Staying warm in cold weather is one thing, but staying warm while retaining the capability to put in strenuous work and properly regulate your temperature for the long haul is another.
Dressing appropriately is essential for best performance in cold weather, and that means you’ll need to choose the right materials and also put your clothes on in the right order, a process known as layering.
So how do you properly layer clothing for warmth in cold weather?
Proper layering consists of a moisture wicking innermost layer, a warm air-retaining mid layer or mid layers, and a wind- and weatherproof outer shell. Additional equipment includes climate appropriate headwear, footwear and gloves or mittens.
This approach will keep you warm, and also allow you to regulate your temperature as the situation dictates.
It might sound exasperating at first, having to learn an entirely different way to dress yourself just to head out into the cold, but the improvement and comfort, long-term performance, and safety is considerable and if harshly cold weather or a permanently frigid climate is part of your survival context you should keep reading to learn more!
Exposure is a Killer!
Dressing appropriately for cold weather is about far more than just comfort.
Though you can get away with inadequate garments or haphazard layering if you are just out running errands, if you were going on a serious, long duration adventure, or even worse find yourself in the middle of a cold weather survival situation, your clothing and employing it properly becomes a matter of life and death.
Consider that exposure is one of the single most consistent and deadliest killers and all of nature across all survival situations, and you might come away with a different point of view.
You can go for days without water or weeks without food, but you won’t last a couple of hours exposed to merciless cold when conditions are really harsh and you aren’t dressed appropriately.
Considering that all of your other survival requirements won’t press pause just because it is blisteringly cold outside, you had better brush up on correct cold weather procedure.
Staying Warm is Good, but Too Warm is a Problem
A classic newbie mistake when outside in extremely cold temperatures is dressing to stay warm, but then getting too warm- either through exertion or failing to adjust their layers depending on their level of activity.
Anytime you are out in the most frigid environments or weather getting hot enough, when you start sweating is a major problem.
Though you won’t always be able to avoid it, this can pose a substantial danger because moist, clammy or wet skin that is exposed to cold air or, even worse, cold wind will lose heat at an unbelievable rate chilling you before you can do anything about it.
This is especially problematic for your extremities, hands, feet and face because frostbite can attack wet skin exposed to the outer air and start freezing flesh in mere minutes. That is going to make for a bad day no matter who you are and how you’re dressed!
The solution is to dress in layers that will help keep you dry, and also afford you the ability to vent a little excess heat when you start getting too warm, helping to manage perspiration.
Layering Made Easy
Layering properly is really not difficult so long as you start out with the right equipment and understand what you’re trying to do.
Your objective is to move perspiration away from your skin, preventing a drastic loss of heat when it is exposed to cold air, while trapping a layer of warm air against your body generally, insulating you from the chilly atmosphere.
This is easily achieved using a three or four layer system, with each of the layers described below.
Layer 1 – Base Layer: Your base layer is the layer that is directly against your skin and should be light, thin and relatively form fitting. This is the layer that should pull perspiration and moisture off of your skin and allow it to dry quickly.
For that reason, certain wool blends or synthetics are best; cotton should be avoided at absolutely all costs! Cotton takes forever to dry out, and that makes it the worst possible base layer for cold weather.
Layer 2 – Mid Layers: Your mid layers are the ones that are directly responsible for trapping a cushion of warm air against your body, keeping you pleasantly toasty and safe from the freezing cold.
Generally your mid layer should be light, fluffy and puffy, ideal for trapping a large volume of air and keeping it warm.
If you are in extremely cold temperatures you will use a second mid layer put on immediately over your base layer consisting of a thin but warmer garment like a sweater.
In this case you’ll have your base layer, thin mid layer then puffy mid layer in that order before donning your outer layer, below. Several fabrics are a good choice here but once again you should avoid cotton.
Layer 3 – Outer/Shell Layer: Your outermost or shell layer should be your weather and wind blocking layer, designed to keep precipitation off of your body, and also forming an impermeable barrier to the wind which will easily strip heat off of you.
Note that your outer layer is often at its best when it is a technical fabric that is breathable; this is because you constantly want to be evacuating moisture away from the surface of your skin.
A completely impermeable layer will quickly turn your clothing into a soggy mess, and result in you freezing to the bone.
Accessories: Accessories should be added or removed as a situation dictates, but will always include quality winter boots that will help keep your feet warm and dry while allowing them to breathe, gloves or mittens and warm headgear. Optional bits of kit might include scarves, gaiters, face masks or wraps, and goggles.
Venting, Access and Other Considerations
There’s one thing you’ll have to do to assure success as you are layering your clothing, and that is vent heat when the time is appropriate.
The harder you work, the more you exert yourself the more you will sweat, and that means you need to shed layers before you get too hot, or at the minimum crack the seals by undoing zippers velcro and so forth to let some heat out.
If your clothing is set up intelligently and is easy to access and manipulate even with gloves or mittens on so much the better. You should also take care to avoid choosing layers that will stack thick and bulky buttons or zippers a top one another as this can easily lead to chafing.
You should make it a point to test run your clothing by attempting to add and remove layers while wearing gloves or mittens. If you can’t manage that, you might consider getting different gloves, but you might also consider trying a different configuration of clothing.
If this sounds like some additional work, that’s because it is. Surviving in the coldest environments is one thing, but actually existing, putting in work and thriving is another and you’ll have to conform if you want to stay reasonably comfortable and safe.
Don’t Forget Color Choice
Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention color choice when selecting clothing. No matter what layer of clothing it is you should choose something that is a bright and contrasting color against the snow, or whatever environment you are in.
You generally don’t see white, gray and mottled black utilized for snowy environments because these colors are in fact camouflage in those environments!
Hikers, mountaineers, skiers, snowboarders and cold environment rescue personnel all choose extremely bright, eye-searing colors because they stand out the best against the snow and might make the difference between being spotted, and ergo rescued, or being overlooked.
This should even apply to your base layers. Don’t choose white unless you are deliberately trying to stay unseen or hidden in a snowy environment.
Properly layering clothing for cold weather environments is relatively simple, but must be done properly with a nod toward temperature control.
Base layers must evacuate moisture from the skin, mid layers must trap heat in order to keep you warm and outer layers must repel moisture and block wind will still allowing moisture to evaporate.
With some careful forethought and choice selection, you’ll be able to survive and thrive even in the coldest environments.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.