Winter can be harsh at times. Having lived most of my life in the region of the continental United States that is referred to as “The Icebox of the Nation”, we have had plenty of opportunities to learn what some of the best gear is for beating the extreme cold of winter.
What is the key to staying warm in extremely cold temperatures? Dressing in layers is key to staying warm when winter temperatures take a nosedive. Layering is simple.
- Start with a base layer to wick away the moisture.
- Next, add a mid-layer to insulate and retain body heat to keep you warm.
- Finally, add an outer layer, or shell, to shield and protect you from the weather.
We often find ourselves working and playing outdoors in temperatures of -40°F and, at times, even colder. Learning to dress properly for the cold is the key to success. Once you have the right gear, the cold is no big deal.
As you read on, we will lay out the gear that we choose and why. Once you put together a quality assortment of cold gear, your options for outdoor adventures will be limitless, and your enjoyment of those activities will increase exponentially.
The Key to Dressing for Extreme Winter Weather
The cold weather gear you choose each day will vary depending upon 3 key factors:
- Weather conditions
- Activity level, and
- Personal needs.
Basic Cold Weather Gear Layering
As you prepare for your adventure of the day, start by checking the weather information. We almost never leave the house without a good look at the day’s conditions. Rarely does that forecast intimidate us from venturing out, but it’s vital to know what you will be up against.
Let’s lay out the gear, layer by layer.
We almost always wear a good moisture-wicking synthetic layer as our base. In my experience, Under Armor is a no-fail option. They make fantastic cold gear that does what it says it will do. It keeps you dry and is very good at providing warmth.
We most often use the compression fit gear because it does not add bulk. If you wear gear that is overly bulky and restrictive, you are not going to enjoy your day! You are going to spend the whole day fighting with your clothing.
We own plenty of other products but almost always choose the Under Armor. It is a bit of an investment, but well worth it. They are good quality, and we have yet to wear them out. I have base layers that have been in my regular rotation for 20+ years. A $70 garment that lasts that long without showing its age is a great value in my opinion!
The mid-layer is the insulation layer, and it should retain your body heat. This layer is the layer that is probably the most variable depending upon the individual. Perhaps you prefer a good wool sweater or a flannel button-up, or maybe you are like me and always reach for a hooded top. Whatever your favorite mid-layer is, choose good quality natural fabrics such as wool, fleece, or flannel.
My husband and I choose very different garments for our mid-layer. He rarely wears a hooded top, but that is my top pick. One major drawback to a hood is that it catches the snow. I sometimes dump a hood full of snow right down my back. It helps if you turn it inside out while not in use. I find the hood helps keep the wind from blowing down my neck.
The sky is the limit with this layer, so try different options until you find what is the most comfortable for your needs.
The outer layer or shell should protect you from the weather. This layer is also very subject to the conditions and activity, so I will discuss our most common choices. A good water-resistant shell is a great option.
Make sure the closure on the coat is of good quality. We typically choose a heavy-duty plastic zipper (remember moist skin will freeze to cold metal). It is an added bonus if it has a Velcro flap that fastens over the zipper.
A goose down liner is a fantastic option. Goose down is lightweight and incredibly warm. We like coats that have a zip-out liner so we have more flexibility with temperature control. It makes the garment far more versatile.
If you are doing an activity that is going to be harder on your clothes, such as hauling and stacking wood, you may want to switch out to a heavier fabric such as a Carhartt type jacket. It takes time to break in a Carhartt jacket!
Carhartt jackets are warm and provide a little protection from sharp sticks and wayward chainsaws. I rarely choose Carhartt, but it is my husband’s go-to for wood cutting. The biggest drawback of a Carhartt jacket is that they are stiff and prone to getting wet in snowy conditions. Moisture is not your friend!
My personal favorite is wool. I wear a wool jacket almost every day in the winter. Wool is warm, flexible, and breathable; it naturally repels moisture, and stays warm even when damp. In my opinion, wool is fantastic! It is very durable and lasts a lifetime. I wear mine for everything from splitting wood to running to town. If I could only have one coat, I would choose my wool jacket.
A hat is a must as you probably already know. A basic stocking cap is great, but there are so many other really good options.
When it’s really cold, you probably should consider replacing your standard hat for a face mask variety. Exposed faces and ears are susceptible to frostbite. These are the areas that I have had the most trouble keeping frostbite free. If you prefer to stick with a traditional stocking cap a good neck warmer can be pulled up to provide protection from the elements.
Mittens and Gloves
There is no doubt about it, mittens are always going to be warmer than gloves. One drawback to mittens is they drastically reduce your dexterity.
A good solution to this is a quality liner glove. A liner glove allows you to avoid exposing your hands directly to the weather and a mitten is very easy to slip on over the top. It is always good to bring along an extra pair of mittens because they always seem to get wet. Wet mittens equal cold hands.
When it comes to footwear, buy quality! Cold feet are sometimes tough to avoid.
We always start with good quality socks. My absolute top pick are Smart Wool socks. They are expensive, but they are incredibly well made and long-lasting.
Smart Wool socks also stay put! There is nothing more annoying than a sock that has fallen off and is balled up in the toe of your boot. A good fitting wool sock is always going to be your best bet. If you have a hard time keeping your feet warm, wear two pairs.
A good liner sock is a nice upgrade. If you are like my husband, and your feet sweat, keep dry socks on hand whenever possible. Wet feet are cold feet, and it is a good way to get frostbitten toes.
