The Best Cold Weather Gear, According to People Who Work Outside in the Winter

·9 min read

Unless you're able to convince everyone to resume pretending they actually enjoy Zoom happy hours, donning your cold weather gear and braving frigid temps is the only safe way to hang out with your friends these days. So, after freezing our butts off through too many outdoor dinners and brisk walks, we decided to call in some help from experts—folks who brave the cold for a living—and they came through with some excellent tips, tricks, and product recommendations for keeping warm outside, from the best winter socks to the most reliable $7 hand warmers. So layer up, fill up your thermos with cocoa, strap on a well-fitting face mask—we're going outside.

Advice on Layering

All of the experts we spoke to highlighted the importance of base layering. “A lot of people neglect them,” says Gerry James, a conservationist and founder of the Explore Kentucky Initiative, where he leads outdoor climbing, kayaking, and biking trips. “Cold-weather oriented layers are moisture-wicking. They help prevent your from getting cold.” To make sure your base layer is better than just your run-of-the mill long sleeve t-shirt, give some thought to material. “The big thing you want is to avoid fabrics like cotton that absorb and hold water,” says Jesse Zickel, who skis to and from his job as a line cook at Aspen Snowmass. “The moisture will freeze and your body heat will just be absorbed by it. You also want materials that hug close to the skin so your body heat isn’t being used to heat up the air between you and your clothes.” Zickel, and many other experts we spoke to recommended merino base layers from Smartwool. Merino wool's porous construction does an excellent job of holding in your body heat, while not keeping sweat trapped against your skin.

Smartwool merino base layer shirt

$100.00, Smartwool

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Smartwool merino base layer bottoms

$100.00, Smartwoold

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Your options in terms of what goes over that base layer are more expansive, because your skin isn't directly in contact with a second layer. A t-shirt, a workout shirt, a sweater, whatever works. Zickel opts for a relatively simple polyester sweatshirt. “It’s the only mid-layer I need. It breathes really well and wicks moisture from my base layer, plus it has a cinch that tightens up to the chin to keep my neck from being exposed,” he says. If it’s not extremely cold, you can probably get away with something made from cotton at this layer. But when the temperature dips, it’s worth having a cheap, beater sweatshirt like this one from Jerzees or Russel Athletic that’s completely polyester.

Jerzees polyester fleece hoodie

$20.00, Amazon

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Russel Athletic fleece hoodie

$25.00, Amazon

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Next comes your coat. Marc Riddell, Director of Communications for Vail Resorts, who used to work the slopes himself, makes the case for your outermost layer being a thin shell, like a raincoat, instead of a more conventional top coat. That's not because a top coat isn't warm, but actually because, if you're layering correctly, you should be getting plenty of warmth from your base and middle layers. This is especially true if you're planning to hang in rainy or snowy conditions, like Riddell says are constant in the Pacific Northwest. Any kind of precipitation will freeze on the surface of a thicker cotton or cotton-blend coat, putting a literal wet blanket on your quest to stay warm. Riddell recommends the Venture 2 rain jacket from North Face. This Patagonia Torrentshell is a GQ staff favorite.

Patagonia Torrentshell rain jacket (was $150, now 31% off)

$150.00, Patagonia

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North Face Venture 2 rain jacket

$100.00, North Face

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Heat-Trapping Footwear

In the pandemic, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells has spent more time than usual dining outdoors. The first place he feels cold is always his feet. “In all these outdoor dining situations, because heat rises, the floor is going to be cold," he says. "Even if there’s a propane thing, it’s up over your head someplace. So your feet are getting really cold. You have to start from the bottom and work your way up.” Wells is a fan of Darn Tough socks, also made from a merino wool. Preston Lacy, Director of Conservation of Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, swears by thicker Alpaca wool socks.

Darn Tough hiker socks

$23.00, REI

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Williamston Alpaca socks

$23.00, Amazon

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In normal times, Wells usually dines out in sneakers or simple leather shoes. This pandemic winter has called for tougher footwear. “If I’m wearing wool socks and a pair of hiking boots, I’m perfectly happy,” he says. His go-to warm and waterproof boot comes from Merrell. For navigating slushy conditions, James swears by the Salewa MS Ultra Flex Mid boot. “Similar to tires, making sure your shoes have adequate tread to tackle icy/snowy is crucial for traction and stability,” he says.

Merrell thermo waterproof boots

$120.00, Merrell

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Salewa MS Ultra Flex Mid GTX boot

$190.00, Salewa

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Above the Neck

Zickel and James are both proponents of the Buff, a brand of cloth-tube gaiter that can be used as a neck warmer and face mask. “I like wearing a Buff because it’s versatile,” says James. “On days when I'm running, I just want my ears covered so heat can escape from the top of my head.” You can also use it as a replacement for a scarf or pull it above your head to form a balaclava.

