How to Dress Warmly

From an Electrician who works outdoors in Eastern Washington

Why you might want to read this: I am warm, you are not. Thirty some years ago I co-founded a climbing guide service in Leavenworth; one of the first things I discovered is warm clients are happy clients; we found if people had good experiences they came back allowing us a reckless lifestyle of drinking and debauchery. People who teach others to surf usually do not let them be eaten by sharks; we’d try to keep people warm.

The human body is warmed by blood circulating; anything that impedes circulation is anti-warmth. My friends who race cross-country skis wear only a nylon skin suit [and windproof briefs]. They are Ferraris, but because we are more sedentary are more like delivery trucks.

The Head

The head is the boss and it will do anything to keep its job. Go up to your boss tell him he’s going to lose his job unless he fires you; boom goodbye career. The head fires the hands and feet first so the first rule of keeping warm is keep the head warm.

Hard hat wearers need liners; either quilted, polar fleece, wool, or windstopper fleece. Some breathe better then others and you need to judge your exertion level and adjust. You don’t want to get sweaty- because in the cold sweat freezes then you die.

Office people need stocking caps or hats; if the wind is blowing it will go right through a knit cap so you need a something with a nylon shell. Rich Edwards has a bomber hat that works really well but as I repeat here, 2 thin layers are always warmer then an equivalent thick layer. If it’s cold enough to threaten skin covering your face with a balaclava [kind of like a bank robber’s mask]. First a silkweight thickness then layered with a thicker piece. A silkweight balaclava then a wool one with a hooded park will cover everything this side of the Artic. There are some barrier creams that help with wind burn sold at ski shops. Snowmobile shops are a good place to find windproof face and head protection.

The Neck

Because major arteries meet at the base of the neck it is imperative to keep this area warm. This is why we wear turtlenecks and scarves. Try to find something with wool content; it has more dead air space to trap heat then fleece of other synthetics, cotton is bad, cotton kills, because it does not transport moisture, the moisture freezes, then you die. I really like ¼ zip turtlenecks because you can zip them when your outside and open them up when in. Another choice is a neck gaiter; just a tube of stretchy material you slip around your neck. You can also pull it up to cover your mouth and lower face. You can use them as giant rubber bands to shoot co-workers already frozen in place.

Base Layer[s]

2 thin layers are always warmer then one thick one. This is also why the big thick jacket fails. Base layers come in different weights; silkweight, light, medium, heavy, expedition.

You want synthetic or wool; wool is always one layer warmer then synthetic so a light wool is the equivalent of a medium synthetic. The new wool is not scratchy, being a blend of merino’s smaller fibers. The Under Armor brand is a synthetic for aerobic exercise and is ideal for moisture transport but needs to be layered with something else.

Insulation Layer

An inexpensive wool sweater [or expensive one] or fleece layered over your base layer. Unless you are using windstopper fleece you will need a light shell covering- unless it is raining do not use Gore-Tex in the winter; a thin nylon shell is sufficient. Nylon is more breathable for the moisture coming off your body to escape. Cashmere [form goats] is not warmer then wool [from sheep] but you will look better when they bury you. The absolute warmest natural fiber is from the Brush-Tail Possum of New Zealand, they spin it's down with merino wool. If you are ever down-under or near a Kiwi shop [there is one in bend, Oregon] take a look at it, it comes in socks, gloves, and sweaters. It is too warm to wear inside.

Eventually you will need to break out the feathers for that always tasteful Michelin Man look. Inexpensive down jackets have sewn through seams [at the stitch you only have the 2 layers of nylon protecting you, no down.] Look for offset box construction in either down or synthetic fluffy insulation like Polarguard or Primaloft; if the wind is out you still need a shell.

Once you put on down or polarguard or primaloft you are now starting to trap moisture- wet down will not dry out and will not keep you warm, once it even hints of getting wet you are going backwards, it is time for something man-made.


We generally require less insulation for our legs; just a base layer and a shell. Surplus wool pants are great finds if you have access to them. Filson and Woolrich both make bomber wool pants; they will never wear out either. Wool dress pants help, jeans suck but we all wear them. LL Bean and Land’s End sell flannel lined khakis and jeans or Carharts insulated stuff. I joked with Paul about cyclist wearing pantyhose but again it is a lot of thin layers that make a difference.

The Hands

Mitts are warmer then gloves, layering warmer then one piece. A very thin glove liner is a blessing as long as you size your outer glove large enough to not constrict blood flow. If your hand wear is too tight you’ll get closed. liner gloves come in silk, synthetic like Capeiline, or wool. Surplus army glove liners are cheap but probably a little bulky for layering but at 2 bucks a pair they are a bargain.

If you suffer from Reynaud’s Syndrome there is a product called Thermabands that put little heat packs at the wrist capillaries. Always layer first before going the heat pack route because eventually the heat pack runs out. A thin liner with a BDM [big dumb mitt] seems to work really well. There are also lobster mitts [split fingers], surplus sharpshooter mitt [with a trigger finger], and mitts that the end flips off of for dexterity.[I've never quite got the hang of these].

The Feet

This is where I see the most mistakes with number one being cramming more socks into your shoe. You need to make room for additional layers or the constriction will shut-down your circulation which will lead to a trip to Toe Mart for another set.
If it is below freezing you need to adopt vapor barrier but only if you are outside, if you are inside with vapor barrier and go out the moisture on your feet will freeze, boom, your cooked.

Vapor barrier is the theory behind artic paks like the Sorel brand, Mickey Mouse boots used in Korea … it is simply layering a waterproof layer between 2 other layers. To try this first put on a synthetic sock, dress sock weight is fine, a plastic bag, then another thicker sock synthetic or wool. I can’t stress how important having enough room in your shoes is. Ski lift operators and mountaineers go an additional step and rub a strong deodorant like Mitchum unscented on their feet first. Some people also sprinkle a little cayenne pepper in their socks but if you don’t keep your head warm …. . [Cayenne dilates the blood vessels] It is also important to change socks if you are out in it all day. Dry your footwear every night. You can buy insulated insoles or make your own. Just allow room for them.


If you watch your pets you’ll see them increase their food consumption. We need to do the same but smartly. We tend to eat a lot of treats when we are cold not a bad idea to nibble on some chocolate all day if you are outside but eating simple carbohydrates is like throwing a pine cone on a fire, psst gone. Fat is calorie dense and digests slowly. Nuts, that stuff we used to spread on bread, butter, or ethnic foods all add needed fat to the diet. In the deep back country in the winter we would drink a shot glass of olive oil, it sounds disgusting but you could feel the warmth spreading through you.


As you become dehydrated the brain starts to shut down the outer extremities. Caffeine is not a hydration source and is a diuretic so one needs to balance drinking it with water intake. Alcohol is a vaso-constrictor, yep, bad thing, but at least you might die happy.

Try drinking room temp water instead of that chilled bottle from the frig. When we throw 40 degree products into our guts the blood goes there to quickly warm your insides which means your outsides are quickly un-warming. This is also why eating snow of any color is a bad idea and is the same reason we feel cold after eating a big meal; all the blood is busy down there doing the digestion thing.

Moving Around

Try getting up moving around, swing cold limbs around to get blood flowing; remember my little skier buddies and their skimpy suits; think more like a Ferrari and less like a parked car.

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