Dressing for cold, it seems, is a complete mystery for many. It all really boils down to a few basic scientific principles. While we don’t need to get all geeky about it, one can learn to dress properly to handle nearly any level of cold and be as comfortable as possible without much hassle and expense.
I spent much of my life working and playing outdoors in Minnesota/Wisconsin winters, all day long at temps well below zero, occasionally dipping below -30℉ with wind chills past -100℉. Here is what it taught me.
When it comes to layering, there are 3 distinct zones: Wicking, Insulating and Shell. These are comprised of hydrophilic (water-loving) or hydrophobic (water-hating) materials, depending upon their purpose. Most common among those materials are polypropylene, wool and nylon, plus technical barriers such as Gore-Tex. Aside from the outer surface of your Carhartts, the only place cotton belongs is on your handkerchief to wipe your snotty nose.
When dressing for cold, the most common mistake is to focus solely upon the cold outside, ignoring all the moisture inside. Yes, baby, it’s cold outside those clothes, but a lot of energy is required to keep water (sweat) warm; energy which could be spent keeping you warm, instead.
In an ideal system, layers work as a conveyor belt, moving all the moisture you produce – and you always produce moisture – further and further away from the skin until it reaches the outside air to be whisked away. When you layer effectively and remain dry, both fuel and insulation requirements drop drastically and increasing mobility and dexterity, rather than walking around like this guy, unable to do much of anything.
Type: single layer
Materials: lightweight/thin polypropylene, silk or wool (preferably not wool. it’s itchy.)
Purpose: transporting (and keeping) the moisture away
That’s all it needs to do and the better it accomplishes this function, the warmer you will remain.
Type: single or multiple laters as needs dictate
Materials: polypropylene or wool
Purpose: keeping the heat in
Putting as much air as possible between you and the elements. However, in order to retain mobility and dexterity, there is an obvious limit to the volume of insulating layers one can wear. Dressed properly, you’ll find you honestly don’t need nearly as much as you would otherwise have believed.
Type: Single Layer
Purpose: keeping the elements out
Materials: various fabrics, plus various coatings, laminates and membranes, depending upon activity. Ideally, windproof and waterproof.
Shell layers provide your barrier to the elements and battle your two worst enemies: temperature and moisture. However, some activities demand attention to abrasion, cuts, etc and some concessions must be made. For heavy outdoor labor, cotton duck, denim or wool often comprises the outer layer while for snow sports, higher-technology fabrics such as nylon laminates and shells with floating black label Gore-Tex can be utilized.
How to Dress
Dressing is pretty simple. You’re doing essentially the same thing from head to toe: 3 layers. However, when it comes to the head, hands and feet, those layers are often combined in many products we buy. Gloves, for example, may be lined with polypropylene, have an insulating layer, a waterproof/breathable membrane and a shell layer, all stitched together. That’s great, except it can still be improved upon by adding an extra wicking layer beneath: one that you can swap out for yet another dry layer as needed. This is particularly evident in and appropriate for glove and sock liners. They’re cheap and a dry pair halfway through your day will make a huge difference in comfort.
You’ve probably noticed that aside from your brain (which is nearly all fat) you have very little fat on your head, which means you have almost zero insulation. In fact, you lose over 50% of your body heat through your head. Failure to insulate it is like leaving the front door wide open in the dead of winter: no matter what you do elsewhere, the house is bound to be bitterly cold.
Conversely, proper attire on the head reduces the insulation requirements for the rest of the body by a spectacular amount. You can, in fact, be fairly comfortable at freezing temperatures, provided you have a warm hat on, because you more than double the heat energy available to the rest of your body.
Hats come in many shapes and with varying levels of coverage. As you’ll see below, though, your hat will become a choice. Hat usage is simple: when you’re cold, you wear it. When you’re warm, you still wear it. When you’re overheating, you take it off for a few minutes to cool down, then you put it back on.
