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  • Writer's pictureLisa Stephenson

Winter Gear Recommendations for Rucking Events: 2021-2022 Edition

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Ice Puddle PT at Dawn - Baltimore Tough - March 2015

There's no reason that a change in seasons should stop you from doing outdoor events, even GORUCK or other events where you are outdoors for a long time and probably soaking wet for some of that time.  With the right gear, you can stay comfortable in the cold, wind, snow and sleet and even after you've been dunked in the nearest body of water.

Through experimentation and suffering through a cold/wet wardrobe fail at a GORUCK Light in January 2015, I was able to come up with a gear combination that kept me warm during the rest of my winter events.  The items that are listed below were purchased in 2015 and are those that I still wear to this day. They have held up through a lot of hardcore wear!

St. Baldrick's Light - March 2015

So far, I have worn the same gear for at least the following events (maybe more but I can't remember which):

  • A back-to-back Tough/Light in DC in February 2015 that got down to about 25 degrees

  • A Light in Annapolis, Maryland in March 2015 during a sleet storm

  • A Tough in Baltimore in March 2016 in which we slid down hills in the snow and were repeatedly dunked in half-frozen puddles, staying wet throughout the whole event

  • Joe Warner Bragg Heavy in February of 2016

  • While camping at 10,500 feet in Colorado during GORUCK Ascent 2016

  • Veteran's Day GORUCK HTL in Philadelphia in November of 2016

  • Expedition Heavy in Delaware in March of 2017

  • Veteran's Day GORUCK Tough Challenge in Washington, DC, where the wind brought with it a "feels like" temperature of 15 degrees in November of 2017

  • The Bataan Tough in DC in January of 2019

  • The Tun Tavern Tough in Philly in November 2019

Tough/Light in 28 Degrees - First real test of my gear - Washington DC, February 2015

I'm sure there are lots of other great gear options that people have found but I am going to share what works for me.  Many of the items on this list have been purchased and tried by other GRTs and I get comments at almost every event I do that someone bought something from the list below and it worked great for them too.

There are two main themes to my winter gear selection: Wool and Columbia Omni-Heat.  I use these in combination to achieve my main goal of staying warm. Staying dry is not always an option during GORUCK events but this combination can help you to stay warm even after you've been for a cadre-led dip in the water.

Wool: I love this stuff!  You don't overheat in it when you are rucking fast or getting punished with burpees but it keeps you warm even when it's wet.  Even if you don't go in the water during your cold-weather event, you will still likely sweat during PT and being wet with sweat can make you just as cold if you don't have the proper gear.

When it's really cold, I make sure that I have a wool base layer for my upper body, legs and feet.  I have tried Under Armor Cold Gear and found that it takes a very long time to dry and doesn't keep me warm at all when it's wet.  It's pretty much the most miserable thing you could wear when you get wet and it's cold.  It gets worse when you put a wind-resistant outer layer on as it never dries and just keeps the cold against you.  If you want to be wet and warm at the same time, go with wool.  Specific wool items that I wear are below with the equivalent men's item at the end of each bullet. 

  • Smartwool 250 Base Layer Shirt with Zipper - This is probably one of the best $100 I've ever spent! The zipper in the front increases this shirt's versatility as you can unzip it to let some air in during PT sessions.  I wear this shirt not only under my coat during colder events but it also worked great under a light windbreaker during the Normandy HCL during the cool, breezy nights when we were wet and rucking on the coast. (Men's version)

  • Smartwool Neck Gaiter (unisex) - This is great for pulling up over your face when the wind starts blowing or when it's really cold out at dawn.  Sometimes, this ended up in my ruck for the whole event because I didn't need it but other times I was very thankful for it.  It's small so it's worth packing "just in case".

  • Smartwool 250 Base Layer Bottom - These will provide extra insulation on your legs, which is really helpful during particularly cold events.  If you choose the tights over the 250 bottoms, make sure to go for footless tights so that you can still change out your socks completely if your feet get wet and you have a chance to do so. (Men's version).

