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!
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.
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.
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, 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.
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 take 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.
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 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 sooths 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
You will have enough clothing on in winter to sensibly and practically avoid the skivvies 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.
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.
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.
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!
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! For more information on Microclimates please check out my e-book: Survival Heat Loss & Microclimates