Junk on the Bunk: Cold Weather Clothing and Layering

Randy’s mom could teach us all a thing or two about layering..

We need to “dress for success” to be effective in extreme conditions. Our clothing choices become more important the harsher the climate and longer we intend to stay out in the bush. Since winter is upon us I’d like to share my lessons learned on cold weather clothing.

I don’t treat my clothing any different than I would any other tools; they need to be the right tool for the job to start with. I judge all my tools by how they perform and not by how they look or any other bias’. Whenever people discuss gear there always seems to be bias (caliber debates anyone?), but I really do try to avoid it as best I can. As MSG Dan Morgan said, we have to be ruthless in our gear selection.

Having lived, worked and trained most of my life north of the 45th parallel has given me a fair amount of experience in dressing for cold weather. From soaking wet and 40 degrees to negative 40 and everything in between, I’ve spent a lot of time in the cold. Clothing selection is as important as any other equipment, and making an improper choice could have very bad consequences.

I have a few pointers I’ve developed over the years as I’ve had both good experiences and bad with certain types of clothing. They are:

  • The clothing should insulate even when wet. I can’t emphasize this point enough. I have had many experiences where I have been soaked to the bone in nearly freezing weather but still been OK because the insulating layers I had kept the heat in.
  • The clothing should be quick drying. Even if it insulates well when wet, all that water gets heavy. The quicker the clothes can dry out the better.
  • The clothing itself should be lightweight. Once again, we want to keep our carried weight down, anything done in the cold is more tiring and taking advantage of lightweight materials will help keep us from tiring as easily.
  • The clothing should allow for easy management of body heat. Being able to vent excess body heat buildup while on the move will help to mitigate excess sweating. Look for things like pit zips, cuff openings that can be opened up and chest zippers.

Keeping these pointers in mind, let’s look at how we can layer our clothing for the best effect. Layering allows us to customize our clothing to suit the conditions and our needs. At a minimum I utilize a 4 layer system, although other layers may be added depending on the conditions.

The first layer next to my skin is a wicking base layer. This is a snug fitting layer that has the primary function of helping wick moisture in the form of sweat off your skin. It also helps to provide some thermal insulation, although it’s marginal at this. This is typically the only layer, if any besides my outer layer, that I will wear while hiking or moving. The rule of thumb I go by is that you should be cold prior to a movement. (By movement I mean a hike or other strenuous activity.)

By not wearing enough layers to be comfortable we ensure that as we start moving we are not going to trap excess body heat. (Get comfortable with being uncomfortable…) This will of course keep us from overheating as well as sweating more than necessary. This excess sweat will soak into our layers and also cause us to dehydrate faster. Then, to make things worse, when we stop we will be wet and our warming layers will be too. As our body begins to cool from the lack of activity we will get very cold and our warming layers will not be as effective as if they were dry. Nuff said?

These wicking base layers are fairly inexpensive and I’ve had good results with the cheap ones from Walmart and also the more expensive Under Armor ones. I’ve recently gotten a set of the USGI ECWCS Gen 3 level 1 silk weight base layers and I like them as well, they seem to do the job and are priced in between the Walmart stuff and Under Armor. Avoid cotton in your wicking layers, it is a poor wicking material and holds in moisture like a sponge. I prefer polyester but some people I know swear by SmartWool too. For the price I’m just going to stick to what I know works good for me.

ECWCS Gen 3

The next layer that goes on after the wicking base is the loft layer. This layer, just like everything else, has to perform more than one function or I can’t justify it. It should insulate and trap heat while at the same time wick the moisture from the base layer out. Depending on the conditions I may have multiple loft layers. For example, I may only need a lightweight pullover in the daytime, yet at night I might want to add another layer like a fleece over the top of this. One good example of this is the thermal polypro set combined with the fleece from the ECWCS. I’m also a big fan of the USGI field jacket and field pants liners that are similar in construction to a poncho liner.

