How to Walk in Bad Weather


Walking in bad weather can actually be enjoyable if you take the necessary precautions.
Walking in bad weather can actually be enjoyable if you take the necessary precautions.
2007 Photodisc

Some days, the weather's going to be ideal for walking -- very light breeze, temperature around 60 degrees, not a cloud in sight. What do you do, however, when the snow starts to fall, a gale threatens to blow you off the path, or the heat makes you feel as if your shoes will melt?

It may not sound too appealing to you now, but you can walk in all but the worst weather. If you make walking as much a part of your routine as eating or sleeping, you'll probably find yourself walking through rain, snow, and

sleet -- and enjoying every minute of it.

The secret to all-weather walking is to be prepared -- with appropriate clothing and gear and the knowledge of when to back off. Temperature extremes can be more than uncomfortable; they can be dangerous and even deadly if you don't prepare yourself adequately. But with good preparation, you can keep on walking outdoors under all but the most extreme weather conditions.

In this article, you'll learn tips to help you keep on walking, whether you're faced with a hot, humid day or a wet and rainy one. We'll start by learning about the dangers of walking in the heat on the next page.

The Dangers of Walking in the Heat

No matter how fit you are, you need to be careful of the dangers of walking in the heat -- especially if the humidity is high. Even experienced athletes can fall victim to serious heat-related ailments if they don't take special precautions. You may simply have to stop walking outdoors and move your walking program inside, to an air-conditioned track, gym, or mall.

Your body's built-in cooling system helps it to maintain its normal temperature of approximately 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit when you're in a hot environment. The evaporation of sweat from the surface of your skin causes cooling.

In addition, the blood vessels in your skin dilate (expand) to let more blood flow through them. (That's why your skin gets flushed from a hard workout.) As your blood circulates through the innermost region of your body, known as the body core, it heats up. When it reaches the blood vessels in the skin, the heat radiates outward.

This natural "air-conditioning" system isn't foolproof, however. If you don't replace the water that you lose through sweat, you can become dehydrated. Without adequate water, your sweating mechanism can't work effectively. In the extreme case, this mechanism can shut down completely.

High humidity coupled with warm temperatures can also greatly hamper your body's ability to stay cool. When it's humid, there's already so much moisture in the air that your sweat can't evaporate as quickly. (On the other hand, a breeze can help your body maintain proper temperature by aiding in the evaporation of sweat.) As a result, your body loses water as it pumps out sweat, yet your body temperature continues to rise.

Another important factor in how well your body deals with heat is acclimatization. Your body needs anywhere from four days to two weeks to make physiological adjustments that allow it to cope with extreme heat.

As the body becomes acclimatized, it lowers its threshold for sweating -- in other words, it switches on the sweating mechanism before body temperature rises too high. In addition, it produces more sweat and distributes the sweat more effectively over the skin surface to allow cooling.

The body also directs more blood toward the surface of the skin so that heat from deep within the body core can radiate out of the body. If the body hasn't had time to make these adjustments, however, it may not be able to handle heat effectively.

If you overdo it in the heat, you can develop a series of problems. There are three major types of heat illness: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke. Heat cramps are the least serious and heatstroke is the most threatening. Their symptoms overlap, however, and if proper measures aren't taken at the first sign of heat injury, heat illness can progress to its most severe form.

Heat cramps are painful muscle spasms that occur during or after intense exercise. The spasms usually occur in the muscles that are being exercised and may be caused by the loss of water and salt through sweat. The body temperature is usually not elevated. Rest and replacement of fluids can usually help relieve heat cramps.

Heat exhaustion, also called heat prostration, is a common heat-related illness that occurs most often in people who are not acclimatized to hot weather. It sometimes occurs after excessive perspiration, coupled with inadequate consumption of water to replace lost liquids.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include weakness; dizziness; collapse; headache; weak, rapid pulse; cold, clammy skin; and dilated pupils. The victim of heat exhaustion usually has a near-normal body temperature and continues to sweat.

