4 Step Plan for Managing Raynaud’s Outdoors

raynauds outdoor layers

I’m not a doctor, I’m just a woman with Raynaud’s Syndrome (also known as Raynaud’s Disease) who has been experimenting with keeping my feet and hands warm in the outdoors since I was old enough to pack my own mittens. These are tips I used when living in Mongolia for the winter, working as a ski patroller in Canada, and getting through weeks of -30°C weather in northern New Hampshire. If you’re new to spending hours outdoors, or just on the hunt for some new techniques to stay functional, here’s my 4 step plan for managing Raynaud’s outdoors in the winter.

1. Figure Out When You’re Really Cold

Being cold is embarrassing for me because it makes me feel weak and like I can’t handle outdoor exposure. So, the first hurdle is paying attention to when you’re starting to lose sensation in your feet and hands regardless of whether you’re indoors, outdoors, how many layers you’re wearing, and how many layers other people are wearing. Once you figure out the situations that are the worst, you can make very specific and effective plans to address them so you can be comfortable (and have use of your fine motor skills 😬).

Examples of Very Cold Scenarios I Haven’t Taken Seriously:

Driving to work all the time, sitting still in my apartment with the heat on a normal temperature, walking downtown in winter, alpine skiing only for a few hours, road biking in the summer especially descending, mountain biking on summer nights after 4 pm, outdoor New Year’s Eve events, alpine ski race team practice from 3:30-6 pm when I hadn’t eaten since 11 am.

2. Evaluate Your Gear (Or Why You Don’t Use It)

Problem: I own the appropriate layers, but don’t want to get them dirty

Solutions: Have a separate beater jacket and glove combo that can get dirty, smoky or greasy. If you’re not willing to have multiple versions of jackets and gloves, find affordable used or cheap gear that you accept will get dirty. It’s worth remembering that the point of gear is to protect you from the elements, so if you’re not willing to wear it it’s not doing its job.

Problem: I can’t wear all my layers at once

Make sure the gear in your bag can all be worn at the same time without restricting your movement. When you buy gear, size it based on what will need to fit under and over it in the coldest scenarios you will be in. Bring your big puffy jacket when you shop for a wind-water resistant shell to make sure you can keep your down jacket dry underneath when needed. Pay particular attention to whether you can zip up multiple collars and still breathe. For mittens, start a layering system so you can adapt to keep your gloves and mittens dry during the uphill. Glove liners, big mittens, and leather work gloves are the combo that works for me 90% of the time.

3. Make Good Choices Before You Get Too Cold

Problem: I don’t want to wreck the group pace by stopping to adjust layers

Find ways to keep layers accessible while moving. When I’m ski touring, I tie a fleece jacket around my waist (under my shoulder straps) and have practiced taking it off and tying it while moving. I wear a midweight glove combo and will put the gloves over the handles of my poles if my hands get sweaty. As a group guideline, if the pace is creeping up everyone should stop and take off jackets to avoid getting their major insulating layers sweaty. If you bring it up first you’re a thermo-regulating hero.

Problem: “I’m not cold yet”

Layer up every time you stop. I can go from sweaty to deeply cold in less than 3 minutes, and once my hands are cold getting zippers figured out takes twice as long, which means it takes longer to get moving again and warm up. Lose lose. Put your midlayer and mittens on and enjoy your clif bar.

4. Have a Re-Warming Plan Outside (Tell Your Partners)

If I’m cold and I’m outside or don’t have access to warm running water, these specific actions help the situation from getting worse and compromising group safety.

  • Tell your group that you will be stopping to deal with a major cold situation
  • Put on all your layers: start with puffy jacket and mittens, then hats, neckwarmers/buffs, windproof layers, then zip it all up
  • Put your hands inside all of your layers on your bare stomach. For me, nothing/nowhere else is warm enough: too much wind around my neck, my hips are usually too chilly even inside my layers. Keep your hands there and don’t try to accomplish anything other than warming them up.
  • Eat a snack and get out a set of handwarmers to put in your pockets for after your hands have rewarmed. Get your group to help with this since your hands are numb. If they resist, threaten to put your hands on their bare stomachs.
  • Move uphill quickly with all your layers on. Keep moving quickly until you are warm to just under the point of sweating. If you’re about the sweat, take a core layer off (probably the puffy jacket) but keep all your mittens on and keep moving.
  • De-layer and drink water after you’ve warmed up so your gear isn’t sweaty and you’re hydrated.

If you’re in ski boots, the feet rewarming takes longer but happens for me if I keep a consistent uptempo pace. I’ve never had good luck with adhesive disposable footwarmers. Sitting in the snow and touching my cold feet only makes it worse for me, but if you have shelter/indoor available then go inside and sit cross-legged with your feet touching your thighs. Depending on how damp your socks are and how warm the room is, it might make sense to take your socks off.

Additional Notes:

Temperature regulation is deeply personal and other people are never able to do it for you. Whether you are planning a solo trip or part of a guided group, you will always be responsible for keeping yourself OK in whatever conditions you encounter including making the appropriate plans. Take all the steps you need, wear every layer that makes sense, and support other people doing the same. Thanks for reading my 4 step plan for managing Raynaud’s outdoors, and I hope it helps you enjoy your time outside!

Bonus Tip If You’re Still Reading:

Make sure your snacks aren’t too messy and can be accessed and eaten with gloves and even while moving if needed: Non-sticky dried fruit, peanut butter and jelly if it’s well contained in a ziplock, a clif bar you’ve kept warm in your pants pocket, a compact wrap all work.