How to Dress for Winter Survival


Surviving In ColdIt’s breathtaking, humbling and exhilarating all at the same time.  Adventuring in a winter wonderland is an incredible experience, but only if you are prepared and ready to brace the unpredictable elements: the harsh wind, below freezing temperatures, rain, snow and shivering sleet. Knowing how to dress properly for harsh winter climates can be the difference between life and death.

Dressing for winter survival involves the following basic steps. First, to stay alive in cold weather, you need to dress in layers. Layers keep you alive.  If done right each layer works in unison with the next layer, like a well-oiled machine.  Second, you must be sure your layers consist of the proper fabrics and thicknesses. The wrong fabrics or thicknesses can cause hypothermia and get you killed. And finally you need to choose the proper shoes, gloves and hats for the specific conditions you will be encountering. Mistakes in this area can cause you to lose needed body heat and get frostbite in your appendages. In this article we will be going over these all important choices in great depth.

How Your Body Loses Heat

To better understand why layers are so crucial to cold weather survival, we need to take a closer look at how our body loses heat.  Our body and all our vital organs function best when our core temperature is at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.  Any deviation of our core temperature, even by a few degrees and our body starts to go into survival mode.  So, when you are out in the back country, glissading down a glacier, keep this in mind.  To keep our body temperature at a consistent 98.6, you need to know how that heat escapes our body.  Once you know where the heat is going, you can create a series of layers to match the weather conditions, the adventure you’re seeking and your activity level.  Okay. Let’s get started.

The human body loses heat five ways: convection, conduction, radiation, evaporation, respiration.

How We Lose Body Heat

  1. Conduction: conduction is the process of losing heat through contact with an object. This happens when you touch or sit on something that is colder than your own body temperature.  For example, let’s say you are ice fishing in Northern Minnesota and you kneel down on the frosty lake drill a hole through the ice.  When you kneel down on the ice, your removing heat from your body and transferring it to the cold surface.
  2. Convection: This describes the process of losing heat through wind and water. Have you ever noticed how you feel nice and warm while hiking and then suddenly you get blasted with an arctic wind, blowing out of the north? Yep. Been there.  It’s awful and all that wind can rob you of your body heat.  When your submerged in water, your body is also losing heat through convection.  Except water is not as forgiving as wind.  In fact, if you become submerged in cold water you will suffer heat loss 25 times faster than you would when exposed to wind.  Even If you’re not submerged and you just have wet, sweaty clothes, you will still suffer from rapid heat loss.
  3. Evaporation: Remember that time you decided to hike up to the top of Mt. Rainier and you found yourself out of breath and drenched in sweat by the time you reached base camp? Evaporation=sweat. Getting too hot is just as dangerous as getting too cold. Let me explain.  As I mentioned earlier, if you sweat and that perspiration has nowhere to go it can cause your drenched clothing to steal heat from your core.  Your clothes could also freeze and that would not be ideal.  You may have heard the adage, “stay dry, stay alive” this is why.  Wet clothes in cold weather and you may be facing life or death scenario in a matter of minutes.
  4. Radiation: Our bodies radiate heat. In cold weather, layering can keep that precious body heat from radiating- leaving your body and going into the environment.  Experts believe we lose about 45% of our body heat from our head.  Our ankles and wrists also a major source of heat loss.  Have you noticed how so many jackets have thumb hole options that extend an inner layer over your wrists? It’s to prevent heat from radiating from your body and keep your core at that perfect 98.6.
  5. Respiration: This heat loss happens when you breathe- the process of inhaling cold air and exhale warm air. Of course, you need to breathe to stay alive.  So, don’t stop breathing, please.  But, you can add another layer around your neck and even a face mask, to reduce the amount of body heat you lose.

Girl In Layered ClothesDanger of Losing Body Heat: Hypothermia

It’s cold.  Bone-chilling, arctic cold.  Stay-by-the-fire-all-day-kind-of-cold.  But, she’s calling you.  Mother Nature in all her glory, mystery and magic, is calling you back into the winter wilderness.  The snow covered jagged peaks of the Cascade Mountains, ice covered alpine lakes and miles of untouched powdery terrain is just what the doctor ordered to cure a severe case of cabin fever.  Do you hear it? The crunch of the snow crumbling beneath you as you gingerly make your way to a vista overlooking a grove of alpine trees.