If you experience any of these symptoms while walking in hot weather, move to a cool place, rest, and drink plenty of water.

Heatstroke, also called sunstroke, is the most serious heat-related illness and requires immediate medical attention. Heatstroke occurs when the body cannot get rid of heat fast enough. The body's cooling system is overwhelmed and simply breaks down.

Sweating usually stops, the circulatory system is strained, and body temperature can rise to 106 degrees Fahrenheit or more. If immediate steps to cool the victim aren't taken, body temperature will continue to rise and death may occur.

Symptoms of heatstroke include hot, dry skin; rapid pulse; high body temperature; headache; dizziness; abdominal cramps; and delirium. Often, however, the first visible sign of heatstroke is loss of consciousness.

Immediate steps must be taken to decrease the victim's body temperature. The victim should be moved to a cool area and placed in an ice-water bath or covered with ice packs until medical treatment is available.

Go to the next section to find out how you can protect yourself in the heat during a walk.

To learn more about walking, see:

How to Safely Walk in the Heat

Learning how to safely walk in the heat is imperative if you want to continue a healthy exercise regime.

There are a variety of steps you can take to protect yourself from heat illness. The cornerstone of prevention is water. If you intend to exercise in hot weather, you need to drink plenty of water before, during, and after your walks.

You should drink 2 or 3 cups of cold water about 10 to 20 minutes before you begin walking. During your walk, drink at least a couple more cups of cold water. When you finish walking, drink water again. Don't rely on thirst to tell you when to drink; it's not always an adequate guide to your body's need for fluid.

Another important preventive measure is to slow down your pace and intensity when the temperature is high, especially during the first few days of a hot spell. By walking for a shorter time at a lower intensity early on, you'll give your body a chance to adjust its cooling mechanism to the heat.

During hot weather, you should schedule your walking workouts for the coolest part of the day -- early morning or evening. Avoid walking late in the morning or during the afternoon when the sun's rays are most powerful.

Also, try walking in shaded areas, such as parks, forest preserves, and tree-lined streets. If there's a breeze, walk with the breeze at your back during the first half of your walk. Then, for the second half of your workout, when you're hot and sweaty, walk into the breeze.

Proper clothing can also help you beat the heat. In hot, humid weather, wear as little as you can. Choose breathable fabrics that will allow your sweat to evaporate. (Cotton is an acceptable choice because it absorbs perspiration and allows sweat to evaporate.)

Wear lightweight shorts and a loose-fitting T-shirt or tank top, or try a fishnet vest that lets air in and out. Also, be sure to choose light colors that reflect the sun's rays. If chafing is a problem, spread a little petroleum jelly on your skin in the affected areas.

Many walkers wear jogging outfits, which are available in various materials and designs. If you want to wear a jogging suit, make sure to get one that is made of a porous material.

In warm or hot weather, you don't want heat and moisture to be trapped; you want it to circulate and escape to keep your body cool. So your warm-weather walking outfit should be made of either cotton or a lightweight, porous synthetic fiber and it should fit loosely without getting in your way.

Whatever you do, shun rubber, plastic, or otherwise nonporous sweatsuits. They create a hot, humid environment and interfere with the evaporation of sweat. Wearing them makes you an easy target for dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke.

In addition, it's a misperception that the more you sweat, the faster you'll slim down: You'll promptly regain that lost weight as soon as you rush to the water fountain.

When you dress for hot, sunny weather, don't forget to cover your head. The head is the first part of the body struck by the powerful rays of the sun. By protecting your head, you can help control your body temperature when you walk.

A lightweight, light-colored cap can help reflect the sun's rays. You may even want to try soaking it in cold water before you put it on.

To protect your skin from the sun's burning rays and help ward off skin cancer, be sure to apply a strong sunscreen to all exposed areas of your skin. Choose a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more. You may even want to try a waterproof sunscreen, since you'll be sweating quite a bit.

Perhaps your most important protection against heat illness is knowing when to slow down and when to get inside. Regardless of your physical condition, you need to take into account more than the temperature of the air.

