Cold weather and snow normally means big, puffy coats and snow pants. You may even have a groovy snow suit straight out of an 1980s ski resort, neon colors and all. The problem with all this puffy clothing to keep you warm? Just ask Ralphie's kid brother, Randy.
We all know this scene since some TV networks only play this movie all day on Christmas. While it may be an exaggeration, it's really not as far off as you think. I've had big jackets and I have experienced the limited movement firsthand but hey, that's the price to pay to be warm, right? Not always.
I remember when I first started hunting with my old man. I was probably about 9 or 10 and we would hunt fall turkey. Waking up at 0330 was like torture to me but I was stoked for what the day might bring. That early in the morning in the fall, in Eastern Washington, there was a definite chill in the air. Not having much to me, I would get cold easily so my dad introduced something completely new to 9 year old me, layering. I was confused at first, "you want me to wear pants under my pants?" My pops hooked me up with some thermals and fleece, along with double socks in my boots. I then put my Mossy Oak outerwear, which my dad bought a size larger for this very reason! I was so comfortable and warm but most importantly, I could move like normal. We drove out to our spot and hiked from the truck what felt like a million miles to my little legs. I started getting hot when I learned another aspect to this layering thing, they can be removed individually to regulate temperature. I took off my fleece and put it in my pack. Upon reaching our stakeout location, I put the fleece back on and sat down. I was perfectly warm even while stationary. Fast forward 5 years and I had almost perfected layering by the time the true test came. A 12 hour drive north took my dad, uncle and I into the heart of British Columbia to hunt the big ones, a moose. It was October but felt like January with temperatures easily into the 20s. On this excursion, I had to be creative with my layers and learned a lot through cold fingers and numb toes. I was fortunate to learn these skills early on and I'm here to share them with you today.
To understand layering, you must understand how the human body regulates temperature and the ways that natural temperature regulation could be detrimental to survival. Humans are warm blooded which means our body temperature is internally regulated as opposed to lizards who warm up by sunbathing. Your body will do everything it can to maintain a steady 98.6 degrees inside of you. If you get too hot, you will sweat to let water evaporation pull heat away from the body. If you are too cold, the body will make the muscles spasm causing shivers. The movement will warm you up. In a cold environment, if you sweat through your clothing, you may as well have jumped in a river. Your sweat drenched clothing will perform as a freezer around your body, inducing hypothermia at a quicker rate. Likewise, in a survival situation where you must preserve calories, shivering will burn unnecessary calories and send your body closer to starvation. The proper clothing for outdoor activities is a lot more important than most think because the body will sometimes inadvertently work against your survival.
Layers consists of 3 basic levels. The base layer is the piece that touches your skin. The mid-layer should insulate to some extent. On top, the outer layer should be competent in repelling the elements and protecting the lower two layers. If you will be less active, consider adding another mid-layer for warm while stationary.
The base layer is what you put on first and has direct contact with the skin. It should have some sort of simple insulating properties while also able to transfer moisture (sweat) from your skin. A very popular material for base layers is merino wool. With naturally insulating properties and a the ability to stay warm when wet, it is a great option for really any weather. Silk is another material that is good to keep you warm, it's thin and light but silk doesn't wick moisture as quick as other materials. My base layer of choice is manufactured by Beyond Clothing using Polartec's Power Grid fleece. The Power Grid fleece contains separate squares of fleece with channels between the squares. It insulates the same way the paper sleeves insulate your coffee, with air. Not only do these air channels keep you warm, but they provide a direct output for all excess heat and moisture. There's many different options for a base layer and they all depend on what type of activity you will be performing. Just never choose cotton for a base layer! Cotton is comfortable but absolutely useless if it gets wet. Stick to synthetics or wool.
Your mid-layer is probably the most lenient layer in terms of what you use. A mid-layer can be a fleece or a down jacket or even a sweatshirt. Fleece will keep you very warm but it is bulky, especially the heavier weight fleece. Down is even more insulated but even more bulky or puffy. Bulk is important for the time when you have to shed that layer. You have to think about what will fit in your pack when you take it off. Down is more compressible than fleece so that's a positive. I've had experience with both fleece and down as a mid-layer. While they both work well, I found a favorite in Polartec's Alpha insulation. As warm as down yet thinner and will return to it's original loft no matter how long it's compressed down in a pack. As a synthetic, it will also perform better than down if it ever gets wet. My mid-layer of choice is Beyond's Alpha jacket filled with the Alpha insulation from Polartec. It isn't bulky at all and breathes quite well through it's DWR finished nylon shell. I can also pack it down real small inside my pack and it pops back into shape when retrieved again. Whatever mid-layer you choose, ensure that it provides good insulation and is easily packable for when you get too hot. Once again, steer away from cotton for the reasons stated earlier.
The final layer and the first line of defense is your outer layer. This should have weather resistant or weatherproof properties to protect both the wearer and the layers underneath. Breathability isn't as important as impermeability is. If given the choice between waterproof and breathable, go with waterproof. I prefer a Gore-Tex jacket for my outer layer. Gore-Tex is waterproof and has some breathability but not much. My outer layer has pit zips that I can open if I get too hot and I can also leave the outer layer unzipped or even take it off if it's not needed. A lot of companies offer waterproof products so your options are endless, just ensure you don't skimp on your first line of defense.
So we covered how to clothe your upper body, what about your legs? If you are actively moving around, your legs stay warm quite easily. They also don't house vital organs like your torso does. I normally only have two layers on my legs if it's cold out. I use Beyond's Aether Long John with the Power Grid fleece as my base layer. I top it off with some sort of waterproof or water repellent pants, often going with my water repellent soft-shell Brokk pants from Beyond. What you wear is up to your personal preference and you know your body better than I do but be sure to utilize the proper layering and materials on your lower body.
If you envision your clothing as a house, to include a temperature regulated interior, insulation and then a weatherproof exterior and roof, you will be able to properly dress yourself for whatever situation you may encounter. Just be sure to add or remove layers whenever you feel your core temperature start to swing one way or the other. Keeping your body at a regulated temperature will set you up with the best chance of survival and the proper clothing will help you do just that.
In case you were wondering, I am not being paid by Beyond for their plugs in this article. I simply have tried many garments from many companies over the years and found the most satisfaction and performance in the clothing from Beyond. I encourage you to check them out along with other clothing companies. It is a huge industry and there is no shortage of options, just ensure that you choose a quality product. Your life may depend on it!
Let me know what you think and what you layer with in the comments below and feel free to send any questions you may have using the Contact page! Also, be sure to share this article with the friends you adventure with! Happy adventuring and have fun out there! Until next time!