Skip to main content
Dressing for Cold Weather

Dressing for Cold Weather

Posted by Kevin Estela on Jan 13th 2022

If you spent any time as a kid riding a sled downhill at breakneck speed, or perhaps engaging in a neighborhood snowball fight, you probably have vivid memories of dressing up for the cold. You might have had overbearing parents that dressed you head-to-toe in too much or maybe you were the kid that thought you could go out with just a T-shirt and sweatpants only to realize you weren’t as tough as you thought you were. We all have memories of dressing for the cold as kids and as adults, we’ve adjusted our practice based on years of experience. We don’t have to rely on hand-me-downs from our older siblings nor do we have to listen to what mom or dad thinks is best. We are left to our own devices to choose what makes the most sense to avoid the cold and we’re at an age where we can afford to spend on comfort. What you wear now is up to you and your judgment. Certain fabrics and clothing combinations will work better than others and following some basic shelter principles will help you stay warm in cooler temps.

“E.M.S.” Layers

When I was a senior in high school, I worked part-time at Eastern Mountain Sports as seasonal retail help. Over 20 years ago, Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) was still very focused on the technical training of its employees and I learned all about different clothing insulation, how different backpacking stoves worked, and even some rock and ice climbing. One of the catchy ways clothing was explained to me that is still applicable today is “E.M.S.” standing for “External, Middle, Skin”. The layers are almost self-explanatory. The skin layer is the one that makes contact with your skin that serves to wick away moisture. It can be silk, polypro, merino wool, or anything but cotton. The middle layer(s) provide insulation and it can be fleece, a puffy top, or anything that provides warmth. The external layer is the layer used to protect you from the wind and rain and, depending on your activity, from anything sharp or abrasive you walk through in the wilderness. Survival has many “rules of 3” and this 3 part layering system should be added as a standard.

Best Materials

Mission dictates gear. You would not take a 300 win mag rifle bird hunting and you wouldn’t take a 12 gauge loaded with steel shot out for mule deer. Mission also dictates clothing. What you wear will be based on your winter activity. Cross-country skiers will generate plenty of body heat to get away with wearing just a lightweight fleece top and a windbreaker. The New England Deer Hunter, on the other hand, may have to sit for hours motionless and will require heavier clothing to insulate as best as possible. Modern materials vary in weight, water resistance, insulative properties, and other key attributes that let you choose the best choice for your activity. Wool is an excellent choice for wood bumming and reducing your sound signature. It remains very warm even when wet but the tradeoff is weight. Primaloft and down treated with Downtek make great puffy jacket insulation that doesn’t get affected by moisture like untreated down. Waffle-knit fleece is a preferred lightweight layer that can be worn as a skin layer or even a cool summer night layer. The bottom line, you have many options and it makes sense to become educated on what would work the best for your activity. My advice, talk to the folks already doing what you want to and see what they recommend. You’ll get a wide range of answers but you’ll find the truth somewhere in the middle where the answers overlap.

Protection

Protection is a concept. All humans have a survival instinct that makes them fight to stay alive. When we get that gut feeling that something isn’t right, we act on our instincts and move away from harm. Walking out into the cold without proper clothing is foolish. When we throw on that jacket or parka, we don a layer of protective clothing that shields us from the convection cooling effects of the wind and the conduction cooling of the sleet, snow, and rain. In every survival course, I teach for Fieldcraft Survival, I explain how your clothing is your first shelter consideration and you should always be prepared to spend the night in just what you are wearing. This means before you leave your house, you should know what the nightly temperatures are and what you can wear to counter them. In the summer, your clothing becomes your protection from insects and in the winter, your clothing is your protection from the threat of hypothermia.

What About Your Legs?

