Surviving The Cold, by The Other D.B.

Most of us take for granted the fact that if were cold we can find someplace warm to retreat to. In the event of a catastrophe that luxury is going to be one of the first things that goes by the wayside. Animals adapt to their environment or they perish, survival of the fittest. I’ve talked to a few folks that have a couple tons of food and ammo stashed that have never even thought about the clothes situation.  So, What can we do as smart animals to prepare for that day?

Unfortunately a lot of people have no clue at all how to dress themselves for cold and inclement weather. Usually we put on what we have that we think is the warmest and hope for the best. That is not going to work when there is no warm house to run to and warm up in! Get rained on and your sol. Yeah that nice brown popular work gear is great but at most it’s used 12 hours and then you have a chance to dry it and you out. Try spending a few days in it without drying it out and see how comfy you are!

The best way  to stay dry, warm, and comfortable is layers, and they have to be layers of the correct material. Cotton is pretty much useless for  staying warm. It holds moisture, does not breath well, and is not a very good insulator. Cotton is good for warm days and summer time, It’s cheap and easy to obtain. So don’t plan on getting any usable service out of any of your cotton clothes in the winter.

The fundamental key of staying warm is to simply stay dry. Wet clothing dissipates body heat at a phenomenal rate. The saying  “If your wet your dead” in the winter is pretty self explanatory.  So in order to stay dry we need to fist keep the moisture and sweat our bodies produce away from our skin.  We do this by our base layer. It is clothing that is designed to allow moisture to pass through it without absorbing it. One of the early forms of this is silk. Yes, that luxurious cloth does have some functional value! Silk is expensive, and is not very stretchy or conforming. Silk blends however are very conducive to  functional base layers! I’ve found silk base layers to be functional and comfortable but they don’t seem to be as durable as I’d like.   Just as effective and more affordably priced, and more durable, are base layers made from polypropylene and the like. There are a variety of manufactures out there that each have their own magic blend so shop around. Just keep in mind the intended function of the base layer is to keep you dry, not to keep you warm.  As a side note there is “base layer “ underwear available from a variety of manufactures. This extends the wear time of your pants and tops base layers by letting you change your skivvies once a day or so… One key to look for on your base layers are pants and tops that are large enough to cover your lower back with no gaps. And they need to do this in all positions so bend over twist lift your legs up do some PT and make sure they don’t work their way down or up. FYI, women’s bottoms seem to ride a bit higher than men’s on the backside. Your base layer needs to fit like a second skin, skin tight is what you want. This prevents it from working and moving around and bunching up in places.

So now that we have a good moisture wicking base layer on lets talk about the insulation layers. Again, anything cotton is useless so don’t bother, even a cotton T-shirt can cause you problems. The old standby for insulation is good old wool. It’s plentiful, and has some insulation value even when wet. The cons are it’s itchy, and tends to be heavy. Luckily technology has provided us with a cheap and extremely effective material called fleece. Fleece is a form of spun plastic, often times made from recycled plastic bottles. It’s extremely lightweight, durable, available in varying densities and thickness, and is just plain comfortable. It dries quickly and does not hold water well so it even maintains some insulation value when it’s wet! About the only negative I can think of is the fact it tends to melt quickly around fire so br extremely careful if you try drying it out over an open camp fire! Again the key is layers so throw on a couple layers of it depending on how cold it is outside and your activity level. You can also mix it up with a layer of fleece and then a wool sweater. Other options include fleece jackets and vests. These are handy as they usually have some pockets. Jackets and vests are good calls when it’s cold on sunny days when there is no wind or precipitation. Layer up, you can always take some off if your hot, or throw an extra layer in the pack and add it if your cold.

The last layer you should put on is your first layer of defense against the elements, and yes, you need to think of this as war against mother nature and all that she can bring because that is exactly what it is. If she wins you die, simple fact. This outer layer is your coat and bibs. Now I know you all think that you have plenty of coats and pants for winter so let me offer you a test. Put on your best coat and bibs /pants and stand outside and let someone hose you down with the garden hose for ten minutes ( obviously not spraying you directly in the face but pretty much everywhere else). Take your stuff off and see how dry you are. If your not completely dry then your gear is junk. Sorry but that $500 you spent on that hunting coat was more for the name and the funky camo pattern on it!

