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.