Outdoor Life Online Editor

Late last November, my wife and I were hiking down a remote canyon in the slickrock region of Southern Utah. We had planned to make a day-long, in-and-out hike and return to the car before nightfall.

Five miles down the canyon, however, my wife’s feet unexpectedly blistered and became too painful for her to hike back to the car. There was no question that she needed to rest her feet and let them recover. Darkness was just a few hours away, and we knew we would be spending the night without a tent or sleeping bags. All we had to protect us from the frigid air was a cave that we located along the canyon wall and the clothes we were wearing.

That night was so cold the water froze along the edges of the creek. We got a fire going using implements from my survival kit (see “Save Your Butt,” Survival, April) so we could build a hot-rock bed. The hot-rocks were a big help, but proper cold-weather clothes got us through.

Keep the Wet Away
When choosing cold-weather wear, consider fabric first. An old saying among outdoorsmen is, “Cotton kills.” Cotton absorbs and holds moisture, and moisture held next to the body in cold weather can contribute to hypothermia. The best cold-weather materials wick moisture away from the body. Wool is the best natural fiber for this purpose, but some people prefer synthetic fibers such as polyester to avoid the itch of wool. There are a number of trademarked names for synthetics that wick away moisture, such as Thermax and Arctic Fleece. You’ll have to find what’s in your price range, but the main thing you’re looking for is heat-trapping, moisture-wicking ability.

Cold-weather clothing should also fit loosely enough to trap air between layers to retain body heat; clothing that is layered tightly will not keep you as warm, and clothes that restrict blood flow can contribute to hypothermia. Dressing in layers allows you to add or subtract clothing as conditions change.

The three main layers of any cold-weather outfit are the undergarments, the insulation layer and the outer shell. Undergarments should hold body-temperature air next to the skin and should also wick away moisture toward outer layers. The insulation layer or layers need to have a thickness that traps warmed air. An insulation layer of mostly down is okay in dry cold, but in damp cold it can hold wetness and lose effectiveness. The outer shell should be windproof, waterproof and breathable, allowing body moisture to evaporate but not allowing cold air or dampness to enter from outside.

Because the human body rapidly loses heat from the head, neck and wrists, these features in the shell layer are crucial:

  • A hood that can be tightened to prevent air movement around the head
  • Wrist closures
  • Drawstring waist and a drawstring at the skirt of the shell
  • Enough length to cover hips
  • Ventilation openings to allow perspiration to escape

For my first layer I wear undergarments made of Thermax. An alternative is Capilene (Patagonia’s brand name). But brand-name stuff can get pricey. Any non-cotton thermal underwear, which you can get at an army-navy store, works fine. For my insulation layer I wear a combination of polyester fleece items

Under the adjustable hood I wear a fleece hat with neck coverage and earflaps thaat pull down and secure with a tie string under my chin. On my lower body, I wear wool pants over Thermax undergarments (I got the wool pants at a surplus store) and then I cover everything with windproof, waterproof shell pants.

For extreme cold, mittens are better than gloves, because they allow the fingers to share warmth. In more moderate conditions, I wear Windstopper gloves. When the cold is bitter, I wear a neoprene face shield to protect against frostbite. Waterproof hiking boots are an excellent investment, as are wool socks, but don’t stuff your feet into a space that is too tight, because this will inhibit circulation and make your feet cold. In really severe conditions, nothing beats a pair of pac boots like Sorels with thick felt liners.