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Winter Layering with Arm Warmers

Winter Clothing Layering with Arm Warmers
Arm warmers are usually sold as cycling gear, but many winter hikers also use them for insulation because they’re easy to take off when you warm up or put back on when you get cold. Frequent stopping, unpacking, and repacking isn’t good form when you’re hiking with others because no one wants to stand around freezing their ass off while you get organized. It’s far better to have clothing layers that you can take off, adjust, or put on quickly, while you’re on the move.

Arm warmers are a great winter layering solution because they’re compact and easy to put on or stash in an accessible pocket while you’re wearing your pack. Lots of thin layers are often better for winter hiking than heavier ones because they let you fine-tune your comfort level throughout the course of a hike.

For example, I’m a fairly warm hiker, even in winter. If the ambient temperature is above 25 degrees, I’ll strip down to a short sleeve base layer during a sustained climb. Unfortunately, this can lead to cold arms when I transition to a colder area such as a windy ridge, exposed outcropping or simply higher elevation. If I stopped to put on a layer each time this occurred, I would be spending unnecessary time making an adjustment that I might want to reverse around the next bend. But you don’t want to let the skin on your arms get too cold since it can result in vasoconstriction, causing your body to reduce blood flow to your extremities, and contributing to a cooling core.

If you’re like me and you run hot when you winter hike, arm warmers might provide you with just the right amount of extra insulation to ward off a chill after a steep climb. Fit is important, which is why I’d recommend going to a bike store and trying on a couple of different pairs, rather than playing shopping roulette on Amazon. Arm warmers often run small, so trying them out in person is often more expedient.

I use Specialized Therminal 2.0 Arm Warmers because I like the way they grip my upper arms
I use Specialized Therminal 2.0 Arm Warmers because I like the way they grip my upper arms.

I currently wear Specialized Therminal 2.0 Arm Warmers which have a brushed fleece interior that insulates while effectively managing moisture. The upper arm cuff has a silicone print to maintain a secure yet comfortable fit. They offer just the amount of warmth that I’m looking for. The inside is slightly fleecy and comfortable. The outer surface is smooth so snow easily brushes off and it’s easy to slip additional clothing layers over them. I’ve also used Smartwool Arm Warmers in the past but they were to tight on my upper arms.

If you are one of those people who tend to sweat even at low temperatures, I highly recommend giving arm warmers a try. They’re surprisingly effective and a great winter layering option.

About the Author

Wanda Rice has been backpacking since the late 1980’s. She has climbed the New Hampshire 48, the New Hampshire 48 in winter, the New England 67, the New England Hundred Highest, and the Four-Season 48. Wanda also teaches for the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC) Mountain Leadership School, the AMC New Hampshire Chapter Spring and Winter Schools as well as the AMC NH Winter Hiking Series. She leads day and overnight trips for AMC NH year-round and loves mentoring new leaders. She is a gear junkie, a self-proclaimed Queen of Gear Hacks, and loves sharing her tips and tricks with others. Wanda lives in southern NH and is looking forward to moving closer to the mountains in the next few years.

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  1. I have thought about doing this before, but never bring mine simply because they fit so tight. So it is interesting you mention sizing up. I was always under the assumption that is the way they fit and never took the time to look into it. I think many times I could get away with a short sleeve shirt (instead of a long sleeve) and fleece if I had something to cover my arms, when needed under the fleece. I will see if our LBS carries them next time I am in there to try on a larger size. Thanks for the article.

  2. I love arm warmers and used them a lot when I ran a lot. However, it’s tricky to get sizing right. I had a pair that I bought large because the smaller ones seemed likely to cut off circulation in my hands but the large ones just kept falling down, which is annoying too. And be careful of seams on them if you are using them for running – I’ve had painful chafing from seams on my arm warmers. I don’t recall if that was ever an issue while hiking but could probably be.

    Thumb loops, while appearing to be a really nice asset to keep the warmers from sliding up, can also cause chafing! :-(

  3. Two caveats on what follows: 1. I don’t hike in the Whites, so I’m not questioning your recommendation. 2. I’m not trying to knock arm warmers, as I’ve never used them.

    What I’m wondering is what advantages they offer that I don’t have with a zip-top turtleneck? Around here (southern Ohio, southern Indiana, and Kentucky), I’m comfortable in cold weather with a wool-blend short-sleeve T-shirt under a wool-blend long-sleeve zip-neck top. To regulate heat, I can push the sleeves up, open the zipper, or take the long-sleeve top off and put it in my shove-it pocket; at rest stops, I put it on. If I want to take it off, it takes less than 30 seconds to remove my pack, take it off, stow it in the shove-it, and put my pack back on. (More and more, I hike alone or with one or two similar-minded friends, so I don’t have to think about inconveniencing others like I would in a larger group.) If I’m down to my T-shirt, and my arms start to chill, I can also just add my lightweight windbreaker (which also lives in the shove-it pocket.)

    What I have has always worked OK for me, in the conditions and locales where I hike. (Doesn’t mean it will work for anyone else.) However, I’m open to the idea of arm warmers, if I’m missing something they could do for me that my current system doesn’t. Any thoughts?

    • For me, often I’m just too warm with a long sleeve shirt, and avoiding sweating while hiking in cold weather is very important. Pushing up the sleeves does not get them up as far as a short sleeve shirt and I get a lot more cooling effect by having my upper arms bare. With this system, I don’t have to stop and take off my pack to make quick adjustments, I can adjust while moving. This is key when hiking with a group. I have plenty of friends who are perfectly happy hiking with long sleeves as their final layer. But I’ve also met quite a few people like myself who run really warm and this offers a helpful alternate way to change layers quickly and easily.

  4. Thanks Wanda. I find arm warmers give extra layering flexiibility when wearing a short-sleeve top under a long-sleeved. I start with everything on then remove/add as necessary with minimum fuss. More flexible than 2 long-sleeved tops.

  5. I used leggings during the mid-summer of my thru-Hike of the AT (PA – VT). It seemed like I was only carrying the legs of my convertible pants and never wearing them; and it was too warm for base layer bottoms (the heat of 2015 made me wear gym shorts almost everyday). Cycling leggings are far more efficient and weigh so much less than those two items.
    Additionally I found (on the clearance rack!!!!) Smart Wool arm warmers at EMS. I carry them in my book bag to school: always seems that colleges have the A/C on in the winter and the heat on in the summer. That extra layer helps in the shoulder seasons and takes up next to nothing in room and weight.
    Great article, thanks for thinking outside the box and marrying gear from different disciplines.

    • Damn, someone else uses that hack :).
      As with most things, this was a happy accident. I brought some fleece backed cycling tights as an extra layer but I ended up using them alone for most of the hike.
      They keep your legs warm and I have never had an issue with sweating them out.

  6. Hi Wanda. What do they weigh?

  7. Any thoughts on sleeves for sun protection? Outside in Queensland, Australia it’s now 97 degrees Fahrenheit and 80 percent humidity and most sun protection creams blister my skin.

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