(Continued from Part 2.)
Now you need to think about keeping your core warm, which is critical since that’s what your hypothalamus will focus on keeping warm if you start to get cold. No big surprise – start with merino wool or polypropylene long underwear top, then either a shirt, a turtleneck, a sweater/fleece or a combination, depending on conditions. I have an old Pendleton wool shirt that I received as a gift years ago that I absolutely love, and for sweaters/fleece I like the ones that have zippers in front so I can unzip to cool down. If I need to add some extra core warmth I usually bring a puffer-style vest that I can put on, and it packs down to almost nothing. Another alternative to a regular sweater that works well in some conditions is an Asbell Wool Pathfinder pull-over – its super warm and layers well. Asbell makes a lot of other nice wool products – check them out.
Once your core is warm you need to work on keeping it dry and out of the wind, which is where a jacket comes in. I tend to prefer uninsulated shell jackets that are good at keeping the snow/rain/wind off of me, so I usually go with some form of smock that’s long enough to cover my butt. My favorite is the Teesar Generation II Smock, which unfortunately no longer made, but there are great alternatives from Sarma, Arktis, Leo Köhler, and, if you’re feeling particularly rich, First Spear and Tyr Tactical. The reason I recommend a combat-style smock or parka is that they have tons of pockets, so you can access most of what you need without unzipping your jacket, wearing a chest rig or taking your pack off. Most of them have multiple pockets around the bottom that work great for holding magazines, plus other pockets for a FAK, fire-starting kit, flashlights, knives, etc. They’re typically light enough to wear as a 3-season jacket, but many work well as an outer layer in the winter.
Your outer layer should include a hood, since that’ll help keep your head warm and dry and keep the snow from getting down your collar. If you do want an outer layer with extra insulation the US Air Force N-3B Parka is still one of the best winter jackets you can find. If you feel the need for something camouflaged I’d recommend getting a winter camo poncho or over-suit, since you throw them on when needed.
Another possible option is a one-piece winter overall/snowsuit. These have the advantage of being very warm, and, since they’re one piece, they do a great job of keeping the wind and snow out. The disadvantage is that they make it harder to adjust your temperature if you start getting too warm – you can usually unzip the front and slide out of the top half and tie it around your waist, but it’s a lot clumsier than being able to take off a jacket. Another potential problem is they’re hard to get out of quickly if you’re having an urgent call of nature. Snowsuits are usually utilized when people have to be out in cold/snowy weather but don’t plan on performing a lot of strenuous physical activity, or those that need to be able to quickly throw something on over their regular clothing – examples include snowmobiling, mechanics, refrigerated warehouse workers, etc.
A consideration on load-bearing equipment – a lot of winter clothing depends on loft (a lot of air trapped between the fibers) to insulate you. If you’re wearing a chest rig or something similar you’ll be compressing that loft, reducing its effectiveness. That’s one reason I recommend wool clothing so highly – the fibers don’t compress easily, hence it’s less impacted by wearing something that presses down on them. A backpack generally isn’t as much of an issue, since the pack and its contents can act as a decent insulator, although the shoulder straps and belt might result in colder areas. If you’re dead set on wearing a chest rig there are companies like High Speed Gear that makes versions specifically for snowy environments. I have an acquaintance who does a lot of winter paintball games and has glued thick fleece on the inside surfaces of his paintball chest rig to help insulate him.
A Warm Head
The last area to consider is your head and face. Ears trend to be one of the first things to get cold, and the nose and cheeks are one of the most common parts to get frostbitten, so you need to make sure you keep everything warm. For a hat you should consider a stocking cap in the winter, either a heavy one for colder days or a lighter one for warmer days, since they can also cover your ears. If you need to keep your ears uncovered (like to wear hearing protectors at the range), there are also insulated baseball caps available, which have the added advantage of a bill to keep falling snow out of your eyes. For the ultimate in head warmth consider a trapper-style hat – I’ve worn these in -40°F wind chills and my head has stayed toasty warm. Another good option for keeping your head and face warm is a balaclava; if you cover your nose and mouth it’ll trap some heat inside, so the air you breathe in will be warmer, reducing the need for your body to heat it up.
