As 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.