This article was originally posted by coyotemountain on the survivalist discussion forum.
Man has forever been at odds with the temperature of his environment. Our body generates a metabolically controlled core temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit; the ideal temperature at which cellular respiration proceeds most efficiently for most organs in the human body. Learning how to preserve this core body temperature so that blood does not have to be diverted away one’s extremities should be the goal of “dressing for success” when entering the cold winter world. Cold hands and cold feet are the bane of any winter operator, and standing guard duty with little or no physical action during the winter can be a brutal and even life/limb threatening experience for the unprepared. When winter comes to the Rocky Mountains, the upper Midwest and New England, it comes hard. Temperatures in the single digits can continue for weeks and in the northern Rocky Mountain states, and it is possible to endure several weeks of sub-zero temperatures before seeing a thaw. These days, most people just button up and stay inside, making a mad-dash for their automobile, stomping their feet and cursing at the cold while waiting for the engine to warm up. The fact of the matter is that the majority of Americans have no idea how to dress for the cold. Additionally, most Americans have no idea how the body works to regulate heat distribution and minimize heat loss. I’m sure that if they knew what you will know after reading this article, tomorrow there would be a million more people in the woods hunting, fishing and walking. To understand how you need to dress for a successful expedition, your first need to understand some basic human anatomy and physiology.
Our core body temperature is regulated through a vast and complex network of arteries, arterioles, veinules and veins, through which heat-carrying blood pumps in different amounts to various parts of the body. Regulation of core body temperature is accomplished by the differential contraction and dilation of arteries and arterioles (remember, arteries carry blood away from the heart—high pressure, veins carry blood towards the heart—low pressure), effectively increasing or decreasing the flow of blood to any specific part of the body. Each artery and arteriole (an arteriole is a small artery that is capillary in nature) is composed of 3 circular layers of tissue, each surrounding the other. The tunica interna, tunica media and tunica externa. The tunica interna and the tunica externa, the innermost and outermost layers of tissue in an artery, are composed of connective tissues which serve to give the artery its overall shape and structure. However, the tunica media is formed from smooth muscle fiber, which when contracted, reduces the overall volume of the artery and results in reduced blood flow, or when relaxed, dilates the artery walls and increases the overall blood flow. Our bodies have a marvelously complex and beautiful system that is automatic and involuntary in nature, which allows blood flow to be maximized towards those areas of the body that require more oxygen, nutrients and temperature, and minimized towards those areas of the body that are less vital.
Though our brain is only 2% of the weight of our entire body, it uses between 15 and 20% of our body’s blood supply to keep us alive. This means that quite a bit of heat is being transferred to our heads. The large volume of blood necessary to keep our brain thinking and problem-solving is routed through two arteries in our neck called the carotid arteries. There is a left and a right one and you can feel them pumping with blood if you place your two fingers directly beneath the rear corner of your jawbone on your neck. It should be obvious that any puncture of cut in either of these arteries will quickly be fatal. Because such a large volume of blood is traveling to your head and rapidly diffusing into a small capillary network to supply every neuron with oxygen and nutrients, your cranium acts like a large radiator, radiating up to 40% of your total BTU output and allowing a sizeable amount of heat to escape from your body.
There’s a reason marathon runners pour water on their heads during the middle of a summer race. Their core body temperature is rising uncomfortably high and cooling the head is one of the quickest ways to cool down a lot of blood, fast. However, if you live in the north and have ever gone outside on a winter day with wet hair, you well know that having dry hair and wearing a hat will make your day much more pleasant. The fact is, wearing a hat (depending on the thermal insulation) can actually make otherwise unbearably cold temperatures pleasant to be in. When the head is exposed to cold temperatures, more and more blood is pumped to the brain to keep its temperature stable. Being the most important part of the body, the brain has almost unlimited access to how much blood it can divert to keep it at an appropriate temperature. Less vital organs, like the stomach and intestines, along with the hands and feet, are some of the first organs/regions to have blood taken away from them and diverted towards more important areas in times of need. Simply covering your head may be enough to keep warmth-giving blood in your toes and fingers.
However, insulating the head is often not enough when temperatures drop from the 60’s into the 50’s, 40’s and 30’s. Other heavily vascularized areas, like the groin, arm-pits, and thoracic (chest) area need insulation as well. Depending on weather conditions, one or two wool sweaters and a windproof/waterproof shell is often enough to keep the heat from these areas from escaping. If you can keep your chest and head warm enough, often time gloves and long-john bottoms are unnecessary.
