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How to Layer up for True Cold in the North

Posted by David

How to Layer up for True Cold in the North

A below zero day— fahrenheit or celsius, it’s a sure sign you’re in a cold climate when the high temps don’t get above zero…

It’s a beautiful time of year— moisture hangs in the air like a frozen veil, ice crystals shimmer, vehicles are slow to start, and the snow squeaks underfoot. It’s unmistakably cold. In Duluth, towering plumes of steam rise from the much warmer water of Lake Superior. It’s gorgeous, but if you’re going to be outside, you need to be dressed for the weather. How do folks survive and enjoy cold so deep that it hurts to breathe? Good clothes, layered right, a heavy beard, and the promise of a warm bed at the end of the day all help.

Let’s take a look at the clothes, we’ll leave the other two up to you…

Layering is key

Several light and mid-weight layers are warmer and more comfortable than a single heavy layer… especially if you’re active in the cold. Big, puffy parkas are great for warmth when standing still, but as soon as you begin to move about and raise your core temperature, you’ll begin to sweat, and will soon regret being trapped in all the lofty warmth of a heavy parka.

To build a system for layering, start from the inside out. Begin with long johns, tops and bottoms. Merino wool and high quality synthetics work best— keep cotton away from your skin in the winter, it retains moisture and will make you damp and cold when you sweat. Keep layering up with more garments made from those good materials, making your way up to sweaters, fleeces, vests, and shackets (shirt/jacket), and don’t forget about your legs, a base layer plus an insulating layer, then pants. Avoid cotton here too. In deep cold you might wear several layers of clothing (five or more) on the top and several or more on the bottom.

Consider a light pair of gloves, for dexterity, coupled with a pair of mitts for warmth. Mitts are warmer than gloves because your fingers help keep each other warm. We use tried-and-true tricot-lined Thinsulate® in the mitts we make here at Frost River. And your Mom was right… wear a hat. We have a selection of great warm hats, both in the shop and online, all made in USA, that’ll keep you warm and a head above the rest.

Materials and fit

Choose your layering materials well, and be sure they fit. The wool vs. synthetics debate rages on. Wool is durable, it works even when wet, and won’t melt around a campfire. Synthetics are more lightweight, generally less expensive, and dry quicker than wool. Feel free to mix and match materials in your layering system.

It is handy, and space saving on a trip, to have all your layers fit together. Plus, you won’t need to take stuff off to put stuff on. You’ll likely need a selection of sizes as you layer out. For example, if you wear a medium base layer, you may need large insulating layers, then an XL shell. Some manufacturers account for layering in the sizing, others don’t, double check and try them on. Keep in mind that tight spots can turn into cold spots. Elbows, shoulders, and knees all need room to move. The more space you have, the more warm air you can trap to keep you warm.

Wool socks are the way to go for the feet, keep an extra pair in your pack for a quick change if you’re out all day. Be sure your boots and liners work with your socks. You’ll get cold with tight fitting shoes. Removable liners in your boots make drying so much quicker. Wool liners are the best, felt works, stay away from cotton. If you have room for a removable footbed you’re feet will stay warmer and dryer by having a bit of air between your feet and the ground.

Jackets and Overcoats

A shell is an important part of the system. Here, cotton can work well in extreme climes. In cold, dry conditions, far below freezing, cotton provides excellent breathability and wind protection. Be careful in waterproof rain jackets that you don’t sweat out in the tight, waterproof outer layer. You don't want your insulating layers to get damp. Be on the lookout for anything that will decrease breathability, collect moisture, and make you cold. Your shell should have a good hood and a fur ruff works wonders to keep the wind off your face. A ruff even helps keep you warm when your hood is down. It breaks the wind around your neck, face, and ears. Natural furs, like coyote are some of the old standards, because it doesn’t collect ice from breath and snow.

Adjust as needed

Add and remove layers as required by activity and conditions. You won’t need as many layers to stay warm when skiing, snowshoeing, and moving about as you will while being stationary. As soon as you begin to perspire, stop and remove some clothing. When you stop for a break, add some insulation before you get chilled (a down vest works wonders). Having a pack handy will help carry extra insulation. Our Arrowhead Rolltop really shines here as it’s vertically adjustable for volume. Our Isle Royale retains the versatility and adds big buckskin straps, pockets, and a slot for an axe, handy when working a campfire. Winter camping expeditions often rely on toboggans, that’s the best spot to stash extra layers. Favor clothing with full zips, snaps, and/or buttons. You can dump a bunch of extra heat by opening up layers but keeping your shell closed against the wind.

Northern Pacific Mittens - BuckskinHead, Hands, and Toes

Wear a good hat in the cold. We’ve got great American made hats that’ll fit under a hood for extra insulation. For the hands and fingers, mitts are best. Give your digits some company to help keep ‘em warm. Our buckskin mitts allow better dexterity, the waxed canvas provides better water resistance. The Great Northern Mitts are cut to fit over cuffs.

Hydrate and Refuel

Winter is a dry time of year. Add water to yourself, and eat often to keep your energy up.

Build Your System

For staying warm in the bitter cold, you’ll often need to forego fashion and adopt function. Don’t dress like it’s recess on the middle school playground or you’ll literally be one of the cool kids. Bundle up, get out, and enjoy this “most wonderful time to the year”.

One of our favorite local makers of stuff for staying warm in the winter is Empire Wool and Canvas here in Duluth. Kevin walks the line of form and function and offers great clothing to stay “Winter Smart”. The good stuff ain’t cheap, but it’ll last for years of being worn everyday that it’s cold, and will keep you smiling through the worst weather you can imagine. We offer several of his pieces in our store here in Lincoln Park, and he also sells directly.

Happy winter travels!