Dressing Right For Winter

I wrote and published this through my wilderness survival school in 2014. I thought I would repost it here in that some of you might get something out of it.

It was asked of me over the summer to perhaps host a class on how to properly dress for winter weather. Well maybe one of these days I will try to get such a target class together, but in reality it would need to be an indoor class since people coming to such a class would want to know how and so would not be coming dressed for outdoor winter weather. I figured for now I would type out some winter dress details for you all.

Winter weather dress is very different than warm weather dress. First of all, and most obvious, there are a heck of a lot more layers involved! Secondly you have far less time to assess and change your clothing under adverse winter conditions than warm weather ones. In the summer, if you are hot you take layers off. If it is raining you add a lightweight rain coat, but if it is really warm you do not even need one. A lightweight long sleeves shirt can be more than adequate in summer to warm you up a bit if it cools slightly in the evening, or in early morning hours. Winter is a very different energy all together!

LAYERING:

There are 7 main steps to proper winter layering of clothing:

Primal Base layer

Light Base layer

Medium Base layer

Non-windproof – Light insulation

Medium insulation

Wind protection shell

Heavy insulation

This layering code includes both upper and lower body. The first three layers (1-3) are wicking layers to remove moisture from your skin and shuffle it to layers outside to keep you dry. The next two layers (4-5) are insulation layers. The sixth layer (6) is a wind protection layer and the seventh layer is another insulation layer. You do not want to skip any of these layers while dressing for the winter outdoors or you will be sorry. (more on the exact materials below)

A good rule of thumb is to dress lighter and carry everything else with you. It is typically better to have to add layers to keep warm than to remove layers because you get too warm and perhaps end up sweating. If you sweat than obviously you end up having wet clothing to deal with. It is far better to get as little of your clothing wet as possible. Moisture can remove heat from the skin ten times faster than if you remain dry. However, if you are snowshoeing, skiing, climbing or doing some other heavy winter sport activity, you may end up sweating, and this is why the first three layers are moisture wicking layers. Though by dressing lighter and only adding clothing to stay warm helps to decrease the percentage of time you sweat, and the amount.

While I was climbing mountains in the Rockies during the middle of winter I might only have on two layers of clothing; a light layer of insulation and a windproof outer shell so when I sweat I would get minimal clothing wet. I was typically working so hard that I was plenty warm so long as I was moving, so heavy layers were not necessary until I stopped. Then I could easily and quickly remove one layer of wet clothes and don many layers of dry warm clothing.

On the high peaks when I was resting, or deep in the northern Vermont Mountains in negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit it was not uncommon for me to have 7 layers of clothing on! Layering is an essential skill to learn and vital to properly use in winter conditions.

AWARENESS:

Use your awareness. Since your core temperature can cool down very quickly in the winter, much faster than in summer, it is imperative that you remain aware of how you feel and your surrounding environmental conditions. You need to pay attention so you can plan ahead. You never want to wait until you get cold to put on more layers. It takes a LOT of energy to warm your core temperature up after you allow it to cool down to where you feel cold. Likewise, if you are overdressed you can sweat through many of your clothing layers before you know it.

If you start to get warm, shed a layer or two to vent some excess heat. If you start to feel cool put more layers on. Do not wait until you are hot, and do not wait until you are cold to make layering changes, if you do it is too late, you are either already sweating or you have lost a lot of core energy, which is why you feel cold.

FUEL:

Eat and drink at regular intervals. The best way to warm yourself is from the inside. You would be amazed at how quickly a nice hot cup of tea can make you feel on a cold winter’s day, even a chilly damp autumn of early spring day! Some summer days or nights on top of high mountain peaks can feel very much like late autumn or early winter.

We get much of our physical energy from glycogens which the liver produces from glucose – sugar. This is really the main energy supply of the physical body. So long as you are eating sugars with fats or proteins the sugar will not affect your blood sugar levels. The last thing you want to do outdoors in winter is through your blood sugar levels out of whack because when you have a “sugar crash” you will get very cold very quick. So yes eat sugar (preferably Not refined), but eat it with a fat or protein and your liver will thank you.