Humidity can be a dangerous element during a strenuous walk. Learn about walking in humidity on the next page.

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Walking in High Humidity

As mentioned earlier, because humidity can greatly decrease your body's ability to maintain its normal temperature, walking in high humidity can be dangerous.

Humidity makes the temperature feel hotter than it actually is. The heat index tells you the "apparent temperature" -- how hot it feels to the average

person -- for various combinations of air temperature and relative humidity.

For example, when the air temperature is 85 degrees Fahrenheit and the relative humidity is 75 percent, it actually feels like it's 95 degrees Fahrenheit outside. You can find out the air temperature and the humidity level (and often the heat index) on any given day from local weather forecasts.

When the heat index is between 80 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit, you need to use caution when exercising outside. This is especially true if you are just starting a walking program; if you are obese; if you have any serious health problems; if you take medication; or if you are over age 50. Under these conditions, you may need to cut down the amount of time you spend walking to avoid heat illness.

When the heat index reaches 90 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke are possible if you exercise intensely outdoors. You should decrease the intensity and length of your workouts, walk in a shaded area, and be sure to drink plenty of fluids.

When the heat index exceeds 105 degrees Fahrenheit, exercising outdoors is dangerous. Heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and even heatstroke are likely. Move your walking program indoors.

If you take care of your body's needs, it is possible -- and safe -- to walk in hot weather, even in Atlanta in August. But can you go for a stroll in Chicago in February? Find out in the next section.

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The Dangers of Walking in the Cold

When the snow starts to fall and the temperature drops, it's easy to slip into inactivity and hibernate like a bear -- but don't do it. Keeping up your walking program in winter will help you maintain your fitness level all year round.

Getting out of the house can even help some individuals fight off the winter blues, known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD. So try to make it outdoors at least once a day for a walk. Be sure, however, to learn about the dangers of walking in the cold before you step out the door.

Low temperatures and high winds pose the greatest threats to the cold-weather walker. The windchill factor tells you how cold the combination of low temperature and wind feels.

Your own motion as you walk increases the windchill factor. If you don't protect yourself adequately from cold and wind, you run the risk of developing frostbite or hypothermia.

Frostbite is the partial freezing of a part of the body. Ice crystals can form within and between the cells in skin, tendons, muscles, and even bones. Frostbite is caused by overexposure to below-freezing temperatures.

The extremities -- hands, feet, ears, and face -- are most vulnerable because your body decreases blood flow to these areas in order to keep your vital organs and muscles warm. These extremities are also the parts of the body most often left unprotected.

The risk of frostbite is higher in heavy smokers, because nicotine causes constriction of blood vessels in the extremities. Without enough blood warming them, the hands and feet are easy targets for frostbite.

Signs of frostbite include pain and numbness, a white or blue discoloration of the skin, and loss of function in the affected area. Proper treatment of frostbite involves prompt, careful rewarming.

The victim should be moved to a warm area, if possible. The frostbitten area should then be placed in lukewarm -- not hot -- water.

Frostbitten skin should not be rubbed or massaged, as these actions can cause further damage to tissues. Contrary to popular belief, rubbing frostbitten skin with snow is not useful and can be damaging to the skin. Intense heat, from radiators, stoves, or hot water, should not be used because it may burn numbed skin.

Hypothermia is a condition in which body temperature falls well below the normal temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It's caused by prolonged exposure to cold.

The first signs of hypothermia are severe shivering, slurred speech, and difficulty in walking. When body temperature falls below 90 degrees Fahrenheit, shivering usually stops and the patient may be confused or may lapse into unconsciousness. If emergency measures aren't taken to warm the victim, cardiac arrest and death may occur.

Basic treatment for hypothermia is rewarming of the victim. The rewarming must be done gradually to prevent the sudden enlargement of blood vessels at the surface of the body, which may divert too much blood from vital organs.

Medical help should always be obtained for a person with hypothermia. While waiting for help to arrive, the victim should be moved to a warm place, covered with blankets, and, if alert, offered a warm, non-alcoholic beverage. Alcoholic beverages should not be given because they tend to increase heat loss from the body.