Boots should be of good quality as well, and they need to fit the activity at hand. The Lacrosse Ice King boots (front row, right pair in the photo) are the absolute warmest boots we own. But they are incredibly heavy and bulky, so they are a terrible option if you need to be mobile.
Our best all-around boots are, hands down, our Steger Mukluks (front row, left and back row center). They state on their website that they have been worn on arctic expeditions as well as by mushers in the Iditarod race in Alaska. They are as comfortable as a pair of slippers and incredibly warm! They are a fantastic boot.
Cold Weather Hazards
Now that you have an idea of some good cold weather garments to try, we will talk about cold weather hazards and identification of the warning signs.
The two main hazards are hypothermia and frostbite. Both of these pose serious health risks and should be taken seriously.
Hypothermia is a risk factor that can be present even when conditions are well above freezing. Hypothermia occurs when your body is unable to maintain enough body heat to keep your temperature above 95°F. Normal body temperature is 98.6°F.
People with pre-existing health conditions such as hypertension, hypothyroidism, and diabetes are at higher risk. Acclimation to cold conditions can help, as well as maintaining good physical health. Know the warning signs. It can save your life!
Mild hypothermia warning signs:
- Shivering uncontrollably
Moderate to severe hypothermia warning signs:
- Shivering slows or stops
- Loss of coordination and dexterity
- Confusion and disorientation
- Slurred speech
- Inability to walk or stand
- Shallow breathing
- Dilated pupils
- Slow pulse
- Loss of consciousness
If you see the signs of hypothermia starting, you should:
- Get into a warm, dry place
- Remove any clothing that is damp, and replace with dry garments
- Wrap up in a blanket
- Cover your head with a hat
- Drink warm non-alcoholic liquids
- Apply heat packs to your core areas; armpits, groin area, and torso
- Seek medical attention if symptoms are severe, do not improve upon warming, or if there is a loss of consciousness
How to Avoid Hypothermia:
- Dress appropriately for the weather
- Drink warm liquids
- Increase physical activity
- Keep dry, and change out damp or wet garments ASAP
- Use the buddy system and watch each other for signs of exposure
Frostbite occurs when your skin and the underlying tissues freeze. Fingers, toes, face, and ears are the most susceptible. In extreme cold, frostbite can occur in minutes. The wind is a huge contributing factor as well.
Signs of Frostbite
- Red skin that turns white or gray
- Numbness of the area
- Sensation of tightness
- Skin feels firm or hard
- If severe enough, blisters can develop
What to Do if You Get Frostbite
- Apply warmth to the area at the first sign to avoid tissue damage
- Get someplace warm and thaw out
- Do not rub the affected area, it can further damage the tissue
- If blisters appear, do not pop the blisters.
- Seek medical attention to avoid further damage and infection
How to Best Protect Yourself from Frostbite
- Cover exposed skin
- Apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly to exposed areas
- Keep an eye on one another. If your face or ears are the affected area, it helps to have a buddy point out when you have white patches of skin starting to appear
- Drink warm liquids
- Use hand/foot warmers
Other Cold Weather Health Hazards
In extreme cold weather, even your eyes can freeze. A pair of wrap-around glasses or goggles offer good protection for your eyes. Cold weather can exasperate heart conditions. Freezing lungs can occur. Breathing through a face mask, scarf, or neck warmer will help.
Knowing the hazards, and taking precautionary measures, can allow you to venture out even in the most extreme cold weather. We will often spend the entire day outdoors in sub-zero temperatures.
We have experienced mild cases of both frostbite and hypothermia, but only rarely. Any time these hazards have appeared, it has been because of our own complacency. Be vigilant in watching for warning signs. If you react at the first sign, you can very easily avoid any real harm.
Take these hazards seriously, but don’t let them keep you from venturing out.
Dress Right and Enjoy Outdoors in the Cold
I hope this article encourages you to suit up and head out on a brisk winter day. In my opinion, if you invest in good quality gear, it will last for many years or even a lifetime. Buy one piece at a time and build up your wardrobe. My wool jacket was purchased used for a fraction of its original cost.
Once you understand what makes a quality garment, you can often pick things up second hand. A sturdy winter wardrobe can be a lifesaver. When we began our journey into self-sufficient living, we had no idea how much time we would have to spend outside in sub-zero temperatures. Fortunately, our outdoors lifestyle has provided us with a ton of outdoor clothing.
We have learned that standard gear cannot stand up to the wear and tear that homesteading throws at it. We wore out a lot of clothes! The items that we use now have to be tough. I don’t care if it’s a popular brand, I want good quality.
I have tried to list things that could be added to a survival/self-sufficient gear list, so you can prepare yourselves to best handle the elements when the need arises. In an emergency situation, your need to be outdoors will increase greatly.
Just cutting enough wood to heat your home is a huge, labor-intensive job. It is a job that frequently needs to be done in the colder months. With that in mind, consider whether or not your cold gear would be sufficient. I know I still have things that need improvement, and I spend a huge portion of my time out in the cold.
So get out and enjoy the beauty that winter has to offer. Winter is my favorite season, in-spite of how tough it can be at times.
Beth’s Best Picks for Quality Outdoor Gear
Some of my top picks for cold-weather gear include these items:
Outer Layer or Shell
- Carhartt Duck Chore Coat Blanket Lined
- Carhartt Yukon Arctic Quilt Lined Biberalls
- Clam Edge Parka
- Clam Ice Armor Edge Bib
- Vexilar Cold Snap II Parka
- Vexilar Cold-Snap Bibs