Recent cold snaps have motivated me to type this out. Hopefully some of you find this helpful.
1. Layers are far more important during extended periods outside, when you might work up a sweat or the weather could change. A big all around parka is fine for the daily commute.
2. Layering helps compensate for our material’s weaknesses. Fleece is light and relatively cheap, and it’s very breathable so we won’t overheat. Being so breathable it does nothing when the wind comes, and it also won’t insulate nearly as well if it gets wet. So you stick to fleece on a calm dry day, but put a wind/waterproof shell layer on when the weather’s bad.
3. Goretex is very expensive because it is thin and light, and has some breathability. Cheaper materials will cause you to sweat more, and won’t compact as easily into a backpack, say.
4. Goretex is a company with a few products branded as Goretex, varying in strength, weight, thickness, breathability, and price. Some competing materials exist but they are the market leader and competition of similar quality isn’t much cheaper.
5. Aside from material, expensive jackets differentiate themselves with things like:
- Reinforced shoulders to survive backpack wear and tear
- Ventilating zippers in the armpits
- Larger hoods designed to fit a helmet
- Chest pockets, which can be more easily accessed while wearing a backpack, ice climbing, etc.
I actually found Arc’teryx’s website very helpful myself in breaking down the basic tradeoffs in various layers and materials. A couple in particular that were good are:
Always dress in layers (and bring layers with you). Not only do layers create more pockets of air (which help insulate), but also allow you to avoiding sweating (which will cool you off the fastest). This also goes for your legs. It might not be sexy, but long underwear or tights underneath your pants will make an enormous difference. High end winter gear creates this by design (down/fur), try to mimic this functionality with your layers. Generally you will have three layers:
1. Baselayer (thermals/long underwear). Merino wool is go to here, but there are many high-performing synthetics should you find it too pricey. This layer should be quite tight and extremely soft/comfortable, and breathable. It also needs to maintain warmth when wet because this is the one that’s going to get sweaty (which is bad, but prepare for it anyway). Semi-related tip: make sure that the combination of your socks/thermals doesn’t cut into your skin (you often see this with ski and hiking boots). If you have high quality socks, consider getting thermals that only go down to mid-calf.
2. Midlayer. On super cold days this can actually be two layers. A breathable fleece/synthetic sweatshirt type layer (see the Arcteryx shirt I linked in the cotton section), and an insulation layer (which is not really breathable). The insulation layer will almost always be some form of down (and will be integrated into heavy parkas). For this layer I’m really loving the new “synthetic down”. It’s so light and squishy and easy to store when you need to (which is awesome, because this is likely the first layer that you’ll want to store).
3. The wind/waterproof layer (AKA, the shitty weather layer… OK it’s actually called the “outer layer” or “shell”). This is where you’ll spend the big bucks, but in a pinch, a g*ddamn plastic bag is better than nothing. This layer is stopping windchill and rain only. And often, you’ll keep the lighter midlayer + this one after you get halfway down your run. Or to work. Or whatever.
Loose. Do not restrict your circulation. Especially on your appendages (feet/fingers). Yes, that extra pair of socks might seem like a great idea, but if you have to squish into your boots, I promise that your feet will be colder. Same goes for gloves (mitts are usually better for that reason). But make sure you tuck in your long underwear. You are trying to create little sealed bubbles of air between you an the cold (kind of like a thermos).
Cotton is the worst. Jeans, shirts, dress pants whatever. If it isn’t wool or synthetic, it will get wet, stay wet, and provide very little insulation even when dry and zero protection from the wind. Avoid at all costs. Smartwool and Merino wool are the latest go to (especially for baselayers).
1. Protect yourself from the wind. Yes, cover your ears/face/exposed skin with clothing (toque/scarf/mitts), but also stand in whatever shelter available and walk next to buildings to avoid the wind. It’s a myth that you lose more heat from your head than any other body part… but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t cover it like you would any other body part. My father always told me: You don’t need to cover all your extremities, just the ones you want to keep.
2. Make the most of the heat you have. Get dressed inside and wait for all the little pockets of air to warm up before you go outside.
3. Do not get wet. Either from sweat or anything else. Getting wet will give you hypothermia/frostbite in minutes vs hours. If you feel yourself starting to sweat, immediately take off a layer or two. Whatever it takes. If it’s slushy you’re usually better off with $20 gumboots and a good pair of socks, rather than non-waterproof boots.
Many people say “but but I sweat when I wear…. and then I’m cold”. Sweating is caused by two things:
1. The breathability of the fabric(s) you’re wearing. This can be rectified largely by spending more money on slightly looser/physically lighter, more insulating, items that wick away moisture. And yes, it is possible to get breathable waterproof winter boots if you spend enough money. And do not cheap out on your socks either. Try cheap alternatives first, but the technology is there if you need an “extreme” solution.
2. You aren’t removing (or wearing) your layers appropriately. In order to stay warm your toes, fingers and arms should all be able to move/rest freely and comfortably. If that movement is hampered (say you can’t reach in front of you or over your head), likely you have the wrong clothing on. When you step outside you should feel a slight chill that goes away when you start moving. Once you get moving, it’s very normal to only have your wind/waterproof shell and your long underwear on… And there have definitely been times where I skied in long underwear and snowpants and removed my coat completely.
Recognize the symptoms:
1. Stages: Lethargy in your joints, pain, and numbness. You’ll notice some freaky colour changes. Pain is good. Numbness is not, but likely you’ll have a tough time noticing which parts are numb and which just hurt. If you start feeling pain, you should do something about it. If you see blue, there is likely some tissue damage. You need to get out of the cold immediately.
