Gear up for the Cold

Lunch break

(photo by Karen Mitchell)

There are three essential components of preparing for the cold. When you go out, you need to have the right mindset, the right equipment, and the right way of using this equipment. One of my colleagues reminds his guest that when you want to avoid being cold, 30% of your success chance depends on having the right gear and 70% depends on how you are using that gear. Both for the guests and for the guides we have some high quality equipment to keep us warm. Together with some of my own gear, I am hardly ever cold on tour. 

Leaving with the right mindset

People on tour

Right now, temperatures are once again much milder then they were a week or two ago. It’s not too cold to sit outside so everybody can relax during lunch or during breaks. When it is below -25 and definitely below -30, you need to start with a different idea about the day. Even with the proper gear, at some points during the day you will feel cold. As I explained in my previous post, for many people this feeling of cold is taking them too far out of their comfort zone and they panic. They don’t know how to handle it and they can only think about getting home as soon as possible. When you go out in those conditions, it is important to realise that this might happen. When you know that your hands, your feet or your face will be cold during the day, you can learn to ignore it and still have a good time. Furthermore, you won’t be panicking and you will be able to remedy the cold yourself. Simple things such as using your own body heat, moving cold body parts and protecting your ends (fingers and toes) by curling up your toes or making a fist inside your glove will quickly remedy the cold you feel.

Getting the right gear

Aurora Watching

Where I work we give the people good jackets, pants, hats, gloves and shoes. They can borrow this equipment for their entire stay at the lodge. Honestly, I believe that providing people with the right kind of clothes is a smart idea. We’ve seen people arrive with their own equipment, thinking they were well prepared, but if we had not been able to provide them with something they would have been freezing the entire time they were here.

People come with tight pants, or buy the biggest jacket they can find and believe this will be sufficient to shield them from the cold. The most important principle to keep in mind is to work in layers. Layers create isolating air cushions in between your clothing, and it is exactly these air cushions that help to keep you warm. Also remember the three-layer principle: start with a base layer that is breathable, preventing you from sweating and keeping you dry. Add a middle layer whose material has insulation as its main purpose. Finish with an outer layer that will shield off any wetness and wind.

Bergans fleece jackets

For a base layer, I have two sets of merino woollen pants and shirts. Merino wool is a natural product that has very insulating capacities and is very breathable One is from icebreaker, and both the pants and the long-sleeved shirt have a thickness of 200g/m3. This is the middle warmth you can get for a base layer, and it is perfect for active days of skiing and snow shoe walking. For colder activities, I have a Smartwool set with a warm 250g/m3 pants, and one short and one long sleeved shirt. I love both of them. The Smartwool clothes are, in my opinion, a bit more comfortable to wear than the icebreaker ones. The wool is softer, more flexible and the cut is more comfortable. You can also add Merino underwear to ensure maximal breathability. I don’t own these, however, I do always use a sports bra while working and I recommend this on outdoor activities to prevent you from sweating.

As a middle layer, think about fleece and down or Primaloft for cold days. Down is one of the warmest materials you can wear, and on top of that it is very comfortable as well. However, keep in mind that there are issues with down production. Try to buy down from a supplier that does not take it off living animals. Or if you will not be facing extremely cold temperatures, choose Primaloft. Primaloft is still very warm, and definitely as comfortable to wear. I take a fleece and on cold days a light weight down jacket. We have been given a couple of Bergans warm fleece jackets to use during work and the down light (lady) jacket to put under our shell. I love the fleece jackets. Last year I bought one of them myself and I have been wearing it on every hiking trip since. They are warm, durable and comfortable. The down jacket is very comfy as well, and when it is dry I often use it as an outer layer. The only thing I miss on this jacket is a good collar to shield your neck. Therefore, for myself, I recently purchased a Marmot down light that has a higher collar and a hoody. Personally I don’t like my neck to be exposed to wind, and I’m just a fan of hoodies. On my legs, I wear a Bergans Innerdalen Primaloft as a middle layer. I can only recommend these pants. It is warm and comfortable and I would wear it all the time.

Moose farm

As a shell layer, all of the guides use the Storebjørn Salopette and the Trysil 3in1 (lady) jacket. Again, I can only recommend the pants. The salopette model will keep out any snow. They are comfortable, durable and highly waterproof. The legs and upper pockets are very convenient. I always keep matches and my pocket knife in the upper pockets, so they are under my jacket and away from the snow. I like the jacket as well, however, the zippers seem to break fairly easily and that of course takes a lot of its effectiveness away.

The layer principle does not only hold for your body, but you can use it for your head, your hands and even your feet as well. I often put my summer buff under my beanie to have an extra layer and keep the wind out. Liner gloves can be good to use as well, especially to operate your camera in the cold. However, I have found that under down gloves it can be better not to have them, since they prevent you from warming your hands with your own body heat.

winter shoes

Especially on your feet it is important to work in layers. On warmer days, people seem hesitant to put on two pairs of socks because they think it is not necessary. Wearing a pair of liners underneath your warm, woollen socks will however highly contribute to the comfort of your feet and will help keeping them dry by making sure they breath and not sweat. Try to purchase Merino wool, for the same reasons as you use it for base layers. Icebreaker and Smartwool have excellent warm socks to use for different purposes such as skiing, hiking, etc. Also for shoes, layering can help. Before the season I bought Sorel winter shoes that should have a comfort temperature of -32°C, but it quickly became clear that they would not keep me warm that long, especially when out on the snow mobile. On recommendation of my boss I added a pair of Neos Navigator overshoes, which he claimed to be the warmest thing he ever wore. I can only agree with this. It is like wearing your indoor shoes, outside, at -35°. That is how warm they feel.

Using your gear

The Love Tunnel

So you might have all of the right gear, but if you are using it in the wrong way you will still get cold. It is important to stick to the three-layer principle and still remember to wear thermals, even if it is not that cold outside. If you use a buff or a balaclava, remember to tuck it in well so the wind cannot get inside. I always put it under my fleece and then zip that one up, so the bottom part of the buff cannot come up and leave part of my neck exposed. It is important to close everything properly and to make sure that wind and snow cannot creep in somewhere.

One last think of major importance is to pay attention to size. You might have a very warm down jacket, or a very comfortable fleece, but if you buy it too small it will loose most of its insulation properties. Your clothes, shoes and gloves cannot be tight anywhere or they will not help to keep you warm. You need space to allow for air to settle in between your clothes, so especially your shell layer must be big enough so the layers underneath don’t get pushed onto each other. The main point is not that your jacket should look tight, sexy and fashionable, but that it is functional and will keep you warm.

Keeping these things in mind, you will be perfectly able to be outside for longer periods of time while feeling comfortably warm. There is no such thing as bad weather, there is only bad clothing. And bad ways of using your clothing.

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