The head isn’t only about a hat. There’s a whole bunch of naked space left over. Due to this, your two best friends are:
Freezing your ass off sucks. This is your blankie.
(Greek, for “Holy $%& is this thing warm. I don’t know how I ever lived without it!”)
The balaclava is like hiding under the covers on a cold morning. It’s awesome. Plus, you look like a ninja, which is even more awesome. Because seriously, how often do you get the opportunity to dress like a ninja?
Depending upon the activity level and the temperature, you can wear the hat, the neck warmer, the balaclava or any combination of the above. In extreme cold and at very sedentary activity levels (sitting motionless 40 feet up in a tree for 12 hours, waiting for a deer to wander past) I even wear all three. Bring them all along and mix and match as needs dictate.
My favorite brand for keeping the melon happy is the originator of the neck warmer, Turtle Fur. It’s not cheapest, but it is by far the softest and most comfortable. Or, as my old ski bum buddy Ray used to say, “ It’s like nuzzling a rabbit’s ass on a cold night.”
You can get the same amount of insulation from products costing less. It is simply softer on the face. One feel and I’m sure you’ll agree that it was well worth an extra $5. You don’t really need to swap these out at lunchtime; just spin the wet side you’ve been breathing through to the back, so you have a fresh, warm dry spot on the face.
Types of wicking layers are plentiful. Some of them, however, are crap. That old cotton stuff your dad used to wear with al the little dimples? Yeah, don’t use that for anything but a fashion piece, because it’s just plain awful. They still make it; they still sell it, but it really should be reserved for Grunge Day at school. Cotton is great at the hydrophilc part: sucking up water. The problem is, it will not let go of it! It holds all the water against the skin, where it doesn’t belong. Basically, the polar opposite of what a wicking layer is supposed to be doing; moving it away from the skin. You want polypropylene, silk or in a pinch, wool… although nobody ever rambled on about the comfort of wool. Itchy stuff. Save it for insulating. It’s good at that.
Polypropylene or wool. Each is good. Fleece is cheap and plentiful. Wool is rich and practical. Wear one layer or as many as you see fit. It’s all about air space. Whatever traps the most air will be the most warm. Reminder: this is your thermostat. Add or remove insulating layers as necessary, but keep the wicking and shell layers on.
There’s no shortage of shell technology available, from old school cotton duck and wool to ballistic nylon over Black Label Gore-Tex: you can actually stand under a shower head for an hour with that stuff and not a drop will get through. While every company out there is looking for the newest, latest shell fabric technology, there are basically two ways to make one: you either have a windproof, waterproof membrane (like Gore-Tex) or you have a coating to the shell fabric itself. If you’re going to invest in a membrane, be sure it has sealed seams. there’s absolutely no sense in buying a fancy tent when all the seams leak like a sieve.
In addition to waterproofness, breathability is absolutely critical: if the fabric doesn’t breathe, you may as well be wearing a plastic garbage bag. It’ll be a damned rainforest inside that shell and you already know what we said about moisture wasting heat energy.
Which fabric you choose depends upon your activity. If you are on a mountaintop without windproof shell, you’re a fool. If you really think you need a windproof, waterproof shell in order to work in a barn, you’re also a fool. One requires more focus on windproofing and waterproofing, while the other requires more focus on breathability and when it comes to fabric technology, you don’t get to have your cake and eat it, too – more windproof = less breathable* – so choose the right tool for the job.
[*Gore-Tex and other high-tech membranes and coatings do minimize the sacrifices made between windproofness/waterproofness and breathability, but do not eliminate them. Any windproof or waterproof fabric is not going to be as breathable. Period. For cold work in sheltered areas, cotton duck and wool are ideal.]
Your handwear will be dictated by what you need to do with your hands. If you’re doing nothing with your hands, then mittens will be best. However, if you’re working a lot with your hands, gloves – even thin gloves – may be required.
what is necessary and make up for it with additional insulation in other areas of the body. No matter what you choose for handwear, wearing polypro glove liners under it is always optimal.