Drink warm liquids and eat to help stay warm by building internal heat from fuel.

MATERIALS:

The type of materials you are layering with is just as important as the layering process itself. If you use cotton as your base layer, you destroy the effects of all your other layers on top of it. Cotton does not insulate, it gets soaking wet very fast and takes forever to dry. DO NOT WEAR COTTON IN YOUR WINTER LAYERING. No jeans, no cotton tee shirts or cotton sweat shirts; not even cotton underwear. Once it gets wet it will stay wet and chill your skin, because it collapses when wet forcing out any warm air = no insulation value.

Your three base layers should consist of the following in this order:

(Number 1 is your skin layer)

Silk or synthetic or wool (synthetic wicks better than wool these days – no fleece)

Synthetic or wool – no fleece

Synthetic or wool – no fleece

I like silk next to my skin since it is very easy on the skin while wicking moisture away. The layer on top of the silk can be synthetic or wool, it should be heavier than silk layers; a light long sleeve layer. The third layer should be a medium weight synthetic or wool layer. Again the third layer is still a wicking layer, the last of your wicking layers. Each of these layers and materials should be designed to remove moisture away from your skin.

Fleece is not waterproof or windproof, so is not a good choice for your outer most layer, but it is also not wicking and so should not be used in your first three base layers.

The next two layers (#4-5) are insulation layers.

Wool or synthetic – fleece can work well in this fourth layer

Down, wool sweater or light jacket

Those two layers are heavier insulation layers that are not windproof and not necessarily moisture wicking. Their main purpose is loft for trapping the warm air from your body, like the down feathers of a bird of the fleece layer of fur on arctic animals.

The next layer, the sixth layer is your windproof and waterproof layer.

Synthetic shell (both wind and waterproof)

In winter conditions that are not extremely harsh, this could be your outer layer that seals everything under it from the winter weather around you. It is the literal shell of your microclimate within. However, in extreme winter conditions you will need yet another layer outside your shell.

Heavy Duty Jacket – synthetic

This last layer is the biggest, thickest, warmest loft layer you will have on. It is the heaviest bulk insulation you don, and is normally called the “Expedition Layer”. This coat should be rated down to negative 30 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit if at all possible.

HATS & GLOVES:

A good heavy winter hat that fully covers your head is an essential part of your winter dress! Much of our heat is lost through our heads, faces and neck. Besides a hat you should also have a good neck “turtle” or “gator”. Yes a well made scarf can work well also if you prefer. Always cover your head and neck outdoors in winter. You can easily remove the hat and loosen or remove the neck warmer to quickly vent some excess heat, but without head and neck covers vital heat will escape that you may wish you had later.

Your neck piece should be large enough to pull up over your lower face if necessary. If it is not you should have a face mask too. Remember with hats, neck warmers and face masks – NO COTTON!

Gloves should be large enough to wear a pair of glove liners comfortably inside. They should also be 100% waterproof. Layering gloves is as important as layering body clothing.

SOCKS & BOOTS:

Just like gloves, socks should be big enough to wear layers. Thin pairs of synthetic socks against your skin to start with work best. Then layer synthetic or wool socks over top. Make sure your boots are waterproof and large enough to support multilayered socks without constricting your feet circulation.

Your boots should not only be waterproof, they also need to be made for negative temperatures. Well insulated boot tongues are essential to boot warms. Thick soles are also very important. Make sure you can add a thick, dense, shoe insert to help protect the bottom of your feet from the cold beneath.

GATORS:

If your outer layer of weatherproof pants are not long enough to go over your boot tops snuggly you should wear a pair of waterproof leg gators to help keep moisture and wind out of your pants and boots.

UNDERWEAR TRUTH:

Underwear is typically made or either cotton, polyester or silk. As mentioned above no cotton should be worn in outdoor winter dress. This means underwear as well. Underwear will be your first layer to get wet should you perspire, and if it is cotton it will not dry. Polyester is irritating to many people so not a solid choice for underwear, especially since those articles of clothing rest against some very sensitive areas of skin. Silk is a good choice for your underwear as it soothes the skin and wicks moisture. However, silk can be pricy, especially in the underwear department.

