People holding umbrellas walking in snow

W inter can send chilly winds, slick sidewalks, and freezing rain or snow our way. So it’s no surprise that slips and falls occur when the weather turns foul. Older adults may also find it hard to stay warm. “Your metabolic rate drops, circulation can slow down, and you may have changes in your ability to shiver and sweat,” says Kenneth Koncilja, M.D., a geriatric medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic.

But high-tech fabrics and sleek clothing designs make today’s outerwear warmer and more comfortable. Here’s what to know before the next arctic blast hits.

Learn to Love Layers

Multiple layers provide better insulation than one thick coat by holding warm air near your body, says Theodore Shybut, M.D., an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“You can adjust how much warmth your clothes are trapping or releasing by adding or shedding a layer,” he says.

Shybut suggests wearing a base layer that wicks moisture away from your skin (such as polyester, polypropylene, or wool), a fleece pullover or thin down jacket for a middle layer, and a water- and wind-resistant outer shell made from a material like Gore-Tex. 

Cover Your Head

Old wives’ tale aside, you don’t release more heat from your head than anywhere else, says Ken Zafren, M.D., a professor of emergency medicine at the Stanford University Medical Center and former emergency programs medical director for Alaska. “But in the winter,” he says, “if your head is the only part of your body not covered, you will lose a lot of heat.”

Opt for a microfleece hat for bulk-free warmth, with ear flaps to fully protect your ears. Some have microfleece inside and wind-resistant fabric outside. Instead of a scarf, which can fall off and trip you or get caught in a car door, try a gaiter. These fabric tubes slip over your head, wrap your neck in warmth, and stay put. 

Give Yourself a Hand

Gloves or mittens? Either can keep fingers frost-free, depending on what you’re doing while out in the elements.

For tasks such as using a mobile phone or digging money out of your wallet, consider a two-layer solution: thinner liner gloves with touch-screen-compatible fingertips inside thicker gloves or mittens. “That way, you can take off the heavier one and have greater dexterity without leaving your fingers fully exposed,” Zafren says. 

Put Your Best Foot Forward

When you’re navigating icy sidewalks, “one way to prevent falls is to keep a broad-based stance—like a penguin—while walking,” says Christine Kistler, M.D., an associate professor of geriatric medicine at the University of North Carolina’s medical school in Chapel Hill. 

More on Staying Safe

You’ll want boots with good traction, too, which can mean a rugged sole with deep grooves, like those in a snow tire. The Kite Research Institute at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute has tested hundreds of pairs in slippery conditions. “Wearing boots that rate well on our tests can decrease falls by a factor of four,” says Geoff Fernie, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the institute. (Get info at ratemytreads.com.)

Also consider cleats and spikes that slip over shoes. They provide the best grip on ice but make you more likely to slip on smooth-surface floors like tile, Fernie says.

To keep your feet warm and dry, look for waterproof boots lined with material like PrimaLoft or Thinsulate. Wear wool or synthetic socks, not cotton, which traps moisture, Shybut says. 

Know How to Warm up Fast

If you get very cold while outside, even with good gear, take these steps:

  • Get indoors and remove wet clothing.
  • Wrap yourself in a blanket or heat-trapping vapor barrier (like a foil blanket).
  • Eat some high-calorie food and drink a warm beverage to help heat up your core.
  • Run warm water over chilled hands or feet, or take a warm—not hot—bath. “If you’re very cold, you may scald yourself getting into a steaming hot bath,” Koncilja says.
  • Get medical help if you’re confused or shivering uncontrollably (signs of hypothermia), or your skin feels numb, waxy, or unusually firm and/or looks white or grayish-yellow (signs of frostbite).  

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the January 2020 issue of Consumer Reports On Health