Find out how to safely walk in the cold in the next section.

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How to Safely Walk in the Cold

Learning how to safely walk in the cold will help you avoid cold-related ailments and make your workout much more enjoyable.

First of all, use caution when the temperature drops and the wind kicks up. Remember to dress in layers, wear a hat or other head covering, and cover as much exposed skin as possible.

To avoid becoming overly fatigued, stop and take rest breaks as needed. Be prepared for emergencies. And avoid drinking alcohol because it can contribute to dehydration and impair your judgment.

The Windchill Index tells you how cold it feels when both temperature (as shown on a thermometer) and wind speed are taken into account.

For example, a ther­mo­meter reading of 30 de­grees Fahrenheit combined with a 25 mile-per-hour wind is equiv­alent to a temperature of zero when the wind is calm. You can find out temperature, wind speed, and usually windchill factor from local weather forecasts.

To find out how to dress for cold-weather walks, see the next section.

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How to Dress When Walking in the Cold

Learning how to dress when walking in the cold is quite simple: Just reverse your hot-weather strategy. Instead of wearing light-colored clothing that reflects the sun's rays, choose dark-colored clothing that absorbs them. If you'll be walking in the evening or early morning, however, be sure to use reflective tape or a reflective vest so that motorists will be able to see you.

In addition, you need to construct a personal heating system that uses your body as the furnace. To do that, dress in layers of warm, loose-fitting clothing. The loose fit allows freedom of movement and promotes comfort.

The layering strategy is very much like the insulation in your home; it keeps the heat in and the cold out. The layers of clothing trap warm air and hold it next to your body. The more you work, the warmer the air becomes.

At the same time, these layers of warm air act as a barrier to the cold. When it comes to dressing for cold weather, it's the total thickness of the layers that really pays off.

The best choices for the innermost layer are polypropylene, silk, or thin, fine wool, because these materials "wick" the perspiration away from your skin. The middle layers should be made of knitted wool or synthetic pile.

For the outer shell, use a windbreaker made of water-repellent, tightly woven material that "breathes." This breathable fabric will allow the water vapor from your perspiration to escape.

After a little practice, you will quickly learn what you'll need to wear for protection from the cold and wind. When you walk in cold weather, it is always better to wear too many layers rather than too few. That way, you can strip off layers, one by one, as your body heats up.

You can then tie this extra clothing around your waist. Even better, however, try using an outer layer that has a zipper front. This way you can simply unzip the top layers to let the cool air in when you get too hot.

Be aware that, even in the winter, exercise can induce overheating. In warm weather, walkers tend to be on the lookout for signs of heat illness. By exercising continuously for over half an hour, you can raise your body temperature significantly, even if it's cold outside -- but cold-weather walkers may not realize this. That's why you need to shed or unzip one or two outer layers as soon as you start feeling too warm.

It's even possible to get dehydrated in the winter, so it's important to drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after your winter walks. Cold acts as a diuretic, encouraging urination and fluid loss from the body.

Out in the dry, cold air, you may lose more body fluid than you realize. Your thirst reflex is also depressed in the cold, so you shouldn't rely on it to tell you when to drink.

Go to the next page to learn how to choose the right hat, socks, and mittens for walking in the cold.

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Finding the Right Socks, Hat, and Mittens for Walking in the Cold

In addition to covering your body's core in layers of clothing, it is also important that you find the right socks, hat, and mittens for walking in the cold in order to protect your hands, feet, face, and head, which are most vulnerable to frostbite.

Your feet are more susceptible to frostbite when they're wet as well as cold. You're also more likely to get blisters if your socks and shoes get soaked.

In cold, wet weather, leather shoes or boots are better than nylon or canvas ones, because they keep your feet drier. You can even put plastic bags over your socks. That may seem absurd, but it has enabled people to walk in snow with suede shoes for over 10 hours without ever getting their socks wet.

