Winter Running Gear – 8 Proven Favorites for 2020
Our trail running writer, Drew Thayer, goes over some of his favorite winter running gear for 2020. From winter running shoes to winter running clothes, Drew has you dialed in.
In my experience peoples’ feeling about running is pretty binary: you either love it or you really don’t. While running may be a merely a chore, weight-loss program, or fading New Year’s resolution for the masses, if you’re a runner it’s your solace, your passion, the ‘island time’ for your head when you get to float over the earth and escape the day-to-day tasks and to-do lists that accompany the daily grind. And if you’re in this latter category, you probably do what it takes to keep running when the snow falls and the thermometer drops below freezing – you want to keep running all winter long.
I love running in winter. It’s a special time of year to be out – the parks are mostly vacant; the trails are empty. Snow on the ground has a delicious way of muffling noise like the world is draped in a soft blanket of quiet. In a strange way, I find running in winter to be a distinct sensory experience. In the cocoon of snowy silence, I hear the rhythm of my breath and heart more loudly, and I feel them more too.
In the harsh cold of a winter morning, my sense of touch is on fire – I can feel my nostrils pull in the icy air, the heat of the breaths returning out, the numb tingling in my cold fingertips as they warm up. And sights, too – the smooth contours of unbroken snow that cover parks and golf courses, and the way your entire field of vision fills with sparkles as clear sunlight reflects of millions of snow crystals underfoot. Running in winter may be harsh, often uncomfortable, but it’s a magical time to run.
Gear articles about running always seemed a little out of place to me, since one large appeal of running is that epitomizes simplicity: shoes, shorts, and shirt are all you need. That said while running in sub-freezing temperatures, or on trails covered in snow or soggy with puddles of icy meltwater, I’ve come to appreciate some gear that helps me enjoy my time out in the harsh winter environment and suffer a little less. With this spirit in mind, I’ve compiled a list of gear that helps me get out the door during the dark months.
Winter Running Gear – Winter Running Shoes
Running off-trail in winter places slightly different demands on the feet. I like a shoe with a lot of traction, since the surface is obviously slick, and a little more cushion, since frozen ground (and that re-frozen chopped up snow chunder common in city parks) is a really hard surface. Note: my feet are ~ size 10, fairly narrow, with a low arch.
This is my go-to long-distance running shoe, with a strong caveat that this is a zero-drop shoe (the heel is not raised at all compared to the toe). I love the feel of Altra’s zero-drop footbed and wide toebox. Even with my narrow feet, I feel like my ankle and mid-foot are always snugly gripped by the shoe, while my toes can expand comfortably on every foot strike, and there’s plenty of room for feet swelling on hot days.
I never ram my toes into the front of the shoe while running down steep hills either. At 10 oz per shoe, they are fairly light for their really cushy 25 mm stack height, and I find the thick cushioning to reduce my overall connective tissue fatigue on runs longer than 6 or so miles.
The tread is quite aggressive – an array of wide lugs run horizontally across the sole, and these shoes seem to grip really well on funky winter surfaces like slick rock, ice, and re-frozen chunder. A bonus for winter running – and I think this is super nifty – they come with a hook-and-loop “Gaitertrap” hidden under a flap on the back of the heel that works with lightweight running gaiters, which are awesome for keeping snow and slush out! These shoes have enough mesh built-in that they’re comfy to wear in summer temps too.
Note that runners who are accustomed to shoes with a traditional heel drop are strongly recommended to ease into a zero-drop shoe gradually, with reduced mileage for a few weeks, as a zero-drop shoe will change your running mechanics.
This is a lightweight, nimble shoe with a narrow footbed that La Sportiva added to its trail running lineup in 2019. It’s built with a more traditional 6 mm heel-to-toe drop, so folks used to a modest drop will find it very familiar. The lugs are very grippy on rock and ice, so I’ve also used this shoe as my go-to hiking shoe this winter for walking in snowy parks or approaching rock climbing crags on icy trails. At 22 oz per pair, this shoe is about mid-range in weight.
The Kaptiva shoe is built for technical running (or hiking) on rocky ground. It has a 1.5 mm rigid EVA rock-guard plate and a fairly stiff midsole. The toe box is also guarded by a protective TPU bumper that guards against stubbing toes against rocks.
The result is a shoe that doesn’t really feel bouncy or sensitive but feels like you could hustle across a rugged talus field with no problem. The sole grips really well on rock – La Sportiva is, after all, a climbing shoe company, and their FriXion XF rubber does its job.
