Dressing for Winter Warmth

English: Snowman on frozen Lake Saimaa, Puumal...It’s REALLY cold outside, and its not even winter, yet!  We have snow on the ground, frost on the windows and if you’re not dressed properly, you’ll feel like your toenails are going to freeze off!

But you want to go winter camping, hike in the snow, and participate in the Klondike Derby.  So what’s a scout to do?

The problem is that most people don’t dress properly when it’s cold.  You’ve heard that you need to dress in layers and wear a hat, but that’s the extent of most common wisdom.  The truth is that you need to dress in the correct layers AND wear the right type of clothing.  (Two pairs of blue jeans doesn’t work.  In fact, one pair of blue jeans doesn’t work.  The same goes with your standard cotton athletic socks.  If you dress in the wrong type of material, you’re asking for frostbite and hypothermia.  Read on for information on how to dress properly.)

Special note about color.  I don’t care if your clothing matches or not.  I care that you’re warm.  But there’s an exception.  When it’s cold out, its often hunting season.  So you should make sure that you have hunter’s orange available for your head and body.  These can be as simple as a vest you wear over everything, or it can be the color of your gear.  Check the state hunting regulations for details on the hunting season and the color requirements for clothing.


Cold can get you in any of the following ways:

  1. Convection (wind)
  2. Conduction (touching something cold)
  3. Respiration (yes, breathing)
  4. Radiation (exposed skin radiates heat)
  5. Evaporation (e.g. sweating)

Respiration is negligible, except in extreme conditions which we normally don’t experience in Pennsylvania.  But the others are dealt with a good layering system with the right materials.

Conduction requires insulation.  Convection requires a wind-break.  Radiation requires your entire body (e.g. wear a hat) to be covered.  And for evaporation, it’s critical that you keep water (including sweat) away from your skin.  In fact, wet against skin can cause you to lose body heat more than 10 times faster than normal!

So how do we dress properly?

3-tier system

I preach the 3 tier system of staying warm.  Every body part should employ this method.  Note that each tier can have multiple layers in it.

  1. Moisture wicking base layer.
  2. Middle insulating layer.
  3. Outer shell.

Moisture Wicking Base Layer

  • Materials: polypro, silk
  • Recommendations: balaclava, sock liners, upper and lower body armor, gloves with liners

Stay away from cotton!  This is your base layer that goes against your skin, so it’s important that it wicks away moisture. Cotton doesn’t do that, but there are materials that do.  Think polypropylene (e.g. Body Armor).  Another great insulator is silk.  This is going to replace your underwear and socks and should cover your entire body from head to toe.

Your head will benefit from a balaclava made from synthetic material.  Your feet will need to have sock liners (which you should wear when hiking, anyway).

Dressing like this will wick moisture away from every inch of your skin, keeping you from getting cold due to evaporation.  Covering your skin helps keep you warm from radiation loss.

Middle Insulating Layer

  • Materials: wool, polyester fleece
  • Recommendations: fleece hat, zipped fleece jacket, fleece pants, wool jacket, ski gloves

Stay away from cotton!  This means, no blue jeans and avoid cotton sweatshirts.  When this stuff gets wet, it loses its insulating ability.  If only from sweat, it WILL get wet, eventually.

Choose materials like wool or polyester fleece.  When those materials get wet, they still keep you warm.  But beware, wool against skin isn’t fun for a lot of people, so make sure you have a base layer that covers all your skin.

This is the perfect tier to add more layers.  When things warm up, they’re not bad to take off.  I prefer having a fleece jacket with a full zipper on my body, which allows me to unzip to help cool off.

On your feet, put wool socks over your sock liners.  And on your hands, ski gloves usually have multiple layers that will work well as a single unit.  But consider wearing mittens because they’re actually warmer.

Even my head gets an insulating layer.  I wear a fleece cap to keep me warm.  This is one of the most important pieces of gear you can wear in the winter since radiation loss from your head can account for huge amounts of body heat loss.  Simply putting an insulating cap on your head (note the materials I suggest) will help keep you warm.  In fact, most times I’m told that someone’s feet or hands are cold, I usually notice that they didn’t have on a good hat!

Outer Shell

  • Materials: Gore-Tex is the gold standard
  • Recommendation: weather-proof jacket with hood, ski pants, waterproof boots

This is wear we protect ourselves from the wind and elements.  This tier has two jobs – keep the elements out and let your perspiration breath through the fabric.

Ski suits are good for this tier.  Avoid things like down because they’re worthless when they get wet.  Also avoid nylon or PVC type outer shells because they don’t breath well.  Gore-Tex is your best bet if you can find it.

You want to wear a jacket with a hood you can pull over that will keep the rain, snow and wind from getting to your body.  So that jacket needs to be somewhat waterproof.  You’ll need similar type pants.  On your feet, broken in boots that are waterproof are a must-have.  And on your hands, those ski gloves are great for helping keep you warm, though most of these types of gloves aren’t very good for work.


Cotton kills in the wet and cold.  Avoid it.

Dress in 3 distinct tiers, layering your clothes.  Get clothes of the right material!

Get outside and have fun in the winter!

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2 Responses to Dressing for Winter Warmth

  1. Pingback: Don't Freeze! Remember To Wear These - Fashion @SmashFlare

  2. Pingback: Hiking Safely #4 — Clothing | Take a Long Hike

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