Dressing for the cold


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This is my personal system for clothes in the winter. It is designed to work well in temperatures down to -35 C or so, but has worked reasonably well in temperatures as low as -50 C.

Step 1:

Choice of materials

I have a strong preference for wool. It is a fibre that performs well in cold, is safe around fire and also is warm when wet. It is also better for the environment than polyester fleece (when washed fleece contaminates the water with microscopic particles of plastic, that eventually ends up in the oceans and negatively affect marine flora and

Cotton is good as an outer layer, in a shell layer where you need a breathable windproof layer. Cotton also handles fire better than most synthetics. Personally I try to avoid synthetics in winter: they are generally less breathable than cotton, and also become stiff and and
noisy in low temperatures.

Leather is strong and windproof, I use it mostly in footwear and mittens.

Fur is warm, and the best choice for a really warm hat and also around the edge of parkas.

The clothing layers

I will start with a overview of the different clothing layers.

Step 2:

The inner layer


Step 3:

Middle layer

Here I wear a wool shirt or a Woolpower jacket and old surplus wool pants (the Swedish army m/58 felted wool (vadmal) pants) with suspenders buttoned to them (I find that clips are unreliable with heavy clothes). The clothes here should be as adjustable as possible: a shirt that can be unbuttoned or unzipped, etc. All the garments are loose fit since this both makes it easier to move and also warmer andprovides for better ventilation. Note that the suspenders fit outside the other layers of clothes: this makes toilet visits easier.

Step 4:

Outer mid layer

Here I wear a thin wool hat (e.g. a woolpower balaclava), a scarf or wool buff and a warm knitted sweater or thick cardigan. This layer is adjusted during the day depending on activity and temperature. I rarely wear this when skiing since it would be too warm.

Step 5:

Windproof outer layer

Here I wear an anorak in a thigh weave cotton, mittens (wool lovikkas and leather outers). I have also replaced the thin cap with a heavy wool balaclava. A fur hat is very warm, but generally way too warm when travelling. I sometimes wear outer shell pants, made from cotton.

Step 6:

Warm wear when not travelling

When stopping for a break I have an insulated parka and over-pants (insulated, those with full length zips are more convenient).I will only put on the pants when it is very cold, but the parka is worn almost every time I stop working or skiing.

Step 7:

Comments on the different garments

Wool undershirt Merino wool, I like the Aklima one but an decent quality one will do admirably. Features to look for is either crew neck or with a zip since the ability to get rid of excess heat is vital.

Long johns Again merino wool, not too thick. I generally bring two pairs, e.g. one 200g and one 400g Woolpower. This change of long johns is actually the only spare clothes I bring apart from socks.

Socks As always wool, and at least two pairs of thick woollen socks. Bring at least 3 sets of socks. it is important to keep the socks dry, take every opportunity to dry them out. I generally either tuck them into the waist of my pants or hang them inside my clothes (outside
the inner layer, but inside the rest).

Thin knitted hat Any thin woollen hat will do (what is called toque in Canada and beanie in the UK). I often wear the thin woolpower balaclava, but this varies as the mood strikes when I pack, and the expected conditions (my Aklima undershirt has an integrated balaclava, so I generally wear another knitted hat if I wear that undershirt).

Buff or scarf A wool layer that can be adjusted around the neck. A scarf is more flexible and often warmer, a buff will stay in place better.

Sweater Alternatively a wool shirt or a Woolpower jacket in the 400 g range.

Trousers In winter I exclusively use wool trousers, generally a pair of surplus m/58 felted wool ones. It is quite possible to use a normal outdoor shell pant, with suitable wool underwear, instead, but I like the warmth and dependability of wool. I use suspenders, attached with buttons rather than clips, to hold them up.

Warm sweater A thick wool sweater or similar.

Warm knitted hat I use an old thick balaclava style hat, but any thick and warm hat is good. This could also be a fut hat, but it is essential that it covers the ears and neck fairly well.

