In February, sometimes it can seem like winter will never end—but if you know how to dress yourself for the cold, you won’t want it to!
Cold? Not Me!
Mittens are best for extreme cold, but well-insulated gloves like these work for less severe conditions.
By Col. Kenneth N. Haynes (Army, Ret.)
Photos by Hannele Lahti Know the facts
Three conditions affect your ability to withstand exposure to the cold. First, when you become overly chilled, your body will divert blood away from your extremities to keep your vital organs warm. This makes your head, hands and feet more susceptible to frostbite, especially your ears, nose, fingers and toes.
You also lose a lot of heat from your head. Recent research shows that it's not as much heat as people once thought (30-50 percent instead of 90 percent), but that's plenty.
Finally, wet clothing or skin is very dangerous in the cold, because it conducts heat from your body very rapidly. Rain, melting snow, groundwater from the outside and your own sweat work against you. Your body continues to sweat in the cold (more so as your activity increases). When you slow down, evaporation and the way sweat conducts heat will chill your skin and make you cold.
Dressing in layers can address all of these factors.
Start with a relatively tight base layer that can wick sweat away from your skin. There are a number of fabrics that do very well at this, including silk and modern synthetic blends. Avoid cotton, because it does not wick moisture.
Stuck in the middle
Your middle layer is there to keep you insulated. Its thickness will depend on how cold it is, and what you're going to be doing. If you'll be active, it can be a little thinner; if you'll be holding still (like ice fishing or waiting in a duck blind), it should be thicker. It should be just a little bit loose, because a small amount of air between the layers will help insulate you. The fabric for this layer should “breathe,” so that the moisture your base layer is wicking away doesn't get stuck here. Wool and synthetic fleece are great choices for the middle layer. You can always carry an extra middle layer in your pack in case you need it.
The outer limit
Although the outer layer depends on what you're going to be doing, there are still some basic guidelines to follow. It should protect you from both wind and rain. Fleece alone won't stop wind or water, so combine it with a protective outer material like Gore-Tex that will repel moisture and wind. Remember that although snow isn't always wet when it falls, your body heat will melt it.
Protect your hands, head and feet. Gloves are not enough for extremely cold weather. Instead, use mittens. If you really need dexterity, you can layer mittens over gloves, or wear “glo-mitts,” mittens that can be flipped back to reveal a glove underneath. If you're going to have to spend a lot of time holding still, mittens with pouches for handwarmers can really make all the difference. Mittens have to fit you. A little bit of air will help insulate you, but a mitten that's much too big will let the freezing cold in.
Hats can keep a lot of heat in and let a lot of heat out. There are lots of different styles and fabrics that will work, from knitted caps to fur-lined bomber hats. Again, save cotton fabrics for warm weather.
Finally, be sure to take good care of your feet. Wear socks that have the same wicking capabilities as your base layer. It never hurts to double up socks, either, as long as your shoe will still fit comfortably over them. There are many insulated and waterproof shoes and boots on the market. Some of them are rated to certain temperature ranges, just like sleeping bags. Keep an extra pair of socks in your pack or inside your shirt, and change socks if your feet get wet. Here's a safety tip: Right now, lift your toes and feel them touch the inside of your shoe. If you can't feel that when you're cold, frostbite is on the way! The same is true for your nose, ears and fingertips.
Don't sweat it
When your body is working harder, open zippers, remove layers and take off your hat before you start sweating. Don't bundle up until you stop sweating and your body has cooled comfortably.
If you get cold and can't get to a warm place, zip up your clothing and do exercises. A brisk walk or a dozen knee bends and pushups inside insulated clothing can restore you very quickly.