I’m on a mission to help people fall in love with winter. Tall order. I know winter makes so many folks’ lives so much more difficult and filled with barriers, so I continue to advocate for sidewalk snow clearing, winter outdoor access equipment access, and quality public transit for all. And, in the meantime, I’ll share some of my favourite hints, hacks, and resources for getting outside in winter–the first step in a winter courtship. Winter on the Avalon Peninsula means huge variations in temperature, daylight, weather, and ice/snow conditions. Take your first date on a day when all those variations are being kinder-not too cold, not too windy, and not too icy–kinda like Goldilocks–you want it to be just right and easy for your first few sojourns. As your skills, interest, clothing, and traction systems evolve, you can take on more challenging combinations.
Getting dressed to go outside in winter takes more effort and more layers as well as depending on your activity level. If you can, avoid wearing cotton in the winter next to your skin–aim for merino wool or synthetic fabrics as they help wick moisture away in to your other clothing layers. This first layer is called your base layer. Your next layers are called insulation, and these are often fleece, wool, down, or synthetic materials. Their job is to provide a cocoon of insulation around you so that you have a warm layer around you (much like the walls of an oven). The more inactive you will be outside, the more (or thicker) your insulation layers will need to be. The last layer is the shell layer to protect your other layers (and you) from the effects of wind and precipitation (we never get those on the Avalon, do we?).
Your hands, feet, and face can also enjoy protection from the same layers: base, insulation, and shell. So, I might wear lightweight liner gloves, a thicker fleece mitt and then a shell mitt depending on conditions. This gives me the flexibility to do fine motor tasks and have a warm place to put cold hands back into…. Ideally, we adjust our layers continuously while outside to keep us “just right,” ideally not too cold, not too hot. If we are too cold, it’s hard to fall in love with winter. If we are too hot, we will sweat. Sweating makes out clothing layers damp and clammy which in turn can make us cold, which in turn, can make us think winter isn’t our friend.
It’s an active process of taking layers off, adjusting our warm hat to shed heat, showing our wrists, unzipping our shell or insulation layers, and reversing such adjustments if we stop to take a break, have a boil up, catch a Pokémon, or slow down. Physical activity generates heat, and this heat must be given a route to escape in winter to keep us drier and happier. I usually leave the house a little cool knowing that my walk, hike, bike, or snowshoe will likely quickly warm me up. I also carry an extra insulating layer to put on at longer breaks. Ideally, your system isn’t just one huge winter jacket because this can make adjusting your temperature much more challenging (though you can unzip, take out one arm, slow down, etc. as adjustments if you are getting too warm) if this is your system.
There is an adage that says, “If your feet are cold, put on a hat.” This wisdom reflects our physiology wants to preserve core warmth–so if it senses that our core temp is dropping, it will shunt blood away from our fingers and toes which results in them becoming colder (and in some circumstances-more at risk for frostbite.) By keeping your body core warm, your hands and feet will likely be warmer overall. When I was on the summit of Mount Vinson, the highest peak in Antarctica, the temperature was minus 38 C, and I could comfortably have my hands out in the open for summit pictures because the rest of me was surrounded by my “fluffy chicken suit” a.k.a. my down suit. As well, mitts will almost always be warmer than gloves.
There are four ways that your body sheds heat: evaporation, radiation, convection, and conduction. Your layering system helps prevent the first three of these and having insulation under your feet or bum helps prevent conduction. If you’ve gone sledding or sat in the snow, you’ll know the feeling of having heat drain away. Adding an insulation layer between you and the snow helps keep the transfer of your warmth to the cold surface–you are most welcome for this brief physics lesson! Adjusting your layering system to keep you from sweating prevents evaporative heat loss. Your insulation and shell layers help prevent radiative and convective heat loss.
On the heat production side, we produce heat by doing physical activity, by eating/metabolism, and by shivering (ideally, we avoid this last one as it means you are hypothermic and at great risk of falling out of love with winter). Interesting hypothermia factoid-it’s often easier to get hypothermic in the autumn or spring seasons because of the combination of wet and cold and unpreparedness that can occur then. For best happiness in winter, try to go outside well fuelled–your body needs calories to burn to keep you warm. So, another adage, if your feet are cold, “have a snack, do some jumping jacks, or have a hot drink.”
When we venture outside with folks who are using adaptive outdoor equipment, children riding in strollers or sleds, or others who might not be able to move fast enough to stay warm, we need to check in with them often to ensure they are staying warm enough. They will likely need extra insulation or perhaps a source of external heat (warm packs or hot water bottles) to stay warm. When my friend, Kim, and I go outside using the ski-equipped Hippocampe in winter, she dresses in layers and then we use a sleeping bag to provide extra insulation. I’ve recently become aware of a company, Koolway Sports, that makes accessible insulation and shell layers for folks who use wheelchairs or other outdoor access equipment. I’m sure there are others as well but so glad to see a source of specific and helpful outdoor clothing for folks who use wheelchairs outdoors.
Assembling your layers doesn’t necessarily need to be expensive. Check what you already own to see if you can use it in your system. Over the years, my students and I have found many options for layers at second-hand clothing stores and websites–for insulation and shell layers. Base layers are typically not something you can get used but Pipers and Costco sometimes have base layer sets on sale. As a first investment in your winter relationship, I would suggest acquiring your base layers first and then branch out to insulation and shell as resources allow.
Though I no longer have a pro-deal arrangement with Eddie Bauer clothing, I really like their First Ascent line of outdoor clothing. They have frequent sales and I appreciate that they have a wider range of sizes than most outdoor clothing manufacturers (this is slowly changing). I live in (all seasons in ) their First Ascent Guide Pants and occasionally when I want a quick, integrated lower layer, I wear their insulated First Ascent Guide Pants (all purchased at 50-60% sale prices). My insulation and shell layers have come from Patagonia, MEC, Eddie Bauer, North Face, and Arc’teryx over the years-whichever has had the best sales/sizes/colours/features. I usually look for end-of-season sales. Locally, there are many sources of outdoor clothing including The Outfitters, Arthur James, Alpine Country Lodge (and likely others).
For children’s winter clothing, layering is still key. Most major brands have options for children’s winter wear, though since young ones grow so fast, perhaps you can tap into a network of hand-me-downs/second-hand options. Some parents I know have really liked the functionality of MEC toaster suits, Reima waterproof mitts, and Jan & Jul Winter mitts. There are many other options I’m sure and all kinds of easy on/off boots for your explorers.
OK-if you’d made it here thus far with me, I could likely go on for pages and pages more, but I’ll stop and leave more for another post. Building and practicing your winter layering system is the first step in keeping yourself warm, dry, and happy outdoors in winter. It does take practice and diligence to take layers off and on, zip up and down, hat on/hat off, etc. but once you have it down, many winter adventures await.