Cold-Weather Clothing

The snow is finally sticking here in Vail, Colorado, which has me dreaming up all sorts of cold-weather adventures. I broke into my winter gear bins last week to get what I needed for a hike up Arrowhead with a few friends. Even though the snow wasn’t deep enough for snowshoes or skis, we all wore gaiters over proper mountaineering-style hiking boots to keep the snow from getting into our shoes. The wind picked up as we hiked across the final ridge, and it was so cold on top that no one wanted to stop for more than a few sips of hot cocoa.

The cold mountain weather makes me feel alive, but if I’m not dressed properly for the conditions…I know that the same weather can become unbearable. Over the years, I’ve found that a few different layering systems work, depending on the activity. For non-alpine style ice climbing, I know I’ll be hanging around, so I take as many insulation layers as possible. My sister, above right, is wearing pretty much what I’d wear ice climbing while belaying or waiting around. It’s easy to strip off outer layers to climb. But if I were doing something more vigorously aerobic, such as climbing a mountain to ski off of it…so much insulation won’t work. I’d go for something like this:


When I know that I’ll be sweating a lot, I usually wear a wool or polypropylene underlayer and a good shell jacket that can protect me against the wind, rain, or snow. At the top of a climb, I usually strip off my sweaty underlayer and put on a dry layer as long as the weather isn’t too foul to change. I’ll put on an insulation layer, such as a light down sweater or jacket, over that dry underlayer, and I’ll put my shell back on top for the ski down.

In extremely cold environments, such as Antarctica, a massive insulation layer has its pros and cons.

Above is a photograph of United States Antarctic Program workers waiting on the ice shelf for a departure plane. We’re all wearing issued clothing, which is mandatory for the flight, but the clothing can also be useful for other recreation and day-to-day activities:


When it’s really cold and I know that I won’t overheat, I wear my Big Red parka for long hikes. It’s super bulky, and I was even cold on this early-summer-season hike. Notice the boots…they’re pretty burly themselves. These boots are called FDX boots, and you can add extra felt insulation to the foot beds to increase their warmth. Just don’t try running in this outfit!

At the end of the day, this type of cold-weather clothing is probably best…

…however, mountain goats are way more adapted to the cold mountain climates than humans. Without the necessary physical adaptations…such as a big furry coat…humans will have to choose their winter clothing and outdoor activities carefully.

Want to know more about survival skills and cold-weather clothing?
Read my article on the About.com Survival Skills website:
“Cold-Weather Survival: Clothing”
Choose clothing carefully when you know that you will be outside in the cold weather. In order to survive cold temperatures, the body needs to retain its vital heat, and choosing proper clothing will also help you avoid cold-weather injuries such as hypothermia and frostbite…click here to continue reading

Photos © Traci J. Macnamara.

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2 responses to “Cold-Weather Clothing

  1. “winter gear bins”… love it. 🙂

  2. Yes! I’m finally organized. Climbing bin. Ski bin. Alpine bin. Can you believe it??

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