For many, when the trees shed their leaves, the grass stops growing, and winter sets in, the human hibernation begins. It’s time to crawl into a centrally heated cave, and wait out the cold winter months. After all, without a natural fur coat, humans were never meant to brave temperatures below 65 degrees right? Their adaptation comes in the form of a small remote that controls the garage door allowing an uninterrupted climate change from the car to the house. However, with the advent of the outdoor retail trade, the idea of turning otherwise harsh winter conditions into a recreational adventure is proving to be contagious. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, major Outdoor Chains combined with Specialty Stores had an estimated $12.3 billion in sales for 2004 with winter sales up 8.5%.
Woman snowshoeing --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis
Now, if you’re a part of that group chipping in to boost winter sales for the Outdoor Retailers, you’re probably spending your hard earned money on gear to help make up where Mother Nature left off. And, when it comes to cold weather, Mother Nature left everything OFF! The problem is, if you’re new to dressing for cold weather activities, knowing what to shop for is only half the battle. Winter gear represents a very diverse portion of that $12.3 billion spent in 2004. This article will help you understand the basics of winter dress and guide you in your selection of the proper attire for cold weather activities.
First of all, the key to dressing for any winter or cold weather sport is LAYERING. Your body has its own heating and cooling system. Layering is a way of maximizing the efficiency of your body’s system. Layering also allows you to adjust to various levels of exertion so that you can maintain a desired comfort range. Layering isn’t a new technique. As far back as the early 80’s the company Patagonia was instructing the outdoor industry about layering through a series of essays presented in their product catalogs. To begin, there are three main parts to layering. The first part is called the base layer which you will also hear referenced as the “next-to-skin” layer. The second layer is going to be your insulating layer. And your third layer is going to be your outer layer or shell.
Your next-to-skin layer is just what it sounds like, an underwear or undergarment that will actually be touching you. This is probably the most critical layer in moderate to high endurance winter activities. As you begin to exert yourself, you sweat. Sweating is your body’s way of cooling itself. Cooling is just fine during warm summer sports, but in cold weather it can actually work against you. Your next-to-skin layer should be made of a material that will pull the sweat from your body keeping your skin dry and comfortable. The process of pulling sweat from your skin is often referred to in the outdoor world as “wicking.” Underwear designed for wicking come in an array of materials, some natural and some synthetic. The first rule of thumb when choosing a next-to-skin layer is to wear anything but cotton. Cotton wicks sweat, but retains it and takes way too long to dry, which keeps your skin wet and cold. 100% polypropylene is probably the best material for the money. Polypropylene underwear does not absorb any water so it dries very quickly. Polypropylene also has a lower thermal conductivity rate than other fabrics, which means that heat is slow to leave the material. Now, there really are too many fabrics and materials to list. If you are really serious about finding out what will work the best for you, I would suggest getting into some forums and researching what other enthusiasts have experienced and what they recommend. Otherwise, just start with the polypropylene. Polypropylene underwear costs much less than other high tech thermals.
Next is your insulating layer. With this layer, you first have to determine how active you will be versus how cold your surrounding temperatures will be. For instance, if you will be snowshoeing(very high intensity) on a cold blustery day, you would probably just want a thin insulating layer just to keep the chill off. But, if you are going to be ice fishing(low or no intensity) all day in below freezing temperatures, you would need a much thicker insulating layer. It is important here to note that the more air a material traps inside of it, the warmer it will be. For this reason, a nice thick fleece top and bottom works very well. Polyester or polypropylene fleece will help sweat move from your next-to-skin layer toward your outer layer. Fleece is also very light weight and because of the design of the fleece fibers it traps a lot of air in the material itself. As a general rule, the thicker insulating layer, the warmer it will be.
Finally, your third and outer layer will provide you with a waterproof, windproof barrier. This layer is referred to in the outdoor industry as your “shell” layer. Like your second layer, the functionality of your shell will depend on what you are doing. If it’s going to be snowing hard on you or if there is a chance that you could get wet, then you would want to have a waterproof shell. If a material is waterproof, then it will also be windproof. One of the problems with most waterproof materials is a lack of breathability. Gore-Tex® and eVent® fabrics are popular waterproof/breathable materials used in high quality shells. While these fabrics are breathable, the breathability is still somewhat limited. These fabrics perform very well during lower endurance activities while performance is moderate at high activity.If you don’t think that there’s a chance of getting wet, then you might opt for the popular “soft shell,” a stretchy windproof fleece shell that is often treated with a water resistant coating to provide additional protection. One of the primary benefits of the soft shell is increased flexibility as well as breathability.
The layering techniques presented here are really meant to provide an awareness of the proper dress system for cold weather. It is important to adapt these ideas to your particular need. Emerging fabric technology is constantly changing the way we dress. You might be surprised to know that many of the fabrics used to make high fashion dress today originated in the outdoor industry. Now, don’t hibernate this winter. Find an opportunity to get out and enjoy the outdoors. If you dress properly, you will stay warm and enjoy yourself no matter what the activity.