For several years I worked for a well-known outdoor sports store and I have helped outfit people for countless adventures, day hikes to winter expeditions. Hands-down the most often asked question was essentially, what should I wear? It is a valid and important question to ask and goes well beyond what is fashionable. It is certainly an appropriate concern when it comes to winter.
There is a saying that I really enjoy, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear’.
It really is about having the appropriate tool for the job, so to speak. If you’re someone who truly loves being outdoors or someone who aspires to experience all that nature has to offer, understanding your clothing, its benefits and limitations, is incredibly important.
Winter is a beautiful time of year and the cold weather should not limit or hinder you’re outdoor endeavors. I’ve put together some information regarding some of our most commonly used clothing/insulation materials to better inform your clothing choices that you may safely and confidently explore your wintery natural world.
First and foremost, NO COTTON! We all love wearing cotton. It is a comfortable and useful fabric in warm and dry climates; however, in cold temperatures your cotton clothes could very well kill you. There is a saying, ‘Cotton Kills’. It is so because cotton absorbs water very quickly and readily and takes a tremendous amount of energy to dry.
If you don’t believe me, take a quick jump into a pool or any other body of water with a pair of jeans and a t-shirt on. Chill out poolside in the sun and take note of how long it takes for your jeans to dry. Furthermore pay attention to how your body feels in relation to the ambient or surrounding air temperature. I’ll give you a tip, jump in the pool early in the morning on a day forecasted to be hot and sunny. Allow yourself plenty of time to hang out and dry!
Now should you find yourself in a cold rain, slipping and falling into a winter stream, or even sweating alone, cotton will cool your body temperature well below what is safe and ultimately expose you to a hypothermic situation. A very scary and life threatening state.
Be meticulous, check the labels of your clothing, including your underwear and socks. This tip alone could save your butt!
Instead of cotton, opt for synthetics, quick drying fabrics like nylon and polyester. Synthetics dry quickly and allow you to retain heat whilst being wet. Synthetic materials also have the advantage of being light and possess a low packing volume. That is, you could squeeze an extra pair of hiking pants, synthetic t-shirt, and long-sleeved t-shirt into the volume of half a loaf of bread.
Synthetic outer shells, like the snowpants pictured below can also be waterproofed which provides the added benefit of staying dry in snowy activities such as snow-shelters construction.
To illustrate the insulating benefit of synthetic base-layers over cotton, a super brief outline of a story I can only fully tell in person;
I once fell out of a canoe into a lake late one summer night. I was on a ‘stalking mission’ to an island and rather than make large movements to keep myself from falling in, I had to surrender to this motion to reduce the noise I would create entering the water. I went all in!
I had on a pair of cotton shorts and a synthetic long-sleeved base-layer top. And although it was in the mid 60’s (Fahrenheit) I began to get very cold after only 15 minutes of removing myself from the lake. Throughout the process of my body cooling I recognized that my upper body was much warmer than my lower half. Even more interesting was that my bare exposed legs felt warmer than the area covered by my now wet cotton shorts. I shivered continuously as I completed my objective and regained a comfortable temperature once paddling again. Under a blanket of stars and amidst the coyote calls echoing from the mountainsides, I was incredibly grateful to have been wearing that synthetic base-layer top to protect my core temperature.
A gift from the birds, down is a wonderful insulating material. Down is the light and fluffy feather that birds utilize close to their skin for insulation. These feathers create a ‘trapped’ airspace that is heated by the bird’s body. The more efficient the insulation, the less energy needed to maintain the temperature of the ‘trapped’ airspace.
Recognized and utilized by cold dwelling indigenous people like the Inuit, down is traditionally gathered from nests and hunted birds. Large quantities of these feathers are stuffed into 2-layer clothing items made from animal skins such as seal skin parkas. I highly recommend the documentary ‘People of a Feather: A Film About Survival in the Changing Canadian Arctic’ to elucidate the relationship of the Inuit and the Eider, the bird from which they find food and warmth.
Many high performance jackets, mountaineering ‘sweaters’, and sleeping bags are insulated with down. The great benefit of down is that it is the lightest and most compressible insulation material available. It can be packed or squished into a low volume and once a jacket or sleeping bag is removed from its compressed state, one need only fluff it up to return its initial insulating capability. This is especially important for mountaineers and backpackers who have little space to spare in their packs.
When shopping for down gear it is worth understanding the rating system manufacturers use. The fill-power rating system refers to the ability for an ounce of down to fill a measured space in cubic inches. It is ultimately a measure of feather quality and loft, the greater the loft the greater the ability to insulate. For instance 800 fill is warmer and of higher quality feather than 400 fill.
