Monday, December 23, 2013

Survival - Dressing for cold weather . . . Cotton Kills!


Well . . . as the song goes “The weather outside is frightful . . .” with a high today of -1F, lows tonight expected to be around -15F with wind chills in the -30s and -40s . . . thought it might be a good time to write a post about dressing for the cold.

First off – there’s “cold” . . . and then there’s “COLD!!!”

That’s NOT to imply that “cold” isn’t dangerous. It’s at that temperature where you are tempted to throw on a light jacket and tennis shoes because it’s “not that bad” out and your only driving a few miles, the snow isn’t falling too quick and the roads aren’t real slippery – a light jacket and tennis shoes will be just fine . . . More people die of hypothermia in these conditions because they use poor judgment, take shortcuts in clothing and gear and end up dead. My advice – pull your head out of your butt and “dress for the worst” – not hope things will be fine.

What I want to chat about is dressing for when it’s “COLD!!!” When exposed skin freezes in the 10 minutes it takes to shovel off the front stoop. When your hands will succumb to frost bite in the time it takes to change a tire. When the “3-Hour Rule” (find shelter within 3 hours) may well claim your life on a poorly traveled back road when you hit some black ice and slide off the road. Lethal “COLD!!!”

Let’s start from the bottom up – boots.


There are two important issues with survival in extremely cold temperatures – temperature management and moisture (sweat) management - including boots.

These are my “COLD!!!” weather boots made by LaCrosse. They are waterproof, lightly lined and Gor-Tex lined. They fit a bit loose with normal socks and just a bit more snug with my cold weather sock combination. You do not want “snug” “COLD!!!” weather boots for a variety of reasons. At tight points of contact blood flow is reduced; this creates a cold spot on your foot and can lead to frost bite. Also, tight fitting boots do little to allow the sweat from your feet to escape – you need to allow for natural evaporation. When fitting these – wear your normal “COLD!!!” sock combination then try them on – again looking for a slightly loose fit.

On these particular boots, if you look at the inside toe of the left boot (as you are looking at the photo) and you will notice a flat spot. We were camping on a particularly chilly winter’s night and I was warming my feet by a fire ring . . . turned out I was touching the fire ring with that part of the boot. Suddenly my foot felt VERY toasty! Even smelled it bit! I had melted a fair portion of the sole away on the outside of the fire ring. Not enough to damage the boot – but enough to take crap for ever since. Head in the game folks – across the board – every day – all the time!


I’ve always been picky about socks and “COLD!!!” weather only makes me more so.! My base layer for my foot is a polypropylene sock that I pull up over my long-john lowers. An example is provided by my favorite trekking store – REI. It is the Fox River X-Static Liner.


This is then covered by a very thick, well padded, wool sock. Not a traditional Smartwool sock that is my normal hiking fare – but a very thick, well padded, wool sock designed specifically for cold weather. Here is also example from REI. It’s the REI Merino Wool Expedition Socks. Note that the reviews all talk about moisture wicking, temperature management and cushioning. These are things you want to pay attention to!


This combination of a looser fitting boot, a well-padded foot and socks that wick moisture, manage temperature and cushion your foot is the key to keeping your foot warm and dry – even in the coldest of temperature.

Pro-tip! Always carry a spare set of socks – inside a ZipLoc to keep it dry in case you fall through ice or get your feet wet in some other manner. Wet feet, subzero temps – and you may well be a few toes short next winter hiking season.


The answer is boxers . . . poly boxers. Again, sticking with REI – their Boxer Jack Underwear is a good example of poly underwear. You are looking for something to reduce friction, wick moisture and a material that will not “bunch” together.


Ladies – I would suggest you forego everything from the thong to the French cut undies and go with more of a boy cut similar to the Patagonia Active Boy Shorts. Again, this provides excellent moisture wicking, temperature management and it’s a material that will not bunch up on you. The longer legs will reduce the possibility of chafing as well.


