Cold-Weather Survival: Clothing

Woman wearing cold weather clothing
Choose cold-weather clothing carefully from base layer to accessories. Traci J. Macnamara

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. Establish a clothing approach based on layering by first choosing a base layer that can wick moisture away from your skin. Next, choose an insulation layer to keep you warm. Top it all off with weather-appropriate accessories and an outer layer that will protect you from the elements.

Why Layer Clothing?

The air space between loose-fitting layers of clothing provides more insulation than one bulky layer of clothing. Furthermore, layers of clothing can be adjusted easily to accommodate changes in activity and weather. Moisture is your enemy in a cold-weather survival situation, so do everything you can to prevent your layers of clothing from becoming wet. Layers can help you manage your body temperature and prevent overheating, which can cause sweat to saturate your dry clothing. Outer layers, such as windproof and waterproof layers, can be added easily over other clothing to keep you dry and warm in changing weather conditions.

Base Layer

The base layer of clothing is the layer that you wear closest to your skin. Base layers should be made out of a fabric that has the ability to wick moisture away from your skin and through the fabric so that it can evaporate. Synthetic fabrics such as polypropylene and natural fibers such as wool have wicking abilities.

Choose base layers that fit closely to the skin without being so tight that they constrict blood flow, as blood circulation is necessary to warmth. In an extremely cold environment, choose two base layer items--one that will cover the bottom half of your body and another for the top.

Insulating Layer

In an extremely cold-weather environment, choose an insulating layer that you wear over your base layer. Insulating layers are often made of clothing that can trap air between its fibers. In this way, insulating layers keep warmth in the body while keeping the cold out. Insulating layers are often more bulky than other layers and include down or synthetic puffy-style jackets and fleece tops and bottoms.

Synthetic materials, such as fleece, can maintain heat even when wet. Wool, which naturally wicks away moisture and dries quickly, can also be a good choice for an insulating layer. Dry down filling can provide excellent insulation, but when it gets wet, the down can become matted and lose its insulating properties.

Protective Outer Layer

Choose an outer layer that will protect your body and other clothing layers from the elements, including the extreme cold, wind, rain, sleet, and snow. Several styles of waterproof jackets are now designed to protect against the wind and rain while also allowing moisture to evaporate from the body; they’re commonly made from Gore-Tex® fabric although other fabrics with these properties also exist. These outer shell layers are made as jackets, pants, and one-piece designs.

Choose accessories such as hats, gloves, mittens, scarves, and gaiters to cover the head, neck, wrists, and ankles. These areas of the body radiate heat easily and have little body fat for insulation.

Final Cold-Weather Survival Clothing Tips

  • Keep clothing clean; dirt and grease can reduce its insulation value
  • Wear comfortably loose layers, as tight clothing can restrict blood circulation
  • Keep clothing dry; plan ahead to protect dry layers, and dry out wet layers in the sun between breaks in bad weather
  • Keep your head covered to protect your brain and the blood circulating in your head
  • Avoid overheating; clothing absorbs sweat, and dampness decreases its insulation value
  • Cover your neck, wrists, and ankles to avoid losing heat from these vital areas
  • Avoid cotton layers, as cotton absorbs moisture without wicking it from your body effectively