To put it another way, a 750-fill sleeping bag is 15% lighter than a 650-fill sleeping bag of the same temperature rating.
The only drawback to down is that it looses its insulating capacity when wet. The feathers inside your awesome jacket or sleeping bag stick together and create clumps. The down loses loft, thus eliminating trapped air space.
For this reason alone, I only use my down jacket and sleeping bag when temperatures are well below freezing and I am extra careful to stay dry both from sweating and when crossing streams.
If you decide down is the way to go, please review the harvest practice of down. Sadly, this harvesting process can be abusive to geese and the other birds 'farmed' for this product. Here's a link to help you understand this issue: American Down and Featther Council.
Both Patagonia and the North Face have taken initiative on this issue.
Wool is by far the most comprehensive of clothing materials and my personal favorite because of its versatility. Wool comes from a wide variety of breeds of sheep as well as alpaca. The quality of fleece is wide ranging from breed to breed along with the time of year the animal is sheered. For instance fall sheering yields a higher quality of fleece as the animals have presumably eaten well throughout the summer. During the winter the animals eat different foods and the spring sheer tends to be more coarse and scratchy.
Wool has the amazing ability to absorb water while maintaining a very high insulating capacity. That is, it keeps you warm even when it’s wet. In fact, wool can absorb up to 35% of its weight in moisture before feeling wet. Coming from someone who has spent many a cold and rainy nights outdoors this is a wonderful attribute.
Moreover, raw fleece and wool that has experienced very little processing is hydrophobic. It repels water. I almost always reach for my wool shirt above my raincoat throughout most of the rainy fall and cold winters here in the Northeastern U.S.
I spend a great deal of time around a fire for both cooking, bush craft, and warmth when outdoors. Fire often sends small floating sparks into the air. These sparks leave tiny holes in synthetic materials and can ruin high-end outdoor gear. Wool does not burn like synthetic materials and therefore is a choice material fireside.
Wool is also quiet, virtually silent. If you are a photographer, hunter, or really enjoy moving silently through the forest, wool is for you. Even the quietist of synthetics scream, ‘Human in the woods!’
Wool has only a few drawbacks. It can be very heavy. I have some incredible wool clothing that keeps me comfortable well into sub-zero temperatures. However, these are not items I would toss into a pack just in case I needed them. They are far too bulky and heavy to pack along. I intentionally choose these over other outers because I’ll be working near fire.
Wool can also feel very scratchy against bare skin. This is both because of the quality and type of wool. There are wools such as merino wool that are so soft I wear them against my skin without any scratching whatsoever. In fact, as I write, I’m wearing a sweater made from merino wool without any discomfort. On the contrary, it’s soft and comfortable.
Dressing In Layers
Now that you have some information about the materials your next step is dressing yourself appropriately. It sounds funny, I know, but it is important!
To sum it up succinctly, dress in layers. Dressing in layers affords one the opportunity to regulate one’s temperature through a greater range of activities. If you are hiking, building a shelter, or gathering firewood, you can shed layers as your body temperature increases. This is critical in cold weather, as you want to avoid excessively sweating and getting the clothes on your body wet. As your body cools after said activity put layers back on your body to retain heat. What’s fantastic about synthetic and wicking materials like wool is that they pull moisture off of the body and as these materials dry quickly, moisture essentially evaporates form these garments while you’re wearing them. If you dress appropriately in wicking layers the water/perspiration will travel from your skin to your base-layer, to your mid-layer, to your outer layer, and eventually be expelled from your clothing all together.
For instance, in cold weather or when winter camping, my basic layering system goes a bit like this; I start with a synthetic base-layer, a long underwear top and bottom, next a synthetic/wool mid-layer, and finally a wool jacket or wool shirt. If the weather is particularly cold or I plan on being out for several days, I’ll also include a heavier 2nd mid-layer top along with a wool vest and maybe even a nylon ‘hard-shell’ top and bottom to block wind and any straight-up rain I may encounter.
If perhaps I’m backpacking with a need for light gear, I opt for a packable down jacket for the evenings and early mornings when I’m more or less sedentary instead of a wool jacket which is much heavier and bulkier than my down jacket.
Clothing is by far the most critical of components in cold weather camping and winter outdoor activities. Afterall, clothing is our primary shelter and whether you are wearing the correct clothing or not may determine the outcome of your adventure outdoors. In some cases it is a matter of comfort and in other cases this information could very well save your life.
Whatever the scenario, knowledge is our greatest tool.