Head to Toe Winter Dressing Guide
How much do you really know about proper winter dressing? Can you guess how much heat you lose through your head without a hat on? Would you be able to recognize the warning signs of frostbite on poorly protected fingers? If you can already answer these questions correctly, stop reading and get back to teaching that winter-survival course. If not. read on for the answers to these questions, and bundle up like a pro this winter.
While winter is a great time to experience breathtaking landscapes and snowy sports, it is also a potentially hazardous season for people caught out in the elements. Unless you live in an igloo and call the Arctic Circle home, you likely haven't learned all there is to know about dressing for the cold.
Here are some tips for winter dressing that won't leave you out in the cold. whether you're alpine skiing, ice fishing, snowshoeing, or working on a snow-or-sleet construction crew. Sierra Trading Post offers every clothing item you need for a safe, warm outdoor experience this winter.
A cold January day systematically saps the warmth from your body in four ways:
- Radiative heat loss, when your body heat simply escapes into the cold air due to lack of insulation.
- Convective heat transfer, which involves the wind drawing heat off you - particularly where your skin is exposed (neck, cuffs, etc.).
- Conductive heat transfer, or heat loss through direct contact with cold surfaces (think "cold chairlift").
- Evaporative cooling, which is what happens when your skin gets soaked with precipitation or sweat.
Prevention: Wearing the proper winter clothing can eliminate the effectiveness of all four types of heat loss.
Note: "Wind chill" is based on the combination of both air temperature and wind speed (e.g., radiative and convective heat loss). Here's a general chart to go by from the National Weather Service: Wind Chill Chart.Cold-Weather Dangers
The dangers presented by cold winter weather are no joke. Here are the main risks to be concerned about:Hypothermia
Hypothermia is when a person's core body temperature becomes abnormally low. Believe it or not, many people get hypothermia at temperatures above the freezing point. When a person gets too cold, common symptoms include excessive shivering, exhaustion, confusion/memory loss, fumbling hands, and slurred speech.
Quick ways to raise your core temp in the field:
- Find shelter.
- Remove any wet clothing.
- Warm the center of the body first-torso, neck, head, and groin. Use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of clothing if no heat source is available.
- Drink heated beverages. DO NOT drink alcohol, as it lowers body temp.
This is when the flesh in your extremities actually freezes. You can have a safe core temperature and still be at risk for frostbite, due to severely cold temps or sub-zero air combined with high wind. Frostbite can lead to permanent damage or amputation. It most often occurs on the face, ears, fingers and toes. Warning signs include white or grayish-yellow skin at the effected area, skin that feels unusually firm or "waxy", and numbness. Remember: you might be unaware of frostbite because once you have it, the frozen tissues are already numb.
How to deal with frostbite (if medical care is unavailable):
- Leave the cold as soon as possible.
- DO NOT walk on frostbitten feet or toes unless necessary, as it increases damage.
- Immerse the affected area in warm water or use your own body heat (such as your armpit). DO NOT use hot water.
- DO NOT rub the affected area with snow or massage it - both lead to more damage.
- DO NOT use any hot object for warming. Affected areas will be numb and therefore can easily be burned.
Bottom line: Exposed skin is far more likely to get frostbitten. In cold weather, cover all exposed skin.Dress for the Activity
You can avoid hypothermia, frostbite and discomfort simply by dressing properly for the conditions. But don't decide what to wear simply based on the forecast! After all, someone snowshoeing uphill in 32-degree weather will feel much warmer than someone sitting motionless in a goose blind on the same day. Decide which type of activity you'll be doing before you make a decision on how to dress.
Sedentary activities like ice fishing or stand hunting require thick insulation around your core and between you and cold surfaces, such as the ice itself.
Active pursuits, such as snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, involve very little motionless time. For these sports, focus more on covering extremities and less on insulating your core. Also, be sure your garments can wick sweat and breathe well.
Mixed activities are those in which there is an even balance of heart-pounding effort and motionless rest. A good example is alpine skiing, in which you ride up on a chairlift between runs. Layering and venting options become important here, so you can easily transition between bundling up and cooling down.Preventing Hypothermia: Core Heating It's What's Outside that Counts: Outerwear
Outerwear must do three things well: Block wind, keep precipitation outside, and allow internal moisture to escape. Insulation is optional, since you can also acquire it by using layers. Goose down and polyester fibers make great insulators if you prefer an insulated outer layer to a shell. See our Down vs. Synthetic Insulation Guide for more information.