Authors USGI field liners and poncho

The third layer is the outer layer. This is your outer clothing, although once again you could still add if necessary. This outer layer is typically a non insulated layer that protects from wind, rain and terrain but is still breathable to let moisture out. This is your actual clothing that you would be wearing even if you weren’t wearing any warming layers. It could be a uniform if you have to wear one, or your favorite outdoor clothes. For this layer I like something more durable since it will typically be getting beat on more. I’m a big fan of 60% polyester, 40% cotton (60/40) rip stop. I’ve had great luck with the Tru-Spec 24/7 series clothing as well as the cheaper clothing from CQR. I’ve also been looking into ordering a Gorka set, I’ll be writing about that more when the time comes though.

The final layer is the shell layer. This layer provides more dedicated wind and rain protection. While this layer is more dedicated to stopping the rain we still want this layer to be breathable as well. Anything that is truly waterproof will not breath either, trapping moisture in the process. If you’re wearing truly waterproof clothing in the rain you’re still going to get wet, just from your own sweat. We’ve probably all experienced this while wearing one of those cheap vinyl rain suits. If we can keep the clothing wicking and breathing our body heat will dry the clothing from the inside out, but if we trap that moisture we’ll never get dry.

My go to shell layers for the rain are a Gore-Tex top for my upper body, and Gore-Tex gaiters for my legs. I really don’t care for rain gear on my legs while I’m moving in the bush and the top covers enough of my body to keep most of my legs dry. If it’s too cold to rain I prefer my British smock with my wool sweater underneath, and for extreme subzero cold I have a Carhartt Arctic coat and bibs. These are both solid black so I have a set of over whites that go over the top to blend in with the snow if need be.

British Gore-Tex in desert DPM. British PCS smock in MTP and L.L. Bean 100% wool sweater.

The final items are the accessories; gloves, hats, socks, etc. One concept that applies to all of these is to try and maintain a dry reserve. This means at a minimum two pairs of each. The items themselves can vary widely depending on the conditions. For starters, I always pack a wool watch cap whether I plan on needing it or not, kind of like my poncho and Swagman roll. If it’s going to be wet and chilly I’ll wear a boonie while on the move, then switch it out for a beanie if need be later. Just like my other layers, I want to wear the minimum while on the move and preserve my warming layers for when I really need them.

If conditions are going to be colder yet I most likely will run a wool beanie while on the move, but also pack a spare to keep dry and switch into later. I’m also a big fan of neck gaiters and face masks. A lot of heat escapes around our neck and upper chest and being able to trap that heat is a great benefit. Also being able to protect our exposed face from the wind is vital. Noses and ears freeze easy. I like the Carhartt fleece neck gaiters and I’ve got a camo Under Armor face mask that I carry.

You should also grow a beard if possible. I used to only grow one in winter, thinking it was too hot for one in the summer. I quit shaving it completely about 4 years ago and what I’ve found is your beard protects your face from the sun and wind all year. Don’t do it like those hippy, wannabe lumberjack D-bags though. Just grow a beard, keep it neat but masculine. If you’re spending more time on your beard and using more conditioner in it than your lady does on her hair, you’re being a pretentious dandy; stop it.

Moving down to gloves, I still like a pair of good leather work gloves. I wax them up with a healthy dose of Sno-Seal (like all my leather). Nothing beats the toughness of these gloves when you are busting brush or processing wood down for projects or fires. These gloves are sort of a sacrificial item to protect your hands and also keep from having to beat up your nicer insulated gloves. I carry a set of thin thermal liners I can add if necessary. For even colder temperatures I have a set of insulated work gloves I can bring along.

Adding grommets to your gloves allows you to use a carabiner or a toggle to keep track of them easier when you’re not wearing them.

For normal tactical gloves I use the Mechanix gloves. These make a good wet weather alternative to the leather since leather can get waterlogged after awhile in the rain. I can also use my thermal liners with these gloves as well if necessary.

