If you have ever tried to snowshoe, ski, haul a toboggan or gather and cut wood wearing a heavy insulated, nylon lined and shelled parka, you know how unbearably hot it was and how you got quickly soaked with sweat. You cannot allow yourself to get soaked in sweat. You cannot do anything active in the bush with such a big insulated parka. However these parkas are great when being relatively still, such as ice fishing, or for riding a dog sled, and so there is a place for these on trips. They also serve well for adding under the sleeping pad for more insulation with your sleeping system. When I first started winter camping, I and my buddies always brought these heavy parkas as insurance or back up. But lately we leave them at home, unless it is a dedicated ice fishing trip. We are simply too active and get too warm, and cannot risk burning them by the fire. Instead we use un-insulated breathable shells, or simply extra layers of wool. Arctic trekking on the tundra in full exposure howling winds is different, so the context I am describing here is down in the treed landscape.
Please note that the commercially popular waterproof breathable fabrics do not work in the cold to vent any moisture, and they are the worst possible outer shell you could chose for the cold. Trekking on skis or snowshoes, or setting up and breaking camp generates so much heat and moisture that it quickly over-comes the breathability of these fabrics when its cold. The moisture frosts up on the inside of the garment, plugging the membrane, and soon it’s a sauna in there, causing you to become soaked with sweat, and that’s not good. The waterproof breathable membrane is also laminated to a fine synthetic shell that will not hold up to the abrasion of winter camping in the bush, and will melt through with spark holes around the fire. These jackets and pants are far too expensive to allow that. There are some high end hunter’s clothing with waterproof breathable membranes that are laminated to tough outer fabrics which are very durable and made for busting through thorns and brush. I have not tried these, but based on my experience with waterproof breathables well below freezing, I expect they will also cause you to overheat and become soaked. If you do find a brand of outer garment with a waterproof breathable membrane that works well below freezing, please let us know.
The Cotton Anorak: What’s Old is New Again
This is where we dissect and re-examine the old slogan that “cotton kills”, which you will read in article after article about winter clothing. Well cotton will kill if used as long underwear or inner layers – it absorbs moisture, won’t release it, and it loses its limited insulation ability. Never use cotton on inner layers. But medium weight, tightly woven cotton is the traditional and still leading fabric of choice for an outer shell layer in the cold. The traditional cotton anorak cannot be beat for total function.
Cotton anoraks breathe very well. The good ones will use a fabric that is relatively light, but tightly woven enough to shut out most of the wind. The cotton will not insulate, although it will help to hold a bubble of warm air inside, so much so that my crew and I usually do not haul sled in our outer shells because they are too hot in all but the most frigid conditions.
The cotton anorak will load up with moisture absorbed from your heat pump, pushing all that moisture out and through your inner fleece or wool layers. On high humidity days the anorak will actually get wet, even when well below freezing, and the fabric will itself freeze. That’s absolutely no problem since its on the very outside of your system. It stays pliable because of its fabric properties and your heat pump. Even when frozen the moisture will sublimate. Around the fire it dries as you wear it, and you will see the steam come off it. No need to hang it up when cold camping – it will likely dry when worn around the fire before you retire for sleep, and if it does not, it is of no matter. Inside a hot tent it’s so warm that you will need to take it off, and it can dry, or not, depending on your space to hang and dry it.
The cotton anorak is important to protect your upper layers from abrasion and getting dirt rubbed into your insulating layers. The moss and lichen on trees is incredibly messy and will rub off and grunge up fleece when snowshoe bushwhacking, and especially when gathering wood. Your outer layer fleece will get trashed by sticks, thorns, burrs and all kinds of debris without an outer shell. Cotton anoraks are incredibly tough and made to take that abuse.
Cotton anoraks are deliberately sized very big and baggy and long over the hips for protection from wind. This allows for almost unlimited combinations of layering underneath, and most importantly, a bellows effect for pumping hot moist air out. When your arms are outstretched horizontal with your layers on underneath, you should almost see mini “bat wings” under the anorak arms, which allows for excellent pumping of air, and no binding for movement. Never size your anorak too small or tight because it won’t work nearly as well.
