Cold Weather Considerations – Part 2, by JM

(Continued from Part 1.)

Clothing

Protecting ourselves from all of the ways Mother Nature can impact us in the winter starts by wearing clothing. Clothing helps us retain our body heat, protects us from the sun, keeps us dry and allows us to carry our environment with us (yay for pockets!), so selecting and taking care of the right clothing is critical in a winter environment. As everyone knows, layering is the best approach for dressing for cold weather – you have multiple layers of clothing that you can put on and take off as you heat up or cool off – but you need to make sure you have the right layers for the conditions.

Selecting appropriate winter clothing requires an understanding the various materials that are available. There are a lot of different materials, and each has their advantages and disadvantages, but I’ll focus on some of the most common ones. Hopefully I don’t have to tell everyone to avoid cotton, which can absorb and hold onto up to 27 times its weight in water.

  • Wool – Wool is one of the original cold-weather materials and has been used for thousands of years. Wool fibers absorb moisture, but are not hollow – water is trapped between fibers, so it dries fast if it gets wet, and wool can absorb and retain up to 30% of its own weight in water without significantly impacting its insulating ability. Wool is also naturally fire-resistant and self-extinguishing if it is exposed to fire and removed. Merino wool is most commonly used for lower-layer garments, as it’s soft, warm, breathable, fire-resistant, temperature-regulating and moisture-wicking. Coarser wool is typically used for outer layers. The potential disadvantages of wool are that it’s typically more expensive than other materials, it can generate static, it can take a long time to dry if it gets soaked and some people find it to be itchy.
  • Fleece – Fleece is a manufactured fabric, made from polyester. It’s hydrophobic, holding less than 1% of its weight in water, and retains much of its insulating quality even when wet. It’s machine washable and dries quickly. It is a good alternative for those who are allergic or sensitive to wool. Regular polar fleece is not windproof and does not absorb moisture (although this is often considered a benefit). It is also susceptible to damage from high heat, and is flammable if not treated. Fleece clothing tends to be relatively inexpensive, and can be used at any layer, but depending on the type of fleece it may not be as wind-resistant as wool.
  • Nylon – Nylon is a generic name for a family of synthetic polymers and comes in a number of different forms. In general, clothing made of nylon is durable and, depending on the weave, tends to repel water and block wind. Nylon’s biggest disadvantage is that it can melt if exposed to high temperatures. Nylon is generally used for outer layers only. A variation called ‘silnylon’ is nylon that’s been impregnated with silicone to increase its water resistance.
  • Polyester – Polyester is durable and stretches, making it hard to tear, and it tends to not easily absorb water, but many people find it unpleasant to wear directly against their skin. One of the biggest drawbacks of polyester is that it does not breathe very well – perspiration and heat are trapped next to the skin. Polyester is usually combined with other fabrics such as cotton to improve its feel and breathability, or drawn into thin fibers and made into a mesh to be used as insulation inside layer of other fabrics.
  • Silk – Like wool, silk has been used for clothing for thousands of years. It’s extremely lightweight and works well to regulate body temperature, so it can keep you warm, but it can be expensive. Silk is typically only used for long underwear in winter conditions.
  • Down – Down is the soft layer of fine feathers from the breast of a goose or duck that is closest to their skin, and is typically used as insulation between layers of fabrics like nylon. Its high loft provides great insulation, but natural down readily absorbs water and loses its insulating ability, so manufacturers have developed methods for treating down to make it more water-repellent (hydrophobic).
  • Thinsulate/Primaloft/etc. – These are synthetic material manufactured to provide efficient and water-resistant insulation for a wide range of clothing. They are usually layered between other materials.
  • Gore-Tex/eVent/Omni-Tech/etc. – These are synthetic fabric membranes designed to repel water but allow vapor to exit, allowing them to breathe when you sweat. They are usually layered between other materials.
  • Oilcloth – Oilcloth was one of the first ‘manufactured’ materials designed to be water-resistant, and is cotton duck (a dense and heavy cotton canvas) or linen cloth coated in linseed oil. Its disadvantages are that it’s heavy, it takes a long time to dry when it gets wet, tends to crack, and some people don’t like the smell of the oil used to treat it. Oilcloth is primarily used for an outer layer.
  • Waxed Cotton – Waxed cotton was originally intended for use in the Scottish sailing industry, and is basically cotton duck that’s been saturated with paraffin-based wax. It was meant as an alternative to oilcloth for clothing, but it doesn’t breathe very well and needs to be re-waxed regularly. Waxed cotton is primarily used for an outer layer.
  • Rubber – The original waterproof material. Used by North Sea fishermen for waterproof coats and boots for over a hundred years, but it tends to be heavy and doesn’t breathe very well.
  • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) Coated Polyester– This is polyester material that’s been coated with PVC to provide waterproofing. It provides excellent water resistance, but it doesn’t breathe very well.

