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An Ultrarunner’s Guide to Running in Snow

Hal Koerner is among America’s best ultrarunners with podium results in more than 90 ultramarathons. In his smart, down-to-earth handbook, Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning, Koerner shares hard-earned wisdom, field-tested habits, and insider tips to help you prepare for your ultra. In this excerpt from his book, Koerner dispenses his expertise  for running in the snow. His tips apply not just to ultraunners, but anyone who plans to log some miles outside this winer.

The first thing to remember about snow is that it has many different personalities. It can be soft and powdery, heavy and wet, or hard packed, with each type creating its own potential hazard. Running in wintry weather means you can be enjoying an easy day, glissading down a peak, for example, and the next thing you know you are on rock-hard ice! This abrupt change presents a dangerous situation, so be familiar with what you are running on and remain alert to temperatures and terrain changes.

When you head out in snow, stay protected from the elements as best you can. Cold and its more menacing partner in crime, frostbite, can end a run quickly. Staying protected means having full coverage from your feet on up. It is common to break through the upper crust of older snow, only to ram your shins into the hard surface and cut yourself. Because of this, capris aren’t a wise choice when the course is likely to cross through snow fields; go with tights or pants instead. Also, wear higher socks, which can go over or under tights and provide much-needed insulation on your ankles, where abrasion, exposure, and frostbite are common. Further, toe socks are a potentially hazardous choice in the cold; better to allow for the heat that grouped toes create. Wear wool and technical materials, not cotton, which will chill you when it gets soggy.

As for shoes, regular shoes and wool or at least wicking socks are probably all you will need, especially in dry, light snow. In heavy, wet snow, Gore-Tex shoes can provide waterproof protection, but they can also trap water inside, adding weight and creating an unpleasant feeling, as well increasing your susceptibility to blisters. Regarding the outsole, some rubbers are better than others in snow. If you are running in a lot of snow, the main thing to look for is an aggressive tread; this helps with confidence and keeping you upright.

I like to dress in layers, such as a long-sleeved shirt coupled with a vest that covers my core but allows unrestricted arm movement. I really like wool tops, which are great insulators; wool is a natural fiber and a warm option that also works well to wick moisture as the temperature rises. These days, with advances in technical materials, you can get away with a stand-alone piece more than you used to, saving you from the need for multiple layers and having a bunch of extra clothes to deal with as you warm up.

A hat is a must: It covers your ears, an area sensitive to frostbite, and keeps you from losing heat through your head. Gloves or mittens for your hands are also essential. Gloves are a practical choice because they allow you to tie your shoes, get into zippered pockets, adjust your audio, and so on. However, mittens pool the warmth of your whole hand and are a better choice if you are concerned about frostbite. Fortunately, there are convertible mitts, which provide the dexterity of a glove with the warmth of a mitten, as a great hybrid option.

Adapted from Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning with permission of VeloPress.