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Dressing for Extreme Cold Weather

Jan 26, 2019 09:39AM ● By Editor
From the prepared.com - Posted:  January 26, 2019


Best extreme cold weather clothing

The most important things to remember with clothing:

  • Use layers.
  • Cover as much skin as possible.
  • Use base fabrics that keep moisture away from your skin.
  • If you’re sweating, let your body vent, or remove layers.
  • Clothes shouldn’t be too tight, which slows down warm blood circulation and reduces the trapped insulation air between layers.

Dress in layers to beat the cold

Dress for cold in layers: base layer, insulation layers, and protective shell.

Each layer has a job. A base layer (against your skin) wicks moisture away from your skin, instead of absorbing it. An insulating layer keeps heat close to your body. A shell layer (outer layer) protects you from wind and rain.

The maximum layers we recommend for severe cold is four: a thermal base layer, a mid-layer fleece, a down jacket, and a waterproof shell or down-filled parka.

How to dress in layers for winter
Layering basics, from left to right: Base layer, mid layer, outer protective shell.

You might have your normal undershirt and button-down that you wear to work, then an insulating layer, and lastly the shell. Daily undershirts are usually cotton, which is bad for cold emergencies, so think about what you’ll normally be wearing when you pick the right base layers to keep in your Get Home Bag and Vehicle EDC kit.

The point is to keep your body’s heat in, not so much keeping cold out.

This works both ways: if you’re going to be physically active, like digging your stuck car out of the snow, remove layers first to keep from overheating and sweating. Overdressing is a thing. It’s OK to be a little cold when you first go outside. You’ll warm up as those insulating air layers do, too.

It’s a common misunderstanding that the value of multiple layers is simply in the added total thickness of the materials. That helps, but an equally important value is that the air in between each layer warms up, creating insulation.

how to dress for cold weather layers outer insulation base
The basic layering system: base layer, insulation layer, outer shell layer.

This is similar to double-paned windows or wetsuits for water. A wetsuit doesn’t keep you warm simply because of the 5 millimeters of neoprene — it’s actually the water trapped between the suit and your body that warms up. Like your own personal, portable hot tub.

The notion of having one thick, waterproof, do-it-all down jacket is misguided. Some people spend upwards of $1,000 on a Canada Goose down jacket that’s suited for fashion, not function. What happens if your car gets stuck and you have to push? You’ll overheat, sweat, and wish you could take it off.

You don’t need to spend a lot on one garment and expect it to perform in every imaginable condition. It’s better to buy a combination of layers that each do the thing they’re designed for very well.

Pay attention to sizing. Some brands, especially the more well-known quality companies, make it easy by standardizing each layer on the same S/M/L/XL sizing — so the L base layer is designed to fit well inside the L middle layer. Read reviews to see what people say about sizing. Many of the cheaper options typically run small, and you may need to buy larger sizes for the outer layers.

Your base layers shouldn’t be too tight, which can cut off circulation of that all-important warm blood. The closest layer to your skin should be just close enough to wick moisture away. Layers on top can be looser.

Ideal materials for winter clothing

There’s a common saying in the outdoor clothing market: Cotton kills.

Cotton is bad as a baselayer. When cotton gets wet, whether from sweat or outside moisture, it loses its ability to insulate you. It’s not a moisture-wicking material to begin with. It can leave you cold, clammy, and work against your body’s ability to produce heat.

Shy away from corduroy, denim, flannel, or duck. These are also made with cotton.

A recent trend is cotton-synthetic blends. It does help compared to plain cotton, but the synthetics are doing all of the work. So you may as well just skip the cotton altogether.

Wool is a classic natural fiber that’s excellent for these situations.

As of 2017, the US Antarctic Research Center at McMurdo Station’s required packing list for extremely cold weather (ECW) breaks down materials by layers:

Lightweight base layer requirements:

  • Synthetics (polypropylene, polyester, branded materials) or natural fibers (silk or merino wool)
  • Density: about 140-200 grams per square meter (the label might list this as “140 weight” or a number in this range)

Midweight base layer requirements:

  • Synthetics (polyester, nylon, non-bulky fleece, branded materials such as PolarTec) and natural fibers (merino wool, down)
  • Density: about 260-320 grams per square meter (the label might list this as “260 weight” or a number in this range)

Outer shell (parka) requirements:

  • 800+ cubic inches of synthetic or down fill (loft of the insulation = puffiness)
  • 250+ grams of insulation (weight of the insulation itself)
  • Windproof outer shell
  • Attached hood
  • Fitted closures at cuffs and bottom
  • Covers waistline when bending over
  • Must keep you warm when inactive for 12 hours


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