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It was first light in January, and we were unloading snowmobiles at the caretaker’s house at the Taylor Park Dam in Colorado. We were almost ready to fire up the sleds when the caretaker came out and asked, “Do you guys realize it’s sixty-one below?” It seemed a little chillier than normal.
I grew up in one of the coldest places in the lower forty-eight and have spent most of that time trying to stay warm in the field. I made lots of mistakes, and I discovered a few things along the way. After I moved to the Midwest, I learned a few more things about staying warm in the field. I can get colder at thirty degrees standing waiting for a whitetail to show up than I did at ten below hunting coyotes. Humidity is a big factor in staying warm, along with how much exertion you are putting into your outdoor activity.
Choosing the proper clothing for your activity is key to staying warm and thus having a more enjoyable experience.
Cotton: Cotton is a killer in extreme situations. It holds moisture close to your skin and keeps you cold. The wetter it gets, the less it insulates. Cotton is only okay in mild climates.
Synthetics: Polar fleece is a synthetic material that can be made from recycled PET bottles. It acts like wool in that it wicks water away and retains insulating value when wet. It is very lightweight and insulates well. The biggest drawback in my opinion is the lack of wind proofing; it is very cold if it is the only thing you are wearing on a windy day. Also, fleece will eventually pill up and lose some of its comfort and insulating value.
Gore-Tex is another synthetic fabric used in outdoor clothing. This material breathes, allowing moisture to evaporate away from your body, but it is mostly impervious to water trying to get into your clothing. Gore-Tex is also windproof, making it a perfect outer layer for shedding water and stopping wind. Drawbacks include the need to keep Gore-Tex clean or it loses its waterproofing.
The really big drawback is that synthetics are not fireproof; a tiny spark will burn right through them. And, being synthetic, they will begin to break down after a lot of exposure to sunlight.
Wool: Wool is the ultimate in natural, sustainable, and green clothing. It is also the best at keeping you warm in the field. Wool wicks moisture away from your body and retains much of its insulating value even when it is soaking wet. If you exert yourself while wearing wool, the moisture from your sweat will wick to the surface and evaporate. Wool weighs more than synthetics but is very fireproof.
Dressing in layers allows you to add clothing when you are cold and remove clothing when you are too warm. The layer next to your skin is the most important layer. You want moisture to be wicked away since moisture equals less cooling effect.
Start with long johns. The cheap cotton bottoms may be okay in some situations since your legs don’t perspire much, but a better choice is a merino wool blend that will keep you warmer when you do get some moisture on your legs.
About the worst choice you can make for the first layer of your top is a cotton t-shirt. This t-shirt will hold all of your perspiration next to your body and keep you cold. Again, a nice merino wool blend will wick away the moisture and keep you much warmer.
If you start with wool or wool blend on the layer next to your skin, the successive layers are not as important as to their make-up, although cotton should be held to a minimum since wicked moisture will stop at the cotton layer and be held there. Just remember your outer layer should be something windproof. Air moving over your body will cool it faster than anything else.
The old mantra that says if you are cold, put on a hat is very true. Most of your body’s heat loss comes from your head. A hat will go a long way toward keeping you warm in the field. A regular stocking cap should do for just about everything. The only drawback for me has been in cold winds, since the more open knit ones are not windproof.
A hat that covers your ears is almost a necessity in cold weather. I like a “mad bomber” hat with big earflaps that snap under your chin. This keeps me pretty warm in most situations. In really cold situations, you can add a balaclava to keep your face and neck warm.
If you will be doing lots of exercise you might only want ear warmers. These are low-profile earmuffs that allow the excess heat you build up through exercise to be lost from your head, while at the same time keeping your ears nice and toasty.
The footwear you pick will help keep your feet warm. Many hunting boots are insulated to keep you warm and dry, but if you are going to stay relatively dry, even sneakers can keep you warm in the field with the proper socks.
People with poor circulation in their feet are going to have a harder time keeping them warm. I have always had cold feet, but a lot of that has been from wearing the wrong kind of socks. For years, I would wear a pair of cotton socks with one or even two pairs of wool socks over them. Bad idea. As I pointed out in the cotton section, cotton holds moisture right next to the skin and makes it colder.
A better idea would be to wear a pair of wool socks only, or maybe two. One problem is your feet sweat even in cold weather, so there will be moisture there no matter what. However, there are Gore-Tex under-socks that keep moisture away from your skin.
One problem with wearing multiple layers of socks is that it will make your boots tighter, cutting circulation to your feet.
There are electric socks on the market that use batteries to keep your toes warm. The biggest problem with these is that because of the heating wire in the toe area, they are uncomfortable to walk in for much distance at all.
There are so many different gloves on the market that it is hard to recommend any one kind. I use ski gloves a lot, but I also do lots of work outside and ski gloves are kind of bulky for that. I have found I like an insulated leather work glove for most cold weather outdoor activities. There isn’t much of a difference in most insulated gloves, and once my hands get cold I alternate putting them in my pockets to warm them up. Mittens will keep your hands warmer than gloves since they allow all your fingers to stay together.
My dad had an old hand warmer that took lighter fluid and would burn for a few hours and keep you sort of warm. (We could never get it to stay lit at altitude in Colorado.) Then he got one that burned little charcoal sticks, and that one was just okay also.
Nowadays they manufacture small chemical packs that warm up nicely when the package is opened and they are exposed to air. These things are great for keeping you warm in the field and are a cheap investment for your comfort.
I had a buddy who said they used to take MRE heaters and put them in a ziplock baggie after they had heated their food. He said the heater would keep them warm for a couple hours. I haven’t tried this personally, but it sounds like it should work.
If all else fails, start a fire and warm up.
I read a story about Simon Kenton, a late eighteenth century longhunter who dug a hole the size of his head in the ground with a small hole at an angle for air. He then started a fire with white oak bark and squatted over the hole with his cloak, making a teepee.
I also know of people who have three-sided shacks in the woods and spend their hunting seasons sitting in front of a fire waiting for a deer to run by. I keep promising myself I am going to put one in my woods.
Keeping warm in the field isn’t that hard if you dress properly for your environment and take into account the moisture your body will produce. Even if you do get cold, you can start a fire or open a hand warmer and warm back up.
Hypothermia is a real danger, and something not to be trifled with. If you start to get chills, make sure to take steps to warm yourself even if it means starting a fire.
©2012 Off the Grid News