If your foot is narrow enough to fit this shoe, it fits really well. The tongue is integrated into a sock-like stretchy membrane that snugly wraps around your ankle, virtually eliminating the need for gaiters in most conditions. It keeps out the usual suspects: snow, gravel, trail debris.
My overall impression of this shoe is that it’s a nice snug fit for a narrow foot and it’s built like a tank. While it’s too armored and insensitive for running in the park, it’s ideal for running or hiking on really rocky trails, crossing talus fields in the wilderness, or careening down mountain slopes.
If you’re running in the winter, chances are you’re running in the dark at least at some point. I’ve become a big fan of rechargeable headlamps; I no longer go through endless sets of AAA batteries, and I don’t have to make that “dead enough” decision: when the batteries are dead enough that you can’t really use the headlamp, but you can’t make yourself replace them yet, so you stumble around with a dim glow on your forehead, wishing it was brighter.
Black Diamond’s ReVolt headlamp is a great value for a rechargeable headlamp. With a max light output of 300 lumens, this is a solid mid-range lamp. The key to getting long battery life is to use the low-power mode for all nearby tasks (reading, cooking, camp tasks, etc) and only using the high-power mode for searching around in large outdoor spaces, or fast activities like running, biking, or skiing in the dark.
I find the button interface to be user-friendly. There’s one button, and you switch between modes with a quick tap after turning it on. To switch to super-low-power red-light mode, hold for ~5 seconds. I really like using the red-light mode later in the evening; it has plenty of light for eating and reading yet doesn’t disrupt your night vision, so you can turn it off and look up and see the stars straight away. (Also, you don’t ruin the night vision of everyone you’re camping with). This lamp also can be locked, which is critical to avoid the dreaded on-in-the-backpack dead battery. To lock, hold for ~6 seconds while off and in white-light mode.
Note on the lamp’s power: 300 lumens is plenty of light for running and climbing a skin track in the dark or most other low-speed activities. For rock climbing, mountaineering, or mountain biking at night, compact headlamps now go up to 900 lumens (e.g. Petzl Swit RL), so it might be worth a higher-output lamp for these specialized activities.
The ReVolt headlamp is waterproof, durable, charges easily with micro-USB, and puts out enough light for most tasks. You can spend more money on a running headlamp, but you don’t need to.
Winter Running Gear – Winter Running Clothes
Do you know what I love? Splashing straight into big sludgy puddles on a winter run. Usually, this results in cold, soggy feet for the rest of the run, but I’ve been totally psyched on these waterproof socks that Showers Pass makes.
Back in the day, I had some waterproof “socks” felt like shoving your feet into crappy gore-tex Ziploc bags; needless to say, they didn’t see a lot of use. These Crosspoint socks are the real deal! Somehow stretchy and decently fluffy – almost like a real sock – but completely waterproof. I ran through 6-inch deep puddles of ice-water for over an hour and my feet stayed totally dry. The sensation is a little weird; stuck inside soaking wet shoes, my feet felt sort of “wet-like”, but when I pulled my socks off at the car, they were dry and steaming with heat.
A definitive win for running in wet winter conditions.
When the temperature drops below 40 degrees, I usually cover my legs for a run. These polyester/spandex joggers are a nice alternative to tights; they’re a bit looser and more comfortable, and I don’t look quite as much like an alien when I stop by the grocery store after a dark winter run before dinner.
The fabric is super soft and dries really fast, so quickly that I usually don’t notice any wet feeling on my legs a few minutes after running through a puddle. Having worn tights for years, I think there’s something to be said for a slightly looser pant – when a gust of wind comes blasting over the snow, I don’t feel its sting quite as much in these joggers as I do in tights.
Did I mention comfortable? I’ve found myself wearing these in the climbing gym on winter mornings, and just lounging around the house in them. Perhaps I’m wearing them right this instant as I type this.
Winter Running Gear – Winter Running Jackets
A time-tested trail running staple, the Houdini windbreaker is always in my running bag. At 3.7 ounces I can always afford to carry it. On long runs, I stuff it in a fanny pack or tuck in into the pocket of my shorts, but in winter I usually end up wearing it for the whole run since it blocks wind and breathes really well.
This windbreak is a slim and minimalist piece, perfect for high-output activities. For running, size it to fit snugly, with just a base layer underneath. If the wind is burly enough that I need to wear a hood, I like that the hood on the Houdini is fit for a bare or head or light hat; it fits snugly on my head and doesn’t block my peripheral vision or flap around much.
Another excellent windbreaker is comparable to the Houdini. For a side-by-side comparison, see:
If it’s REALLY cold and you need another layer on top of your base-layer and windbreaker, a vest is the ticket to winter warmth. Full review here: