(Continued from Part 1.)
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.