How to Dress for Cold Weather Survival in Winter Conditions
Winter dress is one of the most important factors when taking trips into the woods in cold conditions. If you don’t dress right you won’t enjoy your trip nearly as much, so in this article we are going to break down what do wear and how to layer it. The purpose of clothing is to keep your core temperature regulated and maintained and there are a few tips and tricks for doing that. Shelter is always the most important priority in survival and clothing is your first layer of shelter. Your core temperature only has to drop a few degrees before you can be in serious trouble and your body will start shutting down. You will lose dexterity and clarity of thought and it will be that much harder to complete even the most basic tasks. Hypothermia is a fast killer and has taken many lives and can happen to the best of us. There is a multitude of different ways that you can dress in order to combat the killer cold.
The rule of 3’s states:
3 mins without air
3 hours of exposure
3 days without water
3 weeks without food
Everyone is different and you may last longer than or not as long as the given rules of threes. The rule we are going to focus on is the rule of 3 hours of exposure in low temperatures and how to combat it. First rule of cold weather survival is to never let yourself get wet or you DIE! Now let’s go over how you can prevent from getting wet and stop damp clothing from potentially killing you.
The key to dress for cold weather is all about temperature regulation and what you wear can vary greatly for different conditions. This recommendation is for -10F to 32F, and if you find yourself in colder conditions then that will change your strategy slightly. The best way I have found to regulate temperature and control sweating is by simply layering materials properly according to the temperature conditions. It is important to stay at a comfortable cold, you never want to get hot enough to lead to sweating! By staying at a comfortable cold you will not sweat and if you do its minimal. So how do you do this? You must dress in layers and peel those layers off as your temp increases and by layering you give yourself modularity to tailor your warmth up or down based on your activity. It is all about staying dry in these cold environments, so staying dry means staying alive. By dressing in layers when you feel hot you take off an outer layer or even two, to allow your body to cool off. Then when you feel cold again you throw a layer back on or the two and you will warm up quickly. By constantly removing and adding layers when needed you combat getting wet. Always remember you get your clothes wet your first shelter is gone.
There are numerous materials that you can use for insulation but I’m going to cover what my favorite layering systems are and what works best for me in the coldest conditions. First we will talk about cotton, and why cotton kills. The problem with cotton is that it absorbs water and holds it, thus the insulation value drops to almost nothing when wet. As well to dry it, it takes a long time and that can be bad if you need your clothes dry in a hurry.
Second we will talk about polyester or synthetic products, which is also warm and can be added as a wicking layer. This means it absorbs the sweat and draws it away from your body and dries quickly. It can become soaked just like any other material, but the benefit to polyester based products is that they dry very quickly. Remember you can always speed up that drying process by placing it next to the fire.
Third you have wool, wool is a great choice for warmth but also holds moisture and is very slow to dry. The great thing about wools is that even when it is wet it can maintain up to 80% of its insulation value, thus still giving you warm and protection from the cold. Remember that if the wool freezes though it won’t really matter, so it is optimal to keep your insulation as dry as possible because if it freezes later that could put you in big trouble. That is why a water resistant layer such as goretex over the outside of your clothing is so important.
Lastly, lets talk about down insulation for a few seconds! Down is by far and away the most lightweight, warmest, and most packable product you can buy. It is also the most expensive and worst material for getting wet. For extremely cold conditions we recommend a mix of down and synthetic products. Never depend completely on down for all your insulation needs unless your alpine mountaineering and temps are extremely low and all water freezes quickly. Even then you need layers underneath down like under armour or wool merino long johns. I prefer a mixture of these products to make sure I have the most optimal system possible.
Outline of Optimal Layering Products for Cold Weather Survival:
• Layer 1- Polyester or synthetic base layer. We recommend military poly pros for a budget item or Under Armor Cold Weather gear for something more expensive.
• Layer 2- Wool sweater or material that will absorb moisture from your first layer. For budget items we recommend military wool surplus sweaters or for a really nice shirt the Columbia Gallatin line is fantastic!
• Layer 3- Light Jacket of either wool or down. Your choice of materials will depend on how much moving your plan to do and how much you can pack. Remember wool is heavy and not very packable. Synthetic products and down are lightweight and packable, but typically not as bomb-proof.
• Layer 4- Lightweight goretex outer jacket and pants. This layer will block the wind and keep you from getting wet from dropping snow, walking, and when you sit down on wet material. Remember that goretex isn’t 100% waterproof, but it is great for snowy conditions.
• Socks- Layer of thin wool or polyester socks, and then a medium weight wool sock over them. The thick layer will draw the moisture from the think layer and keep your skin warm. Dry them out EVERY night though!
• Gloves- We recommend a wool glove liner with a goretex over glove. You want to have more than one glove. And dry out your wool glove every night and the goretex is too keep your hands dry when working with wet or snowy objects. It’s best to carry two sets of liners so that when the first ones get damp, you can dry them and wear your other pair. Leather mittens are also a very warm option but will protect less against wetness than goretex will. We prefer mittens and leather for extremely cold conditions and goretex for slightly warmer conditions.
• Headwear- Fleece or wool beanie is typically best and a balaclava or face protection as well. Just make sure there is a nose vent on the face protection you use, you don’t want your breathe moisture to compromise your face insulation. And your goretex jacket should have a hood as well.
*Items Listed: Columbia Gallatin Range Wool Jacket and Pants, Mont Bell Down Jacket, Tru-Spec Goretex ECWCS Gen 2 Jacket, Tru Spec Goretex Pants, fleece military beanie, Outdoor Research Goretex Multicam gloves, Under Armour Level 4 Cold Weather Gear
I like dress for cold weather in four layers rather than three. The reason being is that if you can stay somewhat warm with only the three layers while moving and the fourth layer keeps you warm during the down time, is the best method for me. Having three layers, say a poly shirt, sweater, and jacket, the problem is when you heat up and take off your jacket the clothing you have on is minimal and you cool very fast, so you are constantly removing and replacing your jacket, but it’s easy to leave it on too long because it’s so cold when you take it off. It is difficult to stay at a comfortable cold with only 3 layers. Wearing 4 layers to dress for cold weather is much easier to regulate in my opinion. If you get hot you take off your outer jacket and still have two sweaters and a poly shirt on so you can be at a comfortable cold and you’re more attuned to putting on and off the way you should, because it’s not a shock when you do.
As for the head a nice wool hat works great, something that fits your head and provides ear protection. A hat is the first way to regulate your temperature, take that off first when heating up then go from there. Boots and socks are another area and important. You want a thin pair of poly socks for first layer with wool socks over top of them for warmth and to absorb the sweat. As for boots I prefer water proof and insulating at the same time. Mukluks like the Camuk Extreme are great for super cold conditions and Muck Boots are fantastic for when waterproof is absolutely essential in slightly warmer temperatures.
When it comes to your hands, it is easier to work with gloves although mittens provide more warmth. Remember wool retains warmth even when wet, so choose wisely. Some people wear a small thin pair of gloves under a pair of heavy mittens.
So in closing, I hope this helps you to dress for cold weather and lets you see what you have to consider and how to combat the cold to keep your core temperature regulated. You can pick and choose; it’s your choice but remember the pros and cons of each material and stay at a comfortable cold!