Three Letters Re: Here Comes Winter!

Hello JWR,
In reply to LRM in Perth on winter gear, I agree with the idea of layering, and using the outer layers to create a waterproof and windproof shell. I disagree that cotton is the fabric of choice to do it.

If your activities are mostly sedentary, I think the cotton might work alright, as it is breathable, and you’re not perspiring much. However, if you are engaged in a physical activity, such as patrolling, doing chores, etc, you will need to both shed outer layers, and have a good hydrophobic fabric to pass the moisture created by perspiration.

My layering system, which I use for cross country skiing and winter camping, includes a base layer of a polypropylene set of long underwear, a fleece jacket or sweatshirt, a synthetic fill jacket, and a lightweight Gore-tex shell. For pants I have fleece pants over a light-weight Gore-tex shell. The advantage to this system is that I can shed layers as needed. When cross country skiing I regularly use only the long underwear and the shell, and quickly add the fleece when I stop.

In a system with high exertion or cardiovascular activity, cotton will soak quickly, and the fabric loses its insulation capabilities. In these cases, adding more layers may not be beneficial, as the water trapped in the cotton fabric is aiding the heat transfer from your body to the outside air.

So, that in mind, wisely choose your winter gear, and be sure to choose application appropriate things. I worked at a camping gear store for several years, and can say that your local camping stores are probably a wealth of knowledge in suitable outdoor gear. Go, ask questions, and learn what the products do. From there, you have the knowledge to choose what gear you may need. Whether it be consumer intent winter gear, or paramilitary intent gear, you’ll have the knowledge of what materials and systems to look for. In my case, my winter gear has all remained the same, but I invested in a winter camouflage pattern Gore-tex shell to keep my consumer-intent layering system dry. – DJ in Michigan

I was a little confused to see the reader who posted that he prefers and recommends cotton clothing as the base layer in a cold weather situation. Especially the mention of jean pants. Under mild conditions and little exertion this may be ok, but cotton materials and especially jean fabric are very poor insulators when damp, which can happen quickly during even the slightest physical activity. The real downside to cotton fibers is once they are damp or wet they take a much longer time to dry out. And if they are sitting against your skin and they are damp it will actually suck body heat from you. Having spent many years in the frozen New England winters and with thousands of hours camping in the the middle of winter (thanks to my Scoutmaster who was determined to camp in all 12 months of the year who by the way was also my Father) I can tell you with certainty that today’s polypropylene or other synthetics are not only more comfortable but are easier to care for, last longer, and increase your ability to retain heat. IMHO the reader should try some of the new products and see what a difference they can make.
Sincerely, – Jason C.



I appreciate the work you do each day in bringing us all to a higher level of knowledge through your blog. It is great stuff. So thank you!I am writing because I feel the need to add more to, and somewhat rebut, a posting on some advice provided by Chris G. on the Monday August 3 posting regarding winter clothing.

Good things mentioned in the posting:

1. You definitely want to wear multiple layers, no question

2. Your layers should include insulating layers beneath, with water and wind proof outer layers.

However, I find the recommendation for the under layers being “cotton” to be a very dangerous suggestion. Why you ask? Here are my thoughts on the matter…

I would first start with the question of “What is my intended activity in said winter weather?”

Reasoning: Cotton may be fine if in your intended winter activity you have no possibility of getting wet. Getting wet? Well, I have a waterproof outer layer you say – so I’m safe. Well, what if you were to fall through some ice, or get some snow shoved down/up your snowsuit after taking a spill on your snowmobile? Even if those are remote possibilities for you, the more important question is if your activity will involve anything that may cause you to perspire. Cotton may be fine if you are doing non-active work, play, or travel (non-cardio types of activities) and can thus stay dry and warm. Cotton is indeed very comfortable, no doubt. But please also think about your own perspiration.

Has anyone heard the phrase “Cotton Kills [in the cold]”? Hopefully so…

If you think you may be doing anything active, where you may sweat, think again about your under layers and if you want to be wearing cotton. The number one problem with cotton includes the fact that when it gets wet, it can and will stay wet for a very long time. Due to the fiber makeup of cotton threads themselves, cotton will absorb water, causing the fabric to quickly lose its ability to insulate when wet. Think about your sweat, your own perspiration – it is a hidden danger that some do not consider. Moisture against your body will sap body heat from you. You want to avoid any possibility of such as it may lead to hypothermia. Cotton also gets very heavy when wet.

Therefore, it is my recommendation that under layers should be synthetic or wool, with my preference being synthetic. Both of these materials will maintain their insulating qualities when wet – with synthetic being the one that is usually easier to “wring out” if ever wet, and wool being the fabric that will absorb some moisture. As synthetics never absorb the moisture, you avoid it becoming heavy with water. Some synthetic insulation such as polyester fleece is very comfortable and lightweight (Try Patagonia’s Capilene, or other similar outdoor recreation brands – very comfortable). If properly layered with an outer wind and water proof blocking layer, it is very effective insulation.

Synthetics such as polar fleece also have a great warmth to weight ratio, wet or dry, which can also allow you to carry more clothing in your pack from a weight perspective as you bug out of town. Some may be a little bulky – but they are lightweight bulk.

In the end – wouldn’t you just rather be prepared with synthetic winter clothing at all times? to be ready for any and all situations, active or non-active, and not risk being caught dead in cotton clothing?

Just a few thoughts from another Idaho outdoorsman/recreationalist. Keep up the great work JWR! – Kind regards, – D.R.