Playing and working outdoors is an absolute must for some people and complete hell for others. On our end of the spectrum, we literally live to be outdoors. Almost everything we do revolves around getting outside at some point as being the central goal of the day/week/etc. The time of year doesn’t matter and to many, the weather doesn’t matter either.
I know there are some of you out there who want to spend more time outdoors, particularly in the winter, but can’t stand how cold or wet you get, and therefore give up on the idea altogether. Well I’ve got some tips for you, so keep reading.
The absolute most important part of staying warm in cold weather, is moisture management. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing an aerobic activity like skinning or snowshoeing, something in the middle like skiing or snowboarding, or just sitting at a football game. Regardless of whether you’re sweating, condensation is still being created; your body is 100 degrees and typical winter activities take place at 30 degrees or below and when you put warm next to cold, you’re going to create condensation.
In our world, that condensation is going to be centralized against our skin and unfortunately, water/condensation/sweat is extremely proficient at robbing heat from whatever it touches. Because of that, the number one goal in keeping yourself warm needs to be keeping yourself dry. It can become a very delicate balance, particularly in the skiing world where we’re extremely active for short bursts of time, and then sit still on a cold chair lift directly after. It’s a perfect storm of variables to make you cold if you’re not sure how to handle it.
So what do you do?
No cotton. No cotton anywhere. No cotton against your skin, no cotton layers, no cotton sweatpants under ski pants, no cotton hoodies or flannels, no cotton socks, and no, not even cotton underwear. If you didn’t get that, no cotton. Cotton is not a very good insulator and, more importantly, it retains moisture and loses whatever warming properties it does have once it's wet. No cotton.
Starting with your base layer/thermals/long underwear (whatever you want to call it, this layer will be against your skin with nothing in between), it needs to be insulating but more importantly, moisture wicking. What does that mean? Moisture wicking is, in basic terms, a fabric’s ability to pull moisture through itself and away from the skin to the outside of the garment.
There are so many choices here, but we’re huge fans of anything with Merino wool like Smartwool, wool or bamboo blends like Tasc, Patagonia’s Capilene, as well as some other man made options like Seirus’s Heat Wave reflective base layers. Again, this layer is designed to be directly against your skin. If you need more support from an undergarment, most of these companies also make traditional underwear cuts using these same materials.
We call the next layer(s) mid layers, and they should serve as your main insulators. These layers can consist of fleeces like Patagonia’s Sychilla and Better Sweater lines, Cotapaxi’s Teca Fleece pieces, and an almost endless array of others. Fleece, no matter how bougie, is still a technical performance fabric and will not only insulate to keep you warm but is also a moisture wicking fabric helping to move the moisture further yet away from your skin.
Other mid layer types can be puffies like Patagonia’s Down Sweaters and Nano Air models or Fjall Raven’s Expedition Down jackets. While the down insulators like I’ve just listed are extremely effective at keeping you warm and regulating your body temperature, they are not moisture wicking, so strategic base layering is a key component in their use.
A key factor in choosing your insulation is making sure that your core is warm. Your chest and abdomen carry most of your body’s mechanicals and your body is designed to protect them at all costs in extreme conditions. While skiing or snowboarding doesn’t necessarily seem like an extreme condition, spending hours outside in the cold can make your body go into survival mode if you’re not careful. Basically, if your core begins to get cold, your body will pull blood from your extremities in order to concentrate on keeping your heart, lungs, kidneys, etc. warm, sometimes at the expense of the extremities. This is what causes frost bite. Your body will literally sacrifice fingers, toes, noses, and ears to save your more important parts.
This is almost doubly important for women, and why women get colder than men and sooner. Women carry all of the reproductive mechanicals in their core, and as simple as it may sound, one of the human body’s main goals is to make more of itself, so the female body will pull blood from, or decrease circulation in, the extremities much quicker than in males in order to protect the reproductive organs.
A great way to keep your core warm without overheating is through the use of vests as a mid layer option. A good fleece vest can be extremely versatile in so many conditions, keeping your core warm so that the body allows the warm blood from your core to circulate throughout all of your body, including the extremities. Personally, on a cold day of maybe 15-20 degrees, I’ll wear a base layer, maybe a thin fleece, and then a fleece vest before my outer layer so that I’m not too bulked up.
