Winter outdoor gear for active travel
The best outdoor gear to stay warm, dry and safe in winter
Updated 10/23/2018 – There are a few things in life we’re willing to invest a little extra in – like winter outdoor gear for active travel. We’re frugal in most things that we do, sometimes to a fault. But not when it comes to staying warm, dry and safe outdoors.
Our most expensive outfits are not something we wear to a fancy party, but rather our bicycle and hiking gear. In planning a winter trip to Yellowstone National Park we sought the advice of friends who frequent the outdoors in extreme cold for advice on the best winter gear.
We also found the folks at Xanterra extremely helpful in providing advice on clothing and accessories. They not only operate the lodges, transportation and tours in the park during winter months, but several of their staff we spoke with do active park adventures during winter months.
We’ve snow skied and done limited winter camping, but not a lot of winter hiking. With hopes of hiking and snowshoeing in Yellowstone, we wanted to be certain that we were comfy and safe.
With advice from veterans, extensive online research and some REI Christmas gift cards in hand, we set out to add some new items to our outdoor winter gear. And to replace some cold weather items that were getting old and likely not performing at their peak. We procured all our gear from REI for two reasons:
#1 – REI’s staff is always helpful in giving advice relevant to our needs. When not at their day job they are frequently enjoying the outdoors and testing the gear they sell.
#2 – REI has a return policy that is unequaled as far as I know. For a full year you can return any item for refund or replacement (except certain electronics) if you are unhappy for any reason. Prior to this discovery there were many times I purchased hiking boots or other gear which worked great when testing at home only to find there was some concern or issue when I hit the trail. This makes me a super loyal REI customer.
Winter hiking boots – what to look for
First on our list was insulated winter hiking boots. With an average February high of 34 and low of 13 degrees at Yellowstone, we felt that our traditional hiking boots were not up to the challenge. The park gets 50-200 inches of snow annually depending on location, so we went with high top boots with Gore-Tex, a waterproof membrane that is also highly breathable so your feet don’t get wet from sweat.
We’re fans of Merrell hiking boots for traditional hiking and were lucky to find both men’s and women’s Merrell boots that were highly rated and on sale. Our boots are no longer available from REI but the Merrell Thermo Freeze seems to be almost a direct replacement. We were advised to go with a little larger size than we normally wear in a boot to allow for insulated socks and give our feet and toes a little wiggle room. Here is a link to all of REI’s winter hiking boots. Since they frequently offer sale pricing on boots, this gives you the chance to browse what is on sale and determine what is best for you.
3-in-1 coat keeps you warm, dry and versatile
B’s winter active coats were … well … showing their age. It’s been some time since we snow skied and we just have not needed a heavy coat designed for active use. B opted for a Columbia 3-in-1 interchangeable coat with a waterproof shell and removable insulated liner. The coat worked great for Yellowstone, where it hovered around zero some mornings. Returning home, she zipped the two layers apart and wears them separately; one as a waterproof, windproof coat and the other as an insulated jacket. It could be the only coat you need for outdoor activities.
Base layers (or, long underwear, for the non-technical)
Next it was time to look at our underwear. Figuratively of course. We both have existing lightweight tops and bottoms, but they have some age – like two decades. Fearing they had lost some effectiveness over the years, and wishing for something heavier, we asked our REI associate for an education in base layer basics.
Though more expensive, we opted for Merino wool because it warms like no other, wicks moisture like a garden hose and – most importantly for this trip – can be worn multiple days without stinking. I am not a fan of tradition wool garments. They itch like crazy. But the salesman convinced me that Merino wool was a much finer fiber than traditional wools and would provide years of itch-free wear. The price tag was a bit staggering, but when I figured the cost versus lifetime, it worked out to about the price of a movie ticket each year. We each got a lightweight shirt, opting for the Smartwool brand. Note: Since our Yellowstone trip, we find ourselves wearing our Smartwool shirts often. It does all we were told, plus it does not wrinkle in the suitcase and it looks stylish. There are times when we peel off all the top layers and end up wearing just our Smartwool baselayer. We’re happy to walk into any shop or restaurant wearing just that and know we’ll look just fine. Getting more Smartwool is high on our holiday wish list.
Cold weather accessories round out our winter gear
Happy that we had the major items covered, there were a few miscellaneous items we added to our outdoor gear for this trip. We’re certain to find lots of uses for these going forward.
Winter traction control. Several people recommended we invest in grip traction control to stay safe on the icy sidewalks and boardwalks in the heavily traveled areas of the park. As we age we get less graceful and more likely to slip, so we took this advice to heart. Yaktrax is the brand that came up almost every time we asked. It’s quick and simple to pull them over our winter hiking boots when we need extra traction.
Balaclava. Gotta admit that most times I try to say this it comes out “baklava” – as in the Greek pastry. But this is headgear that acts as a full hood covering the neck, face and head, leaving just an opening for the eyes. It may also be worn as a neck gaiter only or as a face shield/neck gaiter. Breathing cold air can trigger B’s asthma so this has an added safety benefit. We opted for the Seirus Ultra Clava with a wind- and waterproof outer layer and fleece liner.
Snow baskets for our hiking poles. Last but not least, we purchased Black Diamond Powder Snow Baskets that fit our existing hiking poles. This will ensure the poles help us through what we hope is lots of powder snow without just sinking in. At $7 a pair, they were super cheap.
To Yellowstone and beyond!
We’re excited to use all our new winter outdoor gear, and believe that it will encourage us to do more cold weather activities, beyond our trip to Yellowstone National Park. Update: It’s been eight months since our active winter Yellowstone adventure. We’re still happy with our purchases and are planning travel for the coming months to continue pushing ourselves and using our cold weather gear.
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