When people are looking to buy a winter coat they often don’t know if they should buy one that fits them exactly, or if it is better to buy one a size too big. People want to be able to use their winter coat for all of their winter activities. So what size to buy is a common conundrum.
When buying a winter coat you should always buy one that is one size too big. The reason is you want to buy it big enough so there’s room for your base and mid layer clothing! You don’t want to be swimming in your coat, but you do want it to comfortably over the other layers you will wear under it when it is really cold. For most people buying their coat just one size bigger works out just perfect.
(Quick side note: If you are looking for winter clothing that will keep you warm in sub-zero temperatures even if you get wet, see my article “Fortress Clothing – My Review!“)
In this article we are going to go over all of this in more detail. We will first talk about why being able to put layers of clothing under your coat is beneficial. And then we will talk about what it will be like if you skip the layering and just buy a coat that fits you exactly. This article will be brief and to the point, but it will also be informative. Let’s get going!
Why Your Coat Should Fit Over Your Layers
You want a coat big enough to fit your base layer and mid layer underneath. Ideally, you want enough room in the coat to add two more layers and move around comfortably. This means the next time you go shopping you are going to need to bring you’re A game and your patience. You may want to even wear the layers you will have on during your next outdoor adventure.
The last thing you want to find out while scaling a mountainside is that your arm reach is restricted because the jacket it too tight! You need to be warm and still be able to be nimble and move around effectively with your new winter coat on. Let’s take quick look at why layers are so important and why they should fit under your coat. If you need more information, feel free to check out my in-depth blog post about layering here.
When you are shopping for a winter coat, you are going to need enough room to wear a base layer. This layer plays a critical role in keeping you warm and dry while enjoying the great outdoors. The main function of the base layer is to wick away moisture and keep you dry. The best base layers are thin and fit snug against your body. Base layers are also referred to as long johns or long underwear. Stay away from cotton if you can. Cotton soaks up moisture and then your body heat.
Wearing cotton in the cold, will make you even colder and increase your risk of hypothermia and frostbite. The most effective base layer will be made out of merino wool or a synthetic material. I personally like merino wool, but that’s just me. Merino wool is soft, comfortable and works wonders when it comes to keeping all that sweat away from your body. Merino wool is typically more expensive than synthetic materials- even so, both fibers are great base layer choices.
Now, that you have the base layer figured out, you need to leave enough room in your nice new winter coat for the middle layer. The sole function of the middle layer is to insulate your body. The middle layer works hard to keep your body heat where it belongs. The middle layer is typically bulkier than the base layer, and that’s why you need a little extra room in that nice warm coat. The middle layer is typically a fleece coat, vest or down jacket. Fleece tends to be thick and can take up a lot of square footage inside your coat. But, on cold days, you’re not going to want to leave it behind.
Fleece is an excellent insulator, it’s breathable and it dries quickly! I tend to lean toward a down insulated jacket or vest for my middle layer. Down is amazing when the temperatures are dipping below zero and you need to stay warm for long periods of time. In fact, some of the warmest winter coats on the market today are made out of down. Down is warmer than synthetic material hands down.
However, if down gets wet, game over! Down doesn’t hold up well in wet weather, synthetic material does! Depending on the down coat you choose as a middle layer, it can tend to be bulky- which is why you need that winter coat just a little bit bigger than your normal size. However, some well known winter coat brands have figured out a way to make down coats light and less bulky without sacrificing the warmth. So, if you already have your winter coat and you realize it’s too tight, try on different middle layers- perhaps that will help. If not, it’s time to return the coat and get a different size.
Just as a side note: the middle layer should also be breathable. A breathable layer will allow that moisture from your base layer to move out and onward. If that moisture stays trapped beneath your layers with nowhere to go, you risk becoming overheated and then you start taking off layers. Stop. Don’t do it. For more information on middle layers, check out my blog here!
Why Not Skip Layering and Go with A Smaller Coat?
Great question. Layering is outdoor basic survival 101. Ready to go back to school? Okay, well there won’t be a test, except the one Mother Nature throws your way when the weather changes from sunshine and blue skies to a blizzard in a matter of minutes. Did I get your attention now? The key to surviving the great outdoors in the bitter cold is layers. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, layering saves lives. Layers keep your body heat where it belongs, keep you from getting wet and protect you from the harsh weather. If you skip a step, you will suffer the consequences. First, you will shiver and then you’ll start to lose feeling in your toes and fingers.
