Well, are you? Here’s a comprehensive guide to staying warm, staying dry and staying active when it’s cold outside. We’ll show you the best ways to do that, but also the affordable ways.
Who’s This Guide For?
Everyone. Everyone can benefit from more a more effective approach to clothing, whether you’re just walking to dinner in New York in February, skiing at Aspen on a balmy afternoon in late March, or living in a snow cave above the arctic circle. The approach to dressing for cold weather is identical no matter how, when or where you’re wearing it, only the execution changes.
Most of the stuff we’ll talk about here is unisex or available in both men’s and women’s cuts. If it’s not, we’ll point towards options for both sexes.
Cold Weather Clothing Fundamentals
As we covered last year, with How To Stay Warm When It’s Cold Outside, the fundamental principle is a three-part layering system in which base layers keep you dry, mid layers provide insulation and outer layers keep the weather off while still allowing your body to breathe.
Outside, no part of this clothing system should be cotton. That material attracts and retains water and, because contact with water cools more quickly than contact with air, can cause hypothermia. Cotton kills.
As activity levels change, your need for insulation changes too. Drastically. An effective layering system will be designed to deal with this, allowing you to easily strip or add layers of insulation and weather protection as needed, minimizing the amount you sweat. While your base layers, insulation and shells should all facilitate the removal of that sweat, you should still try and stay as dry as possible. Staying dry or getting dry is essential to staying comfortable in cold weather, or even surviving it.
So, let’s look at each important item of clothing, determine its function in your system and then suggest innovative new products that fill those roles. We’ll point out both high-performance options and affordable alternatives that will still get the job done. You by no means need to rush out and buy an entire new wardrobe of stuff; you probably already have a lot of these things in your closet. Hopefully all this will help you understand their use a little better, thereby getting a little more value from them.
The goal of a base layer is to keep you dry. They achieve this by allowing your skin to breathe. Because it’s really, really a giant pain in the ass to strip off your base layers, you want them to help regulate body temperature, not provide a massive amount of insulation outright.
The Best: I’ve been wearing Patagonia’s new Merino Air top ($130) and bottom ($130) for a couple months now, pretty much living in them during a two-week trip to Romania in which we slept in a frigid monastery on the Ukraine border. They’re a synthetic (good for wicking)/merino (no stink, good temperature regulation) blend that’s been woven into an innovative 3D pattern (above photo) that opens them up a bit both for better breathing and better insulation. They’re like wearing a really thin, tight fitting sweater and are the warmest base layers I’ve worn, but stayed comfortable inside 75-degree restaurants when I stripped down to jeans and a flannel shirt on top. Easily the nicest, most effective base layers I’ve ever used and what everyone is getting from me for Christmas this year.
The Cheapest Viable Option: Most of the long johns you’ll find at surplus stores will be made from Polartec Powerdry. Just read the labels to find out. These wick very effectively and are very warm, but will not be as comfortable as merino in warmer settings and get stinky very fast. Many expensive outdoors brands use the same fabric for their base layers; they’re no better than the cheap options. Here’s affordable Polartec Powerdry bases for men and women on Amazon.
Make sure you read our guide to base layers for a complete breakdown on materials and their uses.
These are a tricky item to get right, because they need to do the job of both a base and, often, an insulative mid-layer too, all while preventing blisters and cushioning your feet. And remember that no-cotton rule.
The Best: I’ve worn Icebreaker’s Mountaineer Expedition socks ($30/pair) while wading in 40-degree water, on long backpacking trips in moderate weather and while backcountry skiing. Throughout all of that, they’ve kept my feet dry and comfortable and work in temperatures from minus-zero to 70+ degrees. They’ll fit best inside high-volume boots; they’re too thick for tight trail runners.
The Cheapest Viable Option: A basic pair of silk sock liners will add warmth to any sock and shoe, while also preventing blisters. Layer a pair under the above Icebreakers on really cold days or use them with whatever you’ve got for warmer, more comfortable feet.
This is your insulation; what keeps you warm. You’ll want a few different items in your arsenal, giving you the ability to tailor your system to specific conditions, or just to look nice if you’re out on the town. With your mid-layers, you should prioritize warmth-to-weight and warmth-to-packed size. Because they’re mostly worn inside a shell, you don’t need to worry about abrasion and tear resistance, you just need insulation.
The Best: The most effective mid-layer is a highly packable, ultralight down jacket or “sweater.” That’ll give you a massive amount of warmth in a package you can easily take with you anywhere. For this reason, Chris and I swear by our Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jackets ($320); they’re the lightest, most packable down jackets out there. At just 7oz and packing down to about the size of a sandwich, you can carry one with you anywhere with no penalty to weight or space.
Fleece is another great option for mid-layer layering. Wear it alone (with a base layer and a shell) when down is overkill or add it to your down when it’s really freakin’ cold out or when activity levels drop at night. I’m loving the Stio fleece hoodie ($159) we talked about a couple weeks back.
You’ll also want a nice, bulky wool sweater, again as part of that layering system and for times when you need to look nice, but still be warm. Aether’s new merino sweater ($295) is just that, complete with a flattering, athletic cut and a chunky, strong, polyurethane-coated zipper.
The Cheapest Viable Option: LL Bean just came out with an ultralight down sweater that costs just $179 and actually uses a higher fill-power down than the more expensive MHW option. It won’t be quite as packable because it uses a thicker nylon shell and it weighs 3oz more, but it does about 95 percent as well as the MHW for nearly half the price. Both brands cut their jackets for, well, Santa Clause bellies, but down jackets like these can easily be tailored. Fixing mine cost $20.
