Brr! How to Layer Up and Brave the Cold

Colder weather can make it hard to get outside and enjoy being there for any length of time. Fall poses a triple threat: the days get shorter and darker, the weather can be finicky and unpleasant, and there always seem to be a lot of holiday distractions (hello Halloween candy!!). Winter is just plain… winter.

Dressing the right way can make the difference between a cold and miserable experience and being happy as a clam in any condition. Follow these guidelines for dressing up for cold weather and then go get outside.

1. It’s all about the base.

The most important part of getting dressed for any cold-weather activity—except, of course, saunaing—is the base layer that is in contact with your skin. It provides the first layer of insulation, which traps warm air and keeps you comfy. Also important, the base layer is responsible for wicking away any moisture (aka sweat) because any moisture is going to have a tendency to pull heat away from your body and make you feel cold and wet.

There are two things to consider when picking out your base layer, and what you choose on any particular day will depend on the weather as well as what type of activities you plan to do.

Fabric

There’s a saying in the outdoor community community that “cotton kills” because it’s a terrible fabric for keeping warm. Cotton is very absorbent and doesn’t wick, so it will absorb moisture and loose its wicking ability very quickly. Being cold and wet is definitely not fun, and can be dangerous in very cold temperatures. So avoid that cotton union suit, even if it is mighty stylish. Instead, go with long underwear made from synthetic fabrics, wool, or silk.

Stylish? Yes. Ready for the outdoors? No way! (Photo via flickriver.com)
Stylish? Maybe. Ready for the outdoors? No way! (Photo via flickriver.com)

There’s a lot to say on the different fabrics, but pick something based on what you like and have handy, because that will get you out the door the fastest. Polyester-based synthetic fabrics have good wicking properties and are pretty easy to find—it’s likely you already have something in your closet that will fit the bill (think: tights or that free race t-shirt). Just be warned that these fabrics can build up some serious stink over time, so you may want to wash after very use. Wool, meanwhile, is a wonder fabric and manages to insulate without necessarily wicking. Baselayer wool is cozy and soft—not itchy—and will generally outperform synthetics in cold temperatures.

In short: Go for synthetics at higher levels of activity (running, cross-country skiing) or if your base layer might get wet and need to dry and switch to wool when your activity or the temperature drops.

Weight

Base layers come in a variety of weights. While you can get technical on the merits of lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight fabrics, the main idea is that fabric thickness translates to warmth. The trick is to pick something that keeps you warm enough, without roasting with too much clothes on. At higher levels of activity, go for lighter weights to keep from overheating and reduce bulk—you can always layer (more on that in a sec). Cold temps or less activity? Lean to heavier weights.

Socks! Don’t forget that socks, gloves, and hat are a critical part of the base layer, and all the same rules apply!

2. Layer.

If you’re super-active and it’s not too cold out, the base layer may be all that you need. But if it’s not enough, layering is key.

Get out like these Keweenaw runners! (Photo by G. Thanks, G!)
Get out like these Keweenaw runners! (Photo by G. Thanks, G!)

Here’s the obvious-but-brilliant premise of layering: add layers of clothing to add warmth. There’s that insulating/wicking base layer described above. Then there are any number of insulating middle layers. And on top of all that is a protective outer layer that blocks wind, rain, and snow.

Middle Layers

The middle layers provide insulation to trap in heat, so the number and weight of these layers will vary a lot based on season and activity. Go-to middle layers include wool sweaters and fleece. Cotton still isn’t recommended since its a crummy insulator, but it could be decent to use at milder temperatures—for example: a base layer/hoodie/jacket-sandwich for a fall hike. Go with more layers if your activity level will vary or if you’re unsure about what to wear because you can add or remove layers as needed. For sitting in the bitter cold (think: deer blind or ice fishing), go heavy on insulation.

Outer Layer

The outer layer protects everything under it from elements like wind and rain to help keep that warm air inside. At the same time, it ideally lets moisture out so that all that warm, moist air isn’t trapped inside with you. An outer shell can provide the protection that is needed for a variety of conditions. Staying dry in very rainy weather can be a little more difficult because the most waterproof materials also tend to trap a lot of moisture. You may end up feeling a bit hot and muggy under your rain jacket, but you can also reduce the base and middle layers to compensate. In most other conditions, you’re just looking for something to block the majority of the wind and water.

3. Pick your flavor of the day.

Of course, every day is different and it all depends on what you’re going to do and in what kind of conditions you’ll do it in. And if in doubt, go for a greater number of layers so you’ll have ultimate flexibility.

Now quit reading and go get out!

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