So, what’s the big deal if you lose body heat? Let’s go back to Biology 101.  You know that class you had to take sophomore year of high school? I don’t remember earlier.  So, this will be a refresher course for me too.  Our vital organs, like our brain, heart, liver, kidneys and lungs need to be at a very specific temperature to function.  When our body temp drops below 95 degrees, hypothermia sets in.  Severe hypothermia is when your core temperature is at 82 degrees or lower.  The first sign of hypothermia is shivering.  Shivering, burns energy and generates heat- this is the body’s attempt at stay warm.  If you start shivering, it’s time to get inside, rest and warm up.

If your body loses too much heat, eventually the shivering stops all together and you become disoriented, start mumbling your words and you become very, very tired.  According to the Center for Disease Control, 1,300 people die every year in the United States from hypothermia.  Since 1999, almost 17,000 people have died from the cold weather-related illness.  What’s incredible is that hypothermia, in most cases, is entirely preventable.  Hypothermia is almost always caused by wearing inappropriate clothing for the conditions or being submerged in cold water.

FrostbiteDanger of Losing Body Heat: Frostbite

Without proper clothing and layers, your fingers, toes, nose and other exposed body parts can slowly turn gray, waxy and pale.  This is the beginning stages of frostbite.  In advanced cases of frostbite, you will feel numb and your skin may appear purple or deep red.  In some serious cases of frostbite, doctors are forced to perform emergency surgery to amputate the affected body parts. This is serious stuff.  You can even suffer from frostbite if you’re wearing gloves not suited for the harsh weather conditions.  This is why what you wear is so important to surviving cold weather.

Not only are you trying to keep the cold out, you want to prevent your body from getting overheated.  Some wilderness experts believe the real risk in cold weather is getting too hot.  Sounds backwards, right? Here’s why. If you get overheated, you are most likely sweating.  Sweat is basically water.  If there’s too much water and you’re not wearing the right layers, your drenched clothing draws heat away from your core.  Getting wet or having sweaty clothes is a recipe for disaster in cold weather.  You want to prevent this at all costs.  Once your body starts rapidly losing heat, it’s hard to get it back. This is where layers and fabric come into play.

“Cotton Kills”

Before we explore what layers and fabrics you should be wearing, let’s set the record straight on cotton.   Cotton kills.  Ever heard this before? it’s not just something people say because it’s catchy.  While cotton is the fabric of our lives, it’s also the fabric that could take your life while backpacking in the alpine winter wilderness.  While oh-so comfortable sitting around the orange glow of a cozy camp fire, cotton can kill you in a back country blizzard.  Keep the cotton at home, it may just save your life.  Here’s why: cotton absorbs water and it doesn’t let it go.  The tendency to absorb water has to do with the genetics of the cotton plant.  The cotton, when weaved into fabric has pockets of air that absorb water 27 times its weight.  When cotton clothing, like your favorite shirt from college, gets wet from all the sweating you did while hiking up that rocky peak, it soaks it all up and stops insulating your body. Cotton acts like a greedy sponge and will literally steal all your sweat and your body heat.  From the sounds of it, Cotton, should be locked up for life and charged with a felony.  Just kidding, kind of.

A quick search of “cotton kills” and you’ll stumble upon news story after news story about how cotton clothing contributed to a hiker, snowmobiler, back country explorer suffering and dying from hypothermia.  Most mountain guides will physically inspect the label of every piece of clothing on every member of the team before they head on an expedition.  If a hiker has any piece of clothing with cotton or a cotton blend on the label, they have two choices: throw it away or stay back.  In fact, members of search and rescue teams, are not allowed to participate in emergency response situations if they are wearing a cotton garment.  You don’t want to be rescuing the rescue you team, do you?   Be careful when checking labels for cotton because this fabric is also disguised under other names such as 50/50 blend, denim and flannel.  Avoid cotton at all costs when working or playing in cold weather conditions.

Layers for Survival

Now that you understand how your body loses heat and why it’s important to keep that heat, you can better appreciate the need to wear the appropriate layers when venturing out into winter weather.  Layering is so important. Every layer serves a very important function and if you miss a step, you are messing with your chances to stay alive in the back-country. Survival experts will tell you it’s easier to stay warm, then it is to get warm.  This means carefully selecting every layer, right down to the fabric to keep your body at the perfect temperature to survive and enjoy the great outdoors.  When out in the unforgiving bitter cold of winter, the fabric you choose to wear could very well determine whether or not you experience hypothermia, frost bite and even death.