Finally – powder . . . One of the most tender patches of skin is a baby’s butt. And one of the most ruthless environments known to man is the inside of a baby’s diaper. Trust me . . . been there . . . done that . . . both cloth and these new-fangled disposables . . . I have all the frickin’ T-Shirts!


No possible combination of skin and chemical is harsher to a human’s skin. To that end there is a product with over a century of R&D behind it that is specifically designed to protect this exact region of a human’s body . . . Baby Powder. Yes – I take crap for using it . . . but trust me on this – for long hikes/paddles or days spent in cold weather gear, baby powder will go that last little bit to insure you do not arrive home with a crotch that is nothing but raw meat. Put some in your socks too – your hiking partner will thank you! Get a small bottle, throw it in your gear bag . . . Your Welcome!!

Long Johns

There have been a broad range of synthetic long johns appear on the market over the past 10 years or so. All are some combination of polypropylene based product. I have both “cheapie” sets and some nice, higher priced Under Armour Men's UA EVO ColdGear® Compression Leggings.


These are matched with Under Armour Men's ColdGear® Evo Long Sleeve Compression Mock.


This gear would complete your “base layer” – and yes, there is a “right” way to put it on. Remember, moisture control is one of the goals and you want to be able to allow the moisture to flow away from your body. The air immediately next to your body is what will be warm and moisture filled – you want to provide an exit for this, to allow it to flow easily. Remember, warm air rises – and hopefully you’ll be vertical for most of your time outdoors. This provides the direction of flow – up, and we want to put our gear on in a way that facilitates this process.

Put on your boxers first – with baby powder. Next, put on the long john top. This is followed by the long john bottom that is pulled OVER the top – allowing warm air to flow up, out of the top and over the outside of the top. Next, your liner sock – again with a dash of powder – and that is pulled over the bottom of the long john bottom’s leg. Your wool outer sock is pulled over the liner sock. And there you go, this will provide the ability of the moisture that comes off your body to flow upward and out of any gaps it can fine – open neck, open coat, open outer shirt.


Here too, a poly blend is the way to go. There are any number of good hiking pants, I find I like many carried by REI and their brand in particular. Their REI Sahara Convertible Pants have seen me through thousands of miles – both summer and winter. Their ability to convert to shorts, their resistance to dirt and their quick drying make them a solid choice. This is the type and style of pant you want to wear – winter or summer.



I wear a number of different shirts – from just plain T-Shirts, to polos to long-sleeved shirts in the winter. It’s hard to go wrong with a quick dry shirt from Columbia like their Men's Tamiami II Long Sleeve Shirt of which I have a half-dozen or so. It offers vents to allow removal of body moisture, the material is quick dry and it moves easily within a coat insuring it doesn’t bunch up somewhere.


I’m fond of a light weight fleece to go over a shirt. Should the temperatures rise unexpectedly, it can act as an outer garment. And, should the cold deepen, it can act as an additional layer as well.  Columbia offers many varieties of jacket that fits the bill.



I am fond of a Jacket system that is waterproof, breathable with a removable inner liner. Again, Columbia does a great job in this area. An example of their current product line is the Columbia Men's Back To Hells Mountain Interchange Jacket. This combination is usable across seasons, allows you to ascend and decent through different environmental regions and will allow you to easily manage your body’s temperature regardless of weather.


Outer Pants

Finally, a pair of outer pants for truly cold weather. These are meant to keep you dry when trekking through show, rain or sleet – whatever nature wants to throw your way. They are not meant for warmth, but for keeping dry. Again Columbia fills this slot in my gear bag with their OmniTech technology. Mine are currently over a decade old but work as well as the day I bought them. Here is a more up-to-date example.


So there you have it . . . everything you need to stay warm when it “COLD!!!” outside. The next step – use it!

Cotton Kills!

What’s with the final tag line in the title – “Cotton Kills!” , what the heck does that mean? Basically, what that means is that cotton absorbs moisture but does not release it easily. Therefore it holds moisture next to your body and accumulates it as you sweat more. Eventually its ability to keep you warm degrades and you begin to loose body heat. Given enough time – things will not end well. Now, this certainly won’t happen in an hour or two hike – or even a day hike. But, on an overnight – when you need to switch into sleeping gear – you’ll be stuck with soaked undergarments. Given enough days, again, things will not end well. Leave the cotton home, move to poly blends that provide both warmth and the ability to wick moisture away from your body.