Your coat and pants/bibs needs to do two things, one it needs to let moisture out, and two it needs to keep any moisture on the outside on the outside. Lucky for us humans we’ve invented just such a material, Gore-Tex is the most popular, been time tested and proven, and is what I prefer. Not to say that there are not other materials out there that can’t do the same job. I just prefer to stick with what has worked in the past. The next technical feature you need to look for are taped and sealed seams on the jacket and pants. It will look similar to a good tent that is taped and sealed only it will be a much better job usually. This is an important feature as it actually makes the coat waterproof. No leaky seams that can leak water or air. You would be surprised at how much air can permeate the holes made by a sewing machine when it’s a 40 MPH wind! Another feature is a built-in hood, usually made from the same materiel as the coat. These typically roll up and stow in the collar of the jacket when not in use. The hood is a huge component to keeping you dry when it’s raining or snowing as it’s your “roof” to keep it out of your neck! It also provides a complete barrier from the top of your head to the bottom of the coat against wind, blowing snow and rain. Another must have feature is under arm zipper vents. These allow you to ‘vent’ heat during physical activity, even when it’s raining! So when you find yourself heating up you open the vents up. If you have a fleece jacket with under arm vents as well then the next step is to open them up. This allows you to quickly cool down without removing any insulation layers. If it’s not enough then you will need to shed the fleece jacket or a layer underneath it.  A good coat will also have a powder skirt, this is an elastic flap inside the coat that you snap together around your stomach before you zip up the coat. This is the sealing mechanism between your coat and bibs to keep out blowing wind and snow. Seems like a minor trivial thing, but it is very important. It keeps all the cold air from getting inside your jacket from the bottom and wasting your body heat. The cuffs will also have velcro sealing bands that allow you to seal the ends of the sleeves to the same end. The zipper should also have a full length closure flap / gusset for sealing off the zipper against wind and rain.  A good coat will also have a number of handy pockets here and there to stash your gloves and hats and what not. Do not get in the habit of using this space as stuff space for all the things you think you might be needing. Use these primarily for your jacket accessories, hats, gloves, glasses, face protectors and the like. You need to start thinking of the coat as an important survival tool, and the tool needs to be filled with all the things you need with it so when you grab it in a hurry and run your not forgetting anything. The best coat and bibs in the world are going to be useless if you forget your hat and gloves. Most coats have a couple inside pockets for a small sidearm or radio, but much of that needs to be on your pack or utility harness, not on or in your coat.

Snow pants or bibs, this is the question.
Snow pants are nice if your never going to bend over or fall down on your backside. Even if your sitting they tend to leave a gap at the back, and that is not good! So from my experience pants are pretty useless in long term winter exposure. Bibs are the way to go, they fit higher up around your back and chest, and have suspenders to keep them in place. You may not be the suspender type of person so let me explain why it’s so important. Suspenders allow you to adjust your bibs to the point that they are not bunching up in the crotch and choking you to death. This allows you to move your legs and your body in all positions very freely without stretching your bibs all out of proportion or even ripping them open. And no matter what position you find yourself in that spot on your lower back is always covered! The height of them also bridges over the seams between your top and bottom layers under it so all your seams are not in one place making things a lot more comfortable. The freedom of movement that bibs give you in normal circumstances is critical when you need to do things like run and jump a long distance or scale a rock face or jump off a vehicle quickly.

Another feature of bibs is they usually have zippers along the outside legs, this lets you vent excess heat like your coat does. There are fleece pants that also have zippers on the side as well for more ventilation options. The cuffs are also specially designed with an internal  cuff to seal out air and snow like the one inside the jacket. Cuffs should have adjustable velcro closures to allow different boot sizes as you may be wearing packs for snowshoes one day and the next you may have on cross country ski boots. Even if your home or in camp and have on work boots or something it’s important to have the option to seal them up to keep the draft out.  The zippers should also have closures over them like the coat.  Now most of us are accustomed to cargo pants pockets and may think that you need these in the snow pants. I’ve found plain no pocket snow pants is the way to go as they shed snow and rain much better. The other factor is that if your on snow shoes or cross country  skis the last thing you want is a bunch of stuff chaffing your legs back and forth every time you take a step. Stick it in your pack. Again, make sure the bibs are constructed of a breathable fabric such as Gore-tex.

