How To Stay Warm (When Freezing Climates Are Not Your Thing)

Some people do well in the cold. I am not one of them. Being even a little bit cold makes me crabby. I am prone to all sorts of cold injuries, including being pre-hypothermic a handful of times.

Some people have generations of northern heritage passing on cold climate strategies. Not me. My fathers side comes from southeast Asia. He still doesn’t wear socks in the winter and his “layering” is typically a giant coat over summer clothes. My mother’s side is mostly Scandinavian. You’d think that’d be better but a salient story is how my mom frostbit her thighs walking home from school in a miniskirt.

I grew up convinced I would leave this climate, yet I fell in love with one of those northern woodsmen. So in the last decade or so I’ve also learned to fall in love with winter. Through education and practice I’ve learned how to stay warm even in the deepest cold. 

Through over 10 Minnesota winters I’ve biked and run commuted. We’ve done nine winter camping trips, sleeping under a tarp for over 20 nights and down to -30ºF (-34ºC). While it isn’t always “fun” it does instill incredible confidence. Winter woods are also stunningly beautiful.

Check out my upcoming online interactive workshop! I designed it for people like myself 😉

Clothing Layering Basics: 

This is the info you’ll see everywhere. 

  1. Thin “base” next to skin layers. These layers wick moisture away from skin so your skin stays drier and warmer. Cotton dries very slowly. Even if you are not a “sweaty” person, cotton is a poor next-to-skin layer unless you are trying to cool off. Always wool, silk, or synthetic activewear. 
  2. Thicker “mid” insulating layers. These trap your body heat in air preventing radiation heat loss. They also reduce conductive heat loss by padding where you make contact with cold things. 
  3. Thin “shell” protective layers. These slow convection (wind) and evaporation (of the sweat that your base layers wicked to your mid layers), and keep you from getting wet from the environment.

But OMG – this is not enough info. 

There are SO MANY VARIABLES! 

“Cold” or “winter” is not just one experience. 

  • Temperature (plus wind, humidity, precipitation etc). The difference in how you layer for 20ºF vs -20ºF is drastic. 
  • Activity. The difference between how you layer for being highly aerobic in 20ºF vs mostly sedentary in -20ºF is even more drastic! 
  • Duration. The difference between how you layer to go outside for 1 hour is different than 1 day is different than 3 continuous days outdoors. 
  • Acclimation. 40ºF can feel fucking freezing when you’re used to 90ºF and that’s OK! 20ºF can feel thick and balmy when you’re used to -20ºF.  Same temperature, different season can lead to different layers!
  • Personal physiology. Some people generate a lot of heat and sweat. Some people get cold and stay cold easily. Don’t make assumptions based on appearance or body type. What works for one person isn’t necessarily best for another. 
  • Food and hydration. The same temperature will feel very different even just slightly deficient vs having lots of calories and hydration in your system. 

Video compilation demo of most of these variables!

Layering clothing – beyond basics

Be an onion or a nesting doll. 

  • Overlap! At wrists, ankles, waist, neck. Even if you can’t see gaps, layers that don’t overlap or just barely overlap leak heat. Tuck things in! 
  • Micro adjustments! Having several options (not just un-zipping) is key to adapting to changing variables. It’s not all or nothing. Don’t wait until you’re too cold or too warm. Constantly make micro adjustments to your layers as your activity level or other variables change. Avoid products that combine layers (a puffy jacket combined with a rain shell) making it hard to adjust.
  • Layers for your head! Have several options that layer. These accessories are fairly small and easy to pack. For example, one or two thin Buffs (seamless fabric tube) that can be used around the ears or neck, a scarf (or something thicker that can protect the face), a hat, and a hood. These can be worn separately or together.
  • Layers for your hands! Thin glove, insulating mitten, and shell mitten is your best option for warm hands. Again, having these layers be separate gives you great versatility. You can operate with one of the layers or different combinations of the layers.
  • Layers for your feet! You can wear a thin base layer sock, a thick fuzzy sock, and then the shoe is the shell. If the shoe is too tight to accept the layers then it’s not the right shoe. All these layers can be adapted. Maybe you wear two base layer socks under a light weight running shoe. Maybe you wear the base, insulating, and a thick soled boot. 
  • Wet! Sometimes getting wet is just unavoidable. Sometimes there is no way to not sweat through your layers. Sometimes there is no way to keep all the precipitation out. Sometimes the best thing to do is pack a set of dry layers. 