Winter jackets (Men's / Women's) and pants (Men's / Women's)should have snug sleeve openings and drawcord waists or snow skirts to keep the wind and snow out. Hoods are also an outstanding way to quickly adapt to changing weather. If you're expecting really wet conditions, look for waterproof protection from fabrics like Gore-Tex®. Soft shell outerwear, on the other hand, uses technologies like Schoeller® for more stretch and breathability - but less waterproofing - than other winter jackets and pants.Pretend You're an Onion: Lots of Layers
No matter what you're doing outside, you should apply layering principles to all your winter activities. The idea is that you'll never get too cold or hot - and never sweat excessively - if you can drop and add layers as needed. There are three main "under-shell" layers to look at:
- Base Layer: Consists of thermal (or "long") underwear, or any comfy, tight-fitting apparel worn against the body. Should be made of fabrics like silk, polyester and poly blends that are excellent at wicking moisture off your skin. This is critical because after you've generated perspiration, you don't want to suffer dramatic drops in body temp when you stop moving.
- Mid Layer: Generally everyday items like a T-shirt, casual pair of pants, etc. make up your mid layer. The object is to provide a little insulation and look good when you head inside and remove outer layers. Wool, cotton, and nylon often make good mid layers.
- Insulating Layer: Can make an insulated jacket even warmer or can act as the primary source of warmth inside a shell. Should be lightweight and low-bulk for active sports, and is commonly a pullover jacket, sweater or vest. Some great insulating materials include Polartec® polyester fleece, boiled wool, goose down and synthetic fill.
For more information, see our Layering Guide.Preventing Frostbite: Protect Your Extremities
Now that you know a little more about frostbite, you should realize the importance of keeping your extremities covered and insulated from the cold. Here's how to select the best winter outerwear accessories.
Hats (Men's / Women's) In cold weather, you lose much of your heat through your head and neck - 30% or more! Why not preserve warmth by simply donning a winter hat? Your hat needs to insulate and breathe well, to let excess heat and perspiration escape. Synthetic hat materials like Windstopper® polyester and acrylic knits stay warm when wet, as does natural wool. Also, look for itchless materials or linings, since a hat can really become uncomfortable without them.
Face/Neck Protection If your face and neck are as hairy as your head, maybe you can skip this section. But most of us can really benefit from the full coverage of a face mask or balaclava. Besides total protection, the other key here is comfort - hence the popularity of Comfortrel® polyester in these items.
Gloves and Mittens (Men's / Women's) You wouldn't think twice about going into real cold without something on your hands - right? But are you wearing the correct hand protection? Gloves are far better for activities that require dexterity and hand freedom, such as skiing, snowboarding and hunting. Mittens should always be chosen for extremely cold weather and more sedentary activities, though. If you've only worn gloves before, you'll be amazed by the added warmth you'll notice in a good pair of mittens. Also, glove liners can be worn in extreme cold for added insulation.
Boots (Men's / Women's) / Socks (Men's / Women's) Getting cold feet? Not only is it unpleasant, it puts your feet at risk for frostbite. Start on the inside with plush liner socks designed to wick moisture and stay warm when wet, made from materials like wool and nylon. (Never wear cotton socks in cold, wet conditions!) On the outside, be sure you have snow boots that are waterproof or water-resistant, depending on how wet the conditions are. Winter boots should be lined with Thinsulate® insulation for somewhat cold temps, or thick, removable synthetic liners for frigid temps. The coldest-weather boots are usually temperature-rated.Accessories
Even for those of us who normally don't "accessorize", this is a must for many winter sports. A few things you might need:
- Goggles should have a fog-free design with a double lens system and/or venting. Be sure they offer 100% UV protection for your eyes and are helmet-compatible, if necessary.
- Sunglasses are necessary to deal with blinding snow glare. The best choice if high winds aren't a factor, but looking good is.
- Scarves are generally best for around-town excursions, but can make attractive face-and-neck wraps on the slopes.
- Heat Packs have become increasingly popular because of their long-lasting ability to keep your fingers and toes in their happy place.
So what's the bottom line? To avoid potential cold-weather problems like hypothermia and frostbite, you must maintain a warm core temperature as well as warm extremities. You can accomplish this by having little-to-no skin exposed to the outside, and adequate insulation that won't let your body get (or stay) wet. Shop for whatever winter wear you're missing with Sierra Trading Post's broad selection of top brands.
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