10 Commandments for Staying Warm in Cold Conditions

I have not conducted a formal study on the reason fly fishers stay home on a cold winter day. But I’m confident I know what it is. It’s not the problem of ice build-up on fly rod guides. Nor is it the less-frenetic feeding patterns of trout in the winter. It’s the problem of staying warm in cold conditions.

Here are ten commandments for staying warm when fly fishing on cold days. Most of these are obvious. But they are good reminders. Perhaps there’s one that you’ve missed.

1. Drink liquids — whether hot or cold

Chances are that you won’t cover as much water on a cold day. So there’s no need to obsess about traveling light. Bring along that small Thermos or Yeti tumbler filled with your warm liquid of choice—coffee or hot chocolate. Your tumbler might even double as a hand warmer.

Actually, water may be your best bet since it promotes circulation to your your fingers and toes. Drinking enough water also eliminates a huge contributing factor to frostbite and hypothermia: dehydration.

Be wary of spiking your drink with schnapps or brandy. Alcohol may make you feel or think you are warmer. But it actually drops your core body temperature.

2. Use a hand-warming device

Cold hands make it impossible to fly fish. It’s hard to tie on a fly or tippet when your hands don’t work. Cold hands also make fly fishers miserable. The most obvious solution is to purchase a pair of insulated, waterproof gloves. Personally, the ones with exposed fingertips don’t help me, because it’s my fingertips which get cold first! Occasionally, I’ll bring two or three pairs of lighter wool gloves so I can switch them when one pair gets damp.

Another possible solution is to use hand warmers. I’ve used the small, disposable, inexpensive packets which get activated when exposed to air. In my experience, most brands provide sufficient heat for only an hour or two. The downside is that these packets stop working when they get damp. If you spend enough time fly fishing on cold days, you might try the chrome plated hand warmers (about the size of a cell phone) which run on lighter fuel. I confess that I haven’t used one of these since I was in my early teens while spending the entire day in the woods deer hunting. But they put off a lot of heat.

Don’t forget to stop and stuff your hands inside your shirt against your flesh. If you can place your hand under an armpit (a lovely thought) you can warm both sides of your hand. Read on for another overlooked option.

3. Wear a warm hat

You might be surprised to learn that your cold hands are due, in part, to the heat escaping from your head. So wear a warm hat — preferably one with ear flaps. A stocking cap works fine — especially one with wool or microfiber.

4. Go with layers instead of one large jacket

I usually wear the same lightweight Simms rain jacket I use in July that I do on a cold winter day in January. It protects me against wind and moisture. Then, I add more layers underneath. More layers provide more warmth than one bulky jacket. Start with good moisture-wicking underwear. Even when it’s cold, you may sweat when walking to your fishing spot. Staying dry is essential to staying warm.

After a layer of moisture-wicking underwear, build layers with an assortment of relatively thin pullovers, sweaters, or wool shirts. Add a down vest if you need to. The advantage of layers is that you can peel them off as the day gets warmer. Your waders add another layer of warmth, too—even if you’re not wading.

5. Use a neck gator

Even a thin microfiber neck gator will keep your face warm. Your cheeks and tip of your nose will thank you at the end of the day.

6. Wear warm socks

I’ve never tried the battery powered socks or even the inexpensive, disposable foot warmers or toe warmers. But I suspect they are a terrific option—as long as your feet don’t get too hot. I opt for a thin pair of moisture-wicking socks covered by a slightly thicker wool blend pair. Keep reading for another strategy.

7. Keep moving

The most obvious way to keep your feet and body warm is to keep moving. At last, I have an excuse for moving so quickly from one run to another! Moving generates heat and compensates for the way that cold temperatures restrict your blood vessels, slowing down your blood flow.

But what do you do if you want to fish the same run for three hours because it’s producing? Take a walk anyway and come back to your spot in five minutes. It’s likely that most of your competition will be at home on the sofa watching the Winter Olympics.

8. Simplify your gear

The less time you rummage through pockets to find tippet or split shot, the less time your hands will be exposed to the cold. Also, this will decrease the time you are stationary. Remember, you want to keep moving–walking or casting—to stay warm.