The best underwear for outdoor winter dress is no underwear. There are a couple main reasons for that.

Limited choices of good wicking and comfortable material – may as well just use your first wick layer as your “underwear like a thin layer of silk “long underwear”

Underwear is constricting - he more waistbands you have piled on top of each other, the more constricting for blood and energy flow through the waist region - from torso to legs… and down to feet

You will have enough clothing on in winter to sensibly and practically avoid the briefs, panties and bra layer. Underwear like bras and underpants are constricting layers that have no insulating value. All they do is add constriction points on your body and constriction slows energy and blood flow. The heat of the overall body depends upon good, free flowing, and unrestricted circulation. Bras and tight fitting underwear create constriction bands that believe it or not, slow the heat transfer below and above those lines. This leads to those areas getting surfacely chilled. Eventually that surface chill sinks through the layers of the body towards the core.

A light, thin, breathable and moisture wicking bottom layer is best, and your typical underwear are wasted items in an outdoor winter dress system. Best to ditch em and hang loose. You will be more comfortable and warmer for it, and healthier too.

COMFORT:

If you have layers of clothing binding and ill fitting, you will be uncomfortable and this will eventually chill you. The more uncomfortable you are, the more unnatural you tend to move, and this causes body stress, constriction of blood and energy flow from the tension and you will chill because of it. Make sure your layers fit well together and move well under various activities.

START WARM:

It is so much harder to warm yourself and clothing in the cold when you start off chilled. Start off warm, with warm clothing and yes that means your boots and socks too. Keep your clothing, especially all base layers and shoes in a warm area and put them on warm. Go outside after you are warm and you will find it is far easier to stay warm than to get warm.

MOVE:

If you are outside and find yourself cooling down, MOVE. Movement creates heat, lots of heat. Once of the easiest and quickest ways to warm up is to move or move faster. Before long you may very well need to vent some extra heat you built up!

MIND SET:

If you fear the cold or dislike the cold you will automatically create a mind set of being uncomfortable and cold. Many people that dislike winter, dislike it because they do not like being cold. If people learn how to dress properly they will avoid getting cold, and perhaps learn that to be outside in winter does not mean you need to be cold. It is actually easier to stay warm with the proper clothing knowledge in winter than to stay cool in 100 degrees Fahrenheit during summer. Being cold is as bad as being too hot. When you are cold the body get slow and hurts. When we are too hot we get sluggish and feel miserable.

Try to keep in mind that a positive and informed mind set can help keep you warm in the cold. It can also help you enjoy the cold, because even in winter’s icy grip you can be warm in your carry along microclimate, if you know how to build it and wear it well.

With a little study, experimentation and foresight preparedness, anyone can dress properly and successfully for winter climates. If you are warm, dry and cozy in your clothing microclimate you have a far better chance of enjoying the beautiful winter outdoors!

A photo during a winter survival class I was teaching many years ago. The entire 4 days held a high daytime temp of negative 14F.

w-class.JPG

Comments

Well, Wolf, that was all very interesting. I've often wondered if silk is a good product for underwear...at least it's light and washes easily.

I have to tell you that I was most disappointed that you didn't teach us how to skin an animal and use it's fur as an outer covering, I guess that I'm just an old Dr. Zhivago groupie. I thought, well I may be able to make my own coat here...but forget it. We only get possums and who wants a coat out of that?

No, I'm not cruel to animals but I did grow up in a part of the country where living large and outdoors was just a way of life. No, I wouldn't touch deer or rabbit today....but there was a time when they kept us from starving. We never got as low as squirrel though....could you imagine a squirrel among 10 people? I swear to you, I love dogs, cats and pretty well most all animals. I can't say that the bears have the same respect for me.

So if I ever enjoy winter again (which I won't...given the fact that it was confirmed this a.m. that the recent fall left me with one foot a great deal shorter than the other). All things change, I'm now Miss Kitty's sister, Chesterina. I know what a great many of you wish for me...but I wish you well. Yours, Lenora.
 
