Six years ago during a particularly frigid mid-March, I set out with 15 others on my first-ever winter camping trip. We traveled between pre-determined checkpoints, navigating by topo map and compass, trekking through the snow on snowshoes, camping primarily on Crown Land in the Ottawa Valley. We hung tarps strategically to block the wind while we cooked dinners at dusk and breakfasts by weak, morning light.
Over the course of three and a half days daytime temperatures ranged from the minus teens to the freezing mark. Nighttime temps dropped to -30 degrees Celsius. We were so concerned about preparing ourselves for those bitter temperatures that we had to make extra efforts to remember to manage moisture as we trekked along beneath our 45-pound packs in 0 degree weather during the day.
Winter Layering 101
Here are 10 clothing and winter layering lessons I’ve learned along my winter journeys that will keep you warm, dry, and happy in your own pursuits:
1. Don’t let yourself sweat. Don’t worry about holding up your companions or slowing down your progress. De-layer before you reach sweaty.
2. Cotton is rotten. While outdoors people will argue cotton’s advantages and disadvantages for warm weather activities, there’s no denying that once cotton gets wet it stays wet and loses all of its insulating properties. That’s deadly in winter. Choose wool or synthetic fabrics for all of your layers. Wool stays warm when wet and is odor-resistent but takes longer to dry. Synthetics tend to retain odor but dry quickly.
3. Choose base layers made of wicking materials (polyester, wool, silk, etc.). You’ll want a set – top and bottom – that fits snugly but not too tightly. I think I’ve collected four or five sets over the last couple of years and they’re all black. How boring! At least they don’t show the dirt. This layer is worn next to your skin, so if you’re allergic to wool pick a synthetic material. Long underwear manufacturers make different weights – lightweight, midweight, heavyweight – for their base layers. I’ve made due with lightweight sets for highly active days such as the ones we experienced on that first winter camping trips. I save my midweight top and bottom for sleeping in. I could probably invest in a heavyweight set, but -30 is the coldest temperature I’ve slept out in and my sleep system (which I will describe at great length in a future post) helps me manage my overnight temperature.
4. Midlayer(s) should be insulating. I adore fleece. If I’m particularly chilly, I’ll wear a fleece vest over my fleece hoodie as two, insulating midlayers. Wool, synthetics, and down – if you can keep it dry – are all suitable midlayer materials. Manufacturers offer a range of weights for this layer as well, so choose according to how active you expect to be (and what you can afford). Also – fleece is fleece. If you have a bright orange fleece from 1991, it will work just as well as anything you can get in the stores now. Same goes for any wool you have lying around.
5. Make your outer layers count. You can experience all manners of precipitation, from rain to freezing drizzle to sleet to snow. I needed my jacket and snow pants to protect me from the elements. While you can get away with a green, rubber rainsuit it isn’t going to be very breathable and you’ll have to work extra hard at moisture management. If you can afford a waterproof breathable synthetic (e.g. Gore-Tex), it will keep you dry by releasing moisture out from the inside but keep rain or snow from penetrating your other layers.
6. Don’t forget your head! I traveled in one hat (wool) during the day and kept one hat (fleece) for sleeping. For the truly cold days or nights, I doubled-up a balaclava and hat.
7. And your hands! My fingers get bitterly cold in the winter. I started out my winter adventures with ski gloves but have migrated to wool mittens with fleece liners and waterproof overmitts. I’ll use glove liners in camp so that I can cook or set up my tent and still have some dexterity. This is a matter of personal preference so you may have to experiment with what works for you. As with all of the other layers, stick to wool or synthetics fabrics.
8. And your feet! For my first winter trip, I managed with my uninsulated leather backpacking boots, a wool sock liner, and a thicker pair socks. I also wore a Gore-Tex gaiter (see the red and black tube I’m wearing up above) to stop snow from sliding down my boots. There are all manners of winter boots out there from high-top boots with removable liners like Sorel to above-the-ankle Salomons. This is another area where personal preference will come into play and don’t be afraid to experiment with what you already own. Once in camp, I switched into my down booties. Heaven! Now that I have an insulated pair of boots and as I have more difficulties keeping my extremities warm at night, I save my booties to sleep in.
9. Pack active (daytime) and camp (evening) clothes. Dry damp or wet clothes at the fire in camp or bring them into your sleeping bag with you at night to help them dry with your body heat. I traveled in my base, mid-, and outer shell of my winter coat. When I got to camp and set up my tent, I changed into completely dry base layers and added my winter coat’s synthetic-fill, inner liner. The goal is to stay warm, dry, and happy at all points during your adventure.
10. There are some pretty wicked resources out there: Eric Larsen, Ben Shillington, Matty McNair, etc.