Depending on your activity level and the weather, you basically need three layers of clothing.  Each layer serves a very important function and without one or the other, you could be in danger.  Let’s take a look at each layer and the primary function it serves.  Don’t worry, there won’t be a pop quiz. Although, taking notes may mean the difference between hypothermia and ending the day in a nice hot tub.  It’s your choice.  Ready. Set. Go! See also our article entitled “Why Is Layering Important To Keep Warm?”

Base Layers
Base Layers

Base Layer

As I’ve mentioned before, every layer is important and collectively they work together to protect your body from harsh winter conditions.  The base layer is just that, the first layer of protection for your body. The primary function of a base layer is to keep a warm layer of air close to your body and keep moisture away.  So how do you do this? A base layer should be close to your body, not too tight and not too loose.  You want a snug fit to trap that warm layer of air.  This layer of air will insulate your body and help keep your body temperature where it needs to be to function properly.  The base layer also needs to wick away moisture. Wicking basically means to move moisture, aka sweat, away from your body.

So how does that work? No unicorn dust needed here.  Outdoor gear isn’t what It was 20, 30,40 years ago.  Advances in fabric and chemicals help move the moisture away from your body disperse it where there is no moisture- to the next layer.  A base layer is typically referred to as long johns or long underwear.  You can find base layers in a variety of fabrics. Some of my favorite base layer fabrics include anything made with Polartec, Merino wool, Coolmax and Capilene.  Base layers also come in a variety of weights, depending on your activity.

If you’re going to covering a lot ground and gaining a lot of vertical, you probably going to be sweating, a lot.  If this is you, yes you, then you may want to go with a lightweight base layer and an extra stick of deodorant.  The weight of a base layer is usually measured in grams, although every manufacturer is different, so read the label to make sure it’s the right weight for your planned activity.

Let’s say you’re going to be ice climbing in 10-degree weather with a wind chill in full effect.  You may want to opt for a mid weight base layer designed to keep you warm when you’re standing around, yet keep the moisture moving when you are active.

Heading to Antarctica any time soon? Me too! Then you may want to go for a heavyweight base layer designed to provide more insulation that your standard lightweight base layer.  Heavyweight base layer is great for really cold conditions, think below zero, expeditions where you’ll be in the winter elements for long period of times.  Some people find it more comfortable to add lightweight base layer and a heavyweight layer on top.  Again, it all depends on your exertion level, the weather conditions and how long you’ll be outside.  Take all of these factors into consideration when deciding the best weight for your base layer.

Best Base Layer Fabrics

So many choices, so little time. Once you’ve narrowed down the weight of your base layer, you need choose the best fabric.  Good news for you, there are lots of cozy, comfortable and really stylish fabrics available for the modern-day back country adventurer.  I mean it’s not like you’re trying to impress anyone when you’re knee deep in a snow on the side of a mountain, but you can look good and keep the cold away all at the same time.  Let’s take a closer look at the best fabrics to surviving cold winter and how they function.

Classic Balaclava
Fortress Clothing

Fortress Clothing

Fortress Clothing is a new type of mid layer clothing that will keep your body warm if you get wet even if you are in sub zero temperatures without having to put dry clothes on.  They are absolutely amazing.  See our article entitled “Fortress Clothing Review“.

Merino Wool

Remember that scratchy wool blanket your grandma insisted you sleep with every time you stayed the night at her house? I do and it was awful.  That old wool blanket always resulted in a mysterious rash and an awful night’s sleep.  This is NOTHING like Merino wool.  In fact, Merino wool is the exact opposite of your grandma’s wool blanket. Merino wool is soft, smooth, comfortable and keeps you incredibly warm all while wicking away moisture at the same time.  It’s like the one trick pony at the state fair.  Merino wool does everything you want it to do when you’re on the top on a chair lift in a white out conditions.