Buff original multifunctional headwear

$20.00, REI

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Buff original multifunctional headwear (was $20, now 25% off)

$20.00, REI

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If you don't already wear glasses, consider a pair of clear safety glasses to your outdoor uniform. “When it's cold and windy, the glasses keep your eyes protected from the elements,” says construction worker Justin Wilde, who swears by these prescription-free wraparounds. Your sunglasses are good in the daylight, buy you might try clear ones for night-time use.

Pryamex Ztek safety glasses

$3.00, Amazon

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Crews Bear Kat safety glasses

$4.00, Amazon

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Despite oft-cited statistics, there's actually no evidence that we lose a significant amount of body heat through our heads. But it is true that your face and head are very sensitive to changes in temperature. Enter: the beanie. Making sure your beanie is made with a material like wool or a synthetic fabric is essential—avoid cotton at all costs. GQ style writer Yang-Yi Goh, our resident Canadian who is partial to working on his laptop outside (even in sub-freezing weather), recommends this soft cashmere head-topper from Alex Mill. This polyester beanie from Patagonia is another good option.

Alex Mill cashmere beanie

$95.00, Alex Mill

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Patagonia beanie

$45.00, Patagonia

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Unless you’re capable of keeping your hands in your pockets the entire time you’re outside, you’re going to lose a lot of warmth through your fingers. Eater Editor-in-Chief Amanda Kludt, who continued dining outdoors in New York City for the last few (very cold) months is fond of Hestra gloves, which have a reputation for durability. (So are we.) This pair's cozy wool internal lining and cowhide leather exterior are hearty enough to handle the wear and tear of multiple winters. We also like this cashmere pair from Mack Weldon, which has fingertips that allow you to use the touchscreen on your phone.

Hestra Wakayama gloves

$150.00, Hestra

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Mack Weldon tech cashmere gloves

$68.00, Mack Weldon

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Hand warmers and toe warmers are a cheap way to enhance the warmth of your cold weather gear ensemble. Once they’re activated, each individual warmer provides heat for ten full hours. “For almost everyone who works on mountain, Hot Hands are the go to for staying in the game,” says Riddell. Toss the hand warmers in your jacket pocket and stick the toe warmers on the bottom of your socks.

Hot Hands hand warmers (5-pack)

$7.00, Amazon

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Hot Hands toe warmers (6-pack)

$8.00, Amazon

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Wilde uses Hot Hands warmers on occasion, but he's found an even better solution. On a particularly cold day, when the wind chill made the temperature feel like 10 degrees below zero, he stumbled into a CVS and picked up a box of ThermaCare heat wraps. “I realized, ‘This is a giant hand warmer.’" After applying it to his back and heading back out, he found himself incredibly warm and comfortable. “It kept my core temperature perfect, and actually kept my feet and hands warm too.” Since then, he always keeps one in his glove compartment.

ThermaCare lower back heat wrap (2-pack)

$7.00, Target

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ThermaCare lower back heat wraps (9-pack)

$31.00, Amazon

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Other Warm Accessories

The biggest recommendation Kludt had for any kind of seated outdoor get-together is a thin blanket. You want one that's light enough to carry around but also that you won't mind exposing to the elements. She's partial to fleece-style blankets, like this one from Talus, but a polyester camping blanket would also do the trick. In a pinch, either could work as a scarf too. One pro tip for outdoor diners: put the blanket on the chair, then sit on it and wrap the excess over your legs. “I often see people put blankets over them but it's usually my butt, not my legs, getting cold at those outdoor tables,” Kludt says.

Talus fleece blanket

$13.00, Bed Bath and Beyond

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Kelty bestie blanket

$25.00, REI

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When it's cold outside, you probably gravitate towards warm beverages anyways. A few people we spoke with say that keeping a warm drink around is essential to their outdoor survival. Wilde fills a thermos with hot water and lemon before he heads out for a job each day. “It's a must for keeping your insides toasty.” Greg Abernathy, Kentucky Natural Lands Trust Executive Director, recommends something a little bit more decadant. “A thermos of warm hot chocolate offers a nice treat on a cold day,” he says. Whether your beverage of choice is water, tea, coffee, or hot cocoa, this Zojirushi mug keeps any hot beverage piping hot for an extremely long time.

Zojirushi stainless steel mug (12 oz)

$26.00, Amazon

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Originally Appeared on GQ