In much of the country, the “-ber” months see a reduction in daylight, warm temperatures, and a runner’s motivation. Let’s admit: It’s hard to drag yourself out of bed when it’s pitch black outside and your breath crystalizes the instant it escapes your lips. Or, if we do gear up for a run, we often hit a treadmill at the gym, so as to avoid any wintry slop outside.
But with the right attitude and tools, you can make it through. Being equipped with the proper winter running gear—like the selections below—that fend off all but the worst Mother Nature delivers will help bring back the joy of playing outside.
Gloves Before Sleeves Before Pants
As the temperature begins to slide, you’ll see runners sweating buckets beneath windbreakers and running pants. Resist that temptation to bundle up because, as soon as you’re moving, you’ll quickly overheat. If you’re unaware what you should be wearing given the conditions, you can always turn to our What to Wear tool. And take our advice: The first thing you should reach for is a pair of thin gloves to wear with shorts and a T-shirt because fingers often get chilly first. As the winds pick up and the temperature dips even lower, swap the tee for a long-sleeve shirt, then progress to pants and a jacket when the conditions worsen.
Layering Is Wise
Smart runners know to dress in layers. A thin jacket can be tied around your waist easily if you find yourself too warm. Beneath that, look for a synthetic base layer that will wick sweat away from your skin or wear a half-zip top that you can use like a window—open it to dump heat quickly so you don’t get too clammy.
You can apply the same concept to your hands. As the temperature gets too low for lightweight gloves, slip a mitten over top to boost your warmth and comfort. Modern materials even allow you to operate your smartphone or watch without taking your hands out of the mittens.
What about your head? If it’s cold, you’ll be cold. Unless you’re bald, you might find a hat to be too warm on any days when it’s not cold enough to snow. In that case, consider pulling on a headband or Buff, which you can use to shield your dome from the cold wind relentlessly pounding your forehead.
[Related: The Best Winter Running Shoes]
How We Tested
As year-round runners in the Northeast, we know how important it is to have good winter running gear—and remain on an endless quest to improve our winter arsenal. Each item we’ve recommended here has passed through a rigorous test process, which essentially just means our test editors have subjected it to a ridiculous number of miles and found it exceptional in an array of cold conditions. We based our evaluations on performance, price, comfort, and style to come up with this list of options to keep you running outside year-round. After running in just about every wicking sock, thermal tight, and cozy beanie under the sun (or in this case: the hazy, overcast sky), here’s what worked best for us.
―DOUBLE-LAYERED WOOL HAT
Smartwool Merino 250 Beanie
This is the go-to head warmer for the brave soul who runs in all conditions, including snow, sleet, and ice (which we don’t recommend). Here’s why: Smartwool’s 100 percent merino is double-layered for extra warmth. No surprise. But it also breathes, wicks moisture, and resists the odors that some man-made materials never shake, even after repeated washing. Plus it’s super soft. Roll the cuff up for a stylish touch or down low over your ears on the frostiest days. A few outliers complain that the weave on this year’s model is thinner than in the past, but most runners back it as their favorite.
Gore Wear Opti Headband
Some headbands lose their stretch or become malformed, elongated circles of what they once were. Not so with the Opti. The band stayed in place and kept ears from freezing. “The Opti headband is supremely comfortable,” she said. She also wore the headband under her helmet while cycling. “I get headaches from anything that’s too tight on or around my head. This includes headphones, ponytails, earmuffs, you name it. The Opti provided the exact level of comfortable pressure to stay in place and not cause headaches or any other kind of discomfort.”
―WIND AND RAIN PROTECTION―
Smartwool Merino Sport Fleece Training Gloves
Smartwool’s thin merino liners are great for chilly fall and early winter runs, but when the weather really turns ugly, you might want something thicker with more protection from wind and rain. These merino gloves, available in five sizes, are just as lightweight and wooly-soft as the liners, but they retain more warmth so your fingers won’t go numb when the freezing rain starts. A windproof panel on the back of the hand and fingers provides a bonus shield against the elements. When we tested winter running gloves in a freezer, the Smartwool Sport Fleece blew most running models out of the water in terms of holding onto heat—and performed even better in real-life testing out on the road. Just save the photo-taking for the end of your run—Smartwool claims these gloves are touchscreen-compatible, but our unlocked iPhones beg to differ.
[Related: 12 Great Running Gloves You’re Sure to Love]
―GOOSE DOWN RUNNING VEST―
Lululemon Down For It All Vest
The Down For It All is made of a water- and wind-resistant material that insulates you when direct sunlight and precipitation are fickle. Lululemon’s vest runs small and its fit is quite snug, which is a plus if you want to store your phone and keys in its deep side pockets. Our tester did just that and experienced no bounce on her runs—one of which was in 25-degree weather with snow flurries. “Even with a light long-sleeve underneath, it kept me warm and toasty,” she said. This is because of the goose down in the vest’s interior. It comes in seven colors, including dark adobe, night driver, and lavender dusk.
