This is what I woke up to this morning. Yup, you read that correctly -28 degrees celsius, feels like -36 with the wind chill. At that temperature, exposed skin can get frostbite in 5-10 minutes. But just because it gets cold, doesn’t mean that outdoor activities suddenly stop. Unless you can go into hibernation for the winter like a bear* , you are still going to have to venture out in this weather. There are right and wrong ways to dress for this, and it may surprise you that throwing on an arctic rated parka is not always the answer. So let’s take a look at the best way to dress for different activities at this temperature.
When is a good time to wear that parka rated for -50?
If you are going to be active, then the only good time to wear a parka rated for like – 50 is when you are at…- 50. If you are going to be doing a lot of standing around, or not physically exerting yourself, then that arctic rated parka will do just fine. But if you are going to be hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, etc (i.e. any activity that is going to make you sweat) than wearing a jacket rated for that cold is going to make you sweat, which is the body’s way of cooling down. So what do you think happens when it’s -36 and your body starts trying to cool itself off? It’s not good. There is a reason Les Stroud says ‘you sweat, you die.’
Yeah, listen to this guy.
<Here I am in a Canada Goose Parka because it was -30 and I was standing around at Lake Louise photographing with the wind blowing off the glaciers at the end of the lake.
Now I’m not saying don’t buy a jacket that is rated for that cold, but know when to wear it.You definitely should not start wearing it at relatively warm temperatures. I have seen people walking around in Canada Goose jackets before the temperature is even below freezing. If you acclimatize your body to that so early on in the season, what are you going to wear when it is actually cold out?
From the Feet Up:
When picking out winter boots, do not treat a temperature rating like it is a set in stone fact. Temperature ratings are super subjective, depending a lot on the person and what the gear is paired with. The warmest boots I own are a pair of deer hide mukluks lined with fluffy sheepskin (these were a staple when you live in Northern Ontario). However, it is not always practical to wear them since I can’t put them in snowshoe bindings, ice cleats or damp conditions. So pick a boot that suits your activities. If you are going to be hiking, look for a waterproof boot, preferably with a removable liner (so you can wash it because let’s face it, feet stink.). The liner should be made of a dense, felted material for the best warmth. Soft and fluffy doesn’t always equate to warm, so don’t fall for that.While my Keen Elsa boots don’t have a removable lining, I find them to be incredibly warm and waterproof.
Now that you have a good boot, it’s time to look at a good sock. Wool is king when it comes to staying warm, and merino wool is the best wool on the market. Pick a thick merino wool sock, like these ones from IceBreaker and Darn Tough. I like wearing knee-high ski socks pretty much all winter, but there are shorter hiking options as well. Your winter boots should be big enough that you can wear thick socks in them and still have room to move your toes. If the boots are too tight, there won’t be any air in there and that will actually lead to colder feet.
All About The Base (layers):
If you are going to be outside all day, just throwing on super warm outwear isn’t going to cut it. You need to have good layers next to your skin. I LOVE merino wool baselayers and pretty much live in IceBreaker all winter long. Merino wool comes from special sheep in New Zealand and it is incredibly warm, yet breathable. It is moisture wicking and anti-microbial, so it doesn’t stink when you sweat into it. Try layering merino baselayer pants and a top, or a merino onesie (yup, they exist!) underneath the rest of your layers for an added layer of cozy warmth. There are different weights of wool for base layers; what you need to know is that the higher the number, the warmer they are. 260 weight merino from Icebreaker is the warmest that they make, and what I reserve for the really cold days.
This is a merino sheep; doesn’t he look warm?
Stuck in The Middle With You:
Mid-layers, or insulation layers, are where you get creative based on the temperature. A basic mid layer would be something like a fleece sweater. But on really cold days, jackets like the Patagonia Nano Air, or down sweaters may become your mid layer. On really, really cold days, you may wear fleece under a down sweater/synthetic jacket, along with an insulated shell over top. For fleece, I love my Patagonia Better Sweater and Snap -T pullovers, but I also have some really nice Cloud Layer fleeces from Eddie Bauer. I own a wide variety of fleeces, since it such a versatile layering piece, and key for being warm at these temperatures. The Patagonia Nano Air hoody is one of my favorite pieces of gear: it is perfect as a stand-alone jacket most of the time, but when the temperatures plummet, it makes an incredible mid-layer.
Topping it Off:
Now it doesn’t matter how good your mid and base layers are if the wind is going to cut through you the second you step outside. Wind chill is dangerous because it removes the ‘heat bubble’, or pocket of warm air, that we naturally have around us. A good shell will keep you warm and dry in windy and wet conditions. Materials like Gore-tex (or other proprietary versions of it) are sturdy, waterproof layers that will block the wind but still let your body breathe underneath. Getting a breathable shell is vital to maintaining good body temperature. If the shell isn’t breathable, then we are back to the original Parka problem. One of my favourite insulated shells is an old-y but a good-y. The First Ascent BC Microtherm is waterproof, windproof and insulated with 800 fill down. It has kept me warm through some pretty sketchy winter conditions. See below:
Photographing Ice Volcanoes along the shore of Lake Ontario in -30
My Wilderness First Aid Course in Canmore 2 years ago. -24
Avalanche Safety training on Bow Summit at -39
The Icing on the Cake:
Headwear. It’s so easy to get all dressed up and covered and to forget about your head and face.A good toque that blocks the wind is vital. Rumour has it that pom poms help too 😉 Just kidding, but I do love a good pom-pommed toque. Look for hats that have a good fleece lining. Keep your face covered with a balaclava or, my favorite, a merino wool buff. Buffs are super easy to throw on, put a scarf over and then pull up to cover your face as required. Also keep in mind the area around your eyes: goggles or sunglasses with good coverage are important. Get tinted/polarized ones for days on the snow, snow blindness is a real thing.
Other tips and tricks for surviving the cold:
-Pocket hand and toe warmers: don’t depend on them, but they are a nice added boost of warm
-Don’t drink alcohol to keep warm. It might make you feel warm, but it thins your blood and dehydrates you, making you colder long term.
-If you have to pee, then pee! Do not hold it in. A friend who spends a lot of time in the arctic taught me this. Don’t make your body waste energy heating the extra mass that comes from you holding in pee.
-Carry a spare insulation layer and spare socks/gloves
-Use glove liners and hat liners on the REALLY cold days.
-Carry hot drinks. This helps moral more than anything
Stay warm out there and adventure on!
*yeah, yeah, yeah, I know bears aren’t true hibernators but it made a better metaphor than comparing people to rodents.