There is a lot of literature and opinions in the world about how you should dress for cold weather, what brand of clothing you should be buying, and what materials you should be putting next to your skin. In the end, what it all boils down to is this: wear wool, wear it often, and wear it next to your skin. Paul Petzoldt, the founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School, grew up and made his living climbing mountains and spending weeks and months in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains. During WWII, he served with the Army’s 10th mountain division based in Ft. Hale, Colorado, during which he taught the ski troops safety and preparation techniques. He lived from 1908 to 1999 and was one of America’s greatest mountaineers and outdoorsmen and his books are considered the source of knowledge for all that concerns dressing for the mountains. During his stint in the army, he observed that of all the men who refused to wear wool socks next to their skin because of ‘itching’, there were none who had a positive skin-allergen reaction to wool when tested. Even today, a “wool allergy” is extremely rare and is most likely a reaction to the acidic chemicals used to treat or dye the wool, rather than the wool itself.
Modern-day advances in textile weaving have produced a series of socks using “smart wool” and merino wool that are some of the softest and most cushiony (and the warmest), non-itchy socks available on the market today. You can expect to pay 7-12 dollars per pair, but it is well worth it to stock up on as many as you can afford. When TSHTF, they may not only be worth their weight in gold, but they will also enable you to successfully operate in any weather conditions, at any time, without having to worry about moisture condensation and frozen feet.
Why wool you ask? Why not some of these neato polyester and space-age fabrics with ultra-wicking action? The simple fact of the matter is that wool, when woven, is a natural wicking material that is still superior to all other fabrics in its ability to wick sweat and retain warmth with very little loss in thermal efficiency, even when wet. Cotton kills. Everyone knows that. It gets wet and when it does, you die. Polyester and other synthetic products work much better than cotton, and some have very good wicking properties, but all of them lose a certain proportion of their ability to hold in heat when wet. Wool will keep you warm when wet, and when it’s dry it has excellent loft and works great as a primary insulator.
Growing up in the windswept barrens of Montana has taught me many things about self reliance and the weather, and I have had the good fortune to be able to learn from the mistakes of others rather than have to experience a life-threatening situation myself. The most important thing that I have learned is that when you’re outside in the winter, be prepared. You REALLY need to wrap your mind around that phrase, “be prepared”. It takes on extra important significance when the temperatures are in the single digits or below zero; simple accidents with tools or forgetting an article of clothing can easily turn minor details into life-threatening situations.
As an example, last winter I was out running in 10 degree weather in the afternoon. What started out as a pleasant sunny day soon changed after I had been running for 30 minutes. The sun set behind a small bank of clouds that came over the horizon. At first the temperature dropped slowly and I expected the sun to come back out for at least 20 minutes before it set behind the mountains. But no such event occurred. The sun had prematurely set for the evening, and about 30 minutes early. Within minutes, a light breeze from the north began to stir up the powder snow and blow it across the road. I turned around and decided to head back home before it got seriously dark. As I headed back north into the wind, the temperature proceeded to drop 15 degrees in 20 minutes in addition to a stiff wind-chill factor that pegged the thermometer at -15 degrees Fahrenheit. I was equipped to be running in calm, sunny 10 degree weather, not cloudy and blustery -15 degree weather. My toes and my fingers began to go numb. The wind pierced through my leggings and my quads and hip-flexors began to get cold as well. I was without goggles or a facemask and soon ice on my eyelashes and mustache combined with the stinging coldness of my lips and cheeks to remind me of the danger of frostbite. I could not stop because I knew it was only going to get colder and I was not wearing enough clothing to keep me warm if I wasn’t moving. But as I kept running, the relative windspeed was about 7-8 mph greater than if I was standing still, resulting in more heat being sucked away from my body. The only choice I had was to pit my body against the elements in the hope that I could run fast, and more importantly hard enough to generate more heat than was being stripped from my body by the wind. The tactic barely worked and I arrived home thoroughly numb and exhausted, but escaping serious frostbite. It took me about 4 hours to fully recover from the cold and the exertion.
Never underestimate the weather or the ability of even a sight breeze to introduce a significant wind-chill factor to your environment. Dressing for -15 degrees is a lot different than dressing for 10 degrees.