The Hands:
Treat your hands the same way as your body, layers. Everyone seems to think that they need gloves as well. Sad truth of the matter is if it’s cold out there are no gloves that are going to keep your fingers warm and toasty very long. If you want them to stay warm and dry then use mittens for your outer layer. Now were not talking the knitted red ones grandma used to make, were talking full on technical gore-tex with leather or abrasion resistant palms and thumbs. They should also have nice long gauntlets with shock cord closures on the cuffs to seal them up over your coat. Your also hook those cords to your coat sleeves so you don’t loose your mitts when you pop them off to do something. What works best is a good wicking base layer glove, these are really thin, and offer little or insulation value. On top of that you can place a fleece glove for insulation. Best to have a selection of different weight fleece gloves for different activity levels and conditions. Fleece gloves with leather palms and reinforcing are nice as you can shed your mitts quick and then have the dexterity to use your fingers. The leather give some protection against them getting wet when you grab things. For those really cold days a thick pair of fleece mittens that fit inside the liners will be warranted, and much appreciated by your fingers. Now the top layer mitts are not going to fit tight, probably even when you have the thick fleece mitts on, this is no reason for concern as they were intended to work that way! Ice Climbing and mountaineering are by far the best type of gloves to get. If your going to go cheap on something don’t let it be hand protection….

Now for the head. We all know that our heads radiate and disperse heat more than any other part of our body, so it’s critical that we insulate it to prevent all our precious body heat from escaping. Again, same principal, layers. Nice long “balaclava” wicking head liner to start the layer, then some fleece, maybe a fleece neck gaiter, nice fleece or wool hat to top it all off. Helmets – ski or snowboarding are also very nice in some situations. Just make sure you can close all the gaps between your torso and the head, the neck is a very annoying place to have a draft! Your hood on the coat completes the outer layer in time of moisture or precipitation. Make sure you have enough layers to cover and insulate your face right up to your eyes. If it’s really cold nasty and windy out your going to want everything covered… and I mean everything. Frostbite can happen in a few minutes if conditions are right, and the tip of the nose is where it’s going to occur, and you not going to know about it till it’s too late. Have extra so you can rotate them out if they ice up from heavy breathing. Goggles are a must, have at the minimum two pair of each ( Daytime and nighttime ) so you can rotate them when they ice over or fog up bad. If they are fogging up you need to vent your head a bit more to prevent it. Have some clear goggles for when it gets dark, and a couple shades for the daytime is nice as well. Yellow/orange tinted ones provide greater clarity in the snow during the day, but can sometimes not provide enough shading to protect your eyes. If it’s nice out sunglasses work just fine, goggles are for inclement weather and let you seal your face up completely against it. Gently clean iced up goggles off and place inside your coat to dry them off. Remove and let cool before you put them back on.

 If your going to be out in the sun a long time and it’s nothing but snow cover you should really have glasses with protection on the sides. Mountaineering “glacier” sun glasses have these or you can quickly fashion something from a scrap of cloth or leather. This prevents the reflection of the sun off the snow getting into your eyes. What happens if your on a snow pack on a sunny day without glasses, or with poor ones, is that you basically “sprain” your eye. This feels like someone took a 3” long needle and jabbed it into each eye. The treatment, drugs to dilate your pupil and staying out of the light, rather lengthy recovery as well. Get a few pair of good cheap polarized sunglasses  for everyday beating around in, and have a good pair of glacier glasses or two to use on those really sunny days on the snow!

The Feet. Treat your feet with the same layering technique we’ve been talking about all along. The exception is that fleece socks don’t seem to be that great of an idea! Get some good thin wicking liners and then some nice insulated socks. Most of us seem to have a pretty good handle on this so I’m not going to go into detail. Just make sure you have plenty of socks, and boots, to keep your feet dry and warm! Pack type boots are a favorite of mine and have proven themselves time and again. 

Your layers should depend on your activity level, dress for the least active you plan to be and then shed layers as you or the day heats up. Look for options like vests and fleece jackets that have zippers under the arms for vents. Try to keep from sweating as much as possible by shedding layers and venting. Antiperspirant on the feet is also a neat trick to keep them from sweating quite so much if it’s available. Try to stay away from “fashionable” Brand names and stick with time proven companies that have been outfitting climbers and mountaineers for a few decades. North Face, Marmot, and Patagonia are names I trust.  If you want warm fleece the Patagonia stuff is the bomb in my opinion, paddlers in 33 degree water do seem to know how to dress for it! About the only ‘house’ brand stuff that I’ve found and trust is REI’s stuff. They make some pretty decent items that are reasonably priced. Make an opportunity present itself to test your gear, see how long you can last on a single digit day and you’ll either impress yourself at your ability or scare yourself from the fact of how ill-prepared you are for cold weather survival. Stay warm!