Dressing for Cold Weather
Updated: Nov 5, 2022
By Martha F.
I’m Martha F & I lead the Thursday Hiking Group. We hike on the 2nd & 4th Thursdays of the month during the months of April to November. In December I leave Ann Arbor for the Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico, where I teach cross-country or Nordic skiing until the middle of March. I present this article to provide clothing tips for people who haven’t experienced real winter yet (or who are in a state of denial about the season).
First, you lose body heat to the world in 3 ways: radiation, convection, & conduction. You can stop heat loss from radiation by blocking the radiation. That’s why emergency blankets often have a shiny side the users keep close to their bodies, so the radiant heat they generate bounces back & stays close. Stopping convective heat loss means staying out of or blocking air currents. Insulation made of multiple layers & pockets of dead air will control the heat loss due to air movement; down & fiberfill clothing work for this. Conduction is a more complicated problem; while radiation & convection are ways you release heat, conduction is more like heat is pulled away from you. Both water & wind can do this.
As you probably know already, your body is always releasing water vapor, in every exhalation & from your skin as well. When you wear clothing the vapor you release can continue through & float away in the surroundings before it cools down from the temperature it was at release. In winter, that temperature of condensation can be somewhere much closer to your body than in summer. This means that the water leaving your skin in winter can condense in your clothes & ooze back to your skin surface. Water is a very efficient conductor of heat, much more efficient than air. So when clothing next to your skin collects water, it starts conducting heat away from you faster & you get colder sooner. The solution to this problem is wicking underwear. Nylon is not a wicking material; polypropylene is. The more time you spend outdoors in the winter, the more important it is that the layer of clothes next to your skin be wicking. (Ideally, all the layers should be wicking that water vapor out to the environment).
Please note that cotton can be considered an anti-wicking material. It can hold as much as 16% of its dry weight in water, so it is an ideal body-cooling material. You don’t want cotton on or close to your skin for that reason; it will definitely make you colder at any temperature than almost any other fabric.
Wind & rain both will pull your heat away very quickly. So, to deal with that heat loss, you need a wind- & water-blocking outermost layer. Typically this is a tightly woven material bonded to Gore-Tex, the wonder fiber that lets water vapor through & stops liquid water.
Now, let’s consider articles of clothing. For your torso you want polypropylene or other wicking underwear. You might also want long sleeves & leggings, depending on the coldness & the amount of time you’ll be outdoors. For the next layer, puffy jacket & & thick pants; wind blocking material for your legs is a good idea. & the top layer will be wind- & water-blocking.
Head, hands, & feet are the parts I haven’t mentioned yet. First, you lose up to 40% of your body heat through your head. One way to keep your feet warm is to wear a hat, one that will stop heat loss. Thus your hat should cover your ears &, in extreme weather, your nose, chin & cheeks as well. It should provide insulation & wind & water protection. So it can’t be a cute little pillbox style resting on the top of your noggin. The unfortunate thing is that a good winter hat is going to give you hat hair & you have to accept that in the interest of comfort (I know many of us are all about beauty before comfort, but I’m too old for that).
Then, there are hands & feet. Hands can be covered with gloves that allow communication with your phone (Head makes a good product), but that’s not as warm as mittens. If you’re waiting for a bus in 20°F temperature with a 20 mile-an-hour wind & no shelter, gloves aren’t going to be enough; mittens are what you need.
Feet are another problem, since cute shoes have almost no place in the winter, if for no other reason than the salt brine that is the moisture a wet street has in winter. In addition to full coverage & breathability, your outdoor shoes in winter should be water resistant or water proof & with a thick sole. Standing on concrete in thin leather soles is a way for you to lose heat by conduction to that concrete. The shoes that work best for being outside are called snowmobile boots & they are ugly. I have a pair of boots from Land’s End that are Gore-Tex lined with a ½ inch Vibram sole that work for a couple of hours @ a time. & I carry a pair of flats that fold up into a little pouch. That way I can take boots off @ the entry to wherever & put on the flats rather than walk around in my socks.
Dressing with this information in mind will make your winter experience more comfortable. & comfort outdoors is a prerequisite to playing outdoors. For me playing outdoors is a prerequisite to keeping a mellow mind during the cold, dark days of winter in Ann Arbor. Try it. Try sledding, walking, making snowmen, taking pictures; outdoor activity helps.
(1) Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/mariagodfrida-1297734/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=1177211">Maria Godfrida</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com//?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=1177211">Pixabay</a>