Today is the first day of winter and during the next few months many of us will be spending as much time as we can outside on our skis. Winter can be cold in the Northeast and we wanted to take a minute to talk about strategies for staying comfortable when the temperature drops.
First let’s start by talking a little bit about heat loss. A couple of years ago there was a string of articles debunking the myth that humans lose the majority of heat through their heads. This myth is typically attributed to a study done in the 50’s where researchers looked at heat lost from individuals that were clothed but didn’t have hats on. The clothing slowed the heat loss from the body so of course the subjects lost most of their heat through their heads. If they had instead worn a hat and shorts, maybe we would think that most of our heat was lost through our knees and calves? Bottom line: The idea that we lose most of our heat through our heads is bunk and based on bad science.
Since then, additional and more reputable studies have been done, and currently it’s accepted that heat is lost through the head in proportion to the amount of surface area your head represents… which for the average person is around 7-10% of their total body surface area. Does this mean we don’t have to worry about wearing a hat anymore? Well… not exactly.
Research has also shown that certain areas of our bodies are more sensitive to heat than others. Our heads and hands fall into this category and even though we don’t necessarily lose heat from these areas faster than any other area of our body… They do play a large role in how comfortable we Feel.
What this means is that you can be relatively warm, but if your hands and head are uncovered you could Feel considerably colder. This also means that you could be relatively cold, but if your hands and head are covered you could still Feel pretty comfortable.
So, taking all of the above information into consideration, how might we apply this information to keep us comfortable during a full day out in New England’s winter woods?
Well, let’s look at what often happens on a typical ski tour.
- At The Trailhead – You’re feeling pretty good. Maybe you’re a little cool because you know that as soon as you start moving you’re going to heat up so you’re not dressed as warmly as you could be. But, you’re not cold. You have a hat and gloves on, a base layer, insulating layer, and shell.
- After 10 Minutes – You’re too hot! At the trailhead there was a bit of wind, but in the woods the wind is gone and you always underestimate just how much heat skiing uphill produces.
- After 15 Minutes – Now you’re feeling more comfortable. You’ve taken off your gloves and hat and that was just what you needed and it was easy to do. You tell yourself that if you start to feel cold again you can just put your hat and gloves back on.
- After 60 Minutes – You’ve reached your high point and need to transition for a long descent. When you take you pack off you immediately feel the cold where your pack was sitting. You hope to make the transition quickly as you’re already feeling cold. You put your hat and gloves back on.
- After 62 Minutes – Ok… You’re officially Cold. The hat and gloves aren’t cutting it, and even the puffy you put on doesn’t seem to be doing much. You’re just too sweaty… Really we need to get moving!
- After 90 Minutes – Starting to feel better again… The descent was really cold. You weren’t working very hard and the added windchill didn’t help. Now you’re touring again on rolling terrain and slowly warming up.
- Back At The Trailhead – Great ski everyone! Was a lot of fun! I forgot about this thing I have to do… Gotta Go! You throw your stuff in your car, crank the heater, and shiver your way home hoping for a hot shower and a nap.
Most people prefer to adjust or remove gloves and hats for temperature regulation rather than taking the time and suffering the inconvenience of adjusting layers on the torso. The thing is, it feels like it works. When you remove your gloves and hat you immediately feel less hot and more comfortable. The problem is the rest of your body is still producing too much heat.
The thing is your experience doesn’t have to be like this. When ski touring there are going to be periods where there is an abundance of heat. We know this, and it’s during these times that all of our problems start. When you get hot you sweat, and sweat makes your clothing wet. Wet clothing is not warm and this is ultimately what we want to avoid.
So, what you want to do is start by packing at least 1 extra set of hat and gloves. These items are going to get sweaty no matter what you do. There’s really no way around it so just bring extra. They don’t need to be super bulky, they just need to be dry. We recommend packing a couple of Buffs and a mid-weight fleece hat. The buffs are the perfect weight for when you’re moving, take up almost no room, and can also be used as a neck gaiter or balaclava. On the glove side… something thin for when you’re moving and something thicker, maybe a pair of mittens, for breaks.
The body is where most people tend to overdo it, and is the area where issues of feeling cold typically stem from. Wet clothing on the torso will quickly lead to a cold body since the torso makes up such a large percentage of your body’s surface area. So, what we want to do is keep these layers as dry as possible. One very effective way to do this is by not wearing them!
Remember, you can remain quite comfortable by keeping your hands and head covered even when your overall body temp is relatively low. So, our strategy is going to include wearing layers that move moisture and dry quickly while moving and removing the insulating layers from our torso rather than taking off our hat of gloves.
On the body we recommend the lightest weight synthetic shirt you can find as your base layer. We love wool, but synthetic options move moisture faster and dry more quickly. On top of this a lightweight softshell like Outdoor Research’s Ferosi Hoody, or a breathable lightweight windbreaker like the Arcteryx Squamish Hoody is recommended. These second layers breathe very well, provide some wind protection, and dry very quickly. During the more active parts of your tour these two layers are all you should really need.
When you stop for a break you’re going to want to layer up, and you’re going to want to do it quickly. You’ve been working hard to create all of this heat and now, when you need it, you don’t want to let it get away. We will typically carry something like the North Face Thermoball Hoody insulated jacket, and a shell with us. It’s not a bad idea to don both of these layers when you stop to preserve your warmth. This is also a great time to pull up any and all hoods, stuff your wet gloves inside your jacket to keep them warm, and throw on your mittens.
Once you start moving again take the time to remove your insulating layers. Using this process will keep them dry and will help keep you warm. Once you arrive back at your car it’s often not a bad idea to have a dry shirt and/or fleece waiting. Try as you might, keeping your base layer dry is pretty much impossible. Having a dry change of clothes will feel amazing and will allow you to hang out with your friends for longer and then move on to whatever else you have planned while avoiding hypothermia.
Use your hands and head to your advantage. By keeping them covered and instead removing layers from your torso you can maintain your level of comfort while dumping significantly more heat. Using this strategy will help keep your key insulating layers dryer, without any perceived loss in comfort.
For some additional layering tips check out our previous post – Winter Layering Strategies For Backcountry Skiing.
Stay Warm & Think Snow!