Wool comes in all sorts of weaves and roughnesses, from wiry and itchy grandma sweaters to ultra-fine cashmere, merino and algora underwear. It is also sometimes mixed with other synthetics to provide a more cloth-like texture. You can sometimes find wool undergarments manufactured for the military at Army-Navy stores or online, in addition to a plethora of civilian smart-wool type long underwear. The mil-spec stuff seems to be the cheapest (20-30 dollars for a pair of tops and bottoms), while brand-name Smart Wool underwear can easily cost up to 50 dollars for just a long-sleeve upper. The money is well worth it though. For those on a tighter budget, wool items can be found in almost any sporting goods store or 2nd hand consignment thrift store. Again, you should be looking for items that you can wear next to the skin and also wear in layers, like sweaters. If you have enough wool clothing on, all you will need is a lightweight windbreaker shell to complete your insulation.
If you are buying long underwear, definitely buy it NEW, in the package. Used long underwear has gone through who knows how many cycles of a hot dryer and has probably lost some of its thermal properties as a result. In essence, wool is the hair of animals. Treat it as you would your hair. Don’t stick it in a dryer or it will shrink, crinkle, smell bad and not work as it used to. Wash in cold water and drip-dry it. Thicker weave garments, like German wool army-pants, pea-jackets and outer garments are also very valuable and good items to be shopping for. In very extreme climates, it may be necessary to wear down parkas and snow pants, as well as Pac-boots, mittens, gators and balaclavas. The down jacket is one of the warmest garments ever created, but it has one weakness: water. If it ever gets wet, the loft of the down will compress and it will lose all of it’s insulation value. I prefer multiple layers of wool along with a shell and having the versatility to be able to put on or take off layers as I exercise to maintain a constant body temp and avoid sweating is quite valuable.
When the temperature is about at 0 degrees and calm outside, I wear my army-issue wool long underwear (tops and bottoms), two layers of smart-wool socks, a tight fitting wool pull-over vest, wool German army pants, a full-sleeve length wool pull-over sweater, and then a fleece or wool jacket zip-up jacket with a windproof shell over the top. On my hands I wear one layer of tight-fitting cotton cycling gloves (insulation value is minimal, but it keeps your fingers from freezing to metal if you have to take off mittens/gloves to fool around with an engine block, crampons or rifle bolts), light-weight fleece gloves, and then an extra-large pair of mittens made out of sheepskin, rabbit fur or some technical gore-tex type material. On my neck I usually wear a silk scarf, followed by a fleece watch-cap on my head, followed by a gore windstopper mountaineering cap, followed by a fleece hood with a collar that covers all of my lower face. I also take ski goggles in case the wind comes up. On my feet I wear snow boots or even mildly insulated leather Catapillar work-boots. If the snow is dry (which it will be at 0 degrees), it won’t melt on the leather until I take them inside.
This outfit keeps me warm when I’m just sitting around in the snow, watching stuff. When I start moving and walking through the snow, I usually have to strip down to just one cap, and unzip my shell and fleece jacket. The 4 layers of wool on my torso keep the center of my body extra toasty and often times when I am moving, I feel like my fingers and toes are almost too warm!! Remember, when dressing for outdoor wintery conditions, it’s always better to dress in layers, as this gives you “finer gradations” of insulation that you can take off or put on to keep from sweating. Just wearing one huge down jacket means that if you get too hot, you have to unzip it and suddenly you are way too cold.
It’s also cheaper to dress in layers, simply because high-insulation value clothing is usually much more expensive than the cost of several layers of lower insulation value clothing that can be stacked on top of one-another to achieve the same effect. It is better to be overdressed and have the option of taking off clothing, than to be underdressed and just suffer all day (or night) long. And in some cases, underdressing can prove to be fatal.
To summarize: Always dress in the winter, especially in the mountains, with the expectation that things will get nastier in the afternoon when you are returning home. This means always have a windproof-shell, ski-goggles and a wind-proof hat. Windproof pants may also be a good idea. Never underestimate the Mother Nature. People often do and local newspapers where I live often tell sad stories every year of people who disappeared and were only found when the snow thawed or the ice-pack on the river broke up. Within the first few minutes of being outside, if you are starting to feel cold seeping in, go back inside and get warmer clothing.
Always dress with more clothing that you’ll think you need.