This is a sampling of just the most common materials you’ll encounter when looking at winter clothing. When shopping, don’t make the mistake of thinking you need to buy super-expensive gear they sell at places like REI if you want to stay warm and dry – there are a lot of good alternative sources for winter clothing such as dollar stores, goodwill stores, end-of-year ski sales, motorcycle stores, hunting and outdoor stores, military surplus stores and warehouse clubs. One note about the new generation of clothing that has heating elements sewn in that run off of batteries to keep you warm – it works great, until it doesn’t. If you’re relying solely on the electric heat for warmth and it fails, you’ll be in trouble.

When deciding what to wear you need to understand what kind of weather you’ll be facing and what kind of activity you’ll be undertaking. This article won’t be covering weather prediction, but you should have a good idea of the best- and worst-case scenarios for the activities you’ll be undertaking. You may have a tough slog through heavy snow to reach an LP/OP, which will build up some good body heat, but once you get there you may have to remain motionless for hours, which will require more clothing or other insulation.

One mistake a lot of people make when dressing for outdoor activities in the winter is to dress so they’re warm when they immediately leave their house or shelter, but as soon as they start moving they get quickly too hot. As a rule of thumb, if you’re going to be engaging in any kind of moderate activity in the winter you should dress for 10°F-15°F warmer temperatures than the current wind chill temperature; if you’ll be engaging in strenuous activity you should dress for 15°F-20°F warmer temperatures. You may be slightly cold when you start, but your activity will quickly warm you up to a comfortable level.

Layering your clothes was mentioned earlier, and it’s the best way to deal with cold and wet weather. Everyone will have different tastes and experiences, but here are some recommendations based on several years of outdoor winter activities. First, your feet – they’re arguably one of the most difficult areas to keep warm since your feet are in contact with the soles of your boots which are in turn in contact with the ground, and can lose a lot of heat through conduction. You should start with a pair of liner socks, with my preference being merino wool; you can also find liner socks made of silk and polypropylene. These are easy to wash and dry quickly, so you can wash them more often.

Next, a pair of thicker merino wool socks – I’ve always been partial to the SmartWool PHd heavy socks, but there are cheaper alternatives available that works just as well. Heck, you can even get waterproof breathable socks if you’re worried about your feet getting wet – I tried a pair of these last winter and they work pretty well, but they’re expensive. You should always bring at least one change of socks and liners so you can switch the dirty ones out for a clean pair. One additional trick I learned years ago was to make some heat-reflective shoe liners by cutting an outline of my foot out of a folding mylar-covered windshield sun shade, then placing these in the bottom of my boots with the reflective side up. This helps reduce the amount of heat you lose through the soles of your boots.

Now on to the outer layer – your boots. There are a lot of very good options available for quality winter boots, from the original LL Bean and Sorel pac boots all the way up to the US military Mickey Mouse and Bunny boots, but my favorite for the last few years have been the Baffin Wolf boots; they’re expensive but incredibly warm and pretty lightweight. Stores that cater to hunters like Cabelas and BassPro shops tend to have pretty regular sales on winter hunting boots, so make sure to check them out. If you absolutely cannot have boots with you for some reason, you should consider getting a pair of NEOS overboots, which you can put on over you shoes to make a serviceable pair of boots. One other item I always carry with me in winter is a pair of gaiters – these are great for keeping snow out of your boots and pants legs if you end up having to trudge through deep snow.

Next up are your lower body – start with a pair of moisture-wicking underwear like ExOfficio briefs, which wear well and dry fast when you wash them. On top of that layer a pair of merino wool, silk or military-style polypropylene long johns. If it’s going to be really cold you can go with a light pair of silk long underwear under the polypropylene ones, or a pair of puffer pants over wool or silk long underwear. On top of that are your outer pants, which depend on the temperatures and conditions. For moderately cold (>20°F) or light snowy conditions I like the Tru-Spec 24-7 Xpedition Pants, which are a heavy poly/cotton blend and have zipper vents on the sides that you can open to cool off. I spray them with waterproofing after every few uses to help them shed water.

