How to Dress for Winter Camping

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Dress for Winter Camping – The How’s and Why’s

Extreme Cold Weather Clothing and Sleeping

Hats, Gloves, Socks, Boots, and Layers

Most people know to dress in layers for cold weather – it’s an old adage, but with regards to winter camping it is a lot more than just being able to put on or take off layers as needed, (although that is one important reason).

And most people know to wear; a hat, gloves, and a couple pair of socks – but do they know why, and what type is best?

Maintaining maximum dead-air space, and moisture control are the two primary purposes of dressing in layers.

Camping activities range from periods of heat-generating exertion to heat-sapping inactivity, and each layer of clothes serves a function related to this.

The Three Clothing Layers
Inner – Wicking       • Middle – Warmth      • Outer – Wind and Moisture Barrier
*Cotton is the worst material for winter and cold weather clothing! Try to avoid it – especially for under-garments like t-shirts or long-johns. It not only absorbs and retains moisture, (body perspiration), but it also compresses when wet – losing all of its “dead-air,” (space between fabric fibers), heat retention capabilities.

Clothing does not keep you warm based purely on its thickness or bulk – it does it because of the amount of “dead-air” space it contains. Heat transfers through solid materials, (like clothing fibers), a lot faster through air.

The Purpose of Winter Clothing Layers:

The Inner Layer
The inner layer is the wicking layer. Its purpose is to draw moisture away from your body. It is generally tight-fitting so that it will be in contact with your body sweat* and able to wick it away to the middle layer where it will evaporate.

It is very important that it is made of a non-collapsing material like; silk, wool, (yes, there are thin, soft, and light-weight wool fabrics), or synthetics, like; polypropylene, polyester, or the newer micro-tubular fabrics.
*Your body sweats even when you don’t know it. It’s called “insensible-sweat” and occurs even when you are just sitting or sleeping.

Inner Layer clothing:

Typical – Thermal, (insulated), long underwear

Thermal Long John Underwear for winter camping
  • The insulated aspect is the fabric weave, and the fabric itself. Thermal underwear is woven so that the fabric forms a grid design that creates a lot of “dead-air” space which will trap and retain your body heat. Of course the fabric should be non-cotton, and is usually a synthetic fiber, like polyester.
  • Available in colors, and sized and fitted for men, women, or children. Price range: $15 – $30 per set
  • *Note: All links are my own Amazon affiliate links – which I only use to recommend good quality camping Gear – Gus. Even if you are not ready to buy – they will give you valuable comparison information.

Regardless of brand and style – (Merino and tropical-weight wool are also excellent choices), remember that the inner layer’s purpose is to pull moisture away from the body, and, help retain your body heat. It does not have to be thermal, but it should not be extremely loose-fitting, and it should not be cotton.
Recommended: A Merino Wool Baselayeris the top choice, followed by Columbia and Under Armour.

Middle Layer Clothing – warmth
The most important factor in choosing the middle layer of clothing is that it have a high-capacity for “dead-air” spaces that will slow down the body’s heat loss. Wool is a good example of this. The “curliness” of wool fibers does double duty; it creates a lot of air voids within the fabric of the garment, and it has the strength to resist crushing and compacting – which would eliminate those air voids.

Types of Middle Warmth-layer materials:

fleece and pile warmth layer clothing for winter camping
  • Wool – gets its insulating quality from the three-dimensional elastic, wavy crimp in the fibers that traps air between them. The cloth weave of some wool clothing can be as much as 60-80% air – which is excellent for heat retention. Wool can also absorb small amounts of moisture without feeling really wet – because the water “disappears” into the fiber spaces.

    One disadvantage of wool is that it can be very heavy when wet, and releases moisture slowly, but when excess water is wrung out, even wet wool has a minimum chilling effect. Wool can be woven in very tight weaves that are quite wind resistant. Coarse woven wool can be itchy against the skin and some people are allergic to it.

  • Fleece or Pile fabrics – are synthetic materials, often made of a plastic (polyester, polyolefin, polypropylene, etc.), fiber. These fabrics have insulating qualities similar to wool, but are more hydrophobic, (less water absorbent), which means they hold less water (than wool) and dry more quickly.

    Pile is available in different weights, (thicknesses), with different amounts of loft and insulation. While good as a middle warmth layer, pile, (fleece), is not very wind or water resistant – making it a poor choice for an outer layer.

  • New Microfilament Polypropylene and other Hydrophobic fabrics – the development of new “microfilament” fabrics made with synthetic plastic fibers which offer exceptional “dead-air” space, (similar or equal to wool), and do not absorb water, has created many new warmth-layer choices. Most of the major camping gear and clothing manufacturers now have their own proprietary materials.

For middle warmth-layer choices – think of fleece or wool; pull-overs, sweaters, vests, or even jackets as a choice for the middle warmth layer.