Vapor Barrier Layers (VBLs)

Evaporation is incredibly effective at cooling you even when you are already cold and think you can’t possibly be sweating. VBLs are a critical step when treating or preventing hypothermia in delayed care settings (AKA wilderness). In this context, we’ll focus on just using them on hands and feet. VBLs are very effective but can feel very weird and used poorly can make you more cold. 

  • Use plastic (or similar material)
  • Wear as close to skin as possible. This can be directly on skin or over a very thin base layer.
  • Make the tightest seal possible.
  • Insulating layer on top of VBL.
  • Concerned about wet coming from the environment? Use another VBL on top of the insulating layer(s).

You will be drenched in sweat under the VBL. It may feel weird or gross. If you were clean before the VBL, the sweat itself is salty; antibacterial and clean.

Cautions:

  • If there are holes or gaps in your VBLs they will not work.
  • Be prepared to get warm and dry after removing the VBLs. Do not take off the VBLs unless you can do this.

Beyond clothing

Staying warm is more than what you wear.

  • Skin! Keep your skin healthy. Dry cracked skin doesn’t do a good job of helping regulate your body temperature. Use body oils or creams (without alcohol in them) and use extra protection for skin that will be exposed to the air. Warm Skin and Dermatone Spot Protection Stick are my two most regular products.
  • Heat! Yes, there are those disposable hand/foot warmers, I’m not a fan. Hot water bottles to hold and a thermos of hot drink are my preferred heat sources. Fire is the original heat source, but not always available. Stealing someone else’s body heat (think cold feet warmed up on someone’s belly) is also effective but usually not safe or available.
  • Eat! Eat more! Eat easily digestible warm things! Being even a little hungry while battling the cold not only makes you colder, it makes it harder to do the other things that will keep you warm. EAT!  
  • Move! Move more! Move vigorously until you feel like you’re actively generating heat. This can feel like a lot of work. If you wait until you’re too cold and you don’t have enough calories in your system, this is really hard to do. Once you feel yourself on the verge of sweating, then lower the activity level, but don’t just sit down. 

Between Your Ears

Disliking or being afraid of the cold is not irrational. Don’t let anyone dismiss your cold concerns. Cold injuries can be mild to severe. For a long time I hated the cold because no one took my cold discomfort seriously. As a teen, there were a couple instances where adult leaders pushed me to near dangerous levels of cold before allowing me to get warm. It was physically and emotionally traumatic. Fear of cold is like fear of heights. It’s there to keep you safe. First make sure you actually are prepared to stay warm. Second, know what your safety back ups are. Sometimes that’s just going back inside. If that’s not an option, make sure the people you’re with can and will help you re-warm. Third, emotionally and mentally prepare. 

Mentally embrace that you are a durable resilient physical being capable of enduring temporary discomfort. You’re not going to get your layers 100% perfect every single time. Some days you’ll get it right, some days you’ll over or under shoot. You’ll adjust. Your preferences will change over time. Even when you are super experienced and have all your layers dialed perfectly, you’ll usually be somewhat uncomfortable for some amount of time. Yet with knowledge and practice you’ll have the confidence that you can be safe in the cold. 

Winter is a magical beautiful season. Ice is fascinating. Nature year-round is healthy. Don’t let the cold stop you! Get out there!

Have fun out there!

If you want to learn more, reach out, I can help!

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