And if you’re going to be in the back country for a couple days and no access to shower, this is the fabric for you. Merino wool is naturally odor-resistant- so you don’t have to worry about being THAT hiking friend who smells like a skunk three day into a seven-day mid-winter expedition into the back country.  The only downside to this fabric is that it isn’t as durable as a synthetic fabric.  And don’t forget your socks. Merino wool socks win the gold medal in keeping your feet nice and toasty, but not too hot. Base layers apply from head to toe.

Synthetic Fabric

Synthetic fabrics have super powers when it comes to wicking away moisture and keeping your body at the perfect temperature.  Synthetics are the like the superman of winter clothing.  If there was such a thing.    Synthetic fabrics are also known as polyester, polyester blends, nylon, rayon and polypropylene. Petroleum is the base of synthetic fabrics so not only are they excellent at wicking away moisture, they are breathable, moving the moisture to evaporation.  Synthetics are typically budget friendly.  You don’t have shell out a small fortune to get a good, durable base layer for your next outdoor winter adventure.  The only downside to synthetic fabric is that it doesn’t keep that fresh and so clean feeling for very long.  If you hypersensitive about smelling a little funky on the trail, then you may want to opt for another fabric.

Mid Layers
Mid Layers

Middle Layer

You can’t go outside in just a base layer.  If you do, you’ll freeze to death. Get back inside until you’ve finished reading this article. Go ahead.  I’ll wait until you pour yourself a nice cup of hot coffee and snuggle up by the fireplace.  After the base layer is established, you need a middle layer.  The middle layer is also known as the insulating layer.  This layer is responsible for keeping you warm.  The middle layer should be lightweight with the ability to trap air and allow all that moisture from the base layer to keep moving on through.  Be careful not to add too much bulk in the middle layer- you don’t want to get overheated! Remember, being too hot can be more dangerous that getting too cold.  As a good rule of thumb, the puffier the coat or vest, the warmer you’ll be. Keep this in mind when trying on coats, vests and shirts for that middle layer.  Examples of a good middle layer include a long sleeve shirt, light weight down vest, fleece jacket or a wool pullover.

Polyester

Polyester is a great choice when it comes to middle layer materials.  By design, polyester fleece is excellent at keep you warm, retaining all that body heat, yet breathable all at the same time. So what does breathable mean anyway? Great question.  Breathable allows air and moisture to  move through the fabric. It’s great to keep the moisture away from your body, but alone, it’s awful against wind.  In fact, if you’re just wearing a fleece in the wind, all that fast-moving air can literally steal your body heat.  This is why a top layer is so important.  We’ll get to that in just a minute.

Goose Down and Synthetic Down

Down coats get two thumbs up when you’re trying to stay warm on a really chilly day.  I tend to break out my down coat anytime the temperature drops below 15 degrees and there is zero wind chill.  Zipping up a down a coat is kind of like walking around in a big old sleeping bag.  Down and synthetic blend coats come in a variety weights. Again, the heavier the coat, the more insulation.  Be careful about getting overheated.  This is where a nice lightweight down coat comes in handy.  Patagonia make excellent high quality down coats designed to keep you warm, but not too warm.  If you’re spending a lot of time in the great outdoors during the winter months you may want to invest in a couple different middle layers to match your activity level and the weather conditions.

Columbia Womens CoatOuter layer

We made it to the outer layer. Nice work! One more step to go and you’ll be ready to strap on those fancy new snow shoes and begin exploring the snow-covered hills behind your house.  But, don’t head out that door just yet, we’ve still have a lot to learn about layering.  The outer layer is critical to keeping your body warm in bitter cold temperatures. This layer is all about keeping you dry and blocking wind. The outer layer should repel snow, rain and other sources of moisture.  This critical layer is also designed to keep the wind from stealing your heat.

If wind was a bank robber, your outer layer would be the security guards- keeping your body heat on lock down.  Get it?  Your outer layer, not just your coat and pants, but from head to toe, should also have the ability to allow moisture to evaporate.  There’s a lot that goes into the outer layer- it’s basically your last line of defense in keeping the cool air out and holding onto body temperature.  Clothing manufacturers have developed incredible fabrics and blends to create an outer shell that serves so many functions all at the same time.  How cool is that? For more information on warm coats and pants please see our articles entitled “What Makes A Winter Coat Warm?” and “What Are The Best Brands For Ski Pants?”

