I’ve been hearing a lot from friends and family in southern latitudes who are dealing with the cold. My lifetime of experience, living and working outdoors in northern Maine, has taught me that cold weather gear need not be expensive or complicated. Living in a cold climate does require some thought and preparation, but with a bit of both you can equip yourself and your beloved ones for cold weather so that you can not only survive but work and be comfortable. I don’t represent or have any interest in any of the companies listed. I cite brand names only to help readers identify products (or similar substitutes) to add to their shopping lists for acquiring what is needed to prepare for cold weather.
I ask for your patience please as I begin with a few rules first. For those accustomed to cold climates, these should be well-known, but not everyone may be as familiar:
- Water next to your skin is your enemy. If you’re working outside doing more than driving/riding (chopping and hauling wood, doing farm chores, or moving through timber), then you’re sweating. Water next to your skin is your enemy. Cold and wet is at best uncomfortable for short period and more than likely dangerous for long periods in cold weather.
- Cotton clothing is dangerous in cold weather. Cotton holds water. If you sweat or will be exposed to precipitation (slush, snow, sleet) or moisture already on the ground in the cold, then your fabrics of choice for all layers should be either synthetic fabric, silk, or wool. For outer layers, I prefer wool since it doesn’t readily burn in contact with flame, and it doesn’t melt when touched by hot ash. As with any rule, there is an exception and that is oil-waxed cotton outer layer. High quality oil-waxed cotton gear (e.g., Filson’s) can be good, but for the price of these garments, even used, you can get two woolen ones. Cotton long johns, dungarees, and cotton flannel shirts are inexpensive, comfortable, and look great, but they don’t keep you warm when working in cold weather.
- Down insulation should only be used for dry environments. Down keeps you warm by being fluffy. Wet down is not fluffy, and you will be cold. Synthetic fill is a great substitute, plus it is often cheaper and doesn’t have the water problem. Yes, it is a bit heavier, but weight is not your primary concern when keeping warm.
With those three rules in mind, I offer the following suggestions, based on my experience.
Woolen socks are a no-brainer. One pair under good fitting boots. I know some swear by two pairs at a time, but I’d rather have one pair on and another in my pocket with my boots fitting as they should. Boots should be chosen based on how wet it will be. Wear insulated rubber boots for deep water (like Servus); wear Bean’s or Sorel type insulated boots for colder and less wet conditions. Don’t skimp on boots. Good boots have removable liners that you can swap out when they become wet and have liners commonly available. Good boots can be worn for hours without foot pain and allow you to work on slippery surfaces. Good boots will last you for years, though liners should be replaced as needed. Waterproofing of leather can be accomplished with a coating of Sno-seal. I’ve used chemical warmers in my boots and had mixed results. They can keep your feet warm, but if they don’t stick well they will ball up and become a nuisance. If you’re just sitting around, the warmers can be great. The most important factor for boots is to ensure they are not frozen when you put them on. Bring them indoors the night before or warm them with a hairdryer or microwaved potato before putting them on.
Legs and Undergarments:
The clothing choice for your legs is based on whether you’ll be working or sitting for long periods. Synthetic or silk long johns under heavy woolen trousers that have been treated to repel water (keeps them clean longer too!) are my go-to cold weather wear for legs. Plain or waxed cotton chaps over this layer can be used for dirty conditions, such as chainsaw work. Leg gaiters (nylon with an elastic top and bottom and a loop for the heel) can be useful for deep or drifted snow, but my wool pants are often on the outside of my boots making these unnecessary. I’ve read about thin woolen undergarments, but these are beyond my budget. Synthetic works well and is easy to clean.
In windy conditions, wool is better than synthetic fleece. Windstopper fleece is great, but it doesn’t breathe as well as regular fleece or wool. Garments with (Al) Gore-Tex is very expensive and only really helpful if it is raining and you’re not working. Velcro is convenient, but it can fail. Look for garments with heavy zippers (YKK) or buttons and pockets that zip closed. Woolen garments can be treated using wash-in water repellent that doesn’t prevent breath-ability. Synthetic insulation should be used in any winter coat. Even better yet, wear a woolen coat over a fleece; giving you two layers rather than one allows you to unbutton or unzip to not get too hot. With a synthetic or silk underlayer with a synthetic mid-layer under a fleece covered by a woolen overcoat, I am good to go.
Mittens are warmer than gloves, but you can’t do as much in mittens. If you have to take them off to accomplish your task, they are not effective. Leather is great but must be treated to be waterproof. As above, Sno-seal is wonderful at treating leather for winter waterproofing. A thin coating on your gloves in the fall and then laid in a black plastic bag in the sun will do the trick; a recoating may be needed. Down insulated gloves are silly. Working hands get wet and are often compressing the down, which make down less effective. You can spend a lot of money on cool ski gloves that are warm, but they won’t last like good work gloves that are insulated. The best I’ve found are Kinco 1927KW gloves. They’re warm, fit well, wear long, and are inexpensive. You can get a couple of pairs of these for the cost of a new pair of ski gloves. Even in harsh conditions, Kinco gloves will last a year (often more) and keep you warm even when you duct tape the holes you’ll eventually wear through your favorite pair. Once you’ve worn a pair so much they’re mostly duct tape fingers, toss them in your truck repair kit and you’ll be set for a winter repair. As above, I’ve had mixed results with chemical hand warmers. There are times when these are useful– when you’re not working hard. Otherwise, I rarely find that I need them.
Neck & Face:
A light fleece or wool scarf provides a lot of flexibility for warmth. A cotton keffiyeh may be fine in summer, but it is not for winter. I don’t use neck gaiters, but others swear by them. I’ve tried neoprene face masks, and found them to be too wet for my liking. Water on skin is your enemy in cold weather. I prefer to have water evaporated away– neoprene traps it. In very bright or blowing snow conditions, goggles may be needed. Ski or snowmobile goggles can be inexpensive if second hand; just be sure they are not too scratched. These can fit over glasses and will keep your face surprisingly warm and stop bright sun headaches as well as keeping eyes safe.
A woolen hat can’t be beaten for all-around warmth. It breathes and stays warm when wet. In extreme cold, a StormyKromer style hat is hard to beat for warmth. Look for a good fit with fold down flaps for yoou ears. These help to moderate how warm you are. If you get warm from working, it is quick and easy to remove to dump heat from your upper neck and head. Watch-style hats are also great (especially for car kits), but they don’t offer much flexibility. I don’t like hoods integrated into my coat, because these often limit visibility or the ability to hear. For me, these are potential safety concerns.
Skin exposed to cold can become dry. Often bitter cold is accompanied by robin-egg blue sky days with bright reflected sun. In such conditions, exposed skin can rapidly sun and/or wind burn. I’ve found that Dermatone ointment is great for slathering on exposed skin. In a pinch Vaseline will do to prevent wind burn, but it does nothing for sunburn. Zinc oxide creams can be effective but are messy and difficult to clean out of clothes.
Winter Kit for Truck or Car:
Assuming that you’ll be wearing your coat and boots, you should have an extra midlayer (like a 200-weight fleece) and spare pair of boot liners in your auto kit. Added to a wool hat and a pair of gloves for each person, a wool blanket will likely complete what you’ll need for emergency clothing. I also keep leg gaiters in my auto kit, since I don’t always wear my wool pants. SurvivalBlog has excellent lists of GHBs for the automobile. (I will refer readers to those found in the archive rather than repeat the contents.)
These same principles apply to survival in winter conditions after the balloon goes up, and I would offer even more so then. I hope the information in this list helps SurvivalBlog readers and their families stay safe and warm this winter and in coming years.