The traditional anorak designs have no zippers or any fasteners that could fail in deep cold, and they are pulled on over the head. They have wrist cinches (now of Velcro) to make it easy to shove hands into gauntlet mitts and gloves. Newer designs fresh on the market have full length front zips or partial length neck zips to allow for venting and easier on-off. But with every zipper, there is one more potential for failure in deep cold. Make sure if you use zippers that they are high quality, and there is a back up flap fastening system
The generous under-arm space will, if sized generously, allow you to pull your arms totally inside to your inner layers to get something in a pocket or make adjustments. However I find this too cumbersome and my anorak is not quite big enough with all my layers on, so I installed an access zipper under the kangaroo pocket in front, to get at inner pockets. If the zipper fails its of no consequence because its on the inside of the pocket flap. I often keep the access pocket zipped open for more ventilation when working.
You can add fur trim around the hood for better insulation against strong winds. Some anorak manufacturers offer this as a factory installed option. I obtained a tanned wolf pelt and hired a furrier to make a hood trim for me that Velcro’s on for easy removal to wash the anorak. The hood should be large and deep to accommodate several headwear layers, and to shield your face from side winds. (Headwear is discussed in a separate section). Some people prefer a snorkel type hood which is very good to shield one’s face, but it can also cause icing challenges and fogging of eyeglasses.
Some anoraks come with a built in waist cinching cord. Mine in the photo does not, but I am very happy using the traditional voyageur sash (ceinture fleche), which is infinitely variable to accommodate whatever layers I am using. I can highly recommend the use of the sash.
Synthetic Blend Anoraks:
There are some manufacturers making fine anoraks with fabrics of uncoated nylon or nylon cotton blends. They have the advantage of being lighter and packing smaller, and they shed falling snow better. The snow will stick to a cotton anorak more and melt faster even when quite cold, since you are pumping heat out though it. I have not used these nylon anoraks and so cannot comment on how well they breathe. The pure uncoated nylon will definitely burn and melt if contacted by sparks or hot stove pipe. The blends I am not sure of. If you try one, let us know how it performed.
Other Breathable Shell Options:
One of my buddies got a cheapo uncoated nylon parka shell, and ripped out the liner, and he uses that for an anorak. It does get occasional spark holes, but he patches them and doesn’t care. It sheds snow better than my cotton anorak. So if you don’t have the latest “traditional” anorak, don’t let that stop you. You can probably find an oversized shell at a used clothing place, or buy a cheap new one at a bargain shop and remove any liner that will hold moisture or prevent it from passing through.
There is a cotton fabric made in the UK called Ventile ©, which is pure cotton made from the finest cotton threads and woven very tight to be waterproof. I have not used any shell made from Ventile so cannot report on it from first hand experience. There is an un-insulated, single layer parka made of this material which I one day hope to field test. Ventile is purported to be a superb fabric for winter travel for all the breathability and durability and fire resistant qualities discussed above. It is the only fabric on the market I am aware of that purports to do everything we need it to do: breathe well in the cold, shed sparks without melting, and is waterproof in the rain (see below for more on rain). When we learn more about this fabric, you can be sure we will be reporting on it, so stay tuned. If any of our friends from the UK have used this fabric in winter, please let us know what you think.
Unfortunately it does sometimes rain on winter camping trips, and it’s miserable. It is also a potentially dangerous situation and hypothermia weather if you are not prepared. This is where the regular cotton anorak will fail horribly. You need a rain shell. You have to keep dry because once soaked you cannot dry out in the 100% humidity and cold unless you are fortunate to be using a hot tent and have a supply of dry wood, or if cold camping, a good tarp rig and can set a fire underneath out of the rain (without melting your tarp!). This is one case where the waterproof breathable outerwear is important to have along. Since the temperature will be close to freezing, if not above freezing, then there won’t be the frosting up problem when working hard in the shell, and it will perform much better to vent moisture. The finest of these will perform as advertised if your outer fabric is clean and treated to keep the water beading up. Once the outer fabric wets out, it does not breathe as well. I always bring my waterproof breathable jacket and overpants on a winter trip for the risk of rain. Around the fire it will be risk management for sparks. The rain suit is also a back-up shell in case I fall through the ice and need a total change of clothing while I dry my gear.
Waterproof breathables are also a great option for sunny warm days above freezing where melting snow in the trees is dripping all over the place like a downpour. Again, frosting up will not be a problem because of the above-freezing temperature, and you will be quite comfortable if you vent properly. Caution is needed to protect the shell if bushwhacking, to prevent tears and punctures, and around the fire you take your risks. Having a patching kit is recommended.
Standard non-breathable rain gear is also useable and sometimes is much less expensive for the risk of spark holes. It will become very uncomfortable if doing high exertion work.