In this post, I'm going to quickly review the best cold weather clothing tips for extreme weather, adapted from the Field Manual for the U.S. Antarctic Program. Then we'll get into some of our favorite gear for general cold weather wear. Finally, I'll wrap up with a Fortress Clothing review. Look things through, and decide which clothes are a worthwhile investment for your cold weather safety and comfort.
How to Dress for Cold Weather
In general, the rule of thumb for living in a cold environment is to get lots of insulation between you and the environment, and to remove that insulation layer by layer when you get warmer. You need a clothing system that allows you to shed layers quickly and easily before you get damp from perspiration. Several thinner garments will serve this purpose better than one bulky overcoat.
The 4 Layers of Extreme Cold Weather Clothing (ECW)
1. Long Underwear
Your first layer should be your long underwear. It should fit snugly against your skin and be made of a nonabsorbent material. This layer works by wicking away water and keeping your skin dry.
Synthetic fabrics such as polypropylene work the best, whereas wool and silk are the best natural fibers. Cotton is a poor choice because it absorbs water and holds the water next to your skin where it will cool you off. Personal note – I have thick calves and broad shoulders, so I usually buy men's long underwear, as the women's tends to be cut skimpy.
Some long underwear options:
2. Mid Layers
The next layers are important because they serve to absorb the moisture out of your long underwear and transport it to the environment through evaporation.
Once again, synthetics are best here, but wool is a good substitute. Shirts, sweaters, and trousers are what you will likely be wearing when you are active. Pay close attention to the fit, as the mid layers work by trapping air and preventing it from circulating and carrying away your body heat.
Some mid layer options include:
3. Insulation Layer
Thickness is warmth. For sedentary activities or extremely cold conditions, an outer garment with several inches of loft is recommended. Down, Polarguard, Holofill, Thinsulate, and Primaloft are the types of insulation that the USAP uses in the ECW gear.
Some Down Coat Options:
Down loses most of its loft when wet and takes a long time to dry, so you must be careful to avoid getting down garments wet. Synthetic insulation is a better choice for working in potentially wet conditions.
Some synthetic options:
4. Shell Layer
The most important part of your layering system, and the most used besides your long underwear, is your windshell. Studies conducted by Recreational Equipment Co-Op show that in still air, windshells worn over any garment can add up to 25°F of warmth. In windy conditions, windshells can increase warmth by 50°F or more.
Personnel working in the McMurdo system are issued a windshell that is windproof but not waterproof. Because of the dry climate, the non-waterproof fabrics are superior because they allow your perspiration to escape more easily. Personnel working in the Peninsula area are issued a waterproof/breathable windshell because of the potentially wet conditions encountered there.
Some windshell options:
Cold Weather Pants
For working outside in cold conditions, flannel lined jeans are a great option by themselves, or in combination with other layers for extreme cold. My sons and husband are the same size, so sometimes my husband finds his lined jeans missing from the closet. (Might be time to get the boys their own pairs for Christmas…)
Some lined jean options include:
Cold Weather Head Protection
While the old adage that you lose 40% of your heat through your head isn't accurate (the head is similar to other areas of the body for heat loss per square inch), you still need to protect your head and face. There are dozens of options to protect your head from cold weather, and layering is a good idea in extreme cold. You can wear a “ski mask” or balaclava with a trappers hat or with a full parka snorkel hood. Wool and silk remain good 1st layers for your head for sweat.
When August was in the military in Duluth Minnesota with the air temp of -22F with about -40F windchill for a 6 hour flight-line guard shift, the bunny boots, parka and dual layer gloves (wool and leather) were critical to keeping warm. That same gear in +5F would overheat you for sure.
Any well rated N3B style parka will protect from extreme cold. The N3B style is based on a military parka, and has an integrated fur lined snorkel hood. We find the fur snorkel much warmer and more comfortable than the facemask options – if the loss of peripheral vision is acceptable. Note: A full parka with a snorkel hood will be too warm unless the temperature is below -10F or -23C. For extreme cold (-30F or -34C and below), layer as noted above, with the parka as the shell. Use a ski-mask or balaclava under the parka hood. The following are some suggestions for well-rated snorkel parkas and head protection for different temperature ranges.
Colder than -30°F (-34°C)(Extremely Cold / blizzard)
Best – Fur lined snorkel integrated with a parka, and possibly a under layer balaclava.
Mens: Rothco Vintage N-3B Parka, $$
** note the parkas are quite expensive and as an outer shell with the base layers, they will keep you warm well to -40F or -40C or lower if you are active. For parkas get a size larger if you plan to wear a layer under it.
Best – trappers hat with facemask (like a ski mask/balaclava)
Good – Balaclava with outer shell hood
Good – Real Fur Trappers Hat
0°F to -30°F (Very Cold)
Good- Wool Beanie (stocking cap)
32°F to 0°F (cold)
BEST – Wool Beanie (stocking cap)
Good – Beanie (stocking cap)
In all cases you can slip hood from the outer layer shell, on or off depending on how warm you get. If you can try these on at your local sporting good location if possible, as each person may prefer a specific design or the fit might not match sizing as expected.
Cold Weather Clothing – Gloves and Mittens
Gloves with pockets for hand warmers add heat without the bulk of the heavy duty gloves.