―STINK-FREE BASE LAYER―
Tracksmith Brighton Base Layer
Test editor Amanda Furrer wore the Brighton Base Layer for a full week to test Tracksmith’s claim of the merino material being “almost completely impervious to odor.” It was an easy week packing her duffel in the morning, but her workouts were far from lazy. “In upper 30- to mid-50-degree temps, I did 6- to 10-mile runs,” she said. “I was surprised at how warm I felt when the weather app read ‘feels like 28’ and appreciated how my pits and back didn’t become saturated with sweat when the humidity was at 76 percent.” The shirt didn’t stink up her duffel or compel coworkers to pinch their noses when she returned from a lunch run. The shirt also feels pajama-soft because its construction is seamless for chafe-free runs.
[Related: The Best Shirts for Runners]
―MOISTURE-WICKING AND WARM―
Brooks Momentum Thermal Tights
These 28-inch-inseam tights are woven with another of Brooks’s proprietary fabrics, this one with slightly more polyester than in the Carbonite glove’s blend. Material differences aside, it wicks away moisture and locks in warmth so you won’t freeze. Both the men’s and women’s tights have side pockets with ample room for storage. Testers liked how comfy the tights were but wished there was more reflective detail. For a more visible option, we recommend Brooks’s Carbonite Tights ($130).
[Related: Best Running Leggings]
―MOST VERSATILE PIECE OF GEAR―
Whether you wear it like a headband, a face mask, a neck gaiter, or nearly any other imaginable way you can wrap it around your head, a Buff is one of the most versatile pieces of gear you can own. The 360-degree reflectivity on this one keeps you visible on pre-dawn jogs. And if you get hot, it’s super easy to pull off and wrap around a wrist.
―BEST FOR TRACTION IN SNOW AND ICE―
These traction devices function similarly to the chains you strap around your car’s tires. The steel spikes cost more than other options, but they’ll last far longer and keep your feet planted more firmly on the ground. “I find they work best on snow and ice, but the ride gets a bit harsh when you hit long stretches of exposed pavement,” says our senior test editor Jeff Dengate. “If you only occasionally get snow or want to save some cash, drive some 1/2-inch screws into the rubber of your shoes using a 5/16-inch magnetic nut driver and your cordless drill.”
―INSULATED HANDHELD HYDRATION―
Amphipod Hydraform Minimalist Handheld Water Bottle
$20.95 (16% off)
Cooler temperatures may trick you into thinking you don’t need to drink fluids on your run, but don’t be fooled. If you’re logging long runs in preparation for a spring marathon, you’ll especially want to stay hydrated, so reach for this insulated bottle. It’ll help keep your water from freezing midrun, plus the reflective pattern and stripes will catch the attention of car drivers.
Julbo Aero Sunglasses
$164.96 (25% off)
It might sound strange to wear sunglasses on overcast days, but UV is still present in the winter. An even more compelling reason to wear shades: to block the wind and snow. Look for a versatile pair like the Julbo Aero, which has “Zebra Light” lenses that automatically darken on bluebird days but remain nearly clear under storms or low light.
―INSULATED JACKET FOR BELOW-FREEZING RUNS―
Merrell Ridgevent Thermo Shirt Jacket
$63.99 (60% off)
We’ve been fans of Merrell’s Ridgevent line since the original jacket was released in 2019, and the new Thermo Shirt Jacket for men and Thermo Swing Jacket for women build on that success in new silhouettes with slightly less insulation. Designed for hikers, the jackets feature vents between baffles along the back that dump heat, ideal if you’re wearing a pack. For runners, this translates to a very warm yet very breathable insulated coat that’s good for days when the mercury dips below freezing. The mix of down and synthetic insulations means you get a capable warmth-trapping, moisture-resistant mix. “The snow didn’t impede me or my run at all, and I can chalk much of that up to the jacket,” one tester said of the original Ridgevent jacket. “When I came inside, I was barely wet, even though it was heavy snow.”
―OUR CHOICE FOR GEAR OF THE YEAR―
Swiftwick Pursuit Four Ultralight Socks
We gave these socks a 2020 Gear of the Year award for their comfort, warmth, and nigh four-season versatility—and still stand by the decision more than a year later. Made of a lightweight merino wool, the socks feel soft, dry, and luxurious against your feet in all but an endless deluge. They keep your toes warm without overcrowding your running shoes, and don’t become sweaty and stifling on balmier days. They also come in four height options, from the no-show Zeros to the calf-high Sevens, so you can choose a pair that fits your winter needs.
Petzl Actik Core Headlamp
As the weather turns colder, you’re going to have to log miles in the dark unless you’re fortunate enough to sneak out at lunch time. So charge up that headlamp. The Actik Core is a great option because it’s powered by either three AAA batteries or a rechargeable “Core” battery pack that comes with the lamp. Best of all, the micro-USB charging port is built right in; in a pinch, you can leave it plugged in at home while you use the headlamp with AAA batteries.