Being comfortable in cold weather


Spending a great deal of my time ski patrolling, cross country skiing and just plain winter hiking, I learned how to deal with the cold and feel comfortable. I am a coward when it comes to cold weather. Having taken both a winter mountaineering and avalanche course up in the Rockies of Utah, I picked up a few techniques to stay comfortable with modern clothing. I have seen eight plus year olds having a hoot of a time on the snow covered mountain tops. Their secret; the know how to dress for the cold weather.

Body Heat

First of all you need to realize we loose more than 80% of our body warmth from our neck up. Hooded garments, turtle necks, neck gaiters and muffling type hats become useful in holding in your precious warmth. Sun exposure, wind exposure and your varying degree of activity, make it important to dress in layers.  You need to shed a layer quickly or add on a layer quickly to control a proper comfort level. Becoming warm enough to produce somewhat of a sweat is a sure prelude to a later major chill down. It is necessary to dress in thin layers in order to control your proper body warmth. Putting on a hat or removing a hat is the simplest way of controlling minor body fluctuations in temperature.


An cold weather outdoor person chooses synthetic fabrics, wool and, to a degree, a goose down vest for their winter activities. In carefully choosing these fabrics, an outdoors’s person is able to minimize weight and bulk which surrounds their body. Cotton, which is cooling and very comfortable in the summer and in lounging indoors, is not your friend in cold weather.  The density of cotton and its ability to soak in and hold moisture is a perfect medium to transfer precious warmth away from your body.  Almost all clothing is made with cotton. Unfortunately, we tend to wear cotton in all types of activity and weather conditions. If the cold does not bother you, then continue to wear your cotton. When someone reports to me they are freezing, my initial assessment is: “How much cotton are your wearing?”


When dressing for the cold and, if you are a tenderfoot about being cold, you need to wear “Body Armor”, snug against all your skin. This fabric should be very thin and have moisture wicking characteristics. This skin layer fabric consists of polyester or polypropylene (same plastic as in soda/water bottles) which is uniquely spun and put into a specialized weave to better wick away moisture. For elasticity and a snug fit, the garment usually contains some Lycra.  Above this skin layer, you need a middle layer, or two. If you are going to be active, wear either Merino or Alpaca wool knit or a heavily air entrained polyester fleece. If you are just going to be sitting, standing around (like sitting in a sail boat) out in the dry cold or just plain cold all the time, a goose down vest will work well for you. Keep in mind, body moisture and dampness counteract the insulating properties of down. A vest makes an ideal middle layer where it adds insulation yet frees up your arms for easier movement.

Top it off

            Finally, to top off your cold weather body packaging, you will need a wind breaking outer nylon shell for your upper body and perhaps your legs as well. If you are going to be active, you will want a “Gore-Tex” or similar membrane treatment on the underside of the nylon shell. This membrane works wonders by allowing moisture vapor to exit the nylon shell while keeping wind and wetness out. If you are going to be inactive, a complete wind and water block out (rain coat) garment will work.

 Body Mechanics

Your body is designed to limit warming blood supply to your hands and feet in order to protect your body’s core as it gets cold. Although it is important to wear gloves and cold weather shoes/boots comfort and protection, they are not the means to stay warm.  In the event of heat deficiency, your body’s core will not be the first to sense a deficiency of warmth. It will be your hands and feet.  A happy body core creates happy hands and feet.


So far we explained about cold defensive clothing, but you also need to think offensively. Make sure you eat a hearty meal before going out into the cold. Carbs here are your friend. Bring along healthy snacks. Do not let your body become hungry. Your body is like a furnace; it needs an adequate supply of fuel to produce heat.  A hungry body, despite your insightful clothing, is likely to get cold.  As much as we all like alcohol, avoid it. Alcohol brings warm blood flow out of you core to the surface of your skin and thereby causes you to easily loose body warmth. By bringing warm blood flow to your skin, you get a false temporary sensation of being warm while your core experiences a cool down. So, save the peppermint schnapps, hot buttered rum or other toddy for when you are indoors cuddling by something warm for the remainder of the day.


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