What is it?When we go out into the elements these days, we often only think of it in short bursts. Running to the car, heading into work or a shop, checking the mail. Sometimes we're out for an hour or so shoveling, working hard and keeping warm. But what if you have to walk some distance? Maybe your car stops on a back road, maybe you're snowed in, or maybe you want to get some exercise by taking a walk. Knowing how to dress for the weather will certainly make everything far more bearable! This becomes more vital when we look at things like skiing or (for those of us slightly off our rocker) winter camping.
Why do it?You don't want to freeze, do you? ;) Seriously, this is an area I think is getting lost as we spend less time outdoors. There was a time when most people spent at least a little time outside each day, either tending to livestock, visiting the market, fetching water, or any number of other tasks. In our age of central heating and warm automobiles, fleece jackets, and indoor entertainment, we often feel like we can best Mother Nature. All too quickly we can learn how wrong we are. Frostbite is certainly the first thing people think about, but hypothermia is a far more insidious threat, and one that can lead to lethargy, unconsciousness, and death. Good reasons to bundle up!
How did I learn it?Yep, you guessed it - Boy Scouts. This blog sometimes reads like an add for the BSA, but it remains a great place for the passing of practical skills to boys and young men. The Girl Scouts could be similar (and in some troops, is) though I fear they too often focus on "feminine" skills to the exclusion of outdoor skills. Of course, the popularity of these and other outdoor organizations has waned in popularity amongst the youth amidst other options, so many of these skills are ones we need to pick up as adults.
As a Scout, I was fortunate that my Troop had a very motivated Scoutmaster. He was of the firm opinion that we should do an outdoor event each month, including the winter months. Additionally, our council held a "Klondike Derby" which required outdoor camping and practice of skills. The base of all this was, of course, staying warm!
How do you learn it?I'll provide you some key points, though I think there is some variation from person to person. We each have our own unique make-up and chemistry that will change what we might feel comfortable wearing. My wife is always colder than I am, so when and how much she wears is certainly different from my choices, though I feel the basics remain the same. Experiment, but do so wisely! Cold related injuries are some of the worst, and also some of the easiest to come by. When cold moves to pain, GET WARM FAST. If it moves to no longer being cold, it might be too late to save things like toes and fingers, or worse yet, your life. Don't mess around with this. Seriously, try it out near home, spending an hour or so out in your yard when you can move back inside if you get cold. Sledding, winter walks, snowshoeing, and skiing at a commercial slope are good ways to test out your gear before doing something like a weekend long camping trip.
Of course, everything here is my opinion and should not be taken as scientific fact. I hold no responsibility if your toes fall off.
Materials - In this age of microfibers and nylon, there is an understandable urge to use the "latest and greatest" out there. I can sympathize and have, more than once, jumped on the wagon myself. However, after many years, many materials, and lots of exposure, I have yet to find anything that beats wool. Wool is natures miracle fiber, especially in winter. It will help absorb moisture, yet has a level of water resistance even after all the natural lanolin has been removed. More importantly on the cold front, it can keep you warm even when completely soaked! This benefit cannot be overstated and has yet, to my knowledge, to be duplicated by modern materials. Of course, when wet, wool becomes heavy, but heavy is better than dead, and avoiding it getting wet in the first place certainly helps.
That leads, quite naturally, to staying dry. Often winter equals snow, at least in may areas, and if not snow, ice and rain. This is where modern technology shines. Fabrics like GoreTex and its "descendants" provide a mostly waterproof barrier that greatly reduces the chances of you getting wet. I say mostly as seams are a weak point in any waterproof clothing. Proper care and taping helps considerably, as do treatments (which we'll talk about in a minute) but be aware anything can wear down. I prefer GoreTex and the like to things like PVC and vinyl as GoreTex will allow moisture to escape your body without allowing it in. Thus, when you work hard, some of the excess heat and sweat can get out, while PVC rainsuits keep that in and result in your being wet from the inside instead of the outside. Using a light GoreTex style outer layer will help keep the under layers dry and doing their job.