Wear handwear that is warm enough
handwear that is too
warm. The more excessive insulation you have, the more sweat becomes an issue and sweat makes you cold. More isn’t better; it’s just more.
Keeping feet warm is among your greatest challenges for a few reasons:
- they’re furthest from your heart
- they’re in physical contact with a cold surface, causing conductive heat loss
- they may be in contact with water or snow and require waterproofness, reducing breathability
However, adding insulation to the feet isn’t the only answer; ensuring that the rest of the body is well-insulated is the answer, as this provides plenty of heat energy (and warmer blood) for the feet to use.
What to wear
Synthetic wicking materials like polypropylene and CoolMax® to enhance moisture-wicking performance.
Wool is the most popular natural sock material. It is warm, cushioning and retains warmth, even when wet. While older ragg wools could be scratchy next to your skin, newer merino wools are itch-free. Most wool socks use blends of wool and synthetic materials for better durability and faster drying.
Synthetic insulating materials:
made materials are designed to insulate like wool and wick moisture. These materials (Hollofil®, Thermax®, Thermastat®) trap warmth like wool, but dry more quickly and are more abrasion resistant.
Silk: A natural insulator, silk is comfortable and lightweight, but not as durable as other options. It’s occasionally used in sock liners for reliable moisture wicking.
Here is another area in which people literally shoot themselves in the foot. Your footwear should only be waterproof to the degree to which you will be subject to getting wet feet. Never more so. Breathability and insulation is what keeps feet warm and dry. Do not wrap your feet in plastic or other such nonsense; they’ll be freezing cold.
Choose footwear that provides the amount of insulation you actually need, not the most insulation you can possibly find. Wearing a boot rated for -30 when it’s actually 32 degree above zero is a terrible choice. You’ll have cold, wet, sweaty feet. At warmer temps you just don’t need that much insulation; you need to breathe.
The Footwear Spectrum
I own all the boots below and have worn them in extreme cold for various purposes: laboring, ice-fishing, hunting, winter camping, you name it.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, but just because a bunch of twits turn a highly functional item into a fashion icon, doesn’t detract one bit from its function. Hell, I own Uggs that are even older than Snookie.
They originated as after-surf boots, but they are damn good apres-ski boots and highly functional in extreme cold, particularly when you’re not moving around much. Seriously, what is warmer than an inside-out sheep? In the ski biz, I was the midwest Ugg rep for years and goofy as they may seem, there’s a hell of a lot of utility to them.
I’ve worn nothing but thin sock liners and a pair of Uggs at -30℉ actual (>-50 windchill) for a dozen or more hours outdoors, day after day and my feet remained toasty warm. Why? Because they were dry and they could breathe. Only if you’re subject to water coming in from the outside (including melting snow) should you begin to consider waterproof boots. Otherwise, you’re tossing away breathability without the utility. If you’re in and out of the cold, be sure to get the snow off your boots before going inside so it doesn’t melt and soak your footwear. If you’re in any danger of getting your boots wet, do not wear these. They suck in the puddles and slush. Save them for throwing on once you get indoors. That said, if they should accidentally get wet, they do insulate so well that your feet remain tolerably comfortable, albeit wet and cool, until you can dry them out again.
Mucks are neoprene. They don’t breathe well. However, they are completely waterproof, lightweight and warm and they clean up easily. A few years ago I switched from my ridiculously expensive Black Label Gore-Tex and leather hunting boots to a pair of Mucks and am most thankful that I did. They’re light as feathers in comparison, waterproof to the top and are terrible at conducting cold. Fantastic boots. Where don’t they shine? Ankle support. While they’re warm and light, these aren’t your new mountaineering boots.