According to REI, outer layers are basically grouped into four classifications: Waterproof/breathable shells, water-resistant/breathable shells, soft shell and non-breathable waterproof outer layer.  Let’s take a look each outer layer option and find what will work best for your situation.

Waterproof/breathable shells are typically they most expensive outer layer out of all the categories.  This shell protects you from the rain and snow and keep moisture moving out.  This is a great combination.  Read the label on the coat before you leave the store- waterproof coats have a rating system defined my millimeters (mm).  The higher the mm, the more waterproof.  For example, a coat with a 5,000 mm rating is best designed for dry snow and light rain.  On the other hand, a coat with waterproof rating of 20,000 mm will protect you the best against high pressure, heavy, wet snow.

Soft shells are lightweight, flexible and move with your body.  A soft shell might be a good choice for a spring skiing kind of day, where the sun is shining, it’s warmer and you don’t need a heavy-duty coat to stay warm.

Water-resistant/breathable shells are more budget friendly than the waterproof shells. So, what’s the difference?  Water-resistant is not the same as waterproof. Let me explain.  Water-resistant means the jacket is treated with durable water repellant also referred to as DWR.  This layer of chemical application basically keeps the moisture away, the water beads up and rolls off the jacket.  Waterproof coats also repel water but they inside of the coat is lined with a special membrane and seals, to keep that moisture from reaching you!  Waterproof jackets tend to be on the pricier side and are a good choice for skiing, snowboarding and other activities where you plan to be outside in the cold all day.  Water-resistant is a good choice for activities, such as a short walk on a brisk winter morning and it’s snowing outside.  Honestly, the choice between waterproof and water-resistant jackets really comes down to what you plan on doing in the coat, the weather conditions and your budget.  As I mentioned earlier, the pricier the coat, the more protection it provides you against the unforgiving winter weather.

Waterproof/non-breathable shells are the most basic of outer layer you can find.  This type of shell is typically lightweight and best for days when you’re not going to be exerting a ton of energy.  The problem with non-breathable shells is well, you guessed it, they don’t breathe.  This means there’s really no way for moisture to evaporate from your body- this could be a problem if you’re prone to sweating or you’ll be covering a lot of vertical in as short period of time.

Breathable

Take a deep breath.  Exhale. Now, inhale.  Notice how your moving air in and out of your body.  Clearly this isn’t rocket science, although I always dreamed of being an astronaut! A breathable jacket works kind like our moving air.  It lets moisture out, which is essential to staying dry and warm and keeps you cool enough to not overheat.  A breathable jacket is like the thermostat to keeping all your layers in check and working together.  In most cases, your outer layer should be breathable. A series of chemicals used on the coats, and the specific fabric (mostly nylon and polyester) make the coat breathable.

Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Knees and Toes

Remember that song as a kid? It’s catchy and one of those songs you really don’t forget.  Brings back so many memories.  I digress.  We’ve talked about layering the bulk of your body, your torso and legs, but what about your head, fingers and feet? Those are perhaps the most important part of your body to layer when you’re building an ice cave in Alaska or if you’re cross country skiing in Wisconsin.  Our extremities, like our ears, nose, finger and toes have special blood vessels, close to the surface of your skin that control heating and cooling.  While your entire body is clearly at risk for losing body heat, depending on what your doing and the conditions, your groin, skull, armpits, finger and toes are the most vulnerable places on your body.  Although, I’ve also read that if you’re fingers start to get too cold, that you should place them under your arm pits to warm them up.  So, what’s the best way to keep these areas dry and warm? Let’s start with your head.

Face MaskCover Your Head

See also our article entitled “How To Keep Your Head Warm In Winter“.  When shopping for a hat, choose function over design.  Some manufacturers have figured out a way to do both, making it easier for you to find a hat that fits perfect and looks good on you too.  Covering your head is critical to keep your body comfortable and your core temperature in check.  As with any of your layers, the type of hat you choose will depend on your activity.  In general, if you’re hunting in the back country for six days and it’s 15 degrees outside you need a hat that covers your ears, especially if there is wind.  A bonus, if the ear flaps can be folded up and down depending on how hot or cold you’re feeling.  Make sure the hat is insulated and windproof.  You’ll be able to determine if you’re hat makes the cut based in the fabric: polyester fleece, fur and merino wool are all materials effective at protecting your head.  If you’re in serious, blizzard like conditions, you may want to consider a balaclava.  A balaclava is basically a fancy face mask that covers your nose, mouth, neck and head.  So, if you’re going for the bank robber look, this is the one for you.  Disclaimer: don’t rob a bank.  The balaclava is great at managing the arctic cold air, keeping your respiratory tract a little warmer.   Some experts believe covering your mouth could really help in preventing cold weather type illness, such as the common cold and more serious pneumonia.

