Winter Clothing: Stay Warm and Pursue Winter Activities

Manage your body heat with the appropriate winter clothing to get the most out of winter activities.
Priscilla Markley
November/December 2009

With his cold-weather helmet, boots and specially reinforced suit, this snowmobiler keeps his temperature well regulated.
iStockphoto.com/Shaun Lowe
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Winter Wear: Materials Matter 

Trapped! You’ve had enough of being indoors, but it’s winter and you hate to be cold. Learn to be comfortable even at zero degrees Fahrenheit, and understand one of the most important ways to stay warm is to keep from getting too hot.

Since you’re a warm-blooded creature, you make your own heat. Your core contains the organs that keep you alive, including your head with its precious brain, and it needs to be a specific temperature – 98.6 degrees. If it gets too hot, over 105 degrees, or too cold, below 93 degrees, your life is threatened.

Your body regulates its temperature. When your core gets too warm, you sweat, and evaporation cools you down. Blood vessels dilate to bring more blood to your skin in order to carry heat away from the core. If you get too cold, the blood vessels constrict so more blood within the core can stay as warm as possible. This is similar to shutting doors and turning off heat in unused rooms to make it easier and more economical to heat the most important rooms. Exercise makes you warmer, so if you get cold enough, you shiver: Shivering is involuntary exercise.

To stay safe out in winter’s chill, use what you know about your body’s ability to regulate temperature. Don layers of clothing that will serve as insulation, trapping small pockets of air that are then warmed by the body. The colder the temperature, the more insulation required. A tightly woven layer on the outside, such as windproof pants, jacket or coveralls, keeps the wind from stealing away the trapped warm air.

Because your head has lots of blood vessels, and it’s often exposed, it can be a source of considerable heat loss in cold weather. If your hands or feet are cold, wearing a hat or balaclava can help “push” more warm blood to those other extremities. Add a windproof hood to your hat, and you can keep the wind from robbing head heat. Windproof mittens are necessary when it’s really cold. If you work with gloves instead of mittens, an extra layer or two on your core will help keep your fingers toasty warm. 

Fuel the furnace

Metabolic heat is fueled by the calories you consume. Thus it’s important to eat often when active outside in the cold. Small, high energy snacks that don’t require much cool-down time to consume can keep you warm for as long as you care to stay outside. And as important as it is to manage calories, you will need liquids, too.

Even if you are a master at managing the layers, your body will perspire during cold-weather activities. And since the air is usually drier in winter, you will also lose a good deal of moisture as you exhale. So remember to drink plenty of water (a flask inside your outer layer keeps it from freezing) or other liquids to stay hydrated. Consuming fluids at body temperature or warmer will keep your rehydration efforts from giving you a chill. 

Manage the thermostat

If you’re going to be active outside even on cold days, the layers of clothing that made your first moments outdoors bearable may amount to too much insulation. Before you know it, you’re sweating inside all those layers. As you feel the warmth build, it’s time to peel off some of the clothes. Don’t neglect this because when most clothing gets wet, it loses its insulating value and can actually pull the heat right out of you.

A few tips to keep you from overheating: first, take off your hat. If you’re still too warm, replace your mittens with a pair of gloves. Next, lower the zippers on your coveralls or windproof parka. If you are still too warm, remove an inside layer. If you anticipate a substantial variation in exertion and outdoor temperature, it is wise to dress with several thin clothing layers (as opposed to a couple heavier layers) for maximum adjustment.

If you start to cool down, put layers back on: first your hat, then mittens, then an inside layer. You can fine-tune your comfort most easily by adding or subtracting a hat or mittens, and zipping or unzipping your parka. 

Firm foundations

Your feet are the most difficult area to regulate because it’s generally not practical to stop and adjust layers. Cold, dry feet can be cared for like cold fingers by adding insulation to the core and head. But eventually, almost invariably, feet seem to perspire, which causes those nice, thick, warm socks and felt boot insulation to get wet. To help alleviate this problem, you can wear a light pair of socks or specially coated vapor barrier socks next to your feet to help keep moisture from wetting heavier insulating socks and boot liners. Your feet may still feel too hot, but the perspiration won’t get to the insulation, and your toes will stay warmer longer.

Winter is a great time to be outdoors. Go cross-country skiing, or take a snowshoe hike with an outing club. Go for a walk with a friend after a snowstorm to see the snow-decorated trees. Look for animal tracks or head to a nearby pond for a bit of ice fishing. You now know how to be warm and comfortable even at zero degrees.

Priscilla “Penny” Markley is well acquainted with snow. She and her husband, Reed, have climbed in New England, Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, Canada and the Swiss Alps. They also owned an 8,000-tree apple orchard, all needing winter pruning. 


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