Tips for winter


The essential guidelines I put down four years ago are still a good foundation, but with the snow beginning to pile up it’s a good time to mention some specifics which have proven constant from then to now.

The most useful tip for being outside in the cold is to HTFU (harden the fuck up).  Hiking, skiing, hunting, boating and so forth out in the cold for more than a few hours can be both miserable and scary, and a great deal of equanimity can be won by accepting that this will be the case and by committing to a fine understanding of the distinction between uncomfortable and hazardous.  The former is transient, though that isn’t particularly obvious in the moment, while the later can lead to frostbite, trenchfoot, and hypothermia (in no special order).  No shortcuts here, time in the field is the only way to better know yourself.

Next on this semi-hierarchical list is to wear tall socks.  Warming the blood as it heads to your feet puts you permanently ahead in the most consistently difficult game in winter.  This is applicable whether you’re running thin liners inside a vapor-barrier sock for hiking or cycling, or thicker socks inside nordic ski boots.  VBL systems are highly effective, and I use them extensively in temps below 20F, but they are not as universal as tall socks.  Pay extra for ones that don’t sag (I like Smartwool, marginal durability notwithstanding), and when it’s below freezing don’t go out without them.

For winter insulation, and indeed layers of all types, favor breathability over absolute warmth.  In the end insulating value is not about lab numbers, it is about how a system addresses the full range of way you get cold under field conditions.  Convective heat loss from perspiration is almost always the most problematic of these, making it more consistently effective to wear a few more and/or thicker pieces which are more breathable, rather than address the same conditions with the lightest and fewest pieces of clothing which are more protective but less breathable.  Using Patagonia’s Capilene 4, or the many imitators, against the skin is a prime example.  Cap 4 is warmer, statically, than Cap 2 even though they’re roughly (120 g/m) the same fabric weight, but in the cold Cap 4 moves moisture so well it is the cold weather baselayer.  Polartec Alpha is another example.  On paper it doesn’t pencil out well, and is more expensive than fleece plus windshell, but aside from summer I’ve rarely left my Strata hoody home, and when I do I usually wish I hadn’t.  Since I cut the sleeves off a few months ago it’s been even more in demand.


Appropriate layers of head insulation is another key to cold weather success.  The old tales that you loose some huge percentage of body heat via your head were hyperbolic, but it is surely true that head insulation give you more warmth per are covered than any other.  More significantly, unlike torso and leg insulation hats and hoods are quickly added and subtracted, making variable head insulation an easy way to thermoregulate.  I strive to assemble a system which is breathable, and where all the hats and hoods I have can be used at the same time, without engendering the rubber band effect.  In the above photo I’ve got a Kuiu Tiburon ball cap (for keeping snow out of my glasses), Coal beanie (stretches to fit over other stuff), buff (around my neck), and the hood from my Strata.  The hood of the Haglofs Ozo rain coat (worn for paddling only) or the BD Alpine Start (for hiking) fit over all of that comfortably.

Lastly, protect your crotch.  I can’t ever recall thinking oh darn my knees are cold, but I’ve suffered with a cold butt and (even worse) cold crotch on numerous occasions.  On top of those visceral concerns, insulating the big arteries which run through your upper thighs has a preemptive effect similar to wearing tall socks.  Dearly departed Cloudveil made some heavier Powerstretch boxers for a few years, and while I don’t recall what possessed me to buy them, they’ve been an outstanding winter piece for many years.  They’re not on the level of wind briefs, but they’re also more widely applicable.  Buying a pair of powerstretch tights and cutting them off would not be a bad way to go, at all.

So get out there.  Being cold can kill you, but not as easily as most think.  And you’ll definitely learn something.


13 responses to “Tips for winter”

  1. amen for Polartec Alpha, mines been amazing, none of the sweat buildup of other insulated tops.. way less heat loss on that score. Whoever invented it should be given a nobel prize for services to wilderness pursuits…

  2. For the last issue I wear a home made skirt. It makes a huge difference on trips that involve long sections of downhill skiing on logging roads. The skirt does a great job of providing a wind break over my full length, full zip, thick fleece pants (another piece I recommend). My legs breath really well on the uphill, and the skirt allows me to cruise comfortably on the downhill.

  3. you convinced me last year to try tall socks and they do indeed work- I can’t explain the physiological reasons why it works, but it does :)

    I like Alpha too- I have a 80 gram (Strata) and a new 60 gram (Marmot Isotherm pullover). I got to spend a lot of time w/ the Strata this elk season and was very pleased with it- looking forward to trying the lighter Isotherm

    I’ve found that the more time I spend outdoor, the less likely I’m going to get cold- the less time, the opposite- I do believe there is some “conditioning” when it comes to winter weather

    good stuff!

    1. Conditioning is definitely real. Probably impossible to separate the mental and physical.

  4. Coming from the Norther European Cycling perspective I would like to ask you what you think of wool (or merino wool). In cycling circles is touted as the new miracle fabric. What I do know is that it is sweaty when I am forced to don a waterproof goretex shell due to rain (Norther Europe!) — I obviously notice it only at the end of the ride, but if I have to wear a shell over wool I am drenched to the point the goretex shell is drenched (and I am talking about the lightest merino fabric, not some artic insulation). I presume that, were I be forced to stop at -20C I’d be in danger of some level of damage. On the other hand wool does keep the promise when it comes to keeping odour down — how would the Capilene 4 compare? I am not exactly wedded to wool, and I would like to know whether there are better, more breathable options out there.

    I also concur that adaptation to cold works — more time in the cold means a reduced feeling of cold and better physiological response to my hands/feet.

    1. if you’re in a scenario where you’re sweating a lot and struggling to wick it away from your skin then synthetic baselayers are a better answer than wool. they will hold less moisture, if you can stay dry, wool is warmer, but not if you’re soaked in sweat.
      i remember when polypropylene first came out, most people ditched their wool for it, then they leapt at merino like it was the B all and end all… a lot of people by then werent old enough to remember using wool in the first place and the reason why they ditched it..

    2. In brief, wool fibers absorb a significant amount of their weight in water, while polyester absorbs hardly any. In practice, this means that poly shirts get wet only insofar as water stays in between the fibers, so they dry faster. Polartec High Efficiency (aka Cap 4 and the rest) is poly/spandex woven in such a way that the fibers move moisture away from the skin faster, and hold little air pockets against the skin.

      Wool is said to be warm when wet because what water the wool absorbs is given off in a controlled manner, thus lessening evaporative cooling. There is also heat of sorption where the wool gives off energy as liquid turns into gas, but in clothing I think this effect is so minute it is not worth considering.

      The issue with wool baselayers ends up being that if you’re on the edge insofar as producing the energy necessary to dry that shirt is concerned, you end up with a shirt getting wetter faster than it is getting drier, and you just have a wet rag against the skin sapping heat.

      Personally I like thin (120 g/m) merino as a baselyer between 80 and 40 F. No question it is more comfortable, especially when worn for days on end.

  5. FWIW, Wild things now makes a pair of the power stretch boxers you’re talking about.

  6. Another question that’s been on my mind. Why do you recommend the power dry briefs and tall socks as opposed to just a thicker layer of long underwear?

    1. A little more adaptable, plus most light long john pants don’t fit well and sag.

  7. Unlike you Dave, I DO find (the front of) my knees getting cold.
    My wife has a pair of Powerstretch boxers, that I am very jealous of. After almost 20 years, they are getting quite worn.

    1. I need to replace the elastic on my Cloudveils before winter hits.

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