The Sherman Tank of cold weather boots is the Sorel pac boot. This one does it all. It’s considerably heavier than a Muck and has a removable insulting liner (for drying overnight.) It’s not perfect, but it’s a damn good all-around choice, with waterproof lowers and some (but not a lot) of ankle support in the uppers. You’ll find this on more snowy feet than any other boot, and for good reason. While it isn’t perfect in any specific area – weight, support, waterproofing, breathability or insulation – it does provide the best balance between them all. Can’t go wrong. (There are steel-toed versions available too, from some manufacturers. I picked up a pair in northern Alberta one winter and although heavy, they’re great for keeping the feet warm and intact when the toes are in jeopardy.)
Mickey Mouse Boots:
Here is a rare example of where going to extremes actually works. Mickey Mouse boots – a military boot – don’t breathe at all. In fact, your feet get soaking wet.
However, they put so very much air space between you and the cold (note the inflation valve) that it doesn’t even matter. Whatever sweat your feet are swimming in (and they do) stays warm, too! They’d definitely keep you warm in extreme cold. Now all you have to worry about is trench foot. This boot is a good choice for some uses, but not all.
Overall, I find that the Muck boot provides the best balance between all the priorities. They come in a few different weights (thickness of neoprene) and I’d recommend them for nearly any use, save those for which they simply wouldn’t work: where one aspect of our activity demands that we sacrifice in other areas. Although I once won a giant slalom snowboard race in a pair of cowboy boots on a dare, it’d be silly to make a practice of using the wrong footwear for the job.
No matter what you do, you’re going to end up with exposed skin, at least occasionally. This is the best stuff on earth, so through away your sissy drug store balm and get with the program.
What does Dermatone do? Not only does it protect against chapping, but it also protects against sunburn, windburn and even frostbite. Does it come in tutti-frutti flavor? Hell no. It tastes like… well… Dermatone, but what it does for your skin – any exposed skin, from lips to nose to ear lobes – will more than make up for it. One tin and you’ll be hooked, guaranteed. Made by real Scandinavians, who know a thing or two about surviving the cold.
Yes, even your eyes can make a difference, particularly in wind/when under motion. Metal frames suck in the cold – they conduct heat – so stick to plastics. What you wear will be dictated by your type and level of activity. A sunglass without sufficient breathing room will fog much more easily. One with too much will make your peepers chilly.
Goggles are great, as long as you’re in motion. Mess around and you’ll figure out what works best.
Plus, snowblindness is a real thing. That glare is absolutely horrible for your eyeballs; far more so than summertime. Keep them under wraps, dawn to dusk.
What good is a well-insulated house without any fuel in the furnace? None. Perhaps the most overlooked part of keeping warm is an adjustment in the type and amount of food. When I work in the cold, I eat whatever the hell I want and lots of it. High-calorie and high-fat foods are not a problem here; they’re the solution. Working outdoors in the winter, it’s not uncommon for your daily caloric intake to double… and you’ll burn every bit of it. Whether you’re hungry or not, eat.
[note: this is for people who are actually outside in the cold all day, every day. If you merely visit the cold, eating a bunch more calories will only keep you warmer by adding a few inches of fat to your body, requiring you to buy even larger winter clothing.]
People like to think money solves problems. While it sure does give you a lot more options, throwing lots of money at the problem isn’t going to solve it; you still have to know how. A $15 balaclava, a $10 neck gaiter and some $5 glove and sock liners can save you $100 off your euro-tech parka and you’ll be even warmer. A $200 North Face fleece isn’t one bit warmer than a $30 one. You know what all that fleece is made from? Same plastic as your soda and water bottles you’re tossing in the garbage. So go nuts on the brands if you like, but do keep in mind that all you’re gaining is a label and better craftsmanship; not much in the area of insulation.
Point is, this stuff doesn’t have to be expensive. You can get most of it at Goodwill if you choose. Don’t think you’re going to be a whole lot warmer by paying a lot more money; you aren’t. Dress smart and spend the extra money in the areas you choose to.
While following the guidelines above won’t make you nearly as happy as laying on a beach in the Caribbean, it can make even the coldest of winters not only tolerable, but pleasant.