  • Icebreaker Sprite Hot Pants - If you are lucky, you may get to undress before you get in the water during your winter event.  If so, you don't want to get caught without a base layer that keeps you covered enough that you can leave your pants on shore before you take a dip!  Icebreaker hot pants are super cute and warm! (Men's Icebreaker Wool Underwear Options)

  • Smartwool PhD Socks - Two Pairs at Once! - Smartwool socks come in a variety of heights and degrees of cushion.  I like the PhD socks because they fit well and don't get bunchy or anything.  This is what I do: I wear a pair of crew or knee-high ultra light cushion socks and then put a pair of shorter light or medium cushion ankle or crew height socks on top of them. My double-sock strategy serves two purposes: layering my feet with one ultra-light sock and one slightly thicker keeps my feet warm without too much bulk and by wearing two socks, you can divert some of the friction generated by rucking to the two sock layers moving against each other and away from your skin to help reduce the chance of blister formation. This strategy has kept my feet warm and blister-free during all of my events even though I always wear my well-ventilated Salomon trail shoes, no matter the temperature. WARNING! Don't get the Smartwool knee-high compression socks!  You will have one hell of a time getting those off and a new pair on when the cadre gives you a five-minute break!  Save the compression for after the event.  That's when they're most useful anyway.

Joe Warner Bragg Heavy - February 2016

Columbia Omni-Heat:  This is the best invention in the world!  Basically, Omni-Heat products have these tiny silver dots on the inside of them that reflect the body heat that you generate back onto you to keep you warm, just like a hypothermia sheet.  It's awesome!  In addition, the jackets are really thin because they aren't relying on bulk to keep you warm. That means you can probably fit your jacket in your ruck when not in use. You may find that during vigorous activity, you will warm up more than you want when wearing Omni-Heat products. While the sun is still up or in more mild weather, you may want to quickly remove your jacket and tie it around your waist before you start doing PT or at least zip it down a bit. The specific items that I own and use are below but if you find a different item with Omni-Heat that you like better, I'm confident that it will do the job for you.

  • Women's Down Jacket with Omni-Heat - This is the 2021/22 version of my go-to event jacket.  It has Omni-Heat and down!  If it's going to get near freezing, this jacket is either on me or in my ruck.  You can see this jacket in my photos at the top of this post. Mine is light blue.  I wear this jacket with the Smartwool shirt that I mentioned above and nothing else but a sports bra.  Occasionally, I'll put this on over my windbreaker just so that if I get hot and take it off, I still have that windbreaker on and I don't have to dip back into my ruck to get it.  The one I have has no hood but there is a hooded version as well. (Men's version

  • Women's Heavenly Jacket - This is the 2021/22 jacket that is most similar to my Columbia Kaleidoscope jacket, which is my everyday jacket that I wear all winter and it doesn't contain down.  I will wear this jacket during an event when I'm not quite sure if it's worth bringing my Turbodown jacket but I'm still nervous about just a windbreaker and a Smartwool shirt being warm enough.  I would say that most of the time, I either have the Turbodown jacket with me or just a wind breaker and I usually don't bring this one. However, if you are someone that gets hot easily, this may be a better choice for you than the Turbodown jacket.  (Men's version)

  • Women's Wind Bloc (now called Thermarator) Gloves - These are soooo worth it and they have now been tested by a number of people during GORUCK events.  In fact, these gloves are the number one thing that people say they loved when this blog post gets mentioned at events.  I use them in place of Mechanix's gloves for winter events and as a result I have a whole stack of hand warmers that I have never even come close to needing. During one event, we took much of our clothing off, thinking we were going in the water, and ended up doing PT in the snow.  My hands were bare during that PT and by the end, they were cold and very numb.  They warmed right back up when I put my gloves on and we started moving.  Normally, once some part of me is numb, it stays that way until I'm back indoors.  I've done bear crawls, carried logs, etc. with these gloves and they've stood up to the beating.  As an added bonus, the soft fabric on the thumbs is great for wiping your nose.  Gross but true! (Men's version)

  • Omni Heat Hat - This is a link to the Columbia hats containing Omni Heat. The model that I use is no longer available but it is great because it had ear flaps and ties around your chin. The fact that it ties around the chin is great because you don't lose your hat during PT and if you get too hot, you can pull it back behind you and it's still attached to you - you don't need to jam it into your pocket or hold onto it.  I keep it loosely tied with a double knot so that it's easy to pull back or put on at any time. If you find a similar Columbia hat, that is the one to get but I'm sure some of the other current hats are awesome too.

