How to layer for cold weather hiking

Even in the deepest South of the United States, it can get cold enough to make winter adventures unpleasant or even deadly.  But a little bit of knowledge and the right clothes and equipment can make all the difference and can extend your adventure season throughout the winter!

winter-landscape-2995987_960_720Three deadly C’s of cold weather

  • Cold Kills –  As your body cools, your heart rate drops about 10beats/minute for every degree C that your core temperature drops below its normal temperature of 37°C (98.6°F).  Hypothermia sets in at a body temperature of around 35°C with shivering, slurred speech, slowed breathing, clumsiness, sleepiness – and eventually the heart stops at a core temperature of around 30°C.
  • Condensation Kills – In a cold environment, moisture is a major enemy.  Becoming wet can dramatically speed the hypothermia process. Some of the most common ways that you can become wet in the cold include rain/snow, sweating, and condensation of your breath on the inside of an impermeable shelter or layer of clothing.
  • Cotton Kills – In cold weather, cotton is the least desirable material for clothing and equipment.  Cotton soaks up moisture and holds it, becoming heavy and very difficult to get dry.  In a cold environment, you cannot afford to be wearing clammy, wet cotton clothes.

snow-1185469_960_720Three W’s for cold weather layering

In cold weather, you will want to wear multiple layers to trap air between the layers because still air is a very good insulator.  If you design your layers properly then you can also reduce problems of moisture and bulkiness.

  • Wicking – The purpose of your base layer is two-fold – to draw moisture away from your skin, and to reduce friction between your skin and your clothes.  To do this, your base layer should be skintight, permeable, and non-cotton.  Synthetics like nylons or spandex are great.  If your innermost layer is not skintight then it will tend to get damp and creases and folds will begin to chafe.  An additional benefit to a skintight, synthetic, wicking layer (like nylons, for instance) is that they act as sock liners, reducing the possibility of blisters on your feet.
  • Warmth – Above your wicking baselayer, you will want one or more midlayers to provide insulation by trapping air.  The best materials for midlayers include wool (because it is very warm but it doesn’t trap moisture) or synthetics.  You can still get into trouble if you wear too much insulation because it can cause you to become too warm and sweat more.  Your best bet is to layer up with several thin wool or synthetic layers that you can easily take off and put on to adjust your insulation.
  • Windproof and waterproof – You can reduce moisture problems from sweat by getting the baselayer and the midlayers right, but you can still get wet from rain or snow, and cold winds can cut straight through permeable insulation layers.  To fix this problem, you should have a windproof and waterproof outermost layer.  The most popular choices for an outer shell layer include Gore-tex, tightly-woven wool, or nylon.  You can even use PVC or vinyl but it should be vented and you have to be careful not to exert to the point of sweating.

woman-2896389_960_720Small stuff that can make a big difference

  • Gaiters – These are waterproof or water-resistant sleeves that clip to your boots and cover your shins.  The purpose of gaiters is to keep water and sand from working its way down into your boots – plus it’s one more layer for your shins
  • Balaclava – No, this is not the Greek pastry.  It is a ski mask that covers everything except eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Scarf – A good, long woolen or polyester scarf that can be wrapped around your neck and face several times can really kick up your cold comfort factor a notch or two.
  • Hat – a knit or fleece cap combined with a waterproof hood is a great help in cold weather!
  • Buff – A buff is sort of like a pullover scarf that covers your neck.   Some buffs can be configured to cover your ears and lower face too.
  • Gloves or mittens – One advantage of mittens is that they keep your fingers together where they can share each other’s warmth.  For really cold weather you might want good gloves AND waterproof/windproof mittens over them.
  • Nylons – As a kid from the balmy Southern U.S., we all thought it was terribly funny whenever we’d see professional football players wearing pantyhose to help keep them warm when playing in really frigid conditions – BUT IT WORKS!  Just ask any southern woman who has had to wear nylons during the summer – they can be miserably hot!

high-altitude-mountain-tour-2376961_960_720A few final hints about cold weather clothing

  • Pockets on your outermost layer can fill with water or snow.
  • Hoods can keep you a lot warmer but they can limit your peripheral vision and hearing.  If this annoys you as much as it does me, you might get more mileage out of a good hat and scarf combo.
  • Zippers on multiple layers should not all zip at the neck because the zippers can pile up under your chin and saw at your skin.
  • Pocket warmers can help a lot in a pocket or in the bottom of your sleeping bag.