Mittens I use Swedish hand-knitted Lovikka style mittens inside a leather outer mitten. I like leather since it is durable and will protect your hands and mittens from wind, abrasion and other such abuse. I have attached a cord between the mittens that goes around my neck and has a cord that makes the shape a bit like the letter “A”. If the season is warm I often carry a spare set of inner mittens that is slightly thinner than the heavy Lovikkas.

In addition I often carry a pair of insulated work gloves for use around campfires and when working with firewood. Not necessary, but it saves abusive wear and tear on the good mittens. For fine work — e.g. fixing a ski binding — I carry a pair of thin work gloves.

Footwear The important thing for footwear is warmth and breathabilty. Most peoples feet produce a significant amount of perspiration, and that will either ventilate out of the boot or form a crust of ice inside the it. I currently tend to use a pair of Luddan boots, made from thick wool felt, but there are many alternatives. The important thing is to make sure that there is space for at leasttwo pairs of thick socks inside your boot, more if it is uninsulated.
Whatever boot you pick make sure that it is roomy, you should be able to
wiggle your toes inside it.

In late season when snow can be wet I sometimes use a pair of Nokian insulated rubber boots. These do not ventilate, but on the other hand do not get wet if the snow is wet or when crossing a section of slush on top of a stream. I prefer the model with a removable felt liner.

Anorak A shell garment that protects against wind and snow is essential. I like cotton since it ventilates extremely well and performs well around campfires. In late season modern “membrane” style garments offer a significant advantage. Whatever garment you choose make sure that it is loose fitting.

If I expect to spend a lot of time digging in snow I might even bring a set of rain wear to have outside my clothes.

Shell pants In windy conditions or when digging shelters a pair of shell pants is good, worn outside the regular pants. In warm weather a pair of rain pants can come in handy when digging shelter.

Parka An insulated parka, mine is an old Swedish army M/90 parka but a down parka would work as well, is necessary if it is very cold. Make sure that it is large enough to fit over all your other clothes. Use this one when stopping: it is the last garment I pack and the first one I unpack. I like a parka with an insulated hood and also make sure the buy one that is large enough that I could, in a emergency, pull my arms in and use it more like an “upper body sleeping bag”. If it is quite warm (e.g. late season trips) I sometimes leave this at home. An alternative is a Fjellduken Termo: I have heard good reports of this, but never tried it myself (they are quite costly).

Insulated over-pants In severe cold a pair of insulated over-pants is a nice garment to have. Way to warm to wear when skiing, but very appreciated from rest stops in extreme temperatures.

Step 8:

Useful extras, tips and tricks

Snow brush A small brush — I use a plastic washing up brush — is good to have to remove snow from garments before entering shelters, going near a fire, etc in order to keep clothes dry. Drill a hole and add a loop of string so it does not get lost. Red is a good colour, easy to find in the snow.

Headlamp A good headlamp is very useful in winter. I prefer the ones that allow you to place the battery pack inside the clothes, since that preserves the battery time significantly. If you use Lithium cells you will find that those are much more resilient in the cold. But also note that not all lamps can handle the increased voltage from these! I like a lamp that have an option of red light, since that preserves night vision. If possible try to find a model that you can turn on and off while wearing mittens.

Water bottle A small (half a litre is about ideal) water bottle is useful. Add a cord so that it can be suspended around the neck inside the clothes, where the water will stay unfrozen. I prefer a bottle with a wide opening, since that is both easier to fill from a pot and also to top up with snow (fill halfway with hot water, add snow until it is full).

Thermos bottle I often carry one or two thermos bottles. By carrying two half litre ones rather than one larger one I can have warm water or tea form a longer period (once you open a thermos bottle it will loose heat rapidly).

Zipper pulls Place a loop of cord (I use 25-35 cm of cord tied in a loop) on each zipper pull. This allows you to open and close a zipper when wearing mittens.

Knife A very personal choice, but I prefer to carry mine in a cord around my neck. This is easier to get to when clothing layers change than one attached to the belt. A red coloured handle is easy to see in the snow, mine is brownish red so I attach a piece of red ribbon to the handle.


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