Dressing For Cold Weather

October 28, 2011

Clothing, Wilderness Survival

Dressing for warmth in a survival situationAs fall begins to give way to winter, the temperatures outside begin to dip down making it the perfect time of year for a nice bonfire with your friends. Roasting marshmallows, cooking hotdogs on sticks over the open flames, and sipping warm apple cider reminds me of scenes from Norman Rockwell paintings.

At home when things are well, the cooler weather can make for wonderful times, however in other circumstances a cold evening can be harsh and unforgiving. For the well-meaning day-hiker who has lost his way and will not make it out before nightfall, the dramatically cooler temperatures of fall weather will make for a long evening.

The Three W’s of Layering

When venturing out for a hiking or backpacking trip, proper clothing can mean the difference between a fun and enjoyable excursion and a cold and unpleasant time in the woods. (And this isn’t limited to hiking, the same is true for watching a football game or sailing on the open seas.)

Dressing properly for cooler weather provides you with the flexibility to adapt to the weather. Breezy with a light sprinkle of rain? No problem. Sunny but chilly? Got it covered. The key is layers.

The best dressed person venturing into the outdoors will have the three layers sometimes referred to as the Three W’s of Layering.


The inner most layer, the layer that is closest to your skin, should be made of a material that allows moisture (aka sweat) to be wicked away from your skin. Cotton and other such fabrics retain the moisture and keeps it next to you. During the daytime, this can be an annoyance; at night it can cause you to chill, or worse become hypothermic, as the moisture evaporates and accelerates the loss of your body heat.

A good wicking or “high performance” undershirt will help draw the moisture away from your skin. Paradoxically, this will help keep you cooler during the hot summer days yet will also help you to remain warmer during the cold winter nights.


The middle layer of the three w’s of layering is for warmth. There are lots of good options for this layer. New blended fabrics can be lightweight yet provide incredible warmth. Fleeces can be a good option as well.

One traditional fabric, wool, can be an excellent choice for this middle layer. Although it’s not as light as some of the newer man-made alternatives, wool has one characteristic that sets it apart and makes it a great option for the warmth layer: wool retains 80% of its insulating value when it’s soaking wet. That means when wet, wool can still keep you warm. Few, if any, other materials do that. Wool also can absorb up to 30% of its weight in water and still feel dry. It’s also durable and flame resistant.


The outer most layer in your cold weather clothing system should provide protection from the wind. You don’t have to understand the specifics behind what the weatherman calls Wind-Chill or Feels-Like temperature to understand the a breeze can make it feel colder than it really is.

Technically this is due to convective heat loss. The air blowing by your skin, even through clothing, makes it easier for the water molecules to evaporate and that cools you off. In the summertime, that works to our advantage. We sweat, the wind blows, water evaporates, and we cool off. In the winter, this process works against us.

Preventing wind from reaching your skin will help to keep you warm.

Three Layers Are Better Than One

Early in my camping career, I embarked on a winter backpacking excursion that was to last only three days. It was supposed to get cold and I naively packed a set of insulated coveralls as my primary source of warmth for the trip. I’d used the coveralls before while fishing and hunting and knew that they’d keep me plenty warm.

And did they. By 7:00am each morning I was drenched in sweat after only a short hike. I had to come out of them; I was far too hot. Yet when I took them off, I froze. The rest of my clothing was wet from sweat and certainly inadequate even if dry.

I learned a tremendous lesson during that trip some 25 years ago. Don’t pack a single layer for warmth. You need flexibility. You need to have the ability to take off a layer or two to help regulate your heat.

If You Sweat, You Die

You’ll notice that all three layers deal to some extent with moisture. The wicking layer draws moisture from your skin before it has a chance to evaporate. The warmth layer must keep you warm despite getting a bit damp. And the wind layer keeps convection heat loss to a minimum.

These layers are designed to help keep you warm. But as Les Stroud regularly said during his SurvivorMan television show “In survival situations: if you sweat, you die.”

