Tips for cold-weather clothing

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The old saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes,” may be trite, but there’s truth to it.

A lot of outdoors folks stay inside during winter or stick with a few traditional winter sports like skiing or snowmobiling.

But modern clothing allows you to continue most of your favorite outdoor sports when temperatures dip below freezing. All it takes is the right combination of clothing.

If you’re buying cold-weather clothes, beware that comfort doesn’t come cheap. But with the right gear, you will find yourself enjoying the outdoors instead of waiting for warmer weather.

For sake of simplicity, consider cold weather to be anything near or below freezing because it doesn’t take special clothing to stay comfortable when it’s 40 degrees or above.

Establish your base

Any good winter wardrobe starts with a good base layer, which is a techie term for long johns. If you’re going to splurge, your base layer is a good place to start.

You have a couple of options for long underwear: synthetic or wool. Don’t bother with cotton. It’s useless for winter weather.

As a general rule, synthetic underwear (which is typically polyester or polypropylene) is less expensive and wicks moisture reasonably well, which means as you generate heat and sweat, the fabric pulls the moisture away from your skin and keeps you dry.

Synthetic fabric doesn’t feel as warm against the skin as wool when you first put it on, and it can feel chilly if you’re not moving and generating body heat. Synthetic fabrics also tend to retain body odor.

You can expect to spend $75 to $100 for a set of synthetic long underwear.

The second, more expensive, option is wool.

Gone are the old days of thick, scratchy wool. Modern merino wool is soft and incredibly warm, even when wet. Wool wicks moisture well and is less prone to absorbing body odor.

Wool is very durable and you can machine wash and dry it (unlike old-school wool), although hang drying is often recommended.

You can expect to pay $120 to $200 for a set of merino wool long underwear.

Wool is warmer and more comfortable than synthetic long underwear, and wool should be considered a long-term investment.

Try Smartwool and Ibex brands of merino wool long underwear.

Long underwear is typically sold in light, mid and heavyweight fabrics. If you’re doing anything physically active, avoid heavy weight because it will make you overheat and sweat.

If you’re doing highly aerobic activities, such as nordic skiing, running or biking, you may want to go with a lighter fabric because you will be producing a lot of body heat, and light weight breathes better.

Building on your base

This is where things get tricky because how much you layer depends on how cold it is, whether it’s raining, snowing or windy, and what your sport is.

How active is your activity? 

Most of what you will be doing falls into a few basic categories: 

Active: Nordic skiing, backcountry skiing, off-trail or rigorous snowshoeing, biking, running, climbing, etc.

Moderate: Downhill skiing and snowboarding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing (on a groomed trail) hiking, etc.

Sedentary: Ice fishing, duck hunting, fly fishing, etc.

Mid layers

The next layer is either an insulative layer or a windbreaker/shell depending on what activity you’re doing.

It’s surprisingly easy to stay warm in cold temperatures if you block the wind.

If you’re doing something active, a good base layer and a windproof jacket may be all you need.

If you need more insulation, add a mid layer, such as fleece, down, or synthetic “puffy” jackets. This layer may also be an outer layer if it’s calm and clear.

Remember, the goal with mid layer is staying warm with minimal bulk and not overheating, which will cause you to sweat. Any moisture that soaks into your clothes will lower its insulating ability.

You might also use a light mid layer and add a vest (think of it as a half layer), which will keep your core warm, but is less bulky than a sweater or jacket.

Mid layers, or mid-weight jackets, typically have three types of insulation.

Polyester fleece is ubiquitous in the outdoors. It comes in a variety of weights and styles. It’s a favorite because it’s warm, breathable, wicks moisture, insulates when wet (which you still want to avoid) and is inexpensive.

Higher grades are also windproof. A lightweight, zip-neck fleece jacket be found for under $50.

Goose down has the highest warmth-to-weight ratio of any insulation and is a favorite for very cold temperatures.

But it’s expensive and provides little or no insulation when saturated (it can withstand some moisture).

Down jackets are often built to be extremely lightweight, which means they can be less rugged and durable than a fleece coat. Down is rated by fill weight, commonly between 600 and 800. The higher the number, the better it insulates, and the more it costs.

Polyester fill, which is the stuffing inside puffy coats that aren’t down, isn’t as warm as down, so it’s heavier and/or bulkier. Polyester does insulate when wet, and it’s considerably cheaper than down.

Waterproof/breathable shell vs. softshell

If the weather is too cold or too wet for your mid layer to double as an outer layer, you want to add a waterproof/breathable jacket or “shell” as they’re often called, or a “soft shell.” The difference between the two is subtle, but important.

Waterproof/breathable fabric is self explanatory. Gore-Tex is the leading brand, and it’s often used generically for all waterproof/breathable fabrics.

They provide total protection from wet weather, and they still let some perspiration out to prevent condensation inside the jacket.

Waterproof/breathable jackets are typically best for the worst weather and/or moderate or sedentary activities, but they’re also used by bikers and runners.

Gore-Tex “shells” have no insulation, and they tend to be more expensive than softshells. Some high-end shells made with waterproof breathable fabric rival softshells in breathability, but expect to pay $400 to $500 for one.

Softshell is a generic term for jackets (or pants).

Softshells sacrifice some weather protection in exchange for breathability, which means they’re better at venting sweat and excess heat, and they are usually less expensive.

They’re often preferred for more aerobic activities, such as biking, running or backcountry skiing because they breathe better. They’re a good option when the weather is dry, or there’s an occasional shower or snow flurry.

Softshells are often well-suited for dryer climates because you’re rarely going to be in an extended rainstorm, but you will usually be sweating, even when it’s very cold. That moisture can significantly reduce the insulating ability of your inner layers, making you chilled.

But remember, breathability also comes at a price. It’s going to be venting heat, too. So you may need a little more insulation underneath it. And if you’re in a downpour, you’re going to get wet.

Pants

Pretty much the same principles apply for pants, but you have a couple things to consider.

First, if your upper body is warm, your lower body probably will be, too, so you have more leeway.

Start with a good base layer, and if you’re active, that may be all you need. Nordic skiers are perfectly comfortable in a thin ski suit in sub-freezing weather.

You can add a pair fleece pants or similar pants and a lightweight rain pants for weather protection. You can also wear old-school wool pants, which work well in cold temperatures and snow, but avoid them for rain.

If you’re skiing or snowmobiling you may want to opt for insulated bibs, but don’t overlook waterproof, breathable pants.

They can keep you surprisingly warm, and they are a lot lighter and less constricting than bulky bibs.

And if you can’t part with your blue jeans, wear a good base layer under them and go for it. Just don’t let them get wet or you’re going to be cold and miserable.