How to Dress for Cold Winter Weather, According to a Fairbanks Outdoorsman

This is the gear and know-how you’ll need to get outside this winter—even in the most brutally cold temps

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As we plunge into the depths of a winter that many have been dreading, one thing is clear—it’s important to be prepared. And with more and more people looking to recreate outdoors this winter, that means a lot of folks will be pushed out of their comfort zones and into freezing temps. As a Fairbanks, Alaska, resident who is accustomed to dealing with the bone-splitting cold and the seemingly unending darkness of winter, I can tell you that getting regular time outside will do wonders for maintaining your sanity. But, you need the right gear.

A typical transplant to a place like Fairbanks, Alaska, has an intense learning curve ahead of them when it comes to dressing for the cold. But being equipped to successfully and comfortably recreate in the cold is an even steeper learning curve. Your gear needs will differ based not only on the specific weather you’re dealing with, but will also vary greatly depending on the activity you’re pursuing. Dressing to go ice fishing or riding snowmachines at -20 degrees is much different than dressing to go snowshoeing or cross-country skiing at the same temperatures. Extreme cold sucks no matter what, and even us northerners tend to batten down the hatches once it dips below -30 or -40. There’s not much you can do outside at those temperatures that’s actually fun, and mechanical things tend to break much more easily. Your eyelashes freeze together, the air hurts your lungs, and if you get in trouble, it’s going to be big trouble.

Even if you consider “cold” to be 28 degrees in a damp climate, you can still get hypothermic or at least have an uncomfortable experience if you’re not careful with how you dress. So if you’re looking to spend more time outdoors this winter, you need to know what clothing will keep you warm, and how to use it based on what you’re doing. This guide will get you started.

How to Dress in Layers Like a Pro

Layering your clothing is a cornerstone of staying comfortable in cold weather. You can’t depend on battery-heated socks or shake-up hand warmers. Your clothing needs to be insulated enough to use the heat your body produces to keep you warm. The colder the temperatures, and the less strenuous the activity, the heavier your clothing will need to be. To stay warm, you must regulate your body temperature by the layers you wear according to activity. If you’re going on a day-long snowshoe outing, you’re going to want to be dressed in minimal layers so you don’t overheat, but you need to bring additional layers to put on when you stop, otherwise you’ll freeze quickly.

You don’t want to get “sweated up” in the bitter cold by wearing too much gear for your activity, because once you stop moving around, the moisture will make you cold, and it can sometimes freeze your clothing. For example, say you’re out snow machining and and you’re dressed for sitting on your sled in the cold wind. But then you get stuck and need to spend some time lifting and pulling your sled around to get it out. You need to shed down to your lighter layers while you’re working hard. Moisture conducts heat away from your body faster than anything, and you want to avoid creating more of it than your clothing can handle.

One helpful thing to remember when you’re gearing up for cold weather is the age-old saying “cotton kills.” We outdoorsmen often associate this with cotton garments getting wet due to inclement weather, but our own perspiration will quickly render cotton garments ineffective as insulators in the cold. From your base layers out, you should avoid cotton if you’re going to be out in the cold. Merino wool has become a very popular base-layer material, and it’s much better than cotton. It doesn’t lose it’s insulating properties, even when wet, but synthetics are still a better bet when it comes to base layers because you want maximum wicking of moisture away from your body, and they are typically better at it than wool. As far as jeans, cotton hoodies, tee shirts … forget it.

Your outer layers will depend greatly on what you’re planning to do. For less strenuous activities, heavy bibs and parkas are popular because they’ll keep you very warm when you’re stationary and they block the wind well. If you’re hiking, skiing, or on snow shoes, you’ll want to move with your lighter layers, but still be able to carry warm, outer insulating layers in your pack. In this case, it is more ideal to carry what some call “puffy” layers. These are lightweight, traditionally goose-down insulated jackets and pants (that often have full-zip legs) that are lightweight, extremely warm, and easy to put on quickly. I would recommend steering towards synthetic insulation over down, simply because it is extremely effective at conducting moisture away from your body, and it’s pretty foolproof. There have been some major advancements in moisture-repellent treatments for down, and it’s certainly a good product when used properly, and it packs down tighter than synthetic insulation, but it’s just not as foolproof. Something like the Lost Park Parka and Pants from Kifaru International is about as effective as it gets when it comes to outer insulating synthetics. It breaks the wind, wicks moisture, and is extremely warm. Good cold-weather clothing is expensive, but you need it to be effective.

