It’s as bad as it sounds. The next layer (shirt and pants) follows the same rule on the material. Durable, synthetic fabric that doesn’t easily tear.

For the final layer, you should have a jacket that’s appropriate for the temperatures you’re in. It doesn’t have to be rated for -20 degrees, but it should keep you warm. Wool and down are excellent materials for jackets.

A hat can be a surprisingly significant factor in retaining warmth. Even if the often repeated “You lose most of your heat through your head” is false, according to the New York Times. A baseball hat doesn’t just keep the sun out of your eyes. For days that aren’t as cold, it will also retain some warmth. On colder days, I would recommend wearing at least a beanie.

Don’t forget to wear a pair of gloves too – cold extremities aren’t just uncomfortable, they can be dangerous, given enough time. I always have my gloves on me when the weather is in the 20s.

Use Your Surroundings to Your Advantage

Aside from our clothing, our surroundings are the next biggest factor to improve to stay warm in cold weather. What you can do here can be pretty limited, depending on what you’re working with. For example, there’s not much you can do to improve walking through an open field.

However, if you’re setting up camp, then there are some key things to look for that can improve your situation!

Avoid wind as much as possible

Use terrain, buildings, and even the layout of your tents at your campground to block the wind you’re exposed to. There’s a reason that wind chill can make cold temperatures feel much colder, and getting out of the wind can make a big difference.

Even taking another path to get our of the wind can be a good option, just don’t lose your bearings and get lost.

Build a fire

This point ties into the above really nicely. A fire that is at least partially protected from the wind is a fantastic source of warmth. You can huddle around it and make almost any cold night (or day) much better in no time.

Now if you aren’t at a campsite, this is probably not an option. Always follow the rules of where you’re hiking/camping and practice safe fire-making. 

Consume warm beverages and food

With your fire, that makes for an excellent opportunity to cook some warm food. I’m partial to a good coffee on the trail, personally. Tea works too!

With an insulated bottle, you can carry it with you while you hike, which is extremely nice. Few things are better than some warm food when it’s cold outside. Mac and cheese is one of my go-to warm meals because it’s easy to prepare.

Don’t underestimate how useful this can be (and mentally refreshing.) Especially after a cold day outside. 

Dressing appropriately goes a long way to keeping you warm when you're out in nature.
Dressing in layers can help you stay warm outside in even the most frigid conditions.

Keep Moving to Keep Your Body Heat

Unless it’s night, moving is a simple and essential way to generate some warmth. Depending on the conditions, you can even do some exercises in place like lunges or jumping jacks.

Just don’t fall, or you’ll be remembered as that person for the next six months! As tempting as it can be to hunker down initially, part of hiking in cold temperatures is getting used to the climate.

By trekking on, you’ll get used to the temperature while generating extra heat compared to sitting down.

Staying Outside Overnight? Bring a Good Sleeping Bag

Bringing a sleeping bag that isn’t rated for the temperatures you’re in is asking for a bad time. It’s an easy mistake that a lot of beginners run into for the first or second camping trip

You can tell immediately by the name of the tent what it’s rated for, for example:

Marmot Trestles 30 Mummy Sleeping Bag

The 30 tells you that it’s rated for as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Simple, right?

Now another point to make here, is that I wouldn’t advise going cheap on a sleeping bag unless you camp very infrequently. A cheap bag can get the job done, but you’ll see performance go down very quickly because they tend not to hold up well. A more expensive bag will last you for years to come with much more consistency.

I have never regretted having a quality sleeping bag on cold nights. It can be a miserable experience trying to sleep when you’re barely warm enough!

Summarizing These Tips for Staying Warm

Most of these tips boil down to one thing: preparation. If you don’t prepare for the conditions, you’re in for a bad time. Now just imagine if those conditions somehow got worse! It’s never a bad idea to bring more than you may need if you aren’t sure what to expect. Checking the forecast is always a good idea, but remember: it’s not a guarantee.

Of course that’s not ideal for a lightweight backpacker, but for everyone else, it doesn’t hurt. Part of being in nature is expect the unexpected. By this point, you should have some great ideas on how to stay warm on your next trip.

As always, don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions. I’m more than happy to offer you some advice!