Some options include:
For extreme cold, you will want mittens with warm liners, so they will need to be large enough for your gloved hand.
All Day -30°F and lower
For extreme cold select mittens that are big enough to fit warm gloves inside.
All Day -10°F to -30°F
All Day 0° to -10°F
All Day 32°F to 0°F
No More Cold Feet – Socks and Slippers
Fortress clothing Hot Socks are an insulating foot cover that can be worn inside as a slipped or outside as a boot liner. They are not designed for outside wear as a stand alone item. (The name is “Hot Socks”, not “Hot Boots”.) You can replace your existing boot liner or wear them inside a larger muck boot. I've been wearing mine around the house as slippers because they don't make my feet sweat.
A reader recommended MukLuk slippers, saying that she's be very happy with the ones she received as a gift. (Most used Christmas gift ever.) MukLuks come in several different styles, including:
MUK LUKS Women's Sofia Slipper, which cover the ankle
Women's Tall Fleece-Lined Slipper Boot, which come further up the leg
Muk Luks Men's Mark Slipper, which sits low on the ankle
Another reader recommended Warrior Alpaca Socks, saying that they kept her feet warm even though she has Raynaud’s Phenomena. Carhartt synthetic/wool blend socks are durable and breathe well. Arctic Extreme socks are fully synthetic and very well reviewed on Amazon.
Cold Weather Boots
Get a size larger than your regular shoe size to accommodate thicker socks or boot liners. If you plan to double layer socks, you might need two sizes larger. If possible, try on similar boots with the socks you plan to wear outside. Amazon is good with size swaps for Baffin, so keep that in mind if you find it too large or too small. For 0°F to -10°F, any decent boots that will fit your feet while wearing thick wool socks will keep you warm enough. For colder temps, see below.
All Day -40°F or colder
White Military Bunny Boots — personally August likes these white ones. They are theoretically good to -60F. We could not find the white ones except in military surplus stores so you will need to search. Buy one or two sizes smaller than the listed size. The white ones are theoretically good to -60f and the black ones are -20f; they are NOT the same.
All Day -20°F to -40°F
All Day -10°F to -20°F
Black Military Bunny Combat Winter Boots (these are not the same as the white ones more in the -10f to -20f range)
The warmest boots August ever wore were the White Military Bunny boots or Mickey Mouse boots when he was in the USAF.
Early in 2015 I was contacted by Dale Lewis of Fortress Clothing, who introduced me to the best cold weather clothing I've encountered to date – Fortress Clothing. The boys and I did some testing at the tail end of winter, but we decided to save the review for when folks started thinking more about winter preps.
Fortress winter clothing addresses a number of cold weather needs:
- Staying warm when you get wet. Who hasn't gotten slopped by water or slush when out doing chores or even shoveling wet, heavy snow?
- Staying comfortable in a range of temperatures. I hate it when you're going in and out of buildings and you work up a sweat inside and then get frozen clammy outside.
- Having an extra layer of safety for power outages. When you're without heat for several days, your house may not freeze, but it sure isn't comfortable. This gear is light enough that you can wear it and still tackle day to day activities in comfort.
How Does Fortress Clothing Work as Cold Weather Gear?
Fortress is a “base” or “mid-layer” cold weather garment that is designed to keep you warm – even when wet. It is designed also to be worn as a mid-layer/insulation garment (ie: underwear/Fortress mid-layer garment/outer shell appropriate for the conditions – typically NOT an insulated coat).
The engineered polymer used as the insulation in Fortress clothing is hydrophobic – it repels water. Fortress doesn’t hold on to water, or the perspiration your body puts out.
Water is 25X more conductive than air, so if your sweat, slush, cow slobber or anything else stays trapped next to your skin, the heat of your body is channeled through that moisture away from you.
Some other winter clothing options claim to be both waterproof and breathable in one garment. These garments are typically 100% Waterproof and only 15% breathable. Once the pores in the garment are filled, they trap the dampness and you get cold.
When you pair up Fortress clothing with a windproof shell (not waterproof, as noted above in the Antarctica recommendations), Fortress covers the wet conditions and sweat and your windbreak covers the wind, and you are covered in comfort. Fortress has been worn from -30°F to 70°F.
In the video below, my son does the ice bucket challenge wearing Fortress clothing. He also spends a good deal of time with his hand submerged in ice water, and comes out without pruney fingers or chafing.
If you'd like to learn more about Fortress Clothing, please visit http://www.fortressclothing.com/ and watch more videos of their cold weather gear in action.
What's your biggest cold weather clothing challenge?
Where do you have the most difficulty staying warm? Is is out doing chores, hunting, snowmobiling, snowblowing, shoveling? What are your favorite brands of winter clothing and gear? Do you have any tips for keeping warm that you'd like to share? We'd love to hear from you.
You may also find useful:
- Winter Car Kit and Winter Vehicle Maintenance Checklist
- Emergency Heat During a Power Outage and other Winter Storm Preps
- 25 Cheap Ways to Keep Your House Warm in Winter
Don't forget to check out the Common Sense Preparedness page for a full list of our preparedness posts.
Thank you to Fortress Clothing for sponsoring this post.
Originally published in October 2015, updated in 2017.
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