Clothing is the winter camper’s most important gear consideration. Your comfort, enjoyment, and fundamental safety all depend on your clothing “system”. And it is a “system”. A multi-layer system that is flexible and used in combinations that allow you to adapt efficiently to many environmental situations. There are many books, magazine articles and websites with information on how to dress for winter, but not many for the winter trekker who will be camping out in and traveling through the bush and across frozen lakes, snowshoeing, back country skiing, hauling sleds, and using fire in treed landscapes. Advice and equipment for what works very well for specific activities like day skiing on the slopes or cross country skiing on groomed trails where you can come back to heated buildings, hot shower and all the comforts of home, may not work well at all in the bush on a winter camp. In fact much of what’s out there as advice will not work well at all, and in some cases will be disastrous if you follow it. You may end up soaking wet with sweat, cold, clammy and shivering, and with very expensive shell fabrics riddled with spark hole burns.
The good news is that there are tried and true clothing systems that are not very expensive, (some of which you can make yourself if you are handy with sewing machines), and which work remarkably well to keep you dry, warm, comfortable and safe. And you can lounge by the open fire without fear of melting your gear.
Winter trekking and camping is relatively hard work. You expend significant amounts of energy and produce prodigious amount of moisture that must be vented, or you will get uncomfortable very fast. The secret to staying dry, warm and comfortable for days on end living outside in winter, is efficiently venting excess heat and moisture – its all about letting the heat and moisture out. If you are new to winter camping and trekking, it may sound odd that the basis of staying warm is letting heat out. Aren’t winter clothes supposed to keep the heat in? Well, yes and no. What about the wind? Should shells prevent all wind from cutting through? Well again, yes and no.
Your body is a natural heat pump. The heat pump effect will constantly be pushing heat from a higher temperature to lower temperatures, and moisture vapour will travel that same gradient. You design your clothing systems to utilize this heat pump to move heat and moisture out, until you become inactive, and then you need to hold the heat, but still keep the moisture moving out.
In the following chapters I will take you through all the basic components of winter camping clothing systems:
- Base layers (thick wicking long underwear and sock systems).
- Insulation layers (wool pants, fleece or wool tops).
- Outer layers (cotton anoraks, thick wool, and rain gear).
- Headgear and eyewear.
The common thread for the body layering components will be venting excess heat and moisture. In fact the secret to staying warm and dry in winter is staying “cool”. Experienced winter trekkers will talk about “traveling on the edge of cold”, which means when you are working hard, e.g. hauling a toboggan, your system is stripped down to the absolute minimum so that you are comfortable, not sweating much, and not hot, but instead comfortably cool. You want to be a cool camper, don’t you?