  • Omni-Heat Lined Pants - The Omni-Heat Lined Saturday Trail Pants that I wear no longer appear to be available through the Columbia website but they do have a number of other options for Omni-Heat Lined pants for men and women. These pants are lined with Omni-Heat material! I only wear these when it's going to be below freezing. (See below for other pants I wear in cold weather as well.)  I have not tried these in the water as the only times I've worn them and we have been put in the water, we had the option of taking off layers first and I took them off.  It has to be really darn cold to need wool under these and the first time I tried this was at a GORUCK Tough I did where it went down to 15 degrees with the wind chill and I put the Smartwool 250 bottoms under them and I stayed very warm.  I'm not totally sure I needed them but I wasn't too hot either.  They do provide lots of heat just on their own!

Windy with a "Feels Like" Temp of 15F! Veteran's Day Tough, Washington, DC - 2017

Putting It All Together

I've talked about my two main staples of wool and Omni-Heat.  I'm going to break down how I put everything together for an event, including a couple of items not listed above:

Head and Neck: I wear the Columbia Omni Heat Hat mentioned above.  If it's windy and I have my windbreaker on, I'll pull the hood of that over this hat sometimes.  I wear the neck gaiter when it's below freezing and will use that to shield my face if it's bitter cold.  

Top: I don't wear any special sports bra, just the same ones I wear to the gym.  Over that, I wear my Smartwool 250 shirt.  I pull down the half-zipper when I'm hot and I recommend getting a half-zip shirt instead of one without a zipper for this reason.  On top of the Smartwool goes either my windbreaker or one of my Columbia Omni-Heat jackets.  The windbreaker I've used for years is the Marmot PreCip Jacket.  I'm not linking it because it has mesh pockets that rip easily and I'm currently in the market for a different one.  Look out for Marmot jackets with the mesh pockets when shopping for a wind-breaker and avoid them!

Bottom: I wear my wool Icebreaker boyshorts with either the Smartwool footless tights or bottom baselayer.  On top of that, I wear a pair of waterproof REI pants that I got off the clearance rack.  The shell pants with a wool base layer underneath are what I wear for almost all cold-weather events and this combination keeps me plenty warm.  If I trade them out for the Omni-Heat lined Saturday Trail Pants for colder events, I almost always ditch the wool underneath.

Feet: I already talked about my sock strategy above.  Even in cold weather, I wear my Salomon X-Mission 3's. They fit me right out of the box and drain like a champ. 

Camping at 10,500 ft - GORUCK Ascent - 2016

How to Save Money on All This Expensive Stuff

It does cost some money to really outfit yourself for winter but I have found it worth it.  Not only does it allow me keep doing events in the winter, but my gear also serves me on cold days, when shoveling snow, sledding with my son, on ski trips and when training.  It has opened up a whole new world of being able to go for a ruck on a cold, snowy day, enjoying the beauty of winter while keeping warm.  If you do some shopping around you will find websites, such as Sierra, where you can get some of these items at a significant discount. If you have a Columbia outlet store near you, that's a great place to find deals as well. Black Friday and holiday sales as well as end-of-season sales in February and March are also great times to pick up winter gear for less.  The gear that I have listed above is in its sixth season of getting beat to hell during GORUCK events and other outdoor activities.  It has all held up beautifully. Good gear is worth it! Proper laundering will help your gear last longer and protect your investment so don't forget to read labels.

No matter what you decide to wear to your cold-weather events, I can't recommend field testing your gear beforehand enough.  Put on your gear, get outside, get wet and make sure it works for you in the conditions that you expect you will be in.  Having the right gear and being confident in your gear ahead of the event will make you more confident about successfully completing it and is one of the few things you can control when it comes to GORUCK events.

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