Winter weather wilderness wear

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.

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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!

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14 comments on “Winter weather wilderness wear

  1. Bill Giles says:

    This seems like a pretty good and well thought out list. My choices are similar. One thing that I have to consider is allergies. I am probably allergic to wool and most natural furs. I like wool and especially Merino wool base layers, but I probably need something else next to my skin. Other than that I have been mostly synthetic for years. I prefer acrylic flannel shirts in the winter. They are bulky and don’t mat down. Unfortunately, they are becoming harder to find. Acrylic sweaters are a good substitute for wool. My outer layer would probably be a Carhart cotton canvas bib overall. I sometimes wear these, but sometimes don’t. Since they have suspenders, they are comfortable to wear over all of the insulating layers. They aren’t particularly light, but they are durable and reasonably spark resistant. Here in the US, Carharts are pretty common, but they are a premium brand and expensive. Sizing them is tricky and best done by wearing them in the store. If I order them, they are usually too small and being cotton, they shrink when laundered. I usually get my cotton clothes a size larger than the synthetics.

  2. Finnman says:

    You have quite many layers when “inactive” in cold winter temperatures:

    Lower body: 1) Thin thermal pants, 2) thick thermal pants, 3) fleece pants (…OK, they’re pajama pants…), 4) waxed cotton pants

    So are those waxed cotton pants different you wear in summertimes or are they just so loose in summer that you easily put 3 layers under?

    Yes it´s huge difference while you are on move or standing still. If you stand still in -30´C nothing is enough to keep you warm after a while. It also makes big difference if you are tired or hungry.

    Good old “karvalakki” (fur hat) is great in cold but too hot when you are active especially if it´s “closed” even very cold like -25´C or more.

    But good general information for those who are not familiar with cold temps.

    – Finnman

    • So what’s the “correct” number of layers? 😉 If I am wearing one big puffy jacket, maybe one layer will work at -30. Instead, 10 thinner layers of clothing could work just as well. I don’t think it’s possible to say that I have too many or too few layers without knowing how thick those layers are. My coat, for example, is not that thick at all. Most of the insulation comes from the layers underneath it.

      The thin thermal pants are VERY thin. Like underwear thickness. The thicker thermals are thicker, but nothing like purpose-made ski pants or something like that. The pajama pants are also not super thick. Yes, the cotton pants are the same ones I used in summer. The reason I can fit those other layers underneath is because I lost a lot of weight over the past 2 years, so the pants are extra big. 😀 I actually don’t even wear them in the summer anymore because they are so big.

      Yep, it’s good to alternative being active and being still to keep the heat going.

      I have found that the karvalakki is not too hot at temperatures below -20*C when active, but above that, yes, it’s too hot.

      Maybe you could write a post at your blog telling us about the last time you were active and inactive outside at -30 and exactly what you were wearing. 😀

      • Finnman says:

        No hard feelings man 🙂
        There´s no correct layers I was just thinking your four layers, cause I put 3 layers all together and it was bit tough to fit my outer pants on anymore..
        -30 and more is quite extreme where I basicly cannot keep myself warm without fire when inactive. My first problem is same like Ron that I got my feet cold first mainly cause they get sweating really easily.
        Material and thickness of layers make difference also. Most important is that people wear as many layers as needed for the weather

        – Finnman

        • The inner pants layers are actually pretty thin, and since my pants are “too big”, they are not tight with all those layers underneath. 🙂

          At some points, I did tend to get a bit cool while being inactive for a little while, so it was good to move around a bit. But I was never to the point of shivering.

          You guys have the opposite problem as me. I don’t think it’s possible to get my feet hot enough to sweat at those cold temperatures!

  3. Ron says:

    Hi Matt,
    sounds like a well thought out outfit. There is no right or wrong in this, I guess. The only wrong you can have, is when you’re cold and/or uncomfortable. These things are very personal. As you said some run cold, so run warm.
    My personal experience did not come lower than -21 this winter, but I was comfortably warm (stationary) and sweating (on the move) in my woolen outfit without the additional need for thermals. Being stationary at -30 would certainly require those, too!
    I did notice that in those temperatures snow doesn’t stick to anything anymore. It’s like sand. What are your findings about that?
    I also always carry my German poncho. It makes a great rain- or snowcover, both to wear or to shelter under. It’s quite sturdy.

    My biggest problem are my feet. Always have been. As soon as I stop walking they turn cold no matter what I try/tried. My feet start to sweat quite fast, especially in boots or shoes with rubber or other synthetics in them and thus everything gets damp.
    I need to wear footwear from leather all the time. My only hopes so far are either a pair of Canadian muluks or maybe those Russian Valenki’s….

    BTW; I did receive a small package from Finland today. I was very pleased with its contents, but found a little extra inside, when examining the promissed contents!!
    A very big thank you for both of the items! I’ll take’m out with me tomorrow!
    I owe you one…

    cheers!

    • I really like that woolen outfit of yours! I have an Italian military blanket that’s just sitting around. Maybe I need to turn it into something! I think you are right that snow is less likely to accumulate on wool when the temperature is very low. It’s probably more of an issue at just under freezing.

      My feet also tend to get cold, but I think my new boots are the answer. Have you tried insulating insoles?

      Glad to hear you got the package. 😀 Hope you enjoy the shoulder bag and mini-knife. I’ve been using my shoulder bag for over 3 years and love it.

  4. Ron says:

    It is salmon skin??? Awesome!
    I took both of the gifts with me today on yet another hike…. but a very, very different one! Love the bag, btw!!

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