There are a lot of other mid-weight options available, such as ski pants and surplus West German Gore-Tex pants. For extremely cold conditions and heavier snow I go with something like military surplus Extreme Cold Weather System (ECWS) pants or my absolute favorite, surplus German wool winter pants. You can also go with lighter rain pants over long underwear and the puffer pants for more flexibility. A friend of mine swears by the Duluth Trading Company Dry-on-the-Fly Fleece-lined pants, but there are a lot of other (less expensive) lined pants available; just be careful of what they’re lined with – a lot of the flannel-lined ones use cotton flannel, which is a big no-no in wet winter weather.

With heavier and bulkier winter pants you’ll also want a pair of suspenders, since belts don’t seem to do the job. Another alternative are snow bib overalls, which are good if you plan on romping around in the snow since they’ll keep snow from going down your pants. The goal of the outer layer is to keep wind and snow/water from getting through to your inner layers, so it should be good quality.

Hands are the body part that tends to be the hardest to keep warm. You can start with a pair of merino wool or silk liners (are you sensing a theme yet?), then a pair of rag wool/Thinsulate gloves over those. For really cold or snowy conditions I use a pair of trigger mitt over gloves – I have a pair of nylon ones from Duluth Trading Company that they don’t make anymore, but I’ve found the military-style ones work almost as well as long as you take care of the leather and waterproof the material occasionally. I prefer trigger-style mitts since I can still do rough manipulation of things like buckles and zippers without having to remove them.

For absolute warmth nothing beats full mittens, but you may have to take them off more often to do things. Note that I always attach my outer gloves to my coat with some shock cord and small carabiner clips, since I’ve lost several gloves in deep snow. (It seems that our mothers knew what they were talking about.) For working with wet things or gutting animals I also carry several pairs of plastic disposable elbow-length glove/arm covers.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 3.




21 Comments

  1. Yes, the ECW gortex jacket is very nice. I found two at a local no-where thrift store in my size for about 5 bucks each. What good fortune. They took years to find. These are typically the good old Woodland pattern. These are worth the retail price of about $150.00 if you can go there. And get the pants if you can. Good gear like this is also shelter. The surplus market use to have plenty of West Germany gortex type jackets and pants under a different brand name denoting material that functions like gortex. These are now hard to find at that low surplus price. There is some gear that is worth paying extra for. This is it.

    I’ve also like the mickey mouse and bunny boots. They have their place.

  2. -42 this morning, before wind chill. She’ll be another nippy one today.

    For years I wore a pair of the Baffin winter boots. They are great, but not necessarily the best in wetter conditions. Bought a pair of the Muck boots (Also the Bog boots) and have found them to be good even at -40, as long as you’re moving to a certain extent. The toughest part with boots of any kind is always balancing between keeping your feet warm, and keeping them from sweating – cause once your feet start to sweat they will freeze. This is where good base-layer socks are important, and wearing more than one pair. If they get wet, change them.

    As you mentioned, keeping your hands warm is one of the hardest things. Not because there aren’t gloves/mitts that will do the job, but because you lose so much dexterity that it’s difficult to do anything with them on. Like you, I’ve found that a pair of surplus Canadian trigger finger mitts, with a good pair of wool gloves underneath tends to work about the best.

    For long underwear it’s hard to beat Helly Hansen, and they are a go-to in the oil patch for cold weather. A little expensive ($50-$75 for a pair of long-johns) but they are worth the money if you ever need them. At work I also used a pair of the Carhartt insulated bib overalls. And of course a good Carhartt parka.

    When I’m not working, but have to be out in extreme cold I have an old Siwash Wool Sweater that I tend to wear underneath one of the Koolah oilskin jackets. I’ve found over the years that this combination gives about the best combination of insulation and wind/water proof exterior.

  3. Working at ski areas in my youth, Sorels were the go to boot. Now they are no longer made in Canada and have thinner wool felt but still claim a -40 rating.
    Sam’s club seasonally around here has Omniwool medium weight wool socks which, I believe, are over 80 percent wool for a great 3 pack price. Always check wool content before buying what is marketed as “wool” socks.

    1. VERY GOOD ADVICE on checking the contents in socks. So many look and even feel like merino wool but when you read the contents – zero wool. I really like the Omniwool socks from Sams Club. I buy a three pack every year whether I need them or not. I wear wool socks from October until spring.

