Yesterday I woke up in Mexico, blanketed by three inches of fresh snow. It was cold! Safe to say, that none of us expected this. It’s a good thing we came prepared (most of us) with enough winter clothes to get by. Locals say it’s been over 50 years since it snowed like this here.
Being caught off guard by cold weather is bad any time of year. However, in the winter you should know better. The trick to mastering the cold isn’t necessarily bigger coats and more expensive materials.
What you wear is balanced by the importance of how you wear it. When to put on more layers, when to take layers off, and what layers to leave at home are all things that the experienced backpacker learns in time. Today, we’re going to give you the crash course on winter clothes, so you don’t have to spend years in the cold learning what to do.
Where you lose the most heat
First thing’s first. Before we talk about layering, materials, and all the winter clothes you need, we have to talk about your body. Some parts of your body are more prone to heat loss than others, and need to be better protected.
Your head is the first and most important place where you lose heat. You have a lot of important vessels and arteries running close to your skin’s surface in your neck and head. There’s a reason why humans have retained the hair on their heads even after almost all our other body hair evolved away. Hats and scarves should be the first winter clothes you think of when you get cold. Breathing into your coat can also preserve the heat you lose through your breath.
Your core is also prone to heat loss. Particularly your armpits and sides. Arteries running into your arms, and fewer muscles in your sides leads to easier loss of the heat from your internal organs.
The last major place you experience heat loss is in your crotch. It’s not just because of your sex organs, either. Your femoral arteries also run close to the surface of your skin in your upper thighs. That means lots of heat loss if unprotected. However, it also means that slipping a hot-hands or warm water bottle between your legs is a great way to warm your entire blood stream, not just your legs.
There are a lot of materials used in winter clothes these days and not all were created equal. And that’s especially true when it comes to backcountry travel and winter weather. Here’s a breakdown of the most common materials you’ll find in your winter clothes and what each material is best at.
Cotton is the most important material to not wear. That’s correct, don’t wear cotton. It may feel warm and comfortable normally, but when it gets wet, it is heavy and cold and extremely slow to dry. And if you think you’ll stay dry because you brought a rain jacket along, think again. Even if you keep moisture out, you’re still going to sweat. If you wear cotton, it will absorb all that moisture rather than wicking it away from your skin. Winter clothes made of cotton belong in one place, the garbage!
Wool is a classic material for cold-weather clothing. It’s been used for thousands of years all over the planet and is still just as useful today. However, not all wools were made equal. Wool-blended with other fabrics like polyester or nylon can make for a great feel and a warm layer. However, the best of the best is merino wool. If you haven’t heard about merino wool before, look it up. This is the pinnacle of natural fabric technology and is among the best materials you can put on your skin in cold weather.
Nylon is strong and durable. It is more often found in jackets and outer layers than close to your skin. That’s because nylon is strong and durable. However, many dress shirts, cargo pants, and slacks are made of nylon, as well as plenty of athletic equipment. Nylon dries quickly and can be reasonably breathable.
Polyester is extremely common in sportswear and outdoor gear. It is often blended with other fabrics like wool, nylon, and cotton to make some of the finest athletic fabrics out there. The truth is though, that polyester is one of the most useful layers to have in the winter. It is durable, moisture wicking, and resistant to mildew. Although polyester isn’t known as being the warmest fabric, when it’s layered with itself or other materials it becomes an incredibly warm (and dry!) layer.
Fleece is usually used in the inner lining of jackets, hoods, boots, and pajamas. It’s a little bulky for most outdoor enthusiasts. However, there are a number of fleece jackets on the market from companies like Patagonia or Columbia that make a great winter layer. Fleece comes in many varieties, and although it feels like wool, it is made from polyester and is usually 100% synthetic. Fleece is great for the middle layer on really cold days.
Most people don’t think of silk when they think of outdoors or winter clothing. It’s true, silk isn’t exactly the hottest material for making athletic gear. However, silk makes a surprisingly good and comfortable under-layer in the winter. That’s because it’s warm, lightweight, moisture wicking, and fast drying. It might cost a bit extra, but it’s a real luxury in the mountains.
Although many people would dispute what exactly makes the best outer layer, I’m here to tell you that it’s a lot simpler than they would have you believe. You don’t need to sift through all the different types of jackets and parkas and ponchos on the market. Most of those are designed for style, not utility.
If you’re looking for the most useful outer layer for cold weather, the most important thing, is a waterproof, breathable fabric. A lightweight rain jacket makes a great outer layer. If you need more warmth, then upgrading to a winter jacket or a snowboarding jacket is what you want.
Just remember that the most important job of your outer layer is keeping rain and snow out. If your outer layer isn’t waterproof, then it won’t be much use when the weather rolls in.
If you’re curious to know more about lightweight rain jackets, search for buyer’s guides. There are a ton of reviews out there that go over all the best jackets of the year.
Beneath your rain jacket or other outer, waterproof layer, is where you insulate and add layers of warmth. Depending on your climate, you might wear only a T-shirt under your jacket. Usually, you’ll have to layer with fleece, wool, or other warm layers of insulation.
The advantages of layering in this manner are twofold.
Firstly, you achieve superior insulation when you have layers of air between layers of winter clothes. Three thin layers usually insulate better than one thick layer. That’s because the spaces between layers trap your body heat better than the spaces within layers.
In order to combat the coldest of conditions, start with a thermal layer that is skin tight, top and bottom. Wool, polyester or a blend of both makes the best material for long underwear. These materials will help to wick sweat away from your body and keep your skin dry.
The next layer should be synthetic or wool warmth layers. This is a great place for a sweater, fleece or puffy. Just as long as your warm layers aren’t too bulky to put your rain jacket on over top, they’ll do fine. Also remember, no cotton. Don’t do it.
When you layer your winter clothes in this manner, it’s extremely important that you take off layers as you get warm and add layers as you get hot. Do not keep hiking and sweat all over the inside of your clothes. That will get them wet from the inside out and ruin your insulation. Even the highest quality materials can’t wick all the sweat of heavy exertion. So don’t make them.
As you start moving in the morning, plan to take off your layers one at a time as you warm up. Keep them in an accessible place where you can put them back on if you stop moving. Layering works great for this purpose because your warmth does not come from your waterproof layer. So if it’s hot out, you can shed your warm layers without sacrificing water and wind proofing.
So if you haven’t tried taking on the winter cold with a good regimen of warm layers underneath a waterproof jacket, this is the year to start. You’ll be warmer, drier, and happier than you’ve ever been.
If you have any comments then please drop us a message on our Outdoor Revival Facebook page
If you have a good story to tell or blog let us know about it on our FB page, we’re also happy for article or review submissions, we’d love to hear from you.
We live in a beautiful world, get out there and enjoy it. Outdoor Revival – Reconnecting us all with the Outdoors.