HOW TO STAY WARM, DRY, AND SMILING NO MATTER THE ACTIVITY OR THE WEATHER
While it’s true that dressing for success in the great wintery outdoors requires a bit more thought than dressing for, say, an afternoon at the beach, it’s also true that it really just boils down to understanding a couple of key fundamentals.
The first is that proper layering generally involves three layers, each with specific functions. You’ll want a wicking baselayer to move water vapor (aka “sweat”) away from your body, an insulated midlayer to keep you toasty (but not too toasty!), and a weather-thwarting outer layer to serve as your final defense against whatever Mother Nature is throwing down.
The second fundamental of layering is that the specific products you choose will depend on a handful of factors; layering for a 0-degree lunch hour walk is a lot different than it is for a day-long, 35-degree snowshoe hike to the summit. That’s why we’ve arranged this guide into condition and activity-specific categories (there’s even one for kids!), and offered product suggestions for each.
Read on, get layered up, and go outside to play!
While it’s true that one person’s definition of “extreme weather” is another’s idea of a perfect excuse to skip work, perhaps we can all agree that certain conditions call for a little extra consideration when it comes to choosing our wardrobe. Heavy rain, deep cold, and high winds (and sometimes, in combination with one another) needn’t put a halt to your winter fun, so long as you offer them the respect they’re due and choose your outerwear carefully.
Because the combination of cold and wet or windy (or all three) can be not merely uncomfortable, but downright dangerous, it’s particularly important to choose your outer layer carefully when the forecast calls for rain. In these circumstances, it’s imperative to have an outer layer that sheds moisture, while allowing water vapor to escape. This is a particularly excellent place to take advantage of modern, waterproof-breathable fabrics that accomplish both these tasks, while also blocking wind. If you’re going to be on the move, look for garments with ample venting options; you’ll want some air flow as your heart rate rises. Of course, you’ll want to pair this outer layer with a cozy, insulating midlayer and a wicking baselayer.
The key to layering in deep cold is understanding the relationship between air temperature, body temperature, and exertion level. Zero degrees can feel downright hot or miserably cold; the difference lies in how you’re dressed, and what you’re doing. Generally speaking, when the thermometer takes a dive, you should take advantage of mid-to-heavy-weight wicking base layers, paired with well-insulated mid and outer layers. Typically, deep cold is not accompanied by significant precipitation, so waterproofness may not be as high a priority (of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, so keep an eye on the forecast… and on the sky).
Always pack an extra insulating layer in case something gets wet, the weather changes, or you’ve simply miscalculated. It’s also a good idea to have an extra layer to slip on if you take a rest stop; it’ll help keep your core temperature steady.
Exertion level is one of the primary considerations when dressing for wintertime fun. That’s because your body is like a furnace, and how hot it burns depends on the activity you choose to stoke the fire. If you’re, say, sitting in a tree stand, or building snow castles with the kiddos, you’re going to need a whole lot more insulation than if you’re backcountry skiing or knocking out a quick run before work.
Fortunately, accommodating high or low levels of exertion really just boils down to common sense. The less you’re moving, the more insulation you need, and vice versa. The key here is to never underestimate just how big a factor exertion level is, and also to always have an extra layer (or even two!) for those times when the weather changes, or you’ve missed the mark.
If you do find yourself getting cold during a low exerition activity, a few minutes of snow calisthenics are all you need to stoke your internal furnace.
The primary challenge in dressing kids for winter play is remembering to put yourself in their pint-sized shoes. For instance, if you’re heading out on a snowshoe hike with your toddler in a backpack child carrier, it’s easy to forget that even though you’ll be getting a heck of a workout, your little one is, quite literally, hanging out. This is all complicated by the fact that young children lack the experience that leads to foresight; they’re not likely to anticipate the possibility of getting cold or wet, so you’ll have to do that for them.
All of this really just boils down to two simple truths. First, dress your kids well. And second, be sure to pack plenty of extra clothes and, for kids who are likely to be ensconced in a carrier or sled of some fashion, a thick blanket. A blanket will allow you to add a little extra insulation quickly and without any fuss or bother.
Before we look at how to dress light and warm, it’s important to remember that warmth should always take precedence over weight. It’s always better to pack a little more weight and not be miserable. That said, there are some activities (running, cross-country skiing, and backpacking come to mind), when it makes good sense to keep your apparel load as light and nimble as possible. Fortunately, the proliferation of lightweight, highly-insulative materials, along with modern, high performance waterproof-breathable garments, means it’s easier than ever to dress light and right.
One thing you may have noticed: Cotton does not make the list for any of these layers. That’s because cotton does not wick, isn’t particularly warm, and is absolutely terrible at keeping wind and water at bay. Don’t get us wrong: We love cotton. Heck, we wear it pretty much every day. We just don’t love it when it’s time to venture outdoors in winter.
Finally, allow us to play “mom” for a minute, and remind you not to forget your hat and gloves. Although it’s not true that you lose half your body heat through your head (yes, your mom was fibbing, though probably not intentionally), it is true that you lose enough -generally around 10% - to make a significant difference. And of course a warm, dry pair of gloves or mittens is nothing short of essential.