Despite having a good layering system, sweating can really compromise your attempts to stay warm. While working, make sure you remove layers as needed to help regulate your body heat. While splitting wood, remove them warmth layer and just wear the wicking and wind layers. Still sweating? Remove the wind layer as well.

The the best option is prevention when it comes to dealing with moisture in cold weather.

Related Posts


19 Comments on “Dressing For Cold Weather”

  1. Jarhead Survivor Says:

    Excellent article. I see you learned the hard way same as I did.


  2. prepster411 Says:

    My wife and kids are always kidding me about my “woolies.” I have a cadre of ugly wool sock that I wear basically everyday. I’ll take function over fashion any day.

    I find that if my feet and head are warm, I’m not going to suffer too much from the cold.

    Great post.


    • Joe Says:

      Hahahaha! If you’re wearing them with Birkenstocks, then I gotta side with your wife and kids. 🙂

      Actually, I’m kidding and I’m with you – function and comfort over fashion any day. I’ve got a number of wool socks myself and I love them.



  3. Lianne @ The Wise Living Says:

    Actually, just last winter, we went hiking – have you guys done this before?

    I was very excited but very anxious as well. I kept thinking, what if one of us had the unfortunate chance of getting hypothermia? Wouldn’t that be just plain sad?

    For your reference, hypothermia is a condition wherein the core temperature of our body drops into less than 35 degrees Celsius. Does this sound serious to you? It should because it’s definitely a serious case. Hypothermia has such dangerous complications like mental confusion, sluggish speaking, amnesia and even death.

    How do we prevent this from happening?

    The basic method is by the use of the three layer clothing system. Start by wearing polypropylene. Next layer should be made of either fleece or wool. The last layer should be waterproof so that you could be protected from the rain and the chilling wind.
    Now, the three layer method is usually used by people. But we decided to take it into the next level for added protection.


    This is by adding pocket warmers!

    I would recommend Helios Heater ( Pocket Warmers because I find that they are the most effective for me. They are light and compact – stylish too! I am thankful that I found them because they are my life-savers, literally. I just need to press the floating coin inside and then I will feel instant warmth already!

    Remember to always be safe, guys!



  1. Why a Handkerchief Should Be In Your Survival Kit | - November 17, 2011

    […] Dressing For Cold Weather Share this:TwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Survival Kits ← First Aid Refresher: Working with Your Body, part 1 […]

  2. Product Review: Soap Nuts | - November 21, 2011

    […] Dressing For Cold Weather […]

  3. You Cannot Hurry Survival | - November 28, 2011

    […] Dressing For Cold Weather […]

  4. Pacific Northwest Survival | - January 20, 2012

    […] Dressing For Cold Weather […]

  5. 5 Tips to Improve Your Cold Weather Survival Shelter | - March 1, 2012

    […] Dressing for Cold Weather Share this:TwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Wilderness Survival ← First Aid Refreshers, part 7: Athlete’s Foot […]

  6. Fire Starter From Dryer Lint | - November 5, 2012

    […] Dressing for Cold Weather […]

  7. 5 Ways Your Body Loses Heat and How to Avoid Them | - November 13, 2012

    […] world of difference. So what’s the right gear? In previous article, I’ve written about the best way to dress for cold weather. In this post, I’ll share the 5 ways your body looses heat. Understanding these methods can […]

  8. The 1-10-1 Rule of Cold Water Survival | - December 11, 2012

    […] Dressing for Cold Weather […]

  9. Don’t Overpack Your Bug-Out-Bag | - December 18, 2012

    […] take one set of coveralls to keep warm; I’ll get too hot in them while hiking. Remember the 3 W’s of dressing for cold weather. Dress in […]

  10. Don’t Overpack Your Bug-Out-Bag - January 10, 2013

    […] take one set of coveralls to keep warm; I’ll get too hot in them while hiking. Remember the 3 W’s of dressing for cold weather. Dress in […]

  11. Learning from a Tragedy in Missouri | - February 4, 2013

    […] Dressing for Cold Weather […]

  12. Putting Your Survival Plans to the Test | - February 26, 2013

    […] Dressing for Cold Weather […]

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: