06 January 2013

Dressing for Cold Weather

This past weekend I attended BSA Survivor Weekend with my 13 year old son.  With the exception of December, our Troop camps every month.  During the winter months, we are in cabins.

Being a four season camper and enjoying the cold, I am always interested to see how the Scouts, parents, and adult leaders pack for the winter months.  If the parents don’t know, and the kids don’t listen, it really shows.  Being able to sleep in the cabin and then go outside for activities offers the ability for people to learn lessons instead of dying from them.

Cotton worn as a base layer- my four season rule is that the only cotton you will find in my gear is a bandanna.   The problem is that cotton absorbs moisture and does not release it.  In warm weather, this causes rashes.  In cold weather, it promotes hypothermia and frostbite.  It also becomes incredibly heavy when wet. The number one cotton culprits are socks and underwear.  These all cover areas that are prone to perspiration (arm pits, crotch, and feet) even in cold weather.  You sweat during activity and freeze during rest.  The next issue is jeans, and about 90% of Scouts and parents were wearing them, and the other 10% were wearing other types of cotton pants.  We had plenty of snow on the ground and of course the kids had to play in it.  They were sweated up from the inside out, and wet from snow from the outside in.  Like I said, being close to the cabin meant it was easy to return and change, so the worse penalty they paid was being a little cold.  If they had to spend one night outside, it would have been lost toes, fingers, and maybe death.  

Wicking Layer- the base layer against your skin has to be made of a material that is incapable of holding moisture, such as nylon or polypropylene.  Today the most common example of this is Under Armour, but you can find stuff that is much less expensive and works just as well.  I wear Alpaca socks.  They draw moisture away from my feet.  If you don’t have quality socks, wear a cheap pair of women’s nylons under your socks.  They too will draw the moisture away from your socks, not to mention prevent blisters.  Your wicking layer should fit like a second skin.

Insulation Layer- in my experience, lots of people make the mistake of wearing a cotton hooded sweatshirt as their insulation layer.  If you are wearing an effective wicking layer, it will draw all the moisture out to your insulation layer.    This can turn your insulation layer into a soaked bath towel.  This is where I prefer a light fleece, or a heavy wool sweater, depending on the severity of the weather.  You want a fiber that is light and airy that allows the warm air from your body to be trapped between it and the top layer.  This air combined with the “dead space” between it and the top layer is what keeps you warm.  This layer should be loose, but not baggy.  The colder it gets, or the more inactive you are, the more insulating layers you add.  This is like the insulation in your attic.  The colder your climate, the more you need.

Windproof Layer-   This is your top layer.  Usually, you see people combining this with an insulation layer in one heavy layer such as a coat.  This layer should also have a hood.  Having tried literally dozens of top layers over the years, ranging from inexpensive to way too expensive, the best I have ever found is the Classic Anorak from LL Bean.  I got mine in 97’ and it still looks like new.  You can fit an amazing amount of layers underneath if you need to.  Good windproof layers should have elastic draw strings around the waist, hood, and sometimes midsection.  The cuffs are usually elastic, or fold over and secure with a Velcro tab.  These things allow you to retain the heat from your body, and keep the wind out.

Your clothes are the first line of shelter and need to be thought of as such.
Venting- In cold weather you need to constantly be monitoring your body for comfort and moisture, and adjust accordingly.  The first step in doing so is your head gear.  Your head is very vascular, close to the surface and the heart.  If you begin feeling warm, remove your hat.

If you still find yourself too warm and beginning to sweat, loosen up the elastic draw strings and cuffs on your Windproof Layer.  Many Windproof Layers will also have arm pit vents, which are excellent for venting.

After venting, the next step is removing your Windproof Layer, and just wearing your Insulation Layer over your Wicking Layer.  If you find it more windy than cold, consider wearing your Windproof Layer over your Wicking Layers.

Next to being self-aware, the biggest issue is being dedicated to taking layers on an off to maintain comfort and avoiding extremes.  After some concentrated effort, it becomes second nature.  Keeping dry, while avoiding the wind, will keep you warm.

When it comes to cold weather, I am an anomaly.  Much to my wife’s chagrin,  even in the winter, I have the window at least cracked with the fan on.  Because of being an average of 10-20 degrees warmer than others, I wear Deluth Shorts year round, even when I am in the woods, if I am not wearing a kilt.  When it does get too cold for my legs, I put on a wicking layer and then windproof pants.

This past weekend it never got too cold for shorts.  While outside, I wore a Wicking Layer, and my Anorak on top.  This kept me comfortable with nighttime temperatures dipping into the mid 20’s.  My go to Insulation Layer is Under Armour Fleece.

When it comes to shoes, I will just say this, the biggest problem I find is people wearing  heavy rubber boots with cotton socks.  This means no air in, no air out, which equals wet feet.  The heavier the boots, the more stationary the activity they are intended for.  I wear Merrell hiking boots all year round.

I hope this keeps some people warm and comfortable.

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