It is also typical to have two middle layer garments – a medium to heavy-weight shirt, (like a flannel camping shirt), over the inner layer, and under the fleece or wool outer-middle layer.
Recommended: See recommended top-line middle layer garmemts

Outer Layer Winter Clothing – warmth and barrier
The primary purpose of the outer clothing layer – in most cases, is to be a wind and moisture barrier. Of course it needs to provide warmth also,(dependent on temperature extremes), but even then its outer layer should be a barrier layer. Like Gortex, or other wind and water repellant fabrics.
In the case of extreme warming needs, it is also usually the bulkiest layer, and the first and easiest to be donned or removed.
In the case of mild winter temperatures it can be as thin and light-weight as a simple windbreaker material, and in colder temperatures as thick and bulky as a full-blown hooded parka.

Types of Outer Layer Winter dress choices:

winter outer layer coats and jackets for winter camping
  • Regarding insulating materials – down is considered the best. But it has the drawback of being the worst when it gets wet – so a down jacket or coat must be enclosed in a water-resistant/repellant barrier layer.

    Wool, and the newer microfilament fabrics, (discussed above), are excellent choices, both for warmth and moisture reasons.

  • Fleece or Pile as insulating layers, (again, as discussed above), are dependent on temperature requirements.

    They are good insulators, but usually not sufficient for extreme temperatures.

  • New Microfilament and tubular-fiber materials have made great break-throughs in light-weight extreme temperature capabilities that are rivaling the heat retention abilities of down.

Outer layer coats and jackets, although a highly personal choice, are almost always dependent are camping environments, and temperature needs when considering how to dress for winter camping.
Recommended: See recommended top-line outer layer jackets and coats

Columbia winter shell snow and ski pants

Pants – the most overlooked winter clothing
Too many campers and hikers overlook the importance of the outer layer bottoms of their winter outfits. Jeans and khakis are not the best choice for winter camping wear – but they are the choice of too many campers that are otherwise dressed appropriately.
Those pants can be worn of course, but they should be a mid-layer. All outer layers should be wind and moisture resistant. Your bottom outer layer could be as thin as a pair of cargo-style nylon shell pants – for moderate winter temps., to full blown insulated snow and ski pants for more extreme winter conditions. Whatever your choice, make sure they are at least water resistant.

Feet – dressing your feet in winter sock layers:

  • Think of feet dressing in layers just like the body. The inner layer should be a thin polyester or Merino wool sock to both wick moisture away from the skin, and be a barrier for thicker, and potentially itchy warmth layer.

  • The most highly recommended warmth layer for feet are wool socks. Good camping/hiking-style wool socks.
  • *Some campers, and some camping/hiking situations use an additional vapor barrier between the wool socks and the boots. This is typically to keep the feet from getting wet.

Heads, Hats, and the No-Ball Cap Rule

  • Ball caps are like cotton for winter camping – a No-No. They fit the head too tightly – not providing any dead-air insulating function.
Balaclavas for winter outer layer on the head
  • Winter camping hats should be just like the middle warming layer of your clothing. They should be made of a material, like wool, that has air space in the weave to inhibit heat transfer.
    See examples of winter camping hats
  • Ideally they should have ear covering capabilities. And if the temperature is extreme, they can even be combined with a Balacava
    See examples of available balaclava styles

Hands – Mittens, No Gloves
Mittens are the best choice for cold weather camping. Gloves separate the fingers, robbing them of the chance to share their warmth – and even bulky insulated gloves lose insulating ability when the fingers curve and draw the glove material tight.

mitten gloves for winter camping

The best choice for warmth, comfort and dexterity is “mitten gloves.” They have an inner liner that is like a glove with the finger tips exposed, and an outer flip-back mitten end that covers them. The removable mitten covers allow for maximum warmth, and it can be flipped-back to expose the fingers for the dexterity you need to accomplish tasks.
See examples of available Mitten-Gloves

Winter Dressing Layers Products Discussed

Under Armour Thermal Long John Underwear for winter camping

Better and Best – Thermal Inner Layer

  • Technology and getting back to basics. Extreme weather campers and adventurists are singing the praises of Under Armour’s line of ColdGear Base Layer gear for their inner wicking layers. Using a new Microfilament Polyester yarn, it is supposedly the best combined wicking and heat-retention fabric available.
  • Available in colors, multiple activity specializations, and sized and fitted for men, women, or children. Price range: an arm or leg per set
    • *Editor’s note: This is a very superior product that has very superior performance. But it is also very expensive. ($30 – $75 per piece) – Relative to quality and performance; those expensive prices are still good values. .

>>> See More Common Sense Cold Weather Camping Tips

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  • *Note: The example links show details and availability on Amazon. Even if you are not ready to buy – they will give you valuable comparison information.
Winter and Cold Weather Camping Gear

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