For extreme cold, the best gloves I’ve used were from Manzella. I forget the particular model, but they are an insulated winter model in snow camo. I’ve found that during multi-day coyote calling competitions when I’ve been snow shoeing many miles they’ve kept my hands warm despite getting sweaty inside. I’ve had cheaper gloves start to freeze once they’ve been sweated inside. I see they now offer gloves with a Gore-Tex shell, I’d be very interested to get a set of these.

For socks I prefer wool blend hiking socks in weather down to about 10 degrees, and then heavier wool socks below that. For boots I wear my Merrell 8” Tactical boots in the cold and wet, and then my Merrell insulated hikers below freezing. I also add my gaiters to both of these. When it gets to extreme cold I’ve got a set of Neos over shoes that I add over all these. The Neos’ are a great piece of kit and I’ve worn out a few sets and been really happy with them in both the cold and the mud.

Merrell 8” tactical boots and insulated hikers.

That’s a fairly thorough explanation of what I do for cold weather clothing. If I could give any advice though it would be to test whatever you have until you find a setup that works for you. Hopefully some of this will help you do just that.

10 comments

  1. +1 on the neck gaiters. I first discovered it skiing deep powder with long skis back in the day. Later while working Prudhoe Bay in winter, it became an ADL thing. People who don’t do neck gaiters don’t realize how much heat is lost from the neck, and how much comfort adjustment is possible, with the use or not use of one. I use three different ones. Oldest is about thirty-five years old and shows it. Most recent, is a heavy one made by mods of the cut-off sleeves of a polypro jacket whose zipper had finally gone TU.

    There’s always a neck gaiter on me during this time of year, either worn or in a pocket.

    As I passed through the home country on the way to one seismic job in MI to another one on Prudhoe Bay, my Dad gave me his OD blanket-lined bibs from his WW2 Navy time, they were real helpful at -50F and their use with an N3B USAF parka provided more ventilation options than the more common arctic coverall suit. He also gave me his issued watch cap, this was back in ’82. I still wear it every day this time of year, it has been mended some. The stocking hats made in 1944 or so are far superior to what is issued these days.

    The article was real good. Thanks for putting out what you know.

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    • I’ve noticed the same thing with neck gaiters as well, people just don’t seem to think about them. In boot camp it would get pretty cold at night in the field and we weren’t issued any beanies or neck gaiters. A few of us cut the sleeves off our skivvie shirts and used them as a neck gaiter and beanie. These were then promptly hidden inside a rolled up skivvie shirt before the instructors were up, but we slept good 😁 A polypro neck gaiter sounds like it would be pretty amazing, I may have to add one of those to the collection. I had the opportunity to work with an older gentleman who had worked on the trans-Alaska pipeline in the 80’s and he knew his stuff when it came to cold weather clothing. The older surplus gear is pretty nice, they made some great wool items back then, you can’t hardly touch anything of that quality that’s made from new wool today. Thanks for the good information!

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      • Re: Neck Gaiters: Back when I was cowboying, a silk scarf, wound doubled and tied around your neck, served the same purpose as a neck gaiter, plus more. Keeping you warm (take it off if you need to cool down), keeping the sun off your neck, cleaning your glasses, prefiltering water, etc. They’re not just for looking dapper.

        Re: Goretex shells: I found a good deal on those British DPM shells through Varustelka but haven’t ordered yet due to not knowing the best size for layering. How much larger than your regular BDU size would you suggest?

        Thanks. Looking forward to making a class.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Great info on the silk scarves, they are very common around here as well. I’ve never used one myself, how are they for warmth when they get wet? Most shemaghs are just cotton so it could be a good upgrade for sure.

        I’m just heading out to work on the Fieldcraft Course, I’ll measure my goretex top when I get back and let you know on that sizing. Take care and looking forward to training with you!

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  2. Did a mountaineering trip with guides, those guys seemed to like 1/4 zip base layer tops for the temp management like you stated.

    They also liked ultralight, unlined hooded wind jackets because it could be thrown over layers to block off wind. I think there’s were Rab brand, but they were superlight, I think under 6 oz and could be stashed in a pocket.

    Liked by 1 person

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