Winter is here. It brought the cold weather with it again this year.
Winter really separates the “outdoor recreation enthusiast” category into those that still venture out, and those that stay indoors mostly, waiting to appear from their warm cocoon in Spring. I am not convinced that those who choose to stay in like the great outdoors less; I think it has more to do with it being less enjoyable in “bad weather”.
It has been said that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices. I must agree with this statement. Properly equipped, and dressed appropriately, the winter outdoors can be just as enjoyable as the rest of the year. In addition, it opens other recreational activities that are not possible during the other three seasons like snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and winter camping in solitude (since the folks that do not read this will be inside drinking hot cocoa staring out the window until the snow melts and the trees bud again).
Living in the Adirondack Mountains, cold weather is not really limited to a couple of months in the wintertime. Winter seems to come early and stay late here. As a professional outdoorsman, I spend a lot of time out in it and have since gained some real experience with cold weather clothing choices. This is not to say others have not, as well. But it is to say that many have not, and I think that if they could use that experience to tailor their own clothing choices, they could get off the couch and enjoy winter like I do.
If you are like many, you are planning to come to one of my future Winter Skills Courses (which are on hold this year until I can find another venue) and want more detailed information on the clothing choices I recommend. It should be no surprise that the recommendation is the same for you as it is for the person who just wants to get outside this winter.
Layered Clothing System
I recommend a layered approach to your clothing system. This layering system is easily adjusted to the weather conditions. It consists of four categories:
- Wicking Layer
- Insulating Layer
- Durable Layer
- Wind/Waterproof Layer
The inner most Wicking Layer is the layer that is in direct contact with your skin. It is typically lightweight, and its purpose is to wick moisture away from your skin to prevent heat loss from conduction and evaporation in cold weather. Synthetics like polyester, as well as animal fiber like wool, are good choices for this layer since they both wick well. Cotton is a poor choice for this layer in cold weather because it is highly absorbent, dries slowly, and will hold that moisture against your skin.
The next layer, or layers, are Insulating Layers. These are typically thicker and heavier weight than the wicking base layer. These layers are primarily meant to trap radiating body heat close to your body, as well as offer some protection from convection. Loft and the ability to create dead air space that can be warmed by and kept close to the body are key. This can be one or more layers, depending on the temperature and the insulation needed. Synthetics like polyester fleece work well, as do thicker wool layers. In colder temperatures this could include a down or synthetic down puffy jacket, although those would typically be worn over the durable layer.
The Durable Layer is what most would consider your regular clothing like your shirt and pants. They are not necessarily meant to be all that insulating, but they do offer some insulation and protection from convection. They are primarily meant to be durable and protect you and your insulating layers from sharp rocks, sticks, briars, and the like. Cotton duck canvas is a great choice for this, so long as you keep it dry. It is an exceptionally durable material that can take some abuse.
The Wind/Waterproof Layer protects you and the rest of your clothing from the elements like wind, water, and snow and prevents them from becoming wet and losing their ability to effectively insulate. In addition, they prevent heat loss through convection by blocking the wind. Think of this as your shell layer. GORE-TEX® is an excellent fabric that is waterproof, windproof, and breathable. If you prefer a more traditional style, waxed canvas or oilcloth has been used effectively in the past. They key is to block wind and water while maintainiing breathability so that you do not trap moisture inside.
For warmer weather, your inner wicking layer and durable layer may be the same thing. Your insulating layer may be lighter weight and carried in your backpack rather than worn and only brought out at night when the temperature drops. Your shell layer may be nothing more than a lightweight rain jacket that you have ready to put on if needed.
Then, of course, you are going to want a good hat, scarf, gloves, socks, and footwear for the conditions.
This clothing system is an integral part of the COLDER Principle:
Clean: keep your clothing as clean as possible so that it can function as designed. Clothing needs to breathe so that it does not trap moisture against your body.
Overheating: avoid overheating so that you do not sweat and open yourself up to other forms of heat loss.
Loose Layers: dress in layers so that you can easily adjust to the conditions by adding or removing layers. Loose layers will allow for air space that can trap warmth and keep it near your body.
Dry: keep your clothing dry. Wet clothing, whether it is from sweat, water, rain, or snow, will lose much of it insulating properties.
Examine: look for rips, tears, holes, etc.
Repair: mend clothing as needed so that your clothing can perform as optimally as possible.
What material should you choose? There is a large variety of material choices available on the market. Plant-based materials like cotton used to be the most prominent raw material for the industry, but that has since given way to the majority being synthetics like polyester. Less common are the animal-based materials like wool. So, which is the better choice? This is a complicated question. I will try to answer it through the lens of the outdoorsman, and I will keep it very general.
With all the advances in synthetic outdoor clothing, and the seeming advantages some of these have, the fact is that most synthetics will melt to your skin if you are not careful around your fire. Granted, you will sustain burn injuries no matter what you are wearing if you are not careful around a fire. However, do you want to compound that injury by melting your clothing into your skin as well?
There is a saying that is often repeated in the survival industry: “Cotton kills”. Well, no it does not. Wet cotton, if you cannot get dry, can kill you in cold (or even cool) temperatures. Dry cotton is actually a very good thermal insulator. Wet cotton, on the other hand, is a terrible insulator and it dries quite slowly. That is a recipe for disaster in cold weather if you cannot get dry. However, those same properties may make it an excellent choice for hotter weather. It really comes down to knowing the properties and how they are going to affect you in the environment you are in. Keep in mind that any fabric, cotton or synthetic, can kill you if it gets wet in a cold environment and you cannot get dry.