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Keep Your Hands, Feet, and Head Warm

For most people, proper clothing is fairly straightforward, but issues come up with hands and feet. How you dress your head, hands, and feet makes a huge difference in how comfortable you’ll be in the cold. We’ve all been told that we lose a tremendous amount of heat through our heads, and most of us know the pain of cold toes and fingers. The principles of keeping your head, hands, and feet warm are no different than that of the rest of your body. You regulate them by using the appropriate garment for the activity, and sometimes that means bringing an extra hat or pair of gloves.

Just like the difference between fleece pants you might wear while cross-country skiing and heavy arctic bibs for ice fishing, your headwear will vary dramatically based on your activity. Strenuous activity can call for a thin, light, synthetic beanie, just enough to cover your head and keep your ears warm while working hard. You may want to have a heavier one in your pack if you plan on stopping for any length of time. My one exception to the synthetic rule for cold weather gear is fur. Properly constructed fur garments, made with the right fur, are unmatched in their insulation qualities, making them ideal for long rides, or stationary activities in very cold weather. A Yupik Eskimo-made seal skin hat I have, lined with beaver is impervious to the coldest wind, and it’s too hot to wear with any sort of strenuous activity. Items like that are a little beyond what the average person needs to get out and enjoy the outdoors, but it’s something to keep in mind for the most extreme weather. In addition to a hat, a heavy fleece neck gaiter like this one from MCTI will help greatly reduce heat loss from your neck and collar, as well as act as a face covering in bitter cold or wind. It can make a huge difference in how comfortable you are, even if you’re otherwise properly dressed.

Handwear for cold weather is going to vary greatly on what you’re doing (just like everything else). Some activities and temperatures allow you to get by with very thin, tactile gloves, and sometimes no gloves will keep you 100 percent comfortable. There’s no perfect solution, but I’ve found it handy to try to always have lots of gloves around. Light wool gloves with textured grips, heavier fleece gloves, synthetic waterproof gloves, lined leather gloves, they all have their purposes and there’s no universal glove for all purposes. If I’m out riding or running trapline, I’ll usually have thin wool gloves on inside of my beaver fur/moose hide heavy mitts, using the thin gloves when I need some dexterity. If I’m ice fishing, I prefer to have synthetic, waterproof gloves. The one common-denominator, is that I always try to have an extra set in my pack somewhere. For the average person in average cold temperatures, it would be prudent to have a medium-weight glove that has good dexterity, but also to carry some heavier synthetic mitts that are often very lightweight and warm. You need your hands to work, so protect them.

Boots are a similar story. If there was a single, iconic, most ideal boot for what we deal with in Alaska, it’s the bunny boot, issued to the military for decades, it’s a heavy rubber boot with a highly-effective insulating air layer, and completely waterproof. You can get into overflow and fill them with water at -30 degrees, take them off, dump them out, put them back on, and your feet will warm back up. This can’t be said for many other boots. However, bunny boots are big, heavy, clunky, and are not great for hiking or covering ground. Different variations of Baffins and Sorels—think rubber bottom, synthetic top—boots are popular, good with moisture, and more lightweight, but generally not as effective in extreme cold as the bunny boots. Pack boots, with rubber bottoms and laced leather tops are usually more hiking friendly than other types, and are still popular in some areas, but are usually a step down from the heavier insulated boots. Finally, mukluks, or boots styled after the age-old arctic mukluk boot are a good option if you’re wanting a lightweight boot with great cold-weather protection with some breathability (and you won’t be dealing with much water or wet snow). There are several brands commercially made like Steger that (unlike Uggs), do have some utilitarian quality. Although traditional mukluks were hand fitted and sewn with caribou hide and sinew, when fitted right, these use the same principals to keep your feet warm in very cold temperatures.

Properly equipping yourself is a big part of the battle when it comes to enjoying cold-weather activities, but everyone is different, and learning what you need to regulate your body heat and perspiration in the cold is critical to being safe and having an enjoyable experience. Also, remember that the same principals of staying hydrated and well-fed apply to cold weather just as much as hot weather. In fact, when it’s really cold, people tend to not feel as thirsty, and sometimes feel like drinking cold water will cool them off. In reality, having your body properly hydrated keeps it running and producing heat. Even if you’re not thirsty, drink water, and always carry tools for starting a fire.