Finally, it’s time for your outer layer. You’re faced with two main choices here; insulated jacket/pants or shells and is one better than the other? In short, choosing shells is a much more versatile option. Shells (pants and jackets) like Picture’s Stone Jacket allow you to layer according to the temp of the day and/or your activity allowing the shell to simply be your waterproof windproof and breathable layer (essentially your armor).
For example, if you’re skinning up in the early morning when it’s freezing outside, you’re going to be generating a ton of body heat and condensation on your ascent. Because of this, you’re going to want to dress light, perhaps avoiding heavy insulating pieces in favor of moisture wicking fabrics. Once at your personal summit and it’s time to start getting ready to head downhill, all that activity has ceased and you will begin to get cold very quickly; you’ll want to add some layers (fleece and/or puffy) along with your outer layer or jacket. In this instance, relying solely on an insulated jacket would cause you to overheat on the way up making you sweat, and then once stopped and on your way down, you’ll have sweat and moisture to contend with.
In another example, a shell like Patagonia’s Triolet jacket or Obermeyer’s Xenon Shell can allow you to load up on insulating mid layers in mid February when it’s 3 degrees out, but also let you wear nothing but your base layer underneath when the spring ski days hit in March and April.
This isn’t to say that insulated outer layers are bad. Many skiers like the feel of an insulated jacket, the warmth and heft of the piece is reassurance that cold weather won’t be a factor during the ski day. If you’re a cold natured person, insulated outer layers are a great choice and can help to simplify the decision making process on what to wear. Insulated Jackets also tend to be a little less expensive and while that may sound counterintuitive, I’ll explain that in another article.
Most women skiers gravitate toward insulated layers, since, as previously mentioned, they tend to run colder than men. Also, most shells are going to have a much rougher hand, meaning that the outer fabric will feel more stiff and less soft to the touch, while insulated pieces tend to be softer to the touch and in many cases will have a 2 or 4 way stretch outer fabric allowing them to more easily move with you as you ski or board.
Wrapping up, heads, feet, and hands need love as well. While most of us wear a nice warm helmet when we ski and ride, the same materials should be looked at for balaclavas, face masks, and helmet covers when deciding how you’re going to keep your head warm. Most of these accessories are performance oriented and great at keeping the moisture away from your skin. Companies like Sierus, Phunkshun, and the time honored TurtleFur all have awesome items that work great and look great too.
Even though our feet are typically in ski boots or snowboard boots, you still need to make sure you're not doing yourself a disservice when it comes to covering them. Because your feet are the farthest from your heart, they are the extremities that can/will suffer the most when the rest of your body is not properly taken care of. Just like your base layers, socks need to be made of a moisture wicking material as well. We highly recommend a Merino wool blended sock from companies like Darn Tough (VERMONT MADE) and SmartWool. These two have an amazing assortment of options to keep your feet cozy and warm. The boot fitter in me will tell you to wear the thinnest sock you can tolerate when skiing and riding, but if you're cold natured, then there are cushioned options that can help with some insulation.
As for hands…cheap gloves/mitts are exactly that…cheap. A lot of people balk at the idea of spending $100 or more on gloves, but your hands will typically be the first thing to get cold if not properly protected. Regardless of the company, you will not get a decent glove for less than $55-ish dollars, and in some cases even this price point is pushing it. The construction of a cheap glove is nothing more than a nylon outer hand shaped bag with a lunch lady plastic liner for “waterproofing”, pillow fiber for insulation and fill, and then a polyester inner lining. This is a horrific way to take care of your hands.
Conversely, a good glove or mitt will have a tough but supple outer layer like leather or a heavy nylon, a waterproof layer that is bonded to the outer layer making it not only waterproof but also breathable, a good insulator like wool, terry wool, 3M Thinsulate or better, followed by a fleece or wool lining to allow moisture to wick away from your skin. A really good glove will be in the neighborhood of $100 - $200, anything more than that and you’re probably looking at a powered heated glove, which can be a great option for those of us who are super cold natured. If you’re wondering, mitts will always be warmer than gloves because they allow our fingers and hand to share warmth.
Hopefully this helps you in some way and allows you to get properly geared up so you can spend more time outside. Perhaps this is more important in maybe helping you get the kiddos properly outfitted so they can stay out longer (which means you can too!) In any case, being outdoors is a human necessity and the more we can all do it comfortably, the better off we’ll all be. Stay tuned for the second part of the series covering staying dry!