If you just need to keep your ears warm you can go with something like a fleece headband or earmuffs. You could also go with a simple wool scarf – you can use it in a lot of different ways to keep your neck, ears, mouth & nose, etc. warm – it’s kind of like a shemagh for the winter. If it’s rainy or lightly snowing but not so cold that I need to cover my ears I sometimes use an Oregon Research Seattle Sombrero – it’s got a nice wide brim to keep the rain off, plus there’s a lightweight fleece lining to add some warmth.
Earlier I mentioned snow blindness, but your eyes can also be impacted by cold wind causing them to water or by snow blowing in them. I recommend a good pair of wraparound sunglasses, or for more extreme conditions some goggles with interchangeable lenses. Having clear or yellow lenses lets you use them in low light conditions where wearing your sunglasses is contraindicated (don’t be that guy that wears dark sunglasses at night). You can usually find great prices on ski goggles at end of season sales. Regardless of what you wear over your eyes, you’ll inevitably have problems with them fogging up and getting dirty, so include some quality anti-fog spray and cleaning cloths in your kit. This is especially critical if you wear prescription glasses.
One consideration with head, ear and eye coverings – they’ll help keep you warm but they’ll also impact your situational awareness by reducing your hearing and peripheral vision. I had an older winter coat with a hood made out of heavy nylon, which kept me warm and dry, but every time I moved my head the nylon made a crackling or swishing sound, which drove me crazy. If you’re bundled up in a tactical situation you’ll need to keep your head on a swivel and stop more frequently to uncover your ears and listen.
The best clothes in the world won’t do you much good if you don’t take care of them. Most forms of insulation rely on trapped air to prevent your body heat from escaping (remember convection from earlier – air makes a poor conductor of heat), so if your clothes get dirty and sweaty those air spaces tend to get filled, reducing their ability to insulate you. How frequently you change/wash your clothing depends on how much you sweat, but a good rule of thumb is you should change your base layer and underwear at least every 2-3 days. Washing and drying dirty clothing can be a challenge in winter weather, but you can usually get away with heating up (not boiling) water in a pot, putting in a little soap, washing and rinsing your clothes in that, then hanging them near the fire to dry. Be careful if you’re drying material such as nylon, polyester or fleece close to a fire since they can be easily melted.
You should also be prepared to make repairs to your clothing while in the field, since having holes in your outer layers tends to let moisture and cold air in. Repair tapes like Tear-Aid Type A, Gear Aid Tenacious Tape and Gorilla tape work well for field-expedient repairs on outer layers, and a decent sewing kit can usually take care of rips for your inner layers. Any tape may get brittle and have it adhesiveness reduced if it’s too cold, so you need to make sure you warm it up prior to application. Repairing boots can be tougher – depending on the damage and boot type you may be able to use something like a Speedy Stitcher, but I’ve seen people use a bunch of wrapped layers of Gorilla or duct tape to hold their boots together enough to get them through a winter hike. I’ve also recently started carrying some Adventure Tape that I got on Kickstarter that might do a good job of holding your boots together until you can get home.
Waterproof and water-resistant clothing can lose its effectiveness over time, so you should regularly maintain your outerwear to ensure its effectiveness. I spray Scotchgard Heavy-Duty Water Shield on my jackets and pants a couple of time each winter and I find it works great. Pay particular attention to the tops of your shoulders, hoods, gloves and boots, since these are what tend to get the wettest.
If you’re going to be out for more than just one day or if you get caught in a sudden blizzard or rapidly dropping temperatures you may need a shelter to sleep in or just survive the elements. The first thing you need to think about is where you’ll set up or build your shelter. If you’re operating in a tactical environment then setting up on high ground will provide you with better visibility for potential approaching threats, but you’ll more likely be subject to stronger winds (and hence more wind chill) and blowing snow.
