By Robin Mayo
As we jumped out of our warm cars and quickly got dressed for a day hike in the Alaska Range in December, my friend observed that she’s always trying for the perfect outfit. We agreed that it is an elusive quest, and there is rarely a perfect solution. At the parking area, sluggish from the drive and facing a brisk wind, we bundled up. But just a few minutes down the trail, which was blown in and involved occasional “post-holing” we were stopping to take off layers and stuff them in our packs. At our destination, where we stopped to take pictures and have a snack, the layers went back on. I was a little chilly when we started walking back, but again warmed quickly as soon as we got moving.
To make the problem even more challenging, everyone’s body reacts to cold a little differently. Some people suffer from cold toes, while others fiercely dislike wearing hoods or large hats. Dressing for the cold is not a single formula but a complicated personal creative process. But please don’t give up! Especially with all the wondrous modern insulations and fabrics, it is worth figuring it out so you can get outside and enjoy the winter beauty.
The Basics: For any sustained time outdoors in winter, you will need to add insulation to your whole body. The biggest parka in the world will not help you if your legs are clad only in jeans, or enable you to go without decent boots, mittens and headwear. The basics include “base layers” for the whole body, especially warm socks and long underwear. You should also have insulated and windproof layers for your whole body, including pants, coats, hats, mittens, and boots.
Insulation = Air: Truth is, it isn’t the garment itself which keeps you warm, but the air it traps. Look for items which are puffy and loose enough to trap some air. If an insulated garment is too tight, the insulation won’t be able to do its job. My current winter jacket is a men’s large, which makes me wonder what large men wear, but it has room for several layers underneath, and the sleeves are long enough to pull over my hands. When in doubt, choose the larger size, keeping in mind that if a garment is way too big it will be drafty and not as warm. A mushing friend uses the memorable rule of thumb that “your snowpants should be so puffy that you need a back-up beeper for your butt.”
Layers are the secret ingredient: Even if your jacket and snowpants are excellent, it is important to wear several layers underneath. This traps more air, eliminates drafts, and gives you options. On a drizzly blueberry picking foray in Thompson Pass last fall, I suddenly realized my young puppy was dangerously cold. I took off one of the layers I was wearing under my raincoat to wrap her up, and soon after made her a raincoat of her own.
Ideally your “next to skin” layer should not be cotton. It traps moisture and can make you cold. Instead look for synthetics, silk, or wool. Technical base layers can be expensive, but many pajamas and loungewear are made of synthetic materials. Last time I was at New to You there was an amazing array of fuzzy pajama pants and lightweight fleece jackets and pullovers which would work perfectly.
Windbreakers are magic: For WISE programs, we have a bag of raincoats and rainpants, which are often deployed in chilly situations even if there is no rain. Especially if clothing is at all damp, the slightest breeze sucks the warmth out of you. As well as windproof layers for your body and legs, think about windproof mittens and make sure your jacket hood is big enough to fit over your hat.
Accessorize for the perfect combo: Collect a variety of hats, mittens, socks, and neckwear so you can try different combinations and learn what works for you. I like to wear a lightweight stretchy neck tube (Buff is a popular brand) under a thicker fleece neck gaitor. These layers can be pulled up or down in various combinations to protect my chin, cheeks and nose. For strong winds or riding the snowgo, I add a lightweight windproof balaclava. I top it off with one of my many fuzzy hats, and pull up my hood if needed. That old adage about losing 30% of your body heat through your head is true, plus ears, noses and cheeks are easy prey to frostbite.
For my hands I also use a layering strategy. A pair of thin gloves enable me to operate zippers and snaps, and can slip inside a larger pair of mittens. I wear my overmitts dog-musher style, on a cord around my neck so they can be easily slipped off but won’t be left behind.
Ignite your Inner Furnace: Your body generates heat from movement, but when we start to feel cold we often “shut down,” and stop moving. A brisk walk, jogging in place, some jumping jacks, or a silly dance are often all you need to crank up the furnace. I’m going to take a potentially unpopular stance here and discourage use of those neat little “hot packs” as a substitute for dressing right and moving your body. Don’t get me wrong, they have some great uses, especially in emergencies and for people with compromised circulation. But especially for kids, using them as a substitute for learning to dress warmly and use the power of our own bodies is a disservice in the long run.
It is also important to feed your furnace with high-energy foods, including quick-burning fats and carbs. This is another self-care skill we can teach kids, paying attention to fueling their bodies. Eating may make you colder at first as your body kicks into digestion mode, but especially in the long run it is super important.
Know the signs of trouble: Cold injuries and conditions are serious and escalate quickly. Frostbite and hypothermia are the most common, and can be hard to diagnose in ourselves, but easily spotted by companions. A patch of white skin on the nose, cheeks, or ears is often the first sign of frostbite, and should be covered and gently warmed immediately. The first sign of hypothermia is “the -umbles.” The victim may mumble when they talk, stumble when they walk, and fumble when they try to use their hands. Unfortunately, hypothermia also often includes apathy and even flat-out denial, so you may need to be assertive to help your friend add layers and get moving to warm themselves. More advanced hypothermia and frostbite are serious medical emergencies which require skilled response.
Photo Caption: My Mom celebrates her 83rd birthday with a January hike in the Alaska Range. It was about -10F with a cold breeze. She is wearing light gloves to operate the camera, and keeping heavy overmitts ready.
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.