I love the cold; my mind may change on this subject sometime in mid-February but right now I get excited every morning to step outside. The South is known for its long summers and year-round temperate weather but part of me relishes every time the temps dip below freezing and the panic sets in, people afraid that they will turn just as icy as the windshield they scrape off every morning.
There are several rules for staying warm when outside in frigid temperatures and some are obvious: First and foremost, don’t get wet. Besides the obvious steps of not walking on thin ice or purposefully dumping a bucket of water on your head, the not so obvious enemy is sweat which can do just as much damage. Sweat is the body’s way of cooling itself off, and in July that’s a great thing. The evaporative effect of sweat drying on your skin cools you down amazingly well. The problem in winter, is that when you sweat it’s awfully hard to dry, so instead it accumulates with the same effect of having that bucket of water dumped on you. The solution is try not to sweat. Plan to have on just enough clothing to be slightly cool while moving but not so little you’ll be cold all the time. The second step is to stack the odds in your favor to ensure the sweat evaporates as quickly as possible. While evaporation produces a cooling effect, it’s less chilling than having soggy clothing clinging to your body. You can hasten the evaporative effects by wearing wicking materials (polyester, wool, etc) which spread your sweat over as great a surface area as possible to allow your own body heat to more easily evaporate the sweat. This means no cotton because it doesn’t wick at all.
The next step in staying warm is to ensure that all of your warm spots are well insulated and kept as protected from the elements as possible. This includes your head, the arm pits, and the groin; in all of these areas, large quantities of blood run close to the surface and more easily lose temperature. The goal is to keep your blood, especially near the heart in what is known as core temperature, as warm as possible. So if your mother yelled at you for going outside in the snow without a hat or jacket she had good reason. Surprisingly, if you went out into the snow in shorts, but with a heavy jacket (I had an odd fashion sense for a kid; sue me) you lose so little heat through your legs the effect is negligible. In fact, the only reason you need to be concerned for your toes/fingers is that they are so far away from the heart where the blood is warmed, they need more protection to defend against frostbite.
The next phase is how to actually dress: when preparing for the cold, you need to think in layers just like a king would plan layers of defense in a castle. We’ll start with the inner keep, what you wear directly on your skin. Base layers, think long johns, are the innermost line of defense along with socks, glove liners, and a hat. You have several material choices: polypropylene, wool, thin fleece, assorted synthetics, etc, all of which should wick extremely well and provide a small amount of warmth. Wool is my personal favorite because it handles temperature fluctuations extremely well and doesn’t have a horrible odor over time but it is the most expensive option.
Next, we’re going to what is the wall of our castle, the thickest and most effective part of our cold weather gear, the mid layer. This could be one or multiple pieces, usually thick wool, fleece, or down, and it’s only job is to insulate and provide the maximum amount of warmth. Depending on the weather and your personal preferences, this is the layer that will change the most. Personally, I only wear a down midlayer if I am facing temperatures in the single digits and I will not be moving, otherwise I will sweat like I did when I told my dad I wrecked his truck. Typically a light ¼ zip is all that’s needed if I’m going to be hiking in 30-40 degree weather.
Our final layer, the moat, is thin but it’s main job is to deter the most undesirable elements from even reaching the wall. This falls under the hard shell/soft shell category you’ll find in your favorite manufacturers catalogue. A hard shell is just a rain jacket, and it does an excellent job of not only repelling the wet stuff but also protecting you from its nasty cousin wind chill. It doesn’t however, offer any additional warmth. That’s where a soft shell comes in, and is the unusual baby of a midlayer and a very sensitive hard shell. It is able to defend against rain and wind just fine but it typically has a thin layer of insulation to warm up a bit more. The only problem is sometimes that added insulation adds bulk, restricting movement and making it hard to move.
Certain activities though require special considerations for dress. For example, kayaking in winter is especially demanding since you’re basically playing a game of seesaw with hypothermia. Semi-dry tops are the hard shell of choice for kayakers and the difference between them and normal rain jackets are several gaskets and closures which prevent water from entering at the hems of the neck, wrists, and waist. This ability helps keep you dry and therefore alive. Gloves also are a much more important consideration as your digits are going to get water on them no matter how hard you fight it. Neoprene is a solid choice which is a semi-permeable material that allows some water to enter and then locks it in place. Your body heat warms up the water trapped in the material which keeps your hand warm while over time creating the foulest smell your significant other will ever find opening the hatch of your kayak in the middle of summer, thinking a small possum went there to die.
Biking in the winter…well, my advice is don’t bike in the winter. It’s like riding around in a convertible with the top down…in winter…in a hail storm. But if you must, your biggest enemy is going to be the windchill generated by you peddling as fast as possible to get off that bike, and a close second to that is going to be that the exertions of your peddling are going to make you sweat profusely. Light insulation, excellent wicking abilities, and gale proof wind protection are the orders for the day. While not needed for maintaining a proper body temp, I would suggest a something for your legs/arms to keep them warm just to prevent cramps or worse injury. Running faces the same logistical problems with the weather so dress accordingly.
Hunters, you fit in a class of your own since your job is really to hold as still as possible, so sweat and additional heat from exertion is only an issue on the walk in/out. I would add that, still, too much insulation will still cause you to sweat introducing smells, noise from discomfort, and distraction when you go to take a shot; not to mention that if you’re wrapped in 30 layers of clothing, climbing in and out of a stand becomes rather comical and your ability to accurately hold the rifle is dramatically reduced.
Whether you’re just trying not to freeze while caroling or you’re planning to build an igloo in the mountains, I wish you and yours a warm and happy Christmas.
Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.