“Range Work”

In keeping with the general theme of this blog – firearms training and one of the fundamental truths about firearms training – range time matters – so to in working with cold weather gear and cold weather survival. The only way to learn how to use this type of system is to . . . . use this type of system.

Start out with an hour or two walk, move that up to a half day hike, they a full day. Finally, do a couple of over-night campouts. I find in the winter I usually shed the tent or hammock for simply a tarp and ground cloth. Do this in a park that is nearby with your vehicle available in case you have severely underestimated the conditions. Don’t “wimp out” – but don’t succumb to a fatal mistake either. Finally – expand to a 2-day or 3-day weekend trip. You simply must do this a couple of times a winter – it is the only way to hone your skills and develop this skill set.

We’ll work on winter camping another time – that is a series of posts in and of itself!

So there you go – this IS my winter system. Typically only broken out on a training weekend or on days like today – when it’s “COLD!!!”

Develop your own, work with it and make it part of your overall skill set – it may well let you get home some evening on a dark and “COLD!!!” night!

UPDATE:  One of my regular readers pointed out I have forgotten to speak about headgear and gloves.  Heavy Sigh – so I had . . .


Frankly, I’m a baseball cap kinda guy.  From a soft crown cap for most of my daily wear to a wool Detroit Tiger’s cap for winter wear, that is what you will see sitting atop my head most times.  In fact I did a post about Caps and their importance in my life some time ago

I find that caps suit me just fine for cold weather. “COLD!!!” weather is an entirely different critter.  For this environment I lean towards a knit watch hat and a hood attached to the outer jacket.  The biggest issue I have with this level though is temperature and moisture management.  The rule of thumb is that an individual looses around 70% of their body heat through their head.  As they say – “if you’re cold, put on a hat!”  A watch cap rides in the top pouch of my pack and is frequently employed in my sleeping bag on chilly nights – “summer” months included.

However, it’s also easy to work up a head of wet hair (for those of you who still have hair!) with such gear as well.  For this I find it frequently take down the hood, take off the watch hat and wipe off my head with my ever present “sweat towel” while letting the hat air dry a bit.  Should the day warm, I always have a baseball cap along and will simply switch to that.


I guess I skipped over gloves because my hands are seldom cold, even in “COLD!!!” weather.  This time of year it’s not unusual for me to spend 2-4 hours on the shooting range gloves free.  While I may stick my hands in my pockets to warm them a bit, it’s not high on my list of concerns.

That said, for wilderness treks and campouts – good gear to protect your hands and keep them warm is a must.  These are grouped into “gloves” and “mittens”.  The difference is obvious – gloves have individual fingers while mittens contain your entire hand in a single protective enclosure.

For “COLD!!!” weather, keeping your hands dry and warm is a must so I lean heavily towards waterproof gloves – especially for treks and camping.  This usually implies a Gor-Tex outer glove and some kind of insulating material inside.  Here too, you need to be mindful of moisture control withdrawing your hands periodically and drying them and air drying your gloves/mittens as well.

The advantage to gloves is increased manipulation of gear and equipment since you have full use of your fingers even though they are encased in a lining of some type.  Their biggest disadvantage is that each finger “stands alone” in staying warm.

With a mitten – your loose dexterity because your whole hand is encased – but you share warmth between individual fingers.  Here too, moisture control is an issue throughout the day.

Both glove and mitten have their place in your pack.  Find a good set of well insulated, water proof for each style and find which works best for you.

A thank you goes out to Brighid for catching this omission – darn good thing someone is looking after me!


  1. Thanks for the great advice. What do you recommend for head and hand protection, or did I miss that one?

    1. Thanks for the heads up, an update has been added! Hope you and your family had a great Christmas!!