  4. In 1963 I got the world’s best lesson on winter weather, clothing and being prepared. Two friends and I went into the city for some fun. We took two cars because my parents had moved recently and I now lived in a different direction some 15 miles from where they lived. We drank some beer (well they did I never liked beer) and had a good time. we were dressed for the evening, a sports jacket, loafers and no jackets. About midnight it began to snow. We hung out until about 1 AM but it was really snowing by then and about 6 inches was already on the ground. So we drove back to where their car was and we parted ways. I was just getting out of the city when I screwed up and over confidence in my car ended up with me sliding into the curb pretty hard. Broke the front suspension. I could still drive straight by turning the wheel all the way to the right and I could turn right by backing up which swung the car around. So I found a place to park it and looked for some answer as to how to get home. I began to walk and found an open gas station. Asked if they knew of any tow trucks that might be running and they said everything was closed down. I called for a cab and got laughed at. Nothing was moving and the storm had become a blizzard. Being young and stupid I decided to walk the 18 miles to home (I was 20 YO). The first 10 miles was rough, my feet were soaked, my hair was frozen, my hands were cold and wet. It was miserable. By then there was about 12-16 inches on the ground. As I got to the 12 mile mark I was in the woods and at least the wind was not as bad. Hadn’t seen a car or a soul. I was thirsty and saw a small stream and had to lay down to drink out it. I did not want to get up I was cold and tired and had to force myself on. By mile 17 or so I was actually in the small town where I lived, it was 7AM and the snow was close to two feet deep and I had one mile to go. I made it home and fell into bed and slept for 8 hours.

    Since then I have never left the house in bad weather without thinking about that incident and bringing clothes (jacket, boots, hat, gloves, etc.) with me that was appropriate for the weather.

    1. OneGuy – great story and glad you came out OK. Reading every article in the world will never have as big of an impact as having experienced something firsthand. One of the things that got me into prepping was getting stuck in my car overnight in a blizzard – luckily I had my camping gear in the vehicle and I was able to stay reasonably comfortable, but ever since I’ve carried a full set of winter clothing, blankets, food and water in my car at all times during the winter.

  5. Thanks for the great information. One point regarding your first sentence under CLOTHING, in which you use the term “Mother Nature.” This is Satan’s invention to displace “Father God” and deny the LORD due credit for his wonderful creation.
    Just something to ponder.

  6. When I had to wear Sorel pacs every day for hours outside, even with layering socks and changing them the felt liners never dried out. Solution was to get a spare set of liners and dry one pair by the stove, switching them out every day.

    If you’re only venturing out now and then it’s not needed. I was working and hunting in the cold for 8 to 10 hours a day and night.

  7. Anyone familiar with this? Thoughts on this information about Muskox wool as an insulator compared to other sources of wool fiber?

    https://polarpedia.eu/en/muskox/

    We’re thankful for the happy ending in OneGuy’s story, and for the reminders about safety. We should all consider that we may face extended time in adverse weather conditions – and prepare accordingly.

    In addition to seasonal and transient winter storms, there is also the matter of the GSM. Ben at “Suspicious 0bservers” has a good series out on this topic, and suggests that we are already coming into contact with the galactic current sheet (which may actually be a double layer consisting of two sheets). Contact with this structure combined with the pole reversal in process promises interesting and potentially difficult and dangerous weather (and other geologic) events ahead. It appears that changes are already being observed within our solar system.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=noHCiGd6qyQ&feature=emb_title

    Making this kind of risk arena especially challenging is that some of the change events will come subtly and over time while others may be acute and come without much or any warning. With this in mind, we encourage everyone to prepare to survive over the long haul with measures to address cold (clothing, shelter, food production, etc).

  8. That story about walking home was amazing. I always have Bunny Boots in the truck. On such a trek, I would not make it, but my feet might still be warm when they find me. One can sweat in these and the feet still stay warm. In fact I might use them today. But because these have been out all night in the truck they will be freezing cold. I will boil up some water and fill each boot until the water fills the part of the boot were the foot goes, and let the heat warm up the boot for about 5 minutes. I’ll dump the water, wipe out the excess water, and even as the inside of the boot is still damp, put them on with a thin sock. I’ll be warm for the rest of the day, and will never have to change socks, even if it is -20F. Unfortunately these boots are no good on ice, and do best if a very cold and fine snow. Have many kinds of boots for different situations. I still experiment. Have one pair so large that goose down booties can be worn. These do better on ice and where aggressive treads are needed.

