Enjoying winter warmer, or the quest for comfort

Shunpiking, No. 10, December, 1996

Special Feature: Discovering Winter / The Work Of Ice

Quick scroll on this page to...
o What to wear
o How to dress

DESPITE THE MANY DELIGHTS of winter, we are sometimes hesitant to get out and enjoy it. Chilly air, blowing snow, freezing rain, and gusting winds may deter us. But unless conditions are extreme, we can be quite comfortable outside and proper clothing makes all the difference.

I can't remember being outside in winter as a child despite long hours of rolling in the snow. Why was this? Three reasons come to mind. Children are cold blooded. Just look at the way some teenagers dress. Secondly, Mother made us dress properly. Remember the one-piece snow suits and mittens on a string? And, thirdly, children don't sweat much. Or at least the pre-teens.

Eventually we all become warm blooded, leave home, and begin to sweat (not necessarily in that order) which all contribute to feeling cold outside. It can take years of trial, error and expense before we sort out how to be truly comfortable. We may still make mistakes as adults because we didn't asses the conditions adequately, the weather changed or we just don't know how to dress for it.

What to wear

One tradition passed on by a Newfoundlander is to knit a wool sweater many sizes too large and then shrink it to fit. The result is like a layer of matted fur that is warm and sheds water. While this may not sound very appealing, wool clothing worked well for our ancestors and it is still popular.

"You don't have to go high tech," says Suzan Hruszowy, Outdoor Recreation Specialist with the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources. "Wool retains 70 to 80 per cent of its heat value when wet and body heat will dry it. And the new wool doesn't itch." Army surplus stores are a good source of cheap wool clothing.

Cotton is not recommended for winter wear. Susan says cotton doesn't dry well when it gets wet from sweat or outside moisture and eventually you feel cold and clammy. If you're stuck with cotton, she advises taking several changes of clothes and changing frequently.

These days we have a bewildering array of synthetic clothing to choose from. New expensive high-tech coats and pants promise dryness and breathability, but not all are created equal. Take time to consider what the clothing will be used for and find a knowledgeable salesperson. If you plan on rugged activities, how tough is the material? I learned that there's no point in having dry, breathable pants for cross-country skiing if they get ripped to shreds by the bushes. If you will be sweating a lot, is the material really breathable? Is it well-vented with flaps, zippers or eyelets?

For underneath, I feel that you can't own too many pairs of polypropylene underwear. It's light weight, stays warm when wet and dries quickly. The same goes for fleece sweaters. Both provide an alternative for people who are allergic to wool and are widely available now. A caution about fleece: unlike wool, fleece will melt when hot or on fire.

How to dress

We likely didn't learn too much about layerings as children, though it is an invaluable practice for adults. The idea is to dress in loose layers that deal with sweat, cold, rain and wind and can be easily adjusted as conditions change.

The first layer is the long underwear. The underwear will wick the moisture away from your body to the next layer. Even if you're not exercising, the body naturally sweats. You can get extra-heavy long underwear or double up if it's really cold or your activity is more sedentary like ice fishing or snowmobiling.

Layer two is a wool or fleece sweater and pants for insulation. You heat up, it's important to ventilate, says Susan. Unzip your coat. If you are exercising hard and continue to over heat, remove your vest but keep on your coat otherwise you'll get cold from external and internal moisture. When you stop and begin to cool down, ventilate briefly, put on your vest again and cover with your coat.

A valuable resource on what to wear and how to dress in winter is people who are outside a lot. Notice what they use or even ask. Rubber boots with leather uppers seem to be a favoured fall through spring foot wear for outdoors people except in extreme cold. Susan says the most important tip she got for warm feet was from George Taylor with Halifax Regional Municipality Outdoor Centre. Before you go out, make sure your feet are not damp. Wash and dry if necessary. Put a plastic bag over your foot, then a wool sock and another plastic bag before putting on your boots. A woodsman I know swears by always wearing two pairs of socks.

Layering is also important for the other extremities. I was rescued from frozen hands when an experienced skiing companion produced wool mitts to cover my leather gloves. What mother told us about putting on a hat is still true as much heat is lost from bare heads. In extreme conditions, a hood may also be required. When hot, it's important to ventilate the head as well as the body. I've found that a fleece neck warmer is very versatile as it can be pulled up over the head or down around the neck as needed.

Of course what to wear and how to dress will also depend on the weather that day and the activity planned. Susan also points out that we all have different metabolisms so what works for one may not be exactly right for another. We need to experiment to find our own comfort level. She also recommends taking a change of clothes on longer outings.

For those who want the challenge of a hands-on winter survival course including tips on winter wear, one is offered yearly by the Nova Scotia Outdoor Leadership Development Program (NSOLD). The courses are held in different areas and costs about $60 including room and board. NSOLD offers seven modules each year including wilderness navigation and camping skills. For details, call Ted Scrutton at the Nova Scotia Sport and Recreation Commission at (902) 424-4642.

*Sheena Masson, a contributing writer on the outdoors for shunpiking magazine since 1997, and author of Paddle Lunenburg-Queens, a guide to the rivers, lakes and coast of Southwestern Nova Scotia. She now resides in Port Medway.

*Sheena Masson, a contributing writer on the outdoors for shunpiking magazine since 1997, and author of Paddle Lunenburg-Queens, a guide to the rivers, lakes and coast of Southwestern Nova Scotia. She now resides in Port Medway.

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Copyright New Media Services Inc. 2004. The views expressed herein are the writers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of shunpiking magazine or New Media Publications.