It's also important to wear socks when walking. Socks should be made of materials that absorb moisture well and provide adequate padding in the heel and ball of the foot.

Some walkers prefer wearing Orlon sport socks or using liners with cotton or wool socks. Whatever your choice in socks, make sure your shoes or boots are large enough to provide plenty of space around your toes. This space will fill with warm air that will insulate your feet nicely and ward off frostbite of the toes.

Some people like to wear two pairs of socks, especially in cold weather. That's fine as long as your walking shoes or boots are big enough to accommodate the bulk of the extra sock.

Otherwise, there won't be enough room for an insulating layer of warm air and you'll be more likely to develop a host of foot problems, such as blisters and corns, in addition to frostbite. The inner pair of socks should be lighter in weight than the outer pair.

There are four basic lengths of socks: low-cut socks that can't be seen above the shoe, anklets that reach just above the shoe top, crew socks that go halfway up the calf, and knee socks. Knee and crew socks are more suited for winter walking because they offer greater protection.

It has been estimated that a hat or cap can hold in 80 percent of the body's heat in cold weather. Without a hat, it's said, you lose more heat through your head than through any other part of your body. Put a cap on your head and, in effect, you've "capped" the heat's escape route.

So, following the old saying, "If you want to keep your feet warm, wear a hat." You may want to try wearing a heavy knitted wool or Orlon ski cap that you can pull down over your ears and face.

A mask can be a mixed blessing, however. Perspiration and condensation of the breath can freeze into ice around your mouth and nostrils -- not the most pleasant winter experience. Some walkers have complained that a mask tends to congest the sinuses because it inhibits breathing. Nevertheless, for safety's sake, it may be a good idea to use a ski mask when the windchill factor is low.

When the weather is really nippy, make sure to keep your ears covered, because the ears are sensitive to low temperatures and can become frostbitten easily. If your hat doesn't cover your ears, try wearing a pair of earmuffs in addition to the hat.

Mittens, not gloves, give your hands the best protection in cold weather. Snuggled together in a mitten, your fingers help keep each other warm.

Some people use tube socks as mittens, because they go farther up the arm for greater protection. In really cold weather, some walkers wear mittens with socks on top -- or gloves covered by mittens.

Go to the next section for more tips on walking in the cold.

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Other Tips for Walking in the Cold

There are a variety of other tips for walking in the cold to keep in mind. For example, cold weather is no reason to pack away your sunscreen. It's true that sunlight is weaker in the winter, but the ultraviolet rays that burn skin and raise the risk of developing certain types of skin cancer are still a threat.

When it is snowy and sunny, the reflected rays can burn your exposed skin, so it pays to apply sunscreen. If you use strong protection in the summer -- that is, SPF 15 or higher -- then use it in the winter, too. Alcohol-based sunscreens can add to the drying effects of the cold and wind and they don't stand up to perspiration as well as creamy ones do.

If you are driving to an out-of-the-way area to do your cold-weather walking, make sure you toss an extra set of warm clothing, a pair of shoes, and a blanket into the back seat of the car. This should be a regular emergency precaution -- like the spare tire in the trunk. You might also want to bring a thermos filled with a hot beverage.

If you do venture out in extremely cold weather, particularly if you're planning a long walk, it is wise to arrange to go with a walking companion. It's also a good idea to let someone at home know where you plan to walk and what time you plan to return, especially if it's very cold or if it's snowing.

Just as it is dangerous to drink alcohol and drive, it can be dangerous to drink and walk -- especially in winter. The reason is that alcohol dilates the blood vessels in your extremities, redirecting blood away from your vital organs and toward your face, feet, and hands. This gives you a dangerous illusion of warmth, when in reality precious heat is being pulled from your vital organs.

Alcohol also suppresses the natural shivering mechanism that helps generate heat. Like any other drug that impairs your judgment, alcohol can give you a false sense of well-being. You may literally forget when to come in from the cold.

Go to the next page to learn about cold weather and health problems.