I have to tell you that I was most disappointed that you didn't teach us how to skin an animal and use it's fur as an outer covering, I guess that I'm just an old Dr. Zhivago groupie. I thought, well I may be able to make my own coat here...but forget it. We only get possums and who wants a coat out of that?
:) Yes well we are talking about practicality here ;)
I do wear a lot of hides-fur and leather... always have. Not much beats them for outdoor wear. However, wool is what normally clothes my body in autumn, winter and early damp spring.
No, I'm not cruel to animals but I did grow up in a part of the country where living large and outdoors was just a way of life. No, I wouldn't touch deer or rabbit today....but there was a time when they kept us from starving. We never got as low as squirrel though
I grew up living in the hills and country, and we hunted for food, but we also used all parts of the animals we hunted. Nothing went to waste. I've eaten everything from deer and moose to squirrel, mice, opossum, skunk, rabbit, goundhog, wild pig, pheasant, grouse, quail, wild turkey, gator, snake... even moths, slugs and such in survival situations.
So if I ever enjoy winter again (which I won't...given the fact that it was confirmed this a.m. that the recent fall left me with one foot a great deal shorter than the other)
Hey now, Bruce Lee had one leg shorter than the other. He had one sole of his shoes built up so he could walk squarely. Yes, yes I realize he was far younger... ;), but hey, you get those bones healed and who knows?
 
:) Yes well we are talking about practicality here ;)
I do wear a lot of hides-fur and leather... always have. Not much beats them for outdoor wear. However, wool is what normally clothes my body in autumn, winter and early damp spring.

I grew up living in the hills and country, and we hunted for food, but we also used all parts of the animals we hunted. Nothing went to waste. I've eaten everything from deer and moose to squirrel, mice, opossum, skunk, rabbit, goundhog, wild pig, pheasant, grouse, quail, wild turkey, gator, snake... even moths, slugs and such in survival situations.

*****You got close enough to a wild pig to prepare one for dinner? I am impressed. :fire:

Hey now, Bruce Lee had one leg shorter than the other. He had one sole of his shoes built up so he could walk squarely. Yes, yes I realize he was far younger... ;), but hey, you get those bones healed and who knows?
Is that true about Bruce Lee, Wolf.? Even if it is, I want you to stop and think about this situation. How many superhero females (with one leg shorter than the other) do you think we'll actually need.? OK, even Harvey Weinstein wouldn't put his pudgy mitts all over me...no matter how nice my hair looked. He'd turn & run screaming as I lamely chased after him.

Also, let's be honest here....you couldn't accuse the poor Lee family of having good luck, could you? L.
 
Is that true about Bruce Lee, Wolf.?
It is the absolute truth, yes. He had to learn to compensate early in his training, and mastered that compensation.
Also, let's be honest here....you couldn't accuse the poor Lee family of having good luck, could you?
Unfortunately they did not have the best luck... though luck didn't have much to do with their demise...
How many superhero females (with one leg shorter than the other) do you think we'll actually need.? OK, even Harvey Weinstein wouldn't put his pudgy mitts all over me...no matter how nice my hair looked. He'd turn & run screaming as I lamely chased after him.
:lol: You never know!!!! ;) They could be in high demand before long. After all, we have all kinds of craziness in this old world these days! :)
 
Wool is what saved my life. Everybody else frozen and possibly gonna check out, I"m in thrift store wool. Soaking wet, freezing cold, I'm fine in the wool.

Also I had a polyester hollow fill sleeping bag. I didnt' realize I could survive sopping wet, sleeping in an entirely water drenched sleeping bag, because it was hollow-fill.

If you showed up with a down bag, your doomed....

And I bought the wool throw. blanket You might survive the night, out in the desert, if you have that Navajo blanket. So I got one, only its Norwegian.
 
The wilderness challenges I faced were : how to survive the heat.

Winter was not when I did field work.

Nope, I"m on the south flank of a mountain without a drop of Agua Fria, on the day its hitting 124 degrees/ breaking a heat record that 40 years later they tell me wasn't the heat record. Well its what the radio told us as we blew the engine going over the Hayfork Divide (later that day, our last day on that job)

How hot was it on that slope that day? Far hotter than 124. Bring a radiant thermometer with....
 

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