2. Treatment: Understand that while you feel pain, the surface area of your skin is completely numb. You will have no reliable feedback as to what is actually hurting you. You can try rubbing the area, but you will not be able to tell if you’re damaging the skin. You can try to warm it up with water, but you likely will not be able to tell what temperature the water is.It is very easy to burn or damage your skin further while it is in the early stages of frostbite and are trying to warm up.
And it will hurt a lot. Just be patient and wait.
Understand that most cases of hypothermia happen without snow or frost (because people are not prepared). Pouring rain at 45F/8C can be just as deadly.
A common tip from military is if you begin to struggle to touch your thumb tip with your pinky tip on one hand, you are too cold and exposed, prolonged you’re likely to get hypothermia. This is an early onset and something of a quick test. Try it a few times, when too cold you will struggle to put pressure where needed to do this.
Recognize these Symptoms:
- The shivering/teeth chattering stops.
- You start to feel sluggish/slow.
- It’s hard to think (you almost feel drunk).
- And then you feel very very sleepy and not really cold at all.
Treatment: Obviously, get out of the cold and get warm. If this isn’t immediately easily available, do the following:
- Get dry (change your clothes and try to dry the wet ones).
- Get out of the wind (build a shelter, crawl under to the base of a tree) and the elements.
- Find a source of heat (even a candle in a small shelter [or your car!] can make a huge difference). Do not leave your car running (because you won’t notice if your exhaust becomes blocked and starts filling your car up with carbon monoxide).
First and foremost: Always tell people where you are going, your anticipated route and when you’ll arrive. Obviously, unnecessary in busy city centers, but for those commuting long distances or taking trips over winter, this is a good [lifesaving] habit to get into.
Keep this * minimal * emergency kit in your car at all times and all seasons:
- Windproof/insulated gloves + toque.
- Rain ponchos.
- Plastic bags/garbage bags (they are windproof and decent for keeping your feet and core dry in a pinch).
- Emergency blanket (and sleeping bag if possible).
- Candle + matches/means to light it.
- Reflective cones (and glow sticks or flares if possible).
- Multi-tool (leatherman).
- First aid kit.
- Energy bars.
- An accurate paper map of the area.
Keep in mind this is a basic kit. If you live in more remote/extreme areas, you need a lot more than what I’ve listed. A friend of mine lives in Winnipeg (-40 winters) and is a former long haul truck driver. He suggested these things in addition to the above ones.
- Pairs of gloves, not fingered mits. You can get these very cheap, and they might save you from frostbite should you have to change a tire in the middle of the winter.
- Bag of Salt (Should you park on a crappy spot that’s icy, you can dump some salt behind/in front of drive tires to melt snow and regain traction).
- Bag of Sand (Good for traction. You don’t have to wait for it to take effect like you do with Salt).
- Tow rope/strap. Indispensable. If you hit the ditch, chances are another car will come along. Many times, the highways are dry with perfect traction, while the ditches are filled with snow. It doesn’t take much to help a car in the ditch if you are the giver or receiver of assistance. Almost every car or truck has a tow hook attached somewhere. These are normally not good to put full force on, but it only takes about 10% force to give a stuck car a fighting chance.
- Jumper Cables. It doesn’t take much to boost an engine, and just about everyone can figure out negative to negative (ground), positive to positive. I am amazed every winter when someone needs a boost and doesn’t have cables. Get them a little longer in length to save you some heartache.
And when the worst happens, understand that not all survival/emergency situations are created equal.
- It may or may not be safest to stay in your vehicle. Generally speaking, you will survive the elements longer if you wait in your car.
- But if your car is anywhere near a major highway, you’re also more likely to get hit.
- But even then it’s still safer to get hit while in your vehicle, rather than crossing the road on foot (this recently ended in a terrible tragedy for a Canadian politician trying to help a stranded motorist).
- Lastly and most importantly if you do nothing else with your vehicle keep the tank above half. In a bad situation you can at least keep your vehicle running, heat pumping, cell charged, local radio news stations for updates and keep snow from building up around exhaust.
1. The 3rd most common(but less known) way of losing heat is simply by conduction. This can come from cold benches at a football stadium/hockey arena, or simply from standing on cement for a long period of time. If you have to stand on concrete or asphalt for a considerable period of time bring a rubber or foam mat to stand on. The difference in keeping your feet warm is tremendous.
2. Remember that pets get cold too! Yes, some breeds have fur that is built to handle the elements, but their feet aren’t usually so tough. And I found that these booties are the best way to protect my husky’s feet from the salt and ice.
3. Don’t drink (alcohol). Well, do, of course, but be aware of the effect. When you drink your capillaries dilate, bringing more blood to your skin. This makes you feel warmer. However, what you’re actually doing is losing heat much faster as your system is routing blood to the surface rather than keeping it focused in your core. So you may feel warm, but you’re rapidly racing towards hypothermia without realizing it. Sometimes drunk people will decide to have a snooze in the snow on the way home, as hypothermia is hitting them combined with the depressant effect of alcohol – I think you can guess the end result.
Some people may comment alluding to the fact that I may be some sort of product shill and I promise I’m not. All products/stores that I’ve recommended are just ones that I have experience with. I have absolutely zero financial affiliation in any capacity to any of them.
Stay warm, stay safe!