Sheltering in low-lying areas can protect you from wind, but it may actually be colder due to cold air settling down at night. I’ve measured a 10°F temperature difference between the bottom of a small valley we were thinking about camping in and a location a few hundred feet up the side of that same valley during one winter camping trip. Setting up in wooded areas provides protection from snow and wind, but it’ll cut down on your visibility.
The next consideration is the shelter itself. You have several options for store-bought shelters:
- Tarp & Burrito – This involves setting up a tarp to keep off the rain/snow, then rolling yourself up in multiple layers of blankets, a sleeping bag, a waterproof tarp, etc.
- Bivy – This is a small shelter that’s basically a waterproof structured sack that your sleeping bag goes into. They’re small and lightweight, but there’s no room inside them to store your backpack, get dressed or eat a meal.
- Bivy Tent – This is basically a class in size between a bivy and a full-size tent. It small and light and gives you more room than a bivy but not as much as a full-size tent.
- Tent – This is what most people consider a tent, and has plenty of room (either inside or in a vestibule) to store gear and get dressed, but it’s heavier and bulkier.
- Hammock – This is a hammock designed to be used in the winter, and is usually covered with a tarp to keep rain and snow off. You can also get an underquilt for a regular hammock that makes it more comfortable in colder weather.
I’ve camped in the winter with all of the above at least once over the last few years, but my preference these days is to have a little room inside so I usually go with a tent. Keep in mind that the larger the space is, the harder it will be to warm it up. One note on tents – the differences between 3-season and 4-season tents are that 4-season tents a) are designed to handle high winds, b) have minimal mesh or have ‘skirts’ that go all of the way to the ground to keep wind out, and c) are designed to handle snow loads. That being said, 4-season tents are expensive and there isn’t much of a selection available, so I use my 3-season tent, string up a tarp over it, stake down the rainfly as close to the ground as I can and cover any gaps around the bottom with snow or branches to keep the wind out. The tarp keeps the snow off of the tent and keeps it from getting too wet.
What I’d love to have is a Nemo ALCS 1-person US military tent, but those are seriously expensive and hard to find. Regardless of which kind or bivy/tent you use, if you’re breathing in an enclosed space you’ll be expelling humidity in the air, which can condense and freeze on cold surfaces and soak your clothes, tent and sleeping bag. You should ensure you have at least a small amount of ventilation near the top to allow the humidity to escape.
Other Tent Considerations
There are a couple of other considerations for using a tent in winter conditions:
- Setting your tent up on snow is generally better than setting it up on frozen ground. Frozen ground is like rough concrete, and even a small lump of pine needles can feel like a boulder. Snow can be somewhat soft, and makes a decent insulator since it’s mostly air.
- Snow can weight a lot, so make sure your tent is set up to handle any potential loads, or set up a tarp with relatively steep side angles over your tent to keep the snow from building up on it.
- Always use a ground cloth/footprint to protect the bottom of your tent from moisture and punctures.
- Use snow stakes in the snow – they work a lot better than the normal skinny ones.
- A vestibule works well for things that you want to keep out of the snow but don’t want to have in the tent with you (so they don’t get condensation on them).
- Your body heat will usually warm up a small tent pretty quickly if it’s not too cold out, but if you need more you can use heat packs, electronic hand warmers, survival candles, heated rocks or refillable hand warmers. Just be cognizant that if you use any kind of combustion inside a tent you need to make sure you have adequate ventilation to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, and don’t go to sleep without putting it out.
If it’s an emergency and you don’t have a tent with you there are a number of options for making an emergency shelter – check out here and here. I’ve made and slept in both tree-pit and thermal a-frame/leaf hut shelters during winter camping trips, and they both work really well.
(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 4.)