Walkthrough most clothing stores that stock winter apparel and you’ll find more tops than bottoms. Often, what you wear on your legs is overlooked. We think core temperature and covering our head is all that matters but we forget we still have to tend to our legs. The same “E.M.S.” method of layering can be applied to our legs. Granted, our legs don’t contain vital organs like our core and head but they do provide us mobility which is essential for life. Keep in mind when you layer your legs, you add weight to them. You’ll find sometimes it makes sense to wear lighter insulative layers for your legs if you’re engaged in running, hiking, or anything highly aerobic. You can pack on the layers if you must sit for extended periods. Don’t forget to pack a closed-foam seat pad to protect you from the ground. Another consideration is the length of your jacket. Shorter jackets will help you access the tools on your belt while longer parkas cover some of your butt and groin. You will need to experiment with dressing in layers to find out what combination of clothing works best for you. Don’t simply rely on a hunch without testing it in the field. Everyone has a different metabolism and sensitivity to the cold. Find out what you can tolerate and what your threshold is.

Addressing Different Types of Cold

When I moved out to Utah in 2021, I moved from New England where the cold is mixed with a lot of coastal humidity to the mountains where the air is dry. At one point, I was with the Fieldcraft team and walked outside to grab something from my vehicle. I was just in a T-shirt and someone commented about it being in the 20s when I could have sworn it was at least 30 degrees warmer. Humidity in the air has a way of chilling you to the bone. I was comfortable walking outside for a brief moment but make no mistake about it, I would not fare well long-term with just a T-shirt on. Many factors can impact how warm you feel in the cold and you must contemplate the compounding effects of conduction (direct contact with cold), convection (the wind), and what happens when you run low on calories. Something that works well to jumpstart your comfort level in the cold is chemical hand warmers. I like to use a couple on the inside pockets of my jacket to trap in the heat they provide. I’ll look to make sure the jackets I wear have these pockets. Another tip for defeating the cold is protecting the parts of your body that you might neglect. Your hands, your neck, and your head are often afterthoughts but these areas of your body can influence your perception of the cold. They also slowly allow the weather conditions to cool your body. For this reason, gloves, a scarf, and a proper winter hat (sorry, no baseball caps allowed) will cover the exposed areas of your body. As a good practice, I pack a dry set of gloves and hat along with a scarf with my kit almost year-round and I will wear them as I get ready to turn in for the night. It doesn’t matter how much moisture is in the air, these accessories keep you ahead of the dressing warm power curve.

Insurance for your Feet

I previously mentioned I worked for Eastern Mountain Sports. In that role, I often worked the back of the store where the boots and socks were. Customers would come in all the time and try on boots with white cotton athletic socks. We had a whole bin of “trial socks” and we also encouraged the customers to buy good socks with a pair of boots. Some would scoff at the idea of spending $30-$50 on a pair of socks. I would have to remind them about cotton killing and how this applies to their toes. Some got it, some didn’t. Others needed to be convinced by telling them a pair of $30 socks is just $3 per toe of insurance. Good socks can’t be beaten and even old-school rag wool socks are better than cotton. Ideally, I’d recommend merino wool like Smartwool or the cream of the crop, buffalo wool from the Buffalo Wool Company. If you’re wondering if the E.M.S. method of layering applies to your feet, it can. You can wear a liner sock, an insulating sock, and a protective boot as the external layer.

Your boots are going to separate you from mud, snow, sleet, ice, and near-freezing water. The boots you select for the summer aren’t the best for the winter. I prefer a fabric and leather boot for warmer weather but in the cold, I want a full-grain leather boot. The leather construction is warmer and traps the heat better. Around the campfire, I’ll often remove my boots, one-at-a-time and dry out my socks by putting my foot near the fire. Be careful with your boots in the cold as many have melted. Also, don’t tie your boots too tightly as this restricts blood flow and makes feet feel colder than they are.

Final Thoughts

I’m systematic with my clothing selection and use this proven formula. Others have developed their own methods and some folks biologically “run warmer” than others. What works for me may not work for you and you must discover the solution to your cold-weather clothing issues. Keep track of what works and don’t compromise on what keeps you warm.