Fortress Gloves
Fortress Gloves

Hands

Keeping your digits warm and covered from the harsh and unforgiving wind, sleet and snow that comes with winter weather is critical to surviving.   Our hands and fingertips have blood vessels close to the surface of our skin- this make them more susceptible to losing heat. When choosing the right glove, how they fit will be a good indicator in how warm your hands will stay when you’re huffing it through drifting snow.  If your gloves are too big, there is too much air circulation between your hands and your gloves.  This pocket of air causes your hands to lose heat. If there’s too much air, your body is working extra hard to keep your hands warm.  The cycle continues, until your fingers are so cold you can’t feel them.  We don’t want that. You need every finger you have! Too snug of a glove and the circulation is cut off and those tiny blood vessels in your fingers don’t function the proper way.

The type of glove you purchase will of course depend on the weather and what you’re doing.  For example see our article on “How To Keep Your Hands Warm While Camping“.  You can also layer your gloves, to create the best and warmest conditions for your hands (but not too warm).  Glove liners are a great choice to put under any pair of gloves.  Think of liners as long johns for your hands! The best choice for liners are typically made of Merino wool.  Merino wool is soft, breathable and wicks away moisture from your hands.

Keeping your hands and wrists covered is a key component to layering for survival in cold weather.  In fact, your wrists are actually a major source of heat loss on your body. Our wrists have very little fat and radiate a lot of heat.  To keep wrists covered opt for an outer layer or mid layer with thumb holes.  The protection is built right in and when you add your gloves in you’re going to be ready for adventure in the winter wonder-land.

Keep Feet WarmToes

Have you ever noticed when your feet and toes start to get chilling, the rest of your body starts to follow? Like when you’re on the ski chair and suddenly your whole body is shivering.  It’s the worst and it’s also preventable.  Wearing the right socks and boots could mean the difference between life and death when you’re trying to survive in cold weather.  Here’s why: your feet are almost always touching a surface colder than your body.  When you’re hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, hunting and camping in cold weather, your feet lose heat through the process of conduction.  Yes, your boot and shoes make a difference in how much heat is actually transferred from your feet to the ground, but there is some heat loss with the process.

With that said, keeping your feet warm is crucial.  Winter survival experts recommend thinner, not thicker socks to keep your feet warm.  Merino wool socks are soft, cozy, breathable and wick away sweat from your feet. If you have really sweaty feet, Merino wool might just be the best bet for you.   Remember stay dry, stay alive! Don’t wear cotton socks.  Cotton kills.  The cotton fiber soaks up water and draws heat away from your body.  Stay away from cotton, at all costs.  If you’re feet get wet, then your entire body will feel the effects.  We don’t want this to happen.

Layering from head to toe will keep you alive in cold weather.  Yes, there are a lot of steps and a lot of materials to choose from, but once you figure out the perfect combination for your next adventure, you’ll be all set for anything Mother Nature throws your way.  You’ll be like the Postal Service, except without delivering the awkward packages and the pressure of high priority mail. Slick Sleet, fluffy snow, crystal ice, hazardous hail, blinding blizzards, snow drifts, whipping wind and sub-zero temperatures will have nothing on you. Layering your clothes will keep you safe, warm and alive while exploring the ice-covered lakes of Pennsylvania, the breathtaking snow-covered peaks in Banff and fresh pow pow overlooking Lake Placid.  As John Muir, adventure seeker, avid hiker and “father of the national parks” famously said ‘the mountains are calling and I must go.’  Go! Seek the mountains and all that winter wilderness offers.  Breath in the cold air.  Live in the moment.  It’s cold, but Mother Nature is calling you back into the wild. Where will you go? Please see our articles entitled “What Are The Best Brands For Warm Winter Socks?”, “How To Keep Your Feet Warm In Winter While Sitting Still” and “How to Prepare for Emergencies“.

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