9. Eat snacks

Whether you stick with health-conscious choices or go with a Snickers Bar, eating will provide the energy you desperately need in the cold. Plus, it will also boost your metabolism.

10. Limit your wading

I’ve stood knee-deep in Montana’s Madison River in January for long stretches of time and have remained surprisingly warm.

However, the deeper you wade, the more you put yourself at risk for disaster. Falling into a river when the air temperature is thirty degrees poses risks that falling into it when it’s seventy degrees does not. Hypothermia is always a concern. So be on the safe side. Don’t try anything heroic when it comes to wading.

If you spend a cold winter day in front of your television or fly tying vise, you have made a wise choice. But if you want to fly fish, you can have a great experience if you take the precautions needed to stay warm.

Go-To Gear for All Kinds of Weather

The worst days for fly fishers turn out to be the best days for fly fishing. The moisture in the air — whether in the form of rain or snow — triggers the insect hatches that often trout into a feeding frenzy. A few weeks ago, I witnessed a stretch of river come to life with leaping trout during a brief rain shower. I saw nothing feeding on the surface and caught nothing until the rain seemed to coax bugs and trout from their lairs.

But how do you cope with the various kinds of weather you’re going to face on the river? Here is my list:


Rain jacket. A few years ago, I bought a lightweight Simms rain jacket. Typically, my budget doesn’t let me splurge for the highest-end stuff (although somehow I ended up with a Winston fly rod!). But it was a purchase I don’t regret. Despite the obvious protection from the rain, the jacket also provides warmth on cool spring mornings and cool fall evenings even when the weather is dry. The jacket is small and light enough that I can roll it up and keep it in my fly vest.

Waders. This seem obvious. But waders also provide their share of warmth in cool weather. When we’re fishing the Driftless in Wisconsin, Dave and I rarely wade in water above our calves. Yet in the spring, we’ll wear our chest waders. It’s not because we’re worried about falling in the little spring creeks we fish. It’s just that the waders provide some warmth.

In the summer, though, you may prepare to wet-wade. I still shake my head when I think about the guy Dave and I saw wearing waders on a little creek in the Driftless on a sunny, eighty degree day!

Wool or waterproof gloves. I’m a wimp when it comes to keeping my hands warm. It’s been that way since I started deer hunting at age 10. So I’ve found that either wool or waterproof gloves work best. The gloves which expose one’s finger tips just don’t work for me. They make about as much sense for me as a screen door on a submarine. But whatever kind of gloves work for you, you’ll be thankful you’ve stashed a pair in your fly vest in the spring and fall. Snow happens. And early mornings and late afternoons can get cool.

Gore-Tex or wool hat. For years, I’ve worn a Woolrich hunting cap because it keeps the moisture off of my head whether it’s raining or snowing. A cotton baseball cap just doesn’t cut it. Recently, I bought a Simms Gore-text hat that I love (whoops, so much for my claim about not buying high end gear!). It’s lightweight, and it’s terrific for keeping my head dry on drizzly days.

Neck gator. This is the newest “gadget” I’ve been enjoying. I thought this would drive me crazy, because I don’t like stuff around my neck. But besides providing warmth, it’s great for protection from the sun. Dave took the above photo of me using the neck gator for sun protection when it was over eighty degrees on the Madison River. Even though I look like a threat to homeland security, the neck gator really works. The fabric is light enough that I never started sweating.

Layers with micro fiber. I’ve become a bit of a micro fiber fanatic. My kids think I must have a deal with Under Armour. But I wear Nike’s Dri-FIT too. This stuff keeps my either warm or cool, depending on the need of the day. Most importantly, it doesn’t soak up moisture. Having several layers of shirts or pants allows for easy adjustments. Besides, it means that you don’t have to bring a bulky coat.

At the end of the day, the goal is not to look like a model in a Simms or Cabela’s catalog. It’s to stay warm or cool, and always dry. Yes, the right gear can make or break your day on the river. Believe me, even a Winston doesn’t cast well when your hand is numb with cold or your body is shivering because you’re soaked with rain water.