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The Fat Girl's Guide to Cold Weather Hiking
Posted by Toni in Plus-Size Fashion,Sports + Recreation
Yes, you can hike when it's cold. It's all about the gear, baby!

As fall color reaches its peak in northern climates, it's easy to forget that we're about to hit that lull before winter makes its frosty self comfortable. For many of us, that might mean heading indoors to work out, but I'd like to argue that time spent outdoors is both essential to our well-being and achievable year-round. I covered hot weather hiking earlier this year (see Part 1 and Part 2), but when temperatures drop, your comfort outdoors is largely dependent upon how you dress. Here's a rundown of what you'll need before heading out for a brisk hike.

What to Wear

The phrase "dress in layers" comes up often in articles about outdoor activities. But what exactly does this mean, and how does one achieve proper layering for cold weather? 'Layering' simply means dressing to insulate your body from the cold without trapping too much sweat against your body or letting any rain or snow leak through your clothing (both of which could put you at risk for a serious condition called hypothermia). In very cold weather, this means a base layer of long underwear under warm clothing and a wind- and water-resistant jacket or parka. Your clothing and coat will vary depending on the season and amount of rain, wind, or snowfall.

The trick to dressing in layers as a fat girl is to balance staying warm and dry against looking like Randy from A Christmas Story. It can also be tough finding outdoorsy clothing and outerwear in plus sizes. I'll share a handful of retailers I've had luck with, and always welcome reader suggestions for more resources in the comments section.

Long underwear - Look for non-cotton fabrics that will wick perspiration away from the skin. Junonia offers long underwear up to size 5X; the only down side is they only offer one style and weight in two colors. Lands' End and L.L. Bean each have a small selection of plus size long underwear up to size 3X.

Winter Coat - Who says parkas can't be sexy? (See photo, above). Okay, nobody--but that doesn't mean you should wear a lightweight or dress coat that will let cold and water seep through while hiking. Ideally you should look for a parka or long jacket with vents you can unzip to allow heat to escape. Finding a plus size winter coat can be tricky, as many outdoor companies don't offer much (REI) or anything (Title 9) in the plus size range (what's up with that, outdoor retailers?). Once again, Junonia comes to the outdoorsy fat girl's rescue, with parkas and jackets made for safe, warm outdoor fun in sizes up to 6X. The parka I've had the red parka in the photo above for about a decade, the Squall Parka from Land's End, available up to size 3X, and their sizing tends to be pretty generous.

Snow or Ski Pants (optional) - I only wear snow pants when I know my legs are going to get wet, as when I'm sledding with my kids. (I found mine at L.L. Bean - their XL juuuust makes it over my size 20 bum). Unless you tend to run super-cold or know you'll be in wet conditions, these are optional for hiking. I know I sound like a broken record but: guess who also has snow pants in extended sizes? Snow pants tend to be uninsulated and lighter, for those of us who tend to run hot, and ski pants are thicker and made for extended time outdoors.

Hat, Scarf and Gloves - You'll also want a scarf, hat and gloves, in fleece, wool, or any other non-cotton fabric, because cotton retains moisture, which you don't want happening while you hike.

Footwear - As our recent Ask FGG post about building strong ankles illustrates, preventing injury and re-injury to your ankles is essential. Wear sturdy, water-resistant boots with good ankle support when hiking in wet or snowy weather, or trail runners with sturdy construction in milder, drier weather. I'm a big fan of Zappos.com and their free, lightning-fast shipping on purchases, returns, and exchanges. Montrail is probably my favorite footwear brand, though I know many Merrell fans, too. Ideally, visiting a store with knowledgeable sales people who will help you find shoes and boots is the best move (REI is the best in this department). And don't forget cozy socks (I love SmartWool and Thorlo) in a non-cotton fabric.

Ultimately, when choosing gear for cold weather hiking, know your own body and tolerance for cold. I tend to be a sweaty Betty, so I wear lightweight long underwear and avoid down jackets for more than just their Michelin Man effect on my upper bod. If you tend to run colder, look for mid- or even expedition weight long underwear and a heavier jacket. Either way, you'll be amazed at how quickly you forget the cold when you're properly decked out to enjoy it.

Safety and Etiquette

Food and water. Carrying a water bottle, granola bar and apple in a small day pack or fanny pack will keep you hydrated and blood sugar levels stable.

Pace Yourself. Winter hiking means trying not to work up too much of a sweat. Having a jacket with vents to unzip can help in this regard, but remember also not to push yourself too hard in cold weather. Picking up your feet to stomp through leaves or snow requires extra effort, so build that into your experience beforehand to avoid overdoing it on the trail by either going more slowly than usual or choosing a shorter route. Also, be watch for ice patches hidden under freshly fallen snow and consider trekking poles for extra stability, particularly in rougher terrain.

Be Aware. Know the symptoms of both hypothermia and frostbite and head back at the first signs of either condition.

Protect Yourself. Whether or not you're hiking solo, always let someone know where you'll be hiking and an estimated time of return. If there's a register at the trailhead, sign in and out so park rangers will know whether to look for you. Make sure your cell phone is charged and consider carrying a loud whistle to signal for help or dissuade potential human or animal attackers.

Know the rules where you're hiking. Many state and local parks offer multi-use trails that include cross-country skiers, and it's good trail etiquette to not stomp over pre-existing grooves. Also practice leave no trace ethics, an extension of the classic hikers' adage, "take only pictures and leave only footprints."

Stateside readers can find local trails at AmericanTrails.org, and GoTrekking.com offers reviews of trails around the world. Also, remember that you don't have to be hard core to hike outdoors, even in winter. To get a nice dose of the natural world, any municipal park will do, especially for beginners.

So, what are you waiting for? Grab some gear and get ready for some cold weather hiking! And look for guides to snowshoeing, ski boots, and cross-country skiing later this winter.

Ask questions, share tips on where to find the best cold weather outdoor gear, and tell us about your favorite hikes in the comments section.