What about wool? It is often said that wool is the best choice because it keeps a lot of its insulating value even when it gets wet. The percentage that is often said is in the ballpark of 70%. It may be true that wool insulates better when wet, especially compared to cotton or synthetics, but wet wool does not insulate better than dry wool by any stretch of the imagination. Wet wool does not keep you warm, it just keeps you warmer than wet cotton or wet synthetics would. Think about it this way: if you are dressed appropriately to maintain your body temperature well in cold temperatures, staying comfortably warm when stationary, and comfortably cool without sweating when moving, imagine a loss of 30% of the effectiveness of the layering that is making that possible. Thirty percent is significant! You are going to be cold. Wool is still a better choice in cold weather because it will be less effected if it does get wet, but you should strive to keep your wool dry so that it can insulate at peak value. Dry wool keeps 100% of its insulating value.
Now that you know more about the “why” behind everything, you probably want specifics of what I choose and recommend personally. Understand that winter conditions are different from region to region, sometimes day to day, so I have what I consider a more modern setup for “wet cold” where the snow is wet and slushy, and a more traditional setup for the “dry cold” when it is so cold that the snow is dry and crunchy. The Adirondacks have a mix of both, so I have two full setups available for my own personal use. For brevity, I will only discuss the more modern gear here, because that is going to apply to most people.
Layered Clothing System:
- Wicking Base Layer: here in the Adirondacks the weather is highly variable and gets extremely cold. I choose two base layers so that I can use some or all of them together to fit the weather conditions and my activity level. I choose wool for its wicking ability and better insulating qualities when damp. I do not put cotton against my skin in the winter.
- Lightweight Merino Wool Top and Bottom (Minus33)
- Expedition Weight Merino Wool Top and Bottom (Minus33)
- Insulating Layer: as you may have expected, one dedicated insulating layer is not enough where I am, so I choose and use two different items for this category as well. I have rarely needed added insulation for my legs (outside of the two wool base layers) so this focuses more on keeping my core warm.
- Wool Anorak (Lester River Bushcraft Boreal Shirt)
- Puffy Jacket (The North Face Thermoball Jacket)
- Durable Layer: this is the layer that I would consider my normal everyday clothing for the woods. This layer is typically cotton for me since that is what my normal clothes are made of. It is not something I am worried about because it is not against my skin, I am not relying on it for insulation, and I always have a shell for wet conditions to keep it dry. With that said, a wool shirt and pants would be great as well.
- Long-sleeve Button Down Shirt (Mountain Khakis Mens Park Flannel)
- Cotton Duck Canvas Pants (Carhartt)
- Wind/Waterproof Layer: I cannot emphasize this enough. The shell needs to be waterproof, windproof, and breathable or it will be inadequate. This was one of my most expensive investments made for winter clothing. I used Arc’teryx brand in the military exclusively. I ran around the Hindu Kush comfortably with them and learned to rely on them, and I was admittedly heart broken when I had to turn these back in to supply. Therefore, I invested in them again once I got out.
- Goretex Shell Parka (Arc’teryx Alpha SV Jacket)
- Goretex Shell Pants (Arc’teryx Alpha SV Bibs)
Note that what I chose is the SV (Severe Weather), which are more expensive than the other options (AR “All Around” and FL “Fast and Light”). Research these and decide if one is a better fit for your needs.
- Wool Hat: normally what I wear is just a military surplus 100% wool beanie (watch cap), although I do also have nice ones from Minus33 and Wazoo Survival Gear (Cache Beanie).
- Gloves: mittens are warmer than gloves, but gloves offer more dexterity than mittens. You need to layer your hands as well, so I use both. Wool glove liners for dexterity under thick mittens for warmth. I keep the mittens tied down so that I do not lose them when I take them off to do a task. I have some military surplus Trigger Finger Mittens with Wool Liners that I use most often.
- Scarf: I choose a military surplus wool scarf for this. It is inexpensive and more than adequate.
- Wool Socks: I recommend at least three pairs of wool socks (that can be sheep wool or alpaca wool). I use Smartwool brand, but my favorite is the Alpaca wool socks. I buy them in different sizes so that I can layer them as needed. That builds up insulation between my feet and the ground.
Pro tip: always make sure that you have enough socks to change into (up to three dry pairs that can be layered) for sleeping. Never go to bed with your boots on or your feet wet in the winter. I use a pair of Baffin Cush Booties at night, which are essentially “puffy boots” that insulate my feet at night for sleeping.
- Appropriate Waterproof Boots or Shoes: I have two different setups for winter camping. For the most part, I am wearing Muck Boots that have a decent tread that are oversized so that I can layer up to three pairs of socks in them. This is more for cold weather in and around camp when I am standing on ice and snow all day. They are not particularly great for putting on miles, but I have put in some reasonable distance with them and often get away with only these. When you wear layers of socks with them, they are waterproof mukluks at that point. Your feet will sweat in them, so it is important to be able to dry them out by the fire at night (at a minimum). Again, never go to bed with your boots on or your feet wet. Immersion Foot (trench foot) is a real thing. For those times when I need to put in some mileage, I like a regular hiking boot that is appropriately sized so that I can have lighter weight on my feet, have better traction, and avoid blisters.
- Muck Boots Arctic Pro (oversized to fit with three pairs of wool socks)
- Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX (sized properly to fit with one pair of wool socks)
- 30L Dry Bag: this is especially important in wet cold weather. Your gear is only as good as it is dry in this case. If your clothing gets wet, you need to strip it off, get a large warming fire, and get dry clothes on. That is not possible if the extra clothes you have, or your bedding, is also wet. I have two different brands that I use most.
- SeaLine MAC Sack
- Pathfinder 20L Dry Bag