    Protecting the feet is the most important thing one should learn how to do if living in cold country. If new to cold country, thrift stores are a good place to buy different types and try them out. The liners are often worth the price of the boot and can be used as a second pair of liners for your favorite pair. With the exception of Bunny Boots, staying dry means staying warm. Liners are removable, so they can be removed and thoroughly dried out. Moisture or sweat destroys the insulation’s ability to insulate, even the best wool, or the highest tech cold weather outdoor gear that can be as good as wool. Wearing a wicking base layer, top and bottom of a thin polyester, does help keep the sweat out of the insulating layer.. The principle applies to all winter clothing. Sometimes it is necessary to come inside and change at least the inner most layers of one’s clothing after excursion. Such is life in the American Redoubt.

  9. I work outside in Chicago all winter at the airports, windy as all h*ll. This year I picked up a pair of Duluth Firehose fleece lined pants. Can’t say enough good things about them, they block the wind like nothing and with a pair of long underwear my legs never get cold.

  10. FYI–Poly Fleece, even if coated to “not burn”, will vaporize when touched against the hot glass of a wood insert w/a roaring fire. I still have the jacket but is has a 12″x12″ hole in the middle lower back.

  11. So my mother (God rest her soul) always used to say that wool socks were Better for healthy feet. Something about the wool not allowing bacteria/fungus to thrive. No sure if that was part of her training as An MD (as in mountain doctor), old wives tale or what but I tend to think there is something to that. Anyone have any science for why this might be so?

    When I was in the Army we were still issued Wool clothing. The Woodland Camo Gortex jackets just came out as an authorized piece of uniform but was not issued, we had to buy them on our own. Was worth EVERY PENNY. Polypropylene long underwear was also just starting to be available too. It was warm, normally TOO warm and it seemed to be impossible to get clean after two weeks in the field. I’ve gotten rid of all of it. What I do like it the polypropylene thin glove inserts. I bought a bunch of those and they are so thin they are great to keep extra pairs in jacket pockets without have to worry about bulk or weight. I also still use a good old fashioned watch cap. Harder to find the 100% wool ones but actually the newer ones with a little polar fleece as a head band are great.

    I used to buy flannel lined jeans at Gander Mountain and they were nice for working in the cold as long as you didn’t get wet. Then I started to buy the fleece lined jeans and even a few pair of cargo pants that were lined.

    One of the items that I really like is the old US Army surplus White Arctic face mask. Looks like it has a built in N95 mask on it. They are cheap but very nice! I has love my welco extreme cold Mukluk boots. Great for deep snow so you don’t need gaiters. Only draw back is they are NOT hiking boots since there isn’t good arch support in them. Still swear by my Matterhorn’s!!

  12. I’ve run with wetsuits and diveskins for cold weather use. Even a pair of leggings can work wonders as long underwear. Guys, don’t be afraid to shop the women’s section for leggings. I’ve found that the women’s stuff fits better than the men’s stuff, and is easier to come by in thrift stores. In a pinch, even a pair of pantyhose will add quite a bit of warmth.

    With wetsuits, you won’t loose heat as fast as in water, so you have to watch for the possibility of overheating. The new neoprenes are much warmer and flexible than the stuff available back in the 80’s. I have a titanium foil lined suit that is only about 3mm thick, yet protects almost as well as 7mm suits of the old stuff.

  13. I spent a weekend in the mountains of New Mexico elk hunting and became a wool convert. No showers and freezing temps. My polypropylene unders would smell terribly. The wool didn’t smell at all for the entire time. The anti-bacterial properties had a lot to do with it.

  14. I must be a ghost because I have to have died from wearing cotton working,serving and playing in all weather for over half a century. Synthetics are overrated,Goretex soaks through fairly quickly in steady rain(pvc/rubber doesn’t),the german surplus is far superior. Polypropylene underwear doesn’t stand up to repeated washing. Could never stand wool next to my skin(itchy) so always layered cotton underneath and learned the real problem is sweating/overheating and failure to acclimate. Some of the best gear available is from CycleGear for cold weather motorcycling (underwear,glove/boot liners,balaclavas even heated gear that can be battery powered). For work a set of Carharts or insulated coveralls,surplus helmet liner/cold weather hardhat liner,mitten/gloves(gloves with finger cover that pulls pack to allow writing/touch screen manipulation). For a test of your gear try 3 days/nights outside no cover,no fire,2 warm meals a day , 0F- -20F,sleep in snow or dig down to ice or a steel truck bed. What really works is trapping air between layers.

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