Cold Weather Clothing Choices
For those of us in the northern parts of the United States, cold weather likes to stick around for awhile after the rest of the US has started warming up. It also likes to pretend to be gone and lure you off the couch and out to the woods, only to sneak back in once you get out there. With that in mind, I thought I would share with you my personal cold weather clothing system that I count on for the cold weather in the Adirondacks.
“Clothing is your primary shelter, so it is something that requires at least as much thought, and often investment, as the items you choose to place in your pack for an outing.”
Remember the acronym COLDER
- Overheating (avoid it)
- Loose Layers
- Examine for rips, tears, etc.
- Repair as needed
My personal clothing system consists of several loose fitting layers that I can add to, or take away from, based on activity level. My rule of thumb is to stay comfortably cool during any physical activity, and comfortably warm when I am stationary. Sweating is the LAST thing I want to do in a cold weather environment. I want to stay as dry as I possibly can. In the words of Les Stroud “If you sweat, you die”. Being wet causes your clothes to lose their insulating value and opens you up to even more body heat loss by evaporative cooling. In addition, the water acts as a conduit for cold convective breezes that will sap your body heat as it blows by. Once you get wet, you are standing on the doorstep of hypothermia, wiping your feet clean, and about to step inside.
You may have also heard that “Cotton kills”. Well, that is only part of the story. Cotton, in and of itself, is not what kills. It just happens to be outstanding at retaining moisture, which you don’t want in a cold weather environment. That same property, however, makes it a great choice for hot environments like the desert where you want to take advantage of the evaporative cooling that you will get from being wet. Anyway, back to the cold weather environment and what the saying should be:
“Wet cotton kills, in a cold weather environment, if you have no way of getting dry and warm.”
My four-layer clothing system:
- Wicking Base Layer
- Insulating Layer
- Durable Layer
- Wind/Waterproof Layer
“This system allows me to wear as little or as much as I want depending on the environment, conditions, and my activity level, so that I can stay comfortably cool or comfortably warm no matter what Mother Nature throws at me.”
A couple things you may have noticed. First, all of my layers, except for my “Durable Layer”, are wool or synthetic and not cotton. Wool is a superior material choice for cold weather because it retains between 70-80% of its insulating value when wet and is great for wicking moisture away. However, if you keep it dry like I choose to do with a synthetic (Gore-Tex) shell, of course it retains 100%. I do not mind my durable layer being cotton because I have wool base and insulating layers between my skin and the cotton clothing and I have a wind/waterproof shell over that to keep it from getting wet. It all works together.
Second, all of my layers are fairly expensive. As much as I do not want people to focus on the specific brands or prices of things, it always seems to come back to that so I will address it up front. The brands and the price you pay for them are not what is important, what is important is that your gear performs for you in the field. I field test a lot of gear, and I am in the woods constantly as a profession, and these are the ones I have chosen for me based on performance and my budget for professional tools. I liken it to the carpenter who builds houses for a living that chooses Dewalt products, or the mechanic that chooses Snap-On. When you do it day in and day out and count on your tools, you want the best you can get ahold of within your own budget. Best does not always mean most expensive, even if you sometimes do “get what you pay for”. It usually costs more to make higher quality, so it usually costs more to buy it.
“I prefer you focus on the system and use my choices to compare to your own and get the best you can afford.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to speak on what I consider “accessories” that complete this clothing system. A good wool hat, wool scarf, wool gloves, and wool socks will suit you for a variety of seasons, even warm days can turn to cold nights once the sun goes down. During cold weather months, I use a Gore-Tex mitten over the wool gloves. Mittens will always be warmer than gloves, but you lose some dexterity, so I choose to have both and take off my mitten when needed.
For footwear in cold weather, I use a Gore-Tex hiking boot to keep my feet dry. These days I am wearing Salomon Quest 4D GTX and they have performed extremely well. For base camp, when I am not hiking around, I have a pair of Muck Boots that are two sizes too big that allow for me to wear three pairs of wool socks comfortably. This is the best system I have found for those days when you are standing around on snow with comparatively less activity.
Hopefully, that helps answer a few questions you may have had on what to wear during cold weather. It is one of the most common questions I get from students who are attending courses with me in the Adirondacks. Speaking of, make sure you check out my schedule and come on out for some training! Don’t let the cold keep you indoors all winter. Get outside, and I hope to see you in the woods!