Additionally, waterproof garments tend to be windproof. Wind can kill really quickly, which is why folks make such a big deal out of windchill at this time of year. That's because the wind will blow all the warmth right out of you, no mater how many layers you might wear. Wool does provide some wind protection, depending on the weave, but a good windproof outer garment will do wonders to keep your body warming itself up.
There are other places for modern fabrics, like wicking undergarments, which I'll touch on in a bit. Fleece is another one that I do utilize, though normally in coordination with others. Fleece is light, somewhat water repellent, and great insulation. I prefer thinner fleeces as they don't cause you to overheat as fast and are easy to remove, though I tend to limit it to one layer that can be removed, as we'll discuss below.
The one fabric I almost entirely avoid is cotton. There is an old saying that "Cotton kills", and while that may be an oversimplification, it isn't off the mark. Cotton is fabulous in warmer weather and I certainly wear my share of it in the winter. I have flannel lined jeans I'll wear for going to work, clearing off the car, or hanging around the house. However, if I intend to spend more than 15 minutes outside, except on the driest days, the cotton stays in the house. Cotton absorbs water very well, as evidenced by it's heavy use in things like towels and cotton balls. Once it has that water, it is reluctant to give it up and becomes very heavy, more so than a similar weight wool, yet it no longer insulates. In fact, it becomes a channel to cool your body off very quickly! Please, leave the jeans inside when you're spending any time outdoors in the winter.
Layers - Your mother always told you to dress in layers, and with good reason. Not only do layers allow you to vary how much you are wearing at any point in time, they also create additional pockets of air that help insulate. As odd as it sounds, air is really what is keeping you warm, whether it is the air trapped between fibers of something like wool pants or the air between that long underwear and your long sleeve shirt. Your body heats that air up and the layers keep it trapped inside. See, your mom was right, even if you found it annoying.
I prefer multiple small layers. While I have my heavy-duty winter coat (a blanket-weight wool trench coat, actually), if I'm spending a lot of time outdoors, it isn't what I grab. Instead, I dress in numerous lighter layers. These allow me to not only stay warm, but if I start to sweat, I can take a layer off keep from getting too drenched inside my clothes. I like to start with long johns (sometimes these are cotton, though I prefer silk or modern fibers) and build out. Consider using vests or short sleeve shirts (again, close to the body and less likely to get wet) as you'll find that keeping your chest warm is fairly critical. Arms and legs are a little more used to being cold, so can often do with a little less cover than your torso can. Additionally, you'll restrict your movement less in this manner. This is one of the places I will often wear fleece, in the form of a vest, though I recently picked up a wool vest that I absolutely love and now tend to grab first. Build outward and figure out how many layers you personally need. For me, the number is about 4-6 on my torso, 3-4 on my arms, and 2-4 on my legs, depending on what I'm going to be doing and how cold it is. It sounds like a lot, but with thinner layers it's actually pretty easy to do and still move around.
Hands and feet - The areas that, arguably, are in the greatest danger are those furthest away from your torso. When you hear about frostbite cases, it is invariably in the toes or fingers. When I mentioned cold turning to pain earlier, this is where you're most likely to feel it (or possibly the tip of your nose, but we'll get there). Everything listed above about materials and even layers applies here as well. First, the fingers.
Gloves seem like a given, but not all gloves are created equal! In fact, if you look at the cultures that have faced the most extreme cold, you will see that very few of them actually use (or used) gloves very often. The mitten is the preferred winter hand garment. This is because it puts all your fingers in one place to share warmth. Of course, we now feel the need for fingers to do detailed work, but being honest there is so little we need our fingers free for while outdoors. Yes, when driving a car we might find it more convenient, or doing something like building a fire it becomes easier with our fingers free, but consider whether you'll be doing short (under a minute) tasks with your finger where it might not be better to have a mitten that you take off then put back on, allowing your fingers to warm each other.
It might also make sense to wear a thing glove liner under a pair of mittens, or look at some of the mitten/glove combination. I prefer the fingerless style myself as my fingers share more warmth that way and I get greater manipulation. If you do wear gloves, be picky, read reviews, and make sure there's a little extra room in there for that all important air. Skintight gloves might be nice for driving, but they're really just a barrier between you and the cold steering wheel. They won't keep your hands warm for long outdoors. Of course, an outside layer that is waterproof is great when it's wet or snowy, so factor that in as well.
