How to dress for winter (re-release)

20 Oct

Winter – it’s not just coming, it’s here. I’m re-releasing this post about dressing for cold weather because now that there is no turning back, we could all use a reminder of how to survive in a frigid environment…

I consider myself an expert in cold weather dressing because  I spent more than half of my life in one of the coldest inhabited places on earth: Saskatchewan. In Saskatchewan (sas-kat-CHEW-un), the winters are so bitterly cold that people have to plug their cars in overnight so that the battery works in the morning. Under the right conditions, skin can freeze in seconds and ice forms in your nostrils.

Beautiful frost on a SK window. Photo by Yvonne Durnin-Nargang.

It’s the kind of dry cold that stings. But no matter what the weather, nothing stops in Saskatchewan; on the prairies, people suck it up, pack on the layers, and continue with their routine.

It’s really no wonder that Socialism was born in Saskatchewan, the place where people rely on a strong community for survival in a horrendously harsh climate. A good example is highway driving: if your car breaks down on the roads in the winter and you don’t have the necessary provisions to get you through, you could very easily freeze to death. People always stop to help because they know that if they don’t, stranded people could die of exposure or hypothermia. (See winter driving information from the Government of Canada here.)

The coldest temperature I can remember was a December evening when I had to go to the university to write a final exam.  Before dressing to go to school, I called Environment Canada to find out what the weather was like.

This is what they told me:

I was stunned. I had never had to fathom -75 before and I was in awe… I had to go outside. I had to go outside, wait for a bus, ride to the university, write the test, get back on the bus, and walk home again… how could I possibly dress for weather like this?

In as many layers of clothing that I could fit under my coat and still close it, I pulled on several layers of socks and managed to force my fat feet into my boots, then put on a hat and wrapped a scarf or two around my neck and face, leaving only a thin opening to see through.

I waddled to the bus stop like the Michelin Man and saw a crowd of similarly-dressed people milling around the stop. We all went to school and wrote our tests, went outside again got back on the bus, then returned home – and we lived to tell about it.

I learned a lot from my time in Saskatchewan and I want to share my winter dressing survival tactics with you to make your winter a little warmer:

HEAD. We lose body heat through our heads, and our hair can only retain so much heat, even less in the wind.  People, especially bald or short-haired people, should wear a hat to keep their heads insulated. A warm hat spells instant relief in icy winds.

Protect the tips of your ears – ears are mainly thin bits of skin-covered cartilage and quite prone to frostbite.  Keep them covered with your hat, earmuffs, or ear flaps.

TIP: NEVER GO OUTSIDE WITH WET HAIR – wet hair in cold weather can lower your core body temperature while your system works harder to keep you warm, thus compromising your immune system and making you more susceptible to viruses AND it feels terrible – a lose-lose situation.

NECK. If there is a collar on your coat, flip it up for added protection from cold air and secure in place by doing up the top button of your coat.

I see a lot of men drape scarves around the back of their necks and cross them over in the front. This is fine if you only want to keep the back of your neck warm, but to warm your throat and make the most of the length of your scarf, try this:

  1. Start wrapping from the front of the neck and cross the scarf ends around the back.
  2. Bring the ends to the front again and adjust the scarf to a comfortable length around your neck – this can be pulled over your face if need be.
  3. Stuff each crossed scarf end into the neck of your sweater or shirt – if you’re wearing a button up, open a couple of buttons and spread the scarf across your chest, then button up again.

KIDNEYS. Keeping your kidneys warm will help you retain body heat. Dressing in layers is good for keeping your kidneys, not to mention your vital organs, warm.

Try the following technique for proper layering and maximum warmth:

  1. Start with an undershirt of some kind (t-shirt or sleeveless vest) for the first layer.
  2. Tuck this shirt into your underwear or long johns if you’re wearing them – this keeps the fabric of the shirt close to the body via the elastic waistband of your undies, giving a feeling of warmth and security because the wind can’t blow up your t-shirt this way.
  3. Add 1, 2, 3, or more thin layers over this – fewer if you’re a larger man who easily over-heats and more if you’re smaller and tend to feel the chill (you can take the top layers off once you’re inside).
  4. Top off with a warm winter coat of your choice.

Textile options for your t-shirts and long underwear:

  • Cotton works well for warmth and wicking perspiration away – available in plain knit weave or warmer waffle weave (raised and recessed squares on the surface of the fabric);
  • Silk is thin and fantastically warm;
  • Lightweight wool is also a favourite for long underwear, but wear with caution – wool is VERY warm and might be too much for some of you.
HANDS. As you can see from the picture, there isn’t much to the human hand. Like ears, the tips of our fingers can be frostbitten too, so take care of them.

Experiment with different types of gloves for different temperatures to see what suits you: knitted wool or acrylic, fleece, leather, or synthetic, and if it gets really cold or you work outside, try high-tech 3M Thinsulate gloves.

The skin of our hands really gets beaten up during the winter. If you can, use heavier moisturizer on your hands before you leave in the morning (I use Burt’s Bees Hand Repair Cream and another good natural one is JR Watkins lavender-scented shea butter hand cream that I picked up from Shopper’s Drug Mart)  and don’t be afraid to work some into your hands and cuticles before you go to bed.

Remember lads, taking care of your skin is just as important as eating a sensible diet – your skin is the largest organ of your body!

FEET. There is no nastier feeling than cold, especially wet, feet. I’ve experienced the uncontrollable shivering of the first stage of hypothermia because there was a surprise hole in my boot one night that let in cold water and unfortunately, I spent the next couple of hours in a place with a cold concrete floor that kept my feet in a very cold state, and I was unable to get warm.

Investing in a good winter boot is a really smart move – a good lined, waterproof  boot,  even better.

TIP: When purchasing new winter footwear, make sure there is a little room in the boot for extra socks – take an extra pair with you when you go boot shopping.

Speaking of socks, layering socks on your feet is also a good idea. I like to put on a thin wool or cotton sock first, then follow with a thicker wool sock. Bamboo socks are a nice soft option too. For me, the more snug the sock fit, the warmer my feet, so experiment and find what works for you.

Best wishes for a cozy and more comfortable winter!

2 Responses to “How to dress for winter (re-release)”

  1. Geoffrey December 8, 2011 at 5:11 am #

    Thanks for the article. Lots of good info here. But cotton next to the body??!! No, no, no!

    Cotton’s great on a summer day along with your shorts and flip flops. But in the cold, or if you are at all active, you need something which will wick moisture away from the body. Cotton just doesn’t do that, not even the waffle weave. Instead it gets clammy and cold. Then you risk hypothermia even in relatively mild conditions.

    Use underwear made of polypropylene, certain kinds of silk, and certain kinds of wool.

  2. Leah Morrigan December 8, 2011 at 10:45 am #

    Ha! Thanks for your comment, Geoffrey. Everyone is different and if cotton right next to you doesn’t work, then don’t do it. You must be active in the cold to sweat into your cottons like that!

    I ask my clients if they tend to be warmer or cooler in general, so for the winter, the cooler guys prefer cottons because of the lightness and breathability, but the warmer ones need a more substantial material like wool or silk.

    Thanks for reading!

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