You probably already have both fleece jackets and wool sweaters in your closet. If you need to buy something, LL Bean is again a high value option for high quality products.
Mid-Layer Pants: This is always a challenge. If you’re going out in extremely cold conditions or will be outdoors, but inactive (ie sitting in a tree stand), you’ll need to add insulation to your legs beyond just the shell and base. A second pair of long johns is usually my go-to solution (ones that include a Gore Windstopper membrane), but fleece sweatpants work even better. LL Bean has good options both for those and for even warmer, Primaloft-insulated mid-layer bottoms.
Hunters: You may want a very warm, insulated overpant to use when you’re sitting still in a treestand. Sitka’s Kelvin Lites ($230) zip off when it’s time to follow a blood trail.
Softshells are wind and water resistant while breathing extremely well. Some may be fleece-backed for a little bit of insulation (two layer), some may just be a single-layer of resistant material. Hardshells are wind and water proof, but don’t breath as well. So, use a softshell most of the time and either switch to or layer a hardshell as conditions dictate.
The Best: The best made, best fitting, best looking outwear for active people is made in Vancouver by Westcomb. Made from Polartec Neoshell, their Apoc hardshell is very pricey at $500, but is the most breathable waterproof shell on the market. They’ve updated it this season with a thicker face fabric for better abrasion resistance and strength. Their Soho jacket (eVent) packs similar technical attributes into a stylish jacket that will do all the same stuff, just in the city.
It’s terribly expensive at $450, but NWAlpine’s waterproof/breathable cuben fiber hardshell is the lightest, most packable out there. Paired with the Ghost Whisperer Down, you can pack bombproof weather protection all in a single pants cargo pocket with virtually no weight penalty. Not relevant to most of us, of course, but frequent travelers may appreciate such an advanced option.
The Westcomb Crest hoody ($190) is an ultralight, ultra packable single-layer soft-shell that’s perfect for being very active in non-extreme conditions. The Kuiu Guide jacket ($190) is an excellent high-performance option for a two-layer, fleece-backed soft-shell.
The Cheapest Viable Option: The Marmot Precip ($70) is a 2.5-layer (ie light and packable) hardshell that has served me extremely well for about eight years now. LL Bean’s classic Pathfinder fleece-backed soft-shell is on-sale right now for $60 and is a great all-round option.
Shell Pants: Chris and I are both loving Westcomb’s new Recon cargo pants ($240). Made from Schoeller Dynamic fabric, they’re hardwearing, but also light, thin and four-way stretchy. They hold out moisture and rain, but breathe as well as your bare skin. Deep, fleece-lined zippered pockets hold your stuff securely. These are all you’ll need for most conditions, but a pair of hardshell overpants may be useful in extremely wet conditions. Kuiu has multiple options.
If you prefer jeans, but don’t want to get soaking wet, Duer is a new company making both men’s and women’s options out of a Coolmax blend that is inherently hydrophobic (it can’t be washed off, as can be the coating on Levi’s commuter range). They’re stretchy, strong and comfortable, but obviously primarily targeted for city use.
Mission Workshop makes a great, softshell pant that’s cut just like a 5-pocket jean, but allows you to move (or ride a bike) freely, while keeping you dry. Peerlessly stylish, yet as technical as it gets.
Personally, I prefer an uninsulated boot with a waterproof/breathable membrane and vary the thickness of my socks (and add silk sock liners) to suit weather conditions. Always carry spare socks and switch into them if your feet get wet. I wear our recommended (for men and women) Salomon Quest 4D II GTX in that role.
But, footwear is tricky! WP/B boots work best in precipitation or while walking through wet vegetation, but are a terrible idea if you need to wade; they’ll just refuse to dry out after. And, insulated boots may be a good idea if you operate in a very cold environment or just need a little extra help keeping your feet warm.
If you’re wading, use the lightest, most breathable footwear you can find, paired with wool socks, and they should dry as you hike on. If the water is very cold, Arc’teryx makes an excellent set of knee-high Gore-Tex liners. Remove your insole, put it inside the liner, put that on and you’ll be totally dry in water up to their tops. Again, this works best with the lightest, most breathable footwear possible. Think trail runners with mesh uppers.
For insulated boots, Adidas Outdoor has a really nice looking range of Primaloft insulated winter boots that are light, have excellent traction and are perfect for city and light outdoor use. For more significant conditions, we use insulated Danners or dedicated mountaineering boots; but both will be overkill for the vast majority of people. A basic, all-round hiking boot like the Salomon 4Ds work best, most of the time.
Orthopedic insoles will not only make you more stable and help support your lower back, but they can also add insulation too. Superfeet makes the best options, they’re all pretty affordable and some are available with Merino wool insulation. Just make sure you match the volume of the insole to the volume of your boot; a high volume insole will not work in a tight-fitting piece of footwear.
Layering works for your hands as well as it does the rest of your body, with the added benefit of enabling you to vary tactility as tasks change.
I start with a pair of Icebreaker merino glove liners and throw a basic pair of one-size-too-large Gore Windstopper-backed fleece gloves on top as necessary. Under those, I can also wear a pair of Mechanix Originals if I’m shooting or doing another job that requires hand protection.
If you need lots of insulation and waterproofness, go for a pair of mittens. They’ll be way warmer. Layer those merino liners underneath for when you need to pull the mitts off and use your fingers.
More complete explanations of these concepts, materials and approaches are linked below. But, if you have questions, I’m always happy to answer them. And, if you have an item of cold weather clothing that works particularly well for you, why don’t you tell us about it below.
Photos: Chris Brinlee Jr.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook,Twitter and Instagram.