Humans are not built for cold weather. We don’t have layers of fur like the polar bear, nor do we have protective blubber for insulation like marine mammals. What we do have is very advanced brain, and the ability to fashion tools with which we can adapt our environment to suite us instead of having to adapt to our environment. Cold weather gear allows us to create a small environment that is perfectly suited for us.
Cold weather gear is designed to offer protection from the elements, while at the same time not overly restricting mobility or vision. Ideally, while wearing cold weather clothing, you should be able to move about and work or perform other tasks without the gear interfering, and while staying comfortable.
You’ve probably heard this before, but the best way to dress for cold weather is in layers. There are three basic layers here: The outer waterproof shell layer, the insulation layer, and the inner base layer. The base layer is usually made up of long-johns or other long-underwear. Modern textiles with moisture wicking technology are the best. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have moisture wicking technology and breathable waterproof layers. Even in the cold, your body sweats, and that moisture will build up in the layers of insulation you’re wearing. Insulation that is wet is MUCH less effective at keeping you warm, so it is very important to get a moisture wicking base layer and waterproof and breathable outer layer.
The insulation layer is the next layer, and it has the most variation to it. It may consist of one or multiple layers of fleece or similar fabrics. Under no circumstances should denim or any cotton fabric or canvas be used in the insulation layer, or in any layer for that matter. Cotton is very effective at absorbing water, and as we’ve discussed earlier, moisture and water are killers in the severe cold. Wool, fleece, and synthetic fabrics are much better choices for the insulation layer.
Finally, we come to the outer shell layer. This layer may have some insulation built into it, but its primary role is to protect you from wind and water. Most modern versions of these parkas utilize textiles that are both waterproof to keep out snow, rain, and wind, but also breathable to allow water vapor and moisture to escape.
There’s an old Inuit saying that goes “When your feet are cold, cover your head.” That saying has more than a grain of truth to it. Head covers in cold weather are vitally important to staying warm. You lose as much as 45% of your body heat through your head if it is left exposed to extreme cold, so keep it covered! Head gear should be worn in layers just like the rest of your winter clothing. Start with a base layer such as a ski-mask, balaclava or scarf. It is important to keep the mouth and nose covered in the severe cold, as this helps the body to retain heat and moisture that would otherwise be lost through the breathing process. A long scarf can be wrapped around the head, mouth and neck to provide the base layer of protection. On top of this base layer, a warm woolen or fleece cap, or other insulated head cover can be worn. Finally, the hood from a windproof parka or outer coat will protect from wind and moisture.
Don’t neglect your eyes. Goggles or other forms of eye-protection keep your eyes from becoming dry and irritated by cold dry winds. Make sure to use eye protection that is polarized to protect from harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun. In snowy or icy conditions, especially at high altitudes, your eyes can be damaged and burned causing “snow blindness” by the intense rays that are not just radiating from the sun but are also being reflected back up at you from the snow. If you don’t have eye protection, in an emergency, you can fashion some by cutting two slits in a strip of cloth. Tie the cloth around your head so that it covers your eyes, but where you can peer out through the slits in the cloth.
Hand and Foot Warmers
Hands and feet should also be protected with layers of clothing. The base layer should be thin, moisture-wicking gloves and socks. Over that should be a nice thick set of woolen socks for your feet, or insulated gloves for your hands.
Hand and foot warmers are a fantastic way to keep your extremities warm and toasty. Gloves with pockets for the warmers are perfect for regulating the amount of heat that the warmers can produce. Of course, I find that they work just fine stuffed into the hand warmer pockets of a jacket or parka.
Insole style boot and shoe liner warmers are also available to keep your toes nice and warm during freezing conditions. These warmers, like the hand warmers, reduce the chance of frostbite from reduced blood flow by keeping your extremities warm.
Gear and Accessories
Food and Water
I’m not sure if food qualifies as gear, but it is certainly important for combating severe cold. Your body needs fuel to burn in order to stay warm, and food is that fuel. Your caloric consumption in the cold can be almost double that of normal. Eat foods that are high in sugars and carbohydrates, as these are easiest for your body to use immediately and transform into heat.
A Camelback or other hydration system is not only great for keeping hydrated in the cold, but it is fantastic at keeping you warm if filled with hot liquids. If you are wearing a camelback in cold weather, wear it underneath your insulating layer, close to your base layer. In this fashion, it both warms your body while being warm, and can provide nice hot broth or other warm liquid to keep you fueled and hydrated.
If you live in a climate that experiences cold winters, it is a good idea to always have a winter emergency kit in your vehicle. Each kit should contain some basic survival and emergency gear, in addition to a first aid kit and tire chains if appropriate. I keep my kit in a rubber tote, although duffel bags or other large bags work well too. Your basic kit should contain blankets or sleeping bags, water, food, a flashlight, flares or emergency triangles, jumper cables, and an ice scraper or brush. Whenever you travel in severe winter weather, always take a mobile phone and a portable phone charger. If you still have room in your kit, I find that tire chains, a tow rope, a shovel , and bag of sand or granite (granite chips are usually available at your local gravestone manufacturer) are lifesavers for getting you un-stuck from deep snow or treacherous ice.
Humans, unlike other animals, are not suited for life in cold climates; we must use tools, gear and equipment to protect ourselves from the freezing temperatures. With the proper gear, even the most frigid temperatures on the planet become livable. Cold weather gear is essential for life outside of the tropics.