Extreme cold weather clothing guide: brace yourself the winter is coming

If you’re not prepared, winter can kill you. Make a mistake in the wilds in June and you may have a long night ahead with a great story to tell your friends, but make the same mistake in January, and you may lose some fingers or toes and possibly your life. The first rule of winter travel is to respect the season. Read along to find out how to battle freezing temperatures and win.

Clothing

When selecting clothing, avoid 100 percent cotton at all costs due to its poor insulating value when wet and its inability to wick moisture away from the body. Many hikers who “die of exposure” in the wilds are often wearing cotton (“cotton kills” was coined for a reason). Instead, select items made of poly/cotton, nylon/cotton, fleece, wool, or silk. Most of my clothing is wool and was found for pennies (and practically brand new) at second- hand or army-surplus stores.

  1. Upper body layers

    For the first layer, I wear a long-sleeved shirt of silk, merino wool or polypropylene. For the second layer, I don a turtleneck followed by a wool button-up style shirt. Depending on my activity level and the out-side temps, the remaining layers are a heavyweight wool or fleece sweater, followed by a parka or down jacket. Strive for two to five layers here. One thing I do, regardless of the season, is to stow a spark rod firestarter in each of my jackets along with a vial of cottonballs smeared with Vaseline. Fire is life in the wilds, especially during the brutal months of winter.

  2. Lower body layers

    Choose Army surplus or Filson wool pants for one layer. For another, bring lightweight polypropylene or silk long-underwear. Nylon windbreaker pants are also helpful, but the weave of my Army surplus wool pants is so tight they are windproof.

  3. Socks

    Make sure you have one or two pairs of heavy socks from fabrics such as Smartwool or Ragwool. Avoid cotton or athletic “tube” socks as they don’t wick moisture away from the skin and can cause severe blisters.

  4. Footwear

    Take one pair of insulated boots with removable wool liners. The most common winter pac boots available for wet, slushy conditions are Sorel Pac-boots. These are clunky and cumbersome but perfect for those times when you are not moving around much. On occasion when hunting, I will wear Thinsulate boots if the temps are above freezing and the ground conditions are not wet. For the finest cold-weather footwear available, when the temperature drops below 20 degrees, Steger Mukluks are my first choice. These are based upon the traditional footwear of the Polar regions and their ultralight design makes them ideal for trekking and snowshoeing.

  5. Headwear

    For serious winter, you’ll need a heavy wool or mad bomber-style hat. For milder weather, a wool hat will suffice, but when temps dip below zero, an insulated mad bomber hat will keep that survival tool between your ears operational.

  6. Handwear

    Heavy wool or surplus mittens are a must-have item to protect your hands while on the trail, and I rarely wear gloves except for driving. Look online for Air Force surplus mittens with removable liners as these are the best. I coat mine with Scotchguard or silicon spray several times during the winter.

  7. Eyewear

    To help prevent sunglare and snowblindness, I prefer the type that wrap around the contours of the face.

  8. Sleeping bag wear

    What? A sleeping bag is part of your clothing set up? You bet. On longer dayhikes, and especially roadtrips, I always bring a down sleeping bag. A sleeping bag should be an essential component of your survival gear during the winter, and it can prevent you from burning up precious calories constructing a large shelter.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the 2013 print issue of American Survival Guide.