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Cold Weather and Health Problems

Cold weather shouldn't present any serious problems if you protect yourself and are in reasonably good health. If you have heart problems, however, ask your doctor if it is okay for you to brave cold weather -- even if he or she has already given your walking program the go-ahead.

The reason for this precaution is that the body's reactions to low temperatures put stress on the cardiovascular system. These reactions include constriction of blood vessels in the skin, shallow breathing through the mouth, and slight thickening of the blood, all of which can lead indirectly to angina (chest pain) in people with heart disease.

Cold lowers the heart's supply of blood, while exertion raises the demand for it. This imbalance between supply and demand can also cause attacks of chest pain. If you have heart trouble, your doctor can give you advice on how to minimize adverse effects of cold on your heart and when to do your walking indoors.

Even in people who don't have heart disease, cold exposure can raise blood pressure. To conserve heat, the muscles contract to obstruct the flow of blood to the arms and legs. This reroutes extra blood to the vital organs and boosts the blood pressure.

People who have high blood pressure, therefore, need to take extra care in dressing warmly for cold-weather walks.

Asthma is another condition that can worsen in the winter. Inhaling cold, dry winter air can trigger bronchospasms -- contractions of the air passages in the lungs.

To avoid this, many doctors advise their asthmatic patients to take their anti-asthma medications just before they exert themselves. If you have asthma, see your doctor before you walk in cold weather.

Also at special risk in the cold are people with Raynaud's disease, which often accompanies connective tissue diseases such as scleroderma and lupus. Cold causes spasms in their blood vessels, which cut off the circulation to their fingers and toes and turn their skin a "chalky" color. These people are advised to exercise indoors during cold weather.

Learn about weather hazards to avoid when walking in our final section.

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Weather Hazards to Avoid When Walking

Weather hazards to avoid when walking include rain, snow, ice, hail, lightning, strong winds, fog, and other harsh weather conditions. High altitudes and darkness can also curtail your outdoor walking. With a little bit of ingenuity, however, you may be able to walk your way around these hazards.

On warm days (temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit), rain shouldn't be much of a problem as long as you keep your feet dry (which helps to prevent blisters and infections). On rainy days when the mercury dips below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, a light rain jacket will give you sufficient protection.

The best materials are waterproof but breathable -- that is, they don't let water in, but they do let out water vapor from perspiration. If you don't want to get your hair wet, you can either wear a hat or carry an umbrella.

Some people love to walk in the snow. To cope with the snow, simply follow the directions for walking in the cold. Be sure, however, to wear proper footwear to avoid slipping.

Your pace will be slower, but that's okay. If the snow is deep, you'll be working just as hard as you would be at a faster pace on a clean street. If you doubt that, check your pulse.

Walking on ice can be treacherous. It is easy to slip and injure yourself. If there is ice on the road or sidewalk, it's best to wait until later in the day, when it's been sanded, salted, or melted by the sun.

Hail can also be a problem. If the hail is large, take shelter immediately. If it's small, be your own judge. Most of the time, it won't harm you. As soon as you hear thunder or see any lightning, however, head indoors. Walking outdoors during a thunderstorm is dangerous.

If you're walking into a stiff breeze, you may want to slow down. Walking against the wind is like walking through deep snow. It takes extra work, so you'll get the same benefits that you would in a faster walk under normal circumstances.

High altitudes offer a source of special problems. At 5,000 feet above sea level and higher, the air contains significantly less oxygen than it does at lower altitudes. So there is less oxygen for your body to take in.

As a result, your heart has to work extra hard. For every 2,500 feet that you ascend, plan on taking at least a week to adjust to the decline in oxygen concentration.

One way that you might adjust is to cut the pace or duration of your program by 50 percent at the beginning. If you find yourself short of breath at that rate, slow down even further.

When the weather turns foggy, don't wear white, gray, or other light-colored clothes. Motorists will not be able to see you. Bright red or orange clothing is best.

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ADDITIONAL CREDITS:

Peggy Norwood Keating, MA, Contributing consultantRebecca Hughes, Contributing writer