With the cold weather, just around the corner it is time to begin winterizing your kit. While this is an involved process spanning not only your load bearing choices and weapon maintenance but sleep systems, shelter and general tradecraft (check out our article on Packing For Your Next Outdoor Adventure for more information) we will begin by addressing the necessity of appropriate clothing choices.
When we talk about clothing for austere conditions there is one key enemy, and contrary to popular belief it is not necessarily the cold. Moisture kills. Simply put, if you are wet from sweat or making your way through a swamp you are at risk of hypothermia even if the ambient temperature is not particularly low. Thus, you need to focus on appropriate materials that will allow you to shed excess moisture. For many of us this will be a mixture of synthetic and natural fibres. Which fibre you choose will be reflective of what part of your body you are covering.
Your Head & Neck
A quality hat for sun or cold is valuable addition to your kit. Look for a quality moisture wicking fabric (ideally natural fibre as they tend to be warmer) that will help dissipate excess moisture and subsequently body heat. I would advise against fur or heavy wool as while they are quite warm they can lead to excess sweating, and as previously discussed sweat is the primary cause of hypothermia in cold climates.
While quality headwear will protect your head, you will need something to protect your face from snow, sleet, dust and cold. A Shemagh is a multipurpose garment and can be used for this purpose but it is not well suited to colder climates. Instead use a Merino wool or synthetic neck gaiter. Brands such as Outdoor Research and Arc’Teryx make particularly good neck gaiters for cold conditions. Buff also makes an excellent option however it is not nearly as warm or as comfortable in cold conditions as the other options.
Mittens will always be warmer than gloves. Ideally if you are going to be in extreme cold look for mitts that you can wear with a pair of quality gloves. Many companies make gloves for exactly this purpose and in some cases the gloves are specifically designed for weapon manipulation which is a bonus for military, law enforcement and hunters. Avoid synthetic leather as once it gets wet it tends to stay wet. Much like socks a backup pair of liner gloves is always a worthwhile addition and is always worth the extra weight if you are going to be in a cold environment.
For the sake, of simplicity we talk about protecting your body and arms from the inside out.
For your first layer or base layer look for a quality moisture wicking shirt that has been designed for this purpose. A great combination is a moisture wicking athletic t-shirt and a Merino wool long sleeve. This provides a warm but moisture wicking base.
Your mid layer should ideally be some sort of fleece. High quality fleece (in an appropriate weight) is excellent as it provides a layer that will insulate even if it’s wet and is easy to pack down. You can also add fleece in varying weights to “layer up” if you are cold. A light weight fleece over your base layer is generally a good start, from there you can add an additional layer if needed. Avoid traditional “track suit” type mid layers and seek a mid-layer that is fit to purpose. Track suit style tops (like the ubiquitous hoodie) are not generally moisture wicking and will result in your hanging onto moisture.
For your final layer look for a Gore-Tex type jacket that provides a breathable membrane. This allows the moisture which we are working so hard to wick away from our bodies to evaporate. Unless you are in extreme dry cold (arctic or Antarctic type conditions) avoid down jackets. Down does not insulate once it becomes wet. A synthetic insulation such as permaloft that insulates when wet is a far better choice for conditions where you may see rain or heavy snow even in the dead of winter. Finally, never remove the hood or go with a hood-less jacket. Hoods provide excellent protection but will also keep your face warmer in extreme cold! Fashion does not apply in the back country folks!
When it comes to protecting your legs invest in a quality pair of long underwear. Never wear said long underwear “commando.” Invest in quality athletic style undergarments to wear under your long underwear (it’s easier to pack extra gitch than additional pairs of long underwear!) For a mid-layer, I recommend some sort of alpine mid-layer if required. Your legs, with your gaiters, jacket hem and the fact that they are usually in motion do not need to be as heavily insulated if your core is warm and you are on the move. To round off your system look for a quality pair of Gore-Tex alpine pants that once again provide a breathable membrane.
When it comes to footwear the philosophy of moisture removal holds true once again. We have already discussed Selecting The Right Pair Of Boots. However, boots are only a small part of what you should be wearing on your feet in cold conditions. Socks are key. While you may not like investing in quality smart wool or similar socks, good socks will prevent those expensive visits to a podiatrist. For longer trips or backpacking it can also be necessary to wear a liner sock. A liner sock will prevent blisters or hotspots while on the move.
Finally, we have to talk about gaiters. I was never a believer in gaiters, until I found myself in a portion of the back country where ticks and harsh brush were an issue. For those who are unfamiliar with gaiters. A gaiter is essentially a sleeve that slides over your boot, and comes to the knee. They are designed to keep rocks and other debris out of your boots. Specifically designed “tick gaiters” are becoming more common and are designed to prevent ticks crawling up your pant leg. While ticks are obviously not an issue in colder weather, quality moisture repellant gaiters will help keep your feet dry in rain or snow and are well worth the investment.
Remember the system will be representative of the conditions you face. Be sure to pack an extra pair of gloves, a pair of socks for every eight hours, and additional layers as required. Additionally, you will need space in your LBE to store removed layers, this is something that is often forgotten. Finally, do not be afraid to commit fashion fau pas when in a harsh climate! I have worn two pairs of pants two jackets and other seemingly silly things when I’ve been in the arctic or deep in the northern back country.
Stay warm. Stay dry. Stay Safe.