Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about my daytrip to the forest, where the temperature was -7*C (19.5*F). I went to the same place the following weekend, but the temperature during that outing ranged from -18*C (-0.5*F) to -23*C (-9.5*F). Well, I’m “happy” to report that the temperature this past weekend was colder still, starting out at -30*C (-22*F), rising to -25*C (-13*F) and dropping to -27*C (-16.5*F) by the end. As you know, I was having trouble taking pictures with my camera while on the previous outing, so there was no chance of me getting any shots this time (though I did roast my camera near the fire several times trying to warm it up in the hopes that I could squeeze one or two pictures out of it, but to no avail). So I don’t have any pictures for you today, but what I do have is information about the kind of clothing I wear in cold conditions. This might prove useful to those of you starting out with cold-weather hiking, camping, bushcraft etc. In this post, you will find a list of my specific choices and methods. More general information about insulation, the properties of different materials, how heat is lost from the body etc. can be found online.
The following lists cover the clothing I have worn down to -30*C (-22*F) and been warm. Not warm like “lying on a beach in Florida warm”, but warm enough. Later on I will explain how I vary and adjust this clothing at higher temperatures and while being active. I will move from head to toe and from inside out.
Head and neck: 1) Balaclava or buff, 2) Russian-style “ushanka” hat with fake fur
Upper body: 1) T-shirt, 2) thermal underwear shirt, 3) sweater, 4) fleece, 5) light- to medium-weight cotton-exterior autumn coat
Hands: 1) Thin half-leather/half-synthetic gloves, 2) thick fleece-lined leather mittens
Lower body: 1) Thin thermal underwear bottoms, 2) thicker thermal underwear bottoms, 3) fleece pants (…OK, they’re pajama pants…), 4) waxed cotton pants
Feet: 1) Synthetic hiking socks, 2) thick knitted wool socks, 3) fleece-lined winter boots with extra thermal insole
For the base clothing layers, I like synthetic materials that wick sweat away from the body. I like cotton and leather as the outer garment materials because they are rugged and resistant to heat and sparks/embers from a fire. It’s a great thing to have a nice warming fire when it’s well below freezing, but if a spark flies from that fire and lands on your synthetic (i.e. plastic) jacket, pants, gloves etc., it’ll burn a hole right through. In addition, snow does not accumulate on cotton and leather in the same way as on wool, fleece etc.
Although the inner layers of my clothing are snug against my body (but not tight), subsequent layers have to be looser. This allows warm air to be trapped both in the clothing itself, as well as between the different layers. You want to have plenty of bulky (but not heavy) clothing around you to keep you well insulated. Tight clothing, especially gloves/mittens and socks/boots, is not a good idea, because it restricts the flow of blood, which is what keeps those extremities warm. You should be able to freely move your fingers and toes. Tight clothing also reduces the thickness of the insulation around you.
An important thing to keep in mind when it comes to winter clothing is that there’s a big difference between how warm you feel when you are being active versus inactive. At -30*C, I have to pace myself while snowshowing etc. or I will overheat and sweat when wearing the clothing listed above, which is a big no-no in the winter. In fact, I may have to unzip or remove one or more layers of upper body clothing to let out excess heat. But at the same temperature, I need all of those close zipped up well to stay warm while inactive. So when choosing winter clothing, make sure that it will keep you warm while inactive (you MUST test it to be sure). Remember, it can always be opened/adjusted to let out heat while you’re being active.
At temperatures where my maximum loadout of clothes isn’t necessary, I will wear fewer layers or different items, depending on the temperature range to be expected. For example, the fake-fur hat is too hot to wear while being active above -20*C, so I wear a beanie instead. Then when I reach where I’m going, I swap hats. If the temperature will only be around freezing, I may only wear a T-shirt, thermal shirt, rain shell, beanie, cotton pants, rubber boots with one or two pair of socks, thin padded gloves etc.
The reason I wear a pair of gloves inside the mittens is that it allows me to take the mittens off briefly to do tasks requiring more dexterity without having my bare skin exposed to the air/snow. The inner gloves also add some warmth.
One thing I didn’t mention in the lists above is the extra belt I wear. Rather than going through my pants belt loops, this belt goes on the outside of my jacket, high on my waist. I put my belt pouch and knife on this belt, because they are much easier to access than if they are on my pants belt under my jacket. Another item I didn’t mention, but which I always have, is a heavy-duty German army poncho. This poncho is great for keeping snow off me and my pack/gear, which is a big help at temperatures just below freezing where snow is more likely to melt after landing on my clothing.
I came up with my winter clothing system through trial and error over the past few years. By no means is it the only way to keep warm. Some people run hot, and some run cold. It’s important to figure out what’s best for you by experimenting in the field, but be careful when doing so. You don’t want to get stuck out somewhere with insufficient clothing. If there’s any doubt, dress warmer than you think you might need to, and also bring along an extra layer for each part of your body in your pack.
Be sure to check out The Trying Woodsman, a new bushcraft/camping/outdoor blog with a lot of potential by Ron, a Dutchman in Sweden!