Mah-jongg Zoom sessions, online meditation led by her rabbi, and socially distanced weekday walks with friends from the neighborhood are among the many ways Rebecca Smigel, a retiree in Montgomery County, Maryland, has stayed “stimulated and moving” during the long months of the ongoing pandemic.

And, says Smigel, this winter has seen her socializing outdoors more than ever before.

“Nobody is coming into my house, and I’m not going into theirs,” she says. “But I’m making more effort to connect with people and to be outside this year.”

Key to enjoying those moments, she says, is keeping warm.

With the holidays behind us but several chilly months still ahead, here are a few tips for staying as comfortable as possible while having outside — and distanced — gatherings with family and friends.

Layer for the occasion

Dressing warmly for being active in the great outdoors during winter is a slightly different animal than dressing for outdoor socializing (where you won’t have the exercise to warm you up), but you can expect to deploy many of the same principles, including layering properly for the occasion.

The first thing you’ll want to put next to your skin before heading out into the elements is a good base layer, says Palmer West, cofounder of Aether, a maker of technical outerwear. And synthetic materials and merino wool blends are both good options.

“The correct way to wear base layers is directly against your skin,” he says. “A lot of people make the mistake of wearing a tee shirt under a base layer because they worry about scratchiness. But you have to wear it against your skin so it interacts with your body heat and keeps you warm.”

West says natural fibers like wool are considered the superior base layer, since they’re antimicrobial and don’t retain odors. But they “only reach a certain temperature before they start to breathe.” So people who are especially sensitive to sitting outside in the cold might consider opting for a base layer made from synthetic polyester instead.

After your base layer comes an insulation layer, says Jen Karr-Lee, who manages outdoor retailer REI’s digital community. “This can be synthetic or down, and helps add heat when you’re not moving,” she says.

Finally, on top of the insulation layer goes an outer layer, which Karr-Lee says is “typically a waterproof, breathable shell that can keep wind and weather out. If you’re sitting around in the cold, the system helps your body stay warm.”

Unless you’re handling snow or getting your hands wet, a good pair of wool gloves or mittens should keep you warm and dry while you’re sipping a drink in cold conditions.

Add a cozy hat and a warming neck gaiter (which doubles as an extra layer atop your face mask these days) and you’ve got your upper body covered.

The lower half of your body should stay warm with just a base layer and an outer shell. Down-insulated pants (they look like puffer jackets for your legs) have become popular the last few seasons. They come in goose and duck down as well as synthetic varieties, and they’re available from high-end brands like the North Face and from less expensive retailers on Amazon.

Whatever you do when you’re sitting around outside in winter weather, don’t neglect your feet, says Karr-Lee, who recommends shopping for insulated boots big enough to also accommodate a good of pair of socks.

“Moving around every so often is also helpful to keep blood-flow moving,” she says.

If you’ve already got a favorite pair of winter boots in the closet, consider lining them with Thinsulate (it retains warmth while wicking away moisture) or with felt or wool liners for extra protection from the elements.

Set the stage

Now that you’re properly dressed to go outside, set your sights on where you’re gathering and how to make it as inviting and safe as possible.

“If there are already chairs or benches to sit on, we recommend adding a layer of padding,” says Kar-lee, who suggests using a sleeping pad like the ones used for camping or a sit pad. “What makes this different from just using a cushion is that they have an added layer of insulation to prevent the cold from touching your body.”

A camping or sit pad can also be used to keep you warmer atop a lawn chair. Before your guests arrive, make sure the chairs or benches are positioned so that non-immediate house members can relax at least six feet apart.

Jeremy Potvin, 50, who lives in Toronto, invested in a propane heater this winter (think of the lamplike ones you see used outdoors at restaurants in cooler temperatures) to make socially distanced backyard gatherings more comfortable for his family and friends.

“Now the neighbors bring a tank of propane when they visit instead of a bottle of wine,” he says, adding that while the heaters can tear through the fuel quickly, they’re worth it for the level of comfort they add to being outside in the cold.

Having a stack of dedicated outdoor blankets handy for your guests to wrap up in is another good tip for hosting winter outdoor gatherings, says Potvin (or ask your guests to BYOB — as in blanket).

There’s plenty of inspiration to be taken from hotels this winter, too, as they find new ways to keep their guests warm at open-air restaurants and other outdoor settings.

“We’ve installed plexiglass to help block the wind, and put a lot of firepits around the pool area this year to create warmth,” says Robert Purdy, general manager of the Viceroy Snowmass in Colorado.

If you have the space in your yard, multiple firepits can keep things extra cozy for your own outdoor gatherings this winter, too.

Don’t forget the accessories

Stephanie Wilson, director of hospitality at the Vista Verdi Guest Ranch in Colorado, says she never sends her kids out skiing without hand warmers. It’s a tactic she suggests to guests, too, to make outdoor socializing more comfortable.

Keeping a hot drink handy is another way to stay warm while hanging out outside, she says.

“If you’re walking out somewhere with a friend or just meeting up on your deck, have everyone BYO a thermos — or you can even make a thermos with a hot drink for each person,” she suggests.

And remember, socializing outdoors doesn’t mean you have to stay out in the cold for hours, says Wilson.

“Meet up with your friends for an hour, have a good time and go to bed.”

As for Smigel, she says she’ll be donning her ankle-length puffer jacket and bringing her own chair, drinks and food to meet with friends in their neighborhood cul-de-sac whenever they can make it happen this winter.

“People just want to get outside and get together,” she says.



Article written by Terry Ward for AARP.org

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