Your feet are often a bigger problem. Honestly, if your fingers get cold, you can tuck them inside your coat, under your arm pits, or in your pants if need be (yes, it might seem a bit vulgar, but keeping your fingers takes precedence over propriety, in my opinion). Your feet spend all their time far away from your core and are tough to tuck under your arms unless you're very flexible. Now we're in the realm of boots, which can be a bit of a minefield in which to tread. Let's go down the path I've followed before.
For an outer shell, I prefer leather, though I think some great work has been done on the combination leather/fabric boots in recent years. This is partially a care factor for me as I only have to think of one type of treatment. There are sprays designed to work on both, so this is really a preference point. Leather has a lot of give and flexibility that allows you to move over rough terrain, it can be fairly well waterproofed, and does provide a slight barrier to the cold. Your only other real option is rubber, which I find works well for short periods outside but isn't giving enough for anything more than tromping through the snow. Additionally, without insulation, rubber gets cold really quickly. Conversely, it traps moisture more than leather and can end up soaking your feet in your own sweat.
When it comes to what's below the boot's shell, there are really only 2 things to consider here - insulation and waterproofing. Waterproofing may seem an odd thing to mention as we've already talked about the outer layer, but many boots now come with a GoreTex (or similar) inner liner. This is added protection and I find it worth the extra cost. I consider it insurance on keeping my feet dry, and I get cranky when my feet are wet. Insulation works much like other areas we've talked about above. Better to have a thin layer in the boot with additional layers underneath than one really thick one. If you're just wearing it out to clear some snow, this isn't a big deal, but more than an hour or so and it's nice to have the option to remove or add more if needed. Additionally, too much insulation tends to lead to a stiffer boot.
We have to wear something between the boot and our toes, and that something is socks. I am a fan, not surprisingly, of wool socks and actually wear them year round. There are a variety available, many with modern materials incorporated to add stretch and make them more washer friendly. Consider wearing more than one as well, possibly a thinner sock with a thicker one over top. This is something to consider when buying your boot, too, as you don't want something that is too tight. Tight boots will cause cold spots on your feet, so wear your extra socks when you go to try your boots on at the store.
Topping it all off - By far the most important thing to do is cover your head. The vast majority of body heat (between 70-85%, depending on where you look) escapes through your head, so capturing that is critical. Consider as well that your nose, chin, lips, and neck are hanging out there as well. For moderately cold days without a lot of wind or wet, I will use a knit or fleece hat that is easy to remove and tuck away if I get too warm. This is one layer you can always quickly remove for some quick cooling down while exerting yourself. If I'm camping, I prefer a thick hat (I have a great fur one) that works well when not moving around a lot, and a thinner one for exertion. Having a waterproof hood to pull up is also great to have.
At times when it's really bitter, I'll add either a scarf or a balaclava to the mix. A few years ago I picked up a balaclava for motorcycling (I'll ride year round, though a lot less in the winter) that is windproof and amazing at keeping my nose and neck warm, even at 20 degrees and 75 mph. You can easily move it down to ease breathing if needed, though breathing through fabric isn't as bad as your brain tends to tell you. And for those of us with facial hair, it prevents the icicles that tend to form in mustaches!
What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?Take care of your gear and it will take care of you. I like to treat any new boots I get with waterproofing right after I get them, regardless of what the manufacturer did to them. Then I break them in (at least a week of heavy wear) and treat them again. Every few months, they get shined and treated, always with special attention to the seams. Waterproof outer garments get washed with a treatment like Tech Wash yearly or as needed. Follow wash and care instructions on garments, they're there for a reason (though I do wash all my wool, with Woolite, but I do not tumble dry).
Figure out your safety points and don't exceed them. Practice makes perfect, so don't rush out for a full weekend of winter camping without a few shorter outings to get a grip on what you can handle. Most of all, have fun!