Dress for Success in the Cold, Wet, Windy Outdoors (of the Pacific Northwest)
“Wilderness is not a luxury but necessity of the human spirit.” –Edward Abbey
Winter months in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) are marked by blustery, short, cold days, and…...rain. But, it is possible to dress for success in the PNW’s cold, wet, windy outdoors.
Only two basic principles need to be understood. The first of which is the concept of layering. No matter what you're doing outside during the winter, layering will make adapting to changing conditions and activity levels much easier. Layering your clothing is a way to maximize your comfort in the outdoors. There are three layers and each layer has a purpose. And each layer may be layered with multiple garments. The base layer (against your skin) manages moisture; the insulating layer protects you from the cold; the shell layer (outer layer) shields you from wind and rain.The second basic principle is that “cotton kills.” Cotton retains perspiration and can leave you feeling wet, clammy and chilled. Cotton is not a good choice, especially not as a base layer, and never in the backcountry.
The base layer is the next-to-your skin layer. Regulation of body temperature is achieved through moving perspiration away from your skin. This can keep you cool during the summer, and dry and warm in the winter. The best base layers are made of polyester, polypropylene, merino wool, silk or other materials that wick moisture and dry quickly. Moisture is wicked to the outer surface of the garment to dry. For cool conditions, base layer thermal underwear is available in light-, medium- and heavy-weights. Choose the weight that best matches your activity and the temperature.
The middle layer is all about insulation by trapping warm air next to your body. Here you want to think natural fibers and fleece. Wool, and goose down are natural fibers with excellent insulation properties. Wool has the advantage over goose down in the cold, wet, windy PNW climate because it is still an efficient insulator even when wet. Goose down must be kept perfectly dry to maintain its insulation properties. It does outshine wool in colder temperatures, however, and waterproof synthetic down is available. Fleece is a synthetic material made from polyester. Fleece is a manmade fabric using petroleum chemicals, polyester can also be made from recycled plastic such as soda bottles. Fleece is warm like wool, thick and with a deep-pile. It also dries quickly. Hikers are partially responsible for the popularity of fleece in outdoor gear because they found fleece to be warmer and more lightweight than wool. The middle layer weight should be chosen based on activity level and temperature ranges.
The outer shell layer is all about weather protection shielding wind, rain, and snow. Most allow at least some perspiration to escape which is vital for the under layers to breathe well, and virtually all are treated with a durable water repellent to make water bead up and roll off the fabric. Keeping the moisture of snow and rain out keeps layers one and two functioning properly. The outer layer should be large enough to accommodate the underlayers as well. Outer layers also come in varying degrees of selection based on intended use. From a simple wind breaker to a snow jacket system with a removable liner coat and hood - there are many types of outer layers. Now let's break down a few terms that are very helpful when making a decision an outer layer for protection against the rain and snow. The term waterproof/breathable is the best as it is going to protect 100% against the water getting in and is going to let your water (perspiration) out. Water resistant is breathable but will only hold up for a short time in light rain. Waterproof and non breathable is the equivalent of an emergency poncho, ok if you are just sitting around inactive and not perspiring to keep the rain off of you.
Other garments to increase success include gloves, mittens, neck and face protection, and hats. Gloves are needed when you want to perform manual tasks in the cold while still protecting your hands. In colder conditions, or over extended periods, mittens are better since they keep fingers together and trap heat more effectively than gloves. The head and neck are major areas of heat loss. In cold weather you will want to cover your neck with a scarf, balaclava, or neck gaiter. Balaclavas, wind proof face masks, or scarves will all protect your face from the cold. A balaclava is an excellent survival item. A hat on the head stops a significant amount of heat loss. Add a hood over top in extreme cold or snow/rain conditions to keep the hat dry. Hats made of natural fibers such as wool, alpaca, or synthetic fleece are ideal.
Proper footwear is the remaining piece to dress for success in the cold, wet, windy weather of the PNW, starting with socks. Socks made, again, from natural fiber are ideal. Wool socks are readily available in varying thicknesses for different temperature ratings. Boots and shoes come in so many different styles to fit about every application. From trail runners, to hiking shoes, to hiking boots, boots that are designed for snow….; the main factor for success is how waterproof are they and how well do they breathe (just like the outer shell layer)? Keeping your feet dry is crucial in cold, wet conditions.
Think of your cold weather gear as a system. There needs to be a system in place that keeps you cool when you are active and warm when you are not. You do not have to spend a ton of money to develop this system and actually enjoy going out and staying out during the PNW winter months. Thrift shops such as Goodwill or Value Village are usually well stocked with this type of gear. Many people use the excuse that “it’s just too cold out……” and be in the outdoors. With the proper gear you will be set up for many successful outdoor adventures no matter what the weather!