Thursday, January 16, 2014

How to Enjoy Cold Weather

Even sub-zero days offer great opportunities
to explore. UP of Michigan December 2013 (Auriel Fournier)
It's -47F with the windchill, my jeep barely starts, my lungs hurt, but eventually the jeep stops squealing and we're on our way for another day of birding. When we planned our long weekend of birding in northern Minnesota I promised Matt the cold 'wouldn't be that bad' (since it normally isn't). So he bought his plane ticket in balmy October on my promise of great birds.

January 2nd arrives and twelve hours of delays later he arrived in Wisconsin with no luggage, just the coat on his back and a polar vortex headed our way bringing some of the coldest air in 20 years. Luckily we are all very flexible travelers and between Nick and I, we had enough warm clothes to convince Matt he wouldn't die and we headed to Minnesota.

We worked with the weather, made lots of changes along the way and our trip was a success. We didn't spend as much time outside as we planned and ended up doing most of our birding from the car, but we had a great time and all of us experienced winter in a new way. That -47F degree morning though with the wind blowing and all of us wearing so many clothes its hard to move I thought we were a little bit crazy. Then the sun came up, the beauty of northern Minnesota showed itself again and we managed to stay pleasantly warm because we were prepared for the conditions.

Typical winter days offers even more possibilities. When you dress for the weather, a hike on a single digit day can be just as enjoyable as one on a fall afternoon. Being cold outside is easy. I've been there many times. I went to school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and I made every rookie mistake before finally figuring out how to enjoy winter like a yooper. Today I'd like to show you some of those mistakes and how to fix them so you don't make them yourself. Not all of us need to do a 12 mile snowshoe with frozen pants and no feeling in their legs to learn these lessons.

With a little bit of knowledge anyone can dress to be comfortable in the cold.


Layering keeps you warm and is simple once you know the basics. You need to wear clothes to hold in the warm air and block the wind. Once you've got on good layers there are just a few additional things to remember. Know your body and dress accordingly. If you are like me and your hands/feet get cold easily put more layers on your arms and legs to compensate. Always ensure your layers overlap at your neck, waist, wrist and ankles. These overlapping layers seal in the heat and will prevent cold air from leaking in.

I always err on the side of wearing too much, since you can always shed a layer. You can also do a quick check when you first get outside, stand for a moment and see if you can feel the cold air seeping in. If you can then you probably need an additional layer or to adjust what you are wearing. 


Outer Layer - The purpose of an outer layer is to keep out the cold and wind, usually through a heavy winter coat. If you don't have one, a rain coat along with several layers of sweatshirts and sweaters underneath can work. Layering doesn't just apply to your core, keeping your legs warm is important, and is probably the most neglected part of layering. You don't need to go buy fancy snow pants, you can cheat and wear a pair of rain pants with thermals/sweatpants layered underneath.

Base Layer - Wear loose clothes so they can trap air between the layers and a close fitting base layer to keep you feeling warm and wick away moisture. Most people will tell you to get a fancy synthetic shirt, and if you can afford Underarmor, wonderful. Cotton long underwear can also work just as well. Thermal base layers can be picked up for $5-10 at Wal-mart. Grab a top and bottom layer (remember not to forget your legs!).

Hats - Even if you are not a 'hat person' you need a hat. Otherwise your body will spend valuable energy replacing all the heat radiating away. Style isn't important, so find something cheap. A good hat will cover your entire head, the thicker the better. You can get hats for $5-10 at Wal-mart.

Gloves - You'll be warmest with a giant pair of well insulated gloves, but if you have to write things down, or really do anything, they might be cumbersome. There are many styles of gloves suited to different tasks. Some have flaps that flip back and become fingerless so you can use your hands. Your best bet is something with thinsulate. If you have to remove your gloves often get a thin pair of gloves to go underneath.

Scarf -  Scarves keep all the warm air around your core while preventing heat loss from your neck, another large heat loss area. Scarves can be worn different ways to help keep the wind off your face, which is great when wind chill is a concern. Just make sure you find something soft enough so it won't irritate your face.

Vests - I personally am not a vest person, but if you often find yourself being too warm vests can be a key layer because they keep your core warm without over heating.

Boots -  If you're going to be out hiking, or building a snowman a good pair of hiking boots and some thick socks are probably all you need. Make sure your boots aren't too tight. Tightness restricts the socks/shoes ability to trap warm air around your feet and makes your feet cold fast. Wearing a double layer of socks works really well to both keep your feet warm and prevent blisters but wearing more then two pairs can cause additional issues with not allowing space for warm air to be trapped.

Socks - Good socks are worth investing in. I love Smartwool, but there are now lots of brands of comfy wool socks out there, so shop around. Wool is important because your feet sweat. In your daily life you probably don't notice, but when you wrap your feet up in socks and boots the sweat does not evaporate. Leaving you with cold feet. Wool keeps you warm even when its drenched, which is why wool makes great socks.

Extreme Weather 
When the weather really cold it's important to take care of yourself. Check in with your group members and make sure everyone is staying warm. Take breaks, warm up inside, make sure you eat enough.

The first big issue with extreme cold is wind. Wind chill makes cold dangerous, FAST. Check out the wind chill chart from the National Weather Service. If the wind is strong at all you can come under danger of frostbite very quickly. The best way to combat the wind is to keep all of your skin covered, especially your extremities (hands, feet, ears, nose) and stay active so you keep pumping lots of warm blood to those regions.

Bond Falls, UP of Michigan
(Auriel Fournier)
The second big danger is water. Now chances are if its super cold out there isn't much open water for you to interact with, but most of us live in places where cold means something around freezing, which often leaves things wet and sort of slushy. Once you get wet its really really hard to stay warm unless you are wearing special clothes. Above when I say you can get away with cotton I mean you need to stay dry. No wading through streams, no falling through the ice, no standing in the freezing rain, no sliding down winter waterfalls. If you are going to be doing something where there is a good chance of you getting wet then you need more specialized equipment which is often not cheap but is well worth it. Being cold and wet is dangerous, please be careful. 

Please use this info to help yourself enjoy the outdoors, not push yourself to dangerous limits. When the weather is extreme always make sure it's smart to be out doing what your doing. Several days of our trip we planned to be out snowshoeing all day, which at -30 or -40 is not safe, so we changed our plans and did short hikes (<15 minutes) and explored in the car. Sometimes an alternate plan for the day may be in order and that is OK. Part of the wonder of the outdoor world is the extremes of its weather and experiencing them is fun, but don't throw caution to the wind. A five minute experience can be more then enough for the conditions.

Most of the time though the weather is more mild and dressing for the weather is fairly easy. It may take a bit of trial and error before you get layering perfect, but the rewards are fantastic. Winter is (in my opinion) the most beautiful time of year and winter offers opportunities for exploration and recreation you can't do in any other season. Being active all winter helps fight winter depression and opens your up to 12 months of fantastic adventures! So pull on some extra layers and get out there!

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