While this may seem dramatic, it happens every day. In fact, according to the CDC, more than 700 people die every year from hypothermia. Most of those cases could have be prevented had the victim’s been wearing the right gear. It’s easier to stay warm than it is to get warm. Layering keep you warm, regardless of the conditions. My favorite outdoor clothing company has a motto that has stuck with me: there is no bad weather, only bad gear! Wow! That’s powerful stuff. Don’t skip the layering and go with a smaller jacket. Layers serve a very important function and could very well save your life!
When determining the size of your coat, you also need to consider what you will be doing in the coat. Will you be ice climbing along the Seward Highway in Alaska, where you will be moving your arms in all directions? Or will you be sitting on the edge of an ice fishing hole in Wisconsin, waiting and waiting for something, anything to bite. Your activity level will determine how your coat should fit! If you are going to be highly active where you need full range of motion in your arms and your shoulders, you will need a coat that moves with your body, even with two layers on below. When shopping for coats, wear your layers and pretend like you are doing your favorite outdoor activity.
Don’t be afraid if people stare- if anything they will be impressed with your mime like abilities. Can you bend over and put on your ski boots while wearing the coat? Can you lift up your arms and dig your ice pick into the snow? Can you carry your bow and arrow on your back and reach for it when necessary? All of these things are important to keep in mind when choosing a warm winter coat. Some jackets are made specifically for your favorite activity: skiing jackets have specially places pockets and more movement in the shoulders and back. Mountaineering coats are designed for warmth and increased mobility.
When shopping for a warm winter coat, not only pay attention to the size, but look at the sleeve length as well. A larger coat will typically have longer sleeves as well, but that’s not always the case. You want the sleeve of the coat to run just past your wrists, typically hitting right at the base of your hand. Keeping your arms and wrists properly covered play a big role in staying warm. Did you know you can lose a substantial amount of heat through your wrists? Yes, you can. That small area on your body is home to a major artery that runs fairly close to the surface.
All that warm blood is running through there going to your hands and rest of your body. Outdoor experts always recommend covering wrists if you are feeling chilled or just can’t seem to warm up your hands. Some jackets even come with fancy wrist liners with thumbs holes. The tiny hole wrap around your thumb and keep the fabric in place and prevent that precious body heat from leaving! See also our article “Top 27 Warmest Winter Coats“.
Once you add layers, the sleeves of your coat may inch up toward your shoulders and arms. When you buy a coat that fits just right and you add two layers, you may find those layers may prevent your sleeves from providing that important wrist and arm protection you need to stay warm. There’s nothing worse than finding out your sleeves are too short when you’re 3 miles into a 40-mile snowmobile excursion into the backcountry.
Can you imagine driving a snowmobile with hands on the handle bars and your arms and wrists are exposed to the wind and cold weather? Umm. No thanks. That’s a one-way trip to hypothermia and frostbite. When in doubt, go with the bigger coat with longer sleeves! Again, channel your drama days from high school and act out your activity. Ride that snowmobile, make those turns down the double diamond run and then ask yourself can you effectively move around in that coat. If the answer is no, you need to move on and try another one.
Length of Coat
When you add layers underneath a winter coat, it tends to cause the length of the coat to rise- depending on how thick those layers are. A winter coat should hit you below the waist, to protect your torso and top of legs from subzero temperatures. Before you buy your winter coat, make sure the length of the coat doesn’t change, with your added layers. You don’t want to add layers, only to lose coverage in key areas.
If your winter coat is too short, you may risk exposing your skin to cold weather and releasing all that body heat you have worked so hard for. When shopping for a winter coat, I like to have a jacket that covers the backside too. That way, if I fall in the snow or need to take rest on a rock ledge, because let’s face it, who doesn’t want to take a break on a rock ledge? An extra layer of protection will keep your backside from conduction heat to the colder surface.
Get a Bigger Size, Just Not Too Big
A bigger winter coat will keep you warmer, to a certain extent. If you’re wearing an XL coat and you are normally a size Small, your coat is probably going to be working against you. If there is too much room between layers, all that body heat is going to escape with every mile you hike into Yosemite National Park. Losing your body heat is perhaps the worst predicament you could find yourself in while outside in the great outdoors, far away from anyone! Your best chance at staying warm, is keeping your body heat snug against your body. While I recommend going a size up, don’t go too far away from your normal size.
And please keep in mind, every winter coat brand fits and feels different. You could wear a size Medium in Patagonia, but a size XL in a North Face winter coat. Next time you go shopping for a winter coat, try it on with all your layers and perform a musical number from the Broadway Hit, RENT. Okay, maybe not RENT. But, do move your arms around, lift them up, and make sure that coat will keep you protected, even with the added layers. Time to go shopping!
Related Article: “What Makes A Winter Coat Warm?”