***The point of this article is to help reduce the likelihood you pick something too heavy to wear on your head during your next cold weather hike. This article gives some general questions to ask yourself when planning a hike. While there are many variations I do not attempt to cover every possible scenario. As someone once sang, “I am only human . . .”1***
Whether to Question the Weather
Here is a good question to start with when selecting headwear for your next cold weather hike.
What will the weather be like?
The answer to this question can lead you down the path of configuring the right headwear for the conditions you encounter. Selecting headwear should not be done in isolation. The decision of what you wear on your head should flow from other clothing and gear choices you make based on the conditions. Think of it as a flexible system that adapts to the situation. Let’s start with an example of what not to do.
You Have to Start Somewhere
When I was preparing for my first cold weather day hike, I spent time thinking about the clothing layers I would need to stay warm. I didn’t want to be freezing cold, shivering my way down the trail. Without an additional purchase I had two options. The first option was a baseball hat. While this would help retain heat from my head, it did not provide any wind protection for my ears.
The second option was a medium weight acrylic beanie (or sock cap if you are from rural Indiana). This option solved the draw back of the hat by providing wind protection. I had used it before when shoveling snow off the driveway. In practice I would remove it after about 10 minutes because I would start to get too hot. But I was preparing to walk around. I would not be getting that hot . . . or would I?
The result was I sweated like a pig. I misjudged my body’s heat production. The beanie was too heavy and I wore too heavy of a coat to go along with it. I took those layers off once sweat developed. The rest of the hike was spent cycling through various combinations of those layers to fight either the chill from sweating or the sweat from overheating. Lesson learned.
Back to decision making. So what will the weather be like? Here are more specific questions that dig a little deeper on that theme.
- What will the temperature be?
- Will it be sunny or cloudy?
- Is there a chance of rain/snow/sleet/hail?
- Will it be windy?
As the temperature decreases the need for options increase. Based solely on the temperature you may be able to wear a baseball hat down to 50°F, a light beanie down to 32°F and an ear band for temperatures below that. Well that is easy, isn’t it? Not so fast. That is just based on the temp. Look at the rest of the questions.
Sunshine makes us feel warmer. Hiking in direct sunlight will allow you to get by with less layers. Direct sunlight can have the effect of making a 30°F day feel more like a 40-50°F day. That affects the layers you choose. Consider if there are open meadows with minimal leaf cover. Are leaves even still on the trees? If not, you will get more opportunity to soak up the sun. On the flip side, hiking a trail with a leaf canopy overhead or cloud cover negates that warmer feeling. No direct sunlight reaching you could mean a chillier day. Research the trail online for what to expect.
The various forms of precipitation can make the goal of not sweating a challenge. If you don the standard rain jacket, your likelihood of sweating just increased exponentially. Let me say here that a hood is an option. The main drawback with a hood is a lot of heat retention. Let’s save the hood discussion for another post. Yet depending on the temperature, not putting something on to keep the rain out might mean flirting with a chill.
Another option would be an umbrella. There are lightweight options for the weight conscious. Umbrellas are just not widely used. In the end the option you choose will have an affect on what you put on your head.
If it is windy your decision may be altered as well. A 40°F day with no wind is quite different than a 40°F day with a 10 mph breeze. With no wind you may be able to get by with no headwear. With a 10 mph breeze you may need a light beanie to keep you warm. That is especially true at the start of the hike when your body is not warmed up.
The Next Level of Factors
What other factors affect our headwear choice? Let’s list some more out.
- How hard will my body be working physically?
- Will I be carrying a backpack?
- What other clothing choices (pants, shorts, shirt sleeve length, thickness of socks) have I made?
If you have a climb to start the hike, the headwear you choose may be different than if you end your day with a climb. Also, carrying a full pack with 30 pounds or a day pack with 5 pounds will result in different sweat points during a hike. Carrying a pack period will probably make your back more apt to sweat before other parts of your body. Finally, compensating for the cold weather by choosing heavier pants, a fleece pullover and/or thicker socks may allow you to go with a lighter option to cover the old brain box.
Back to the Drawing Board
My response to the sweaty experience mentioned earlier involved purchasing lighter options. I found an Outdoor Research Windstopper Alpine ear band at a somewhat local outdoor store. It is 100% polyester with more of a felt feel to it. It comes in different sizes and has velcro in the back for extra adjustment.
- It stops the wind from whipping in your ears.
- Band adjustment is capable of covering a wide range of sizes.
- You are not able to hear much of anything.
- Covers your forehead where sweat likes to start accumulating while exercising.
I also came across a Hind running beanie at a discount clothing store. This product/company are not unique as there are a multitude of companies that make the same product. There is a thin fleece layer inside. The outside material is made of stretchy spandex.
- It stops the wind from whipping in your ears.
- Still allows you to hear most sounds.
- Potential to retain heat that would lead to sweating.
In the end, you have some decisions to make. Stay flexible with your options and be adaptable to the situation. First and foremost, don’t underestimate the amount of heat your body will produce by walking. It takes time and experience to get it right. So get out there and enjoy yourself!
1 “Human” by Human League. It was the 80s, what can I say?