Toasty Toes: Staying Warm While Hiking

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On the last few rescues there has been a very distinct chill in the air. One thing I’ve learned through hard experience is that the essence of staying safely warm in the winter wilderness is having the proper clothing layers and knowing how to use them effectively. Here’s some info to help keep you toasty while hiking this winter.

So why are some materials warmer than others?

It’s all in the air. Clothing helps hold “dead air” against your skin. This dead air is heated up by the body, providing a layer of warmth. The actual insulating value of your clothing is due to the thickness of dead air space it can hold. Your body is the true heat source, the clothing layers only serve to trap the heat and slow down your heat loss to the cold environment.

So what are the best ways to save this “dead air”?

1. Choose the right layers The key to staying toasty is by having a number of versatile layers of clothing to provide an appropriate amount of dead air space. Each layer should have unique properties to hold, protect and allow you to adjust your temperature as necessary.

-AVOID Cotton: During the winter cotton is downright deadly as it loses all its dead air when wet and thus its insulating properties. Wet cotton is worse than dry bare skin and will rapidly suck the warmth from your body.

-Polypro or other Synthetic base layer: Keep your body in a snug (not tight) synthetic layer designed to wick moisture AWAY from your skin. Synthetic fibers like polypropylene don’t hold water, so your sweat is driven outward beyond the synthetic layer and away from your skin. This prevents evaporative cooling and creates a thin protective layer of warm air.

Wear Wool: Wool’s insulating ability comes from the elastic, wavy crimp in its shape that traps air between fibers. Depending on texture and thickness, as much as 60-80% of wool cloth can be air! Because the water “disappears” into these fiber spaces, wool can absorb a large amount of moisture while still keeping enough dead air space to keep you warm. (Note: although not as versatile, fleece is an acceptable option as well).

Down jacket: Lightweight and highly compressible, down feathers are very efficient insulators. They provide excellent dead air space for very little weight. Unfortunately, if the feathers get wet they clump, lose dead air space and all their insulating power. Keep your down safely wrapped in a waterproof bag until you need it.

Wind and waterproof outer shell – it is essential to have an outer layer that is wind and waterproof while still having the ability to ventilate and allow excess heat and sweat to escape. Gore-tex and other similar fabrics are good options. Having underarm (pit) zippers on jackets greatly increases your ability to ventilate.

Hand gear: bring mittens!
Ever notice your hands feel colder after putting on a thin pair of gloves? It’s physics baby! When a thin layer of insulation is wrapped around a small diameter curved surface (finger), it increases the surface area and can actually increase heat loss until a thickness of about 1/4″. Good motivation to bring backup mittens (which get around this problem by combining finger pockets) for extra cold conditions.

Headgear– hats are essential in winter travel. The head has a very high surface to volume ratio and is heavily vascularized, so you can lose a great deal of heat without headgear. A balaclava or facemask may be required if it is windy to prevent facial frostbite.

2. Have a dry backup- and use it! Always have a dry backup of critical clothing and don’t wait too long to change into it after you stop moving. Heat loss from a wet surface can be up to 25 times quicker than a dry one. I’ve hiked with a person who forgot this cardinal rule. She went to bed too exhausted to take off her wet socks. She woke up with toes permanently damaged from frost-bite.

3. Right size clothing: Layers that are too tight will constrict the body’s circulation so that it’ll have a tough time warming up, especially in your extremities. Tightness will also compress your clothing and actually reduce dead air space- decreasing your insulation. Beware though: Too loose and your clothing can act as a bellow and actually blow out warm air and suck in cold.

Have a great winter, and stay toasty!

2 thoughts on “Toasty Toes: Staying Warm While Hiking”

    1. Yeah, I rarely hike in cotton – basically only in areas where there is no potential for a rapid temperature drop and subsequent freezing my butt off! The only time I really use it is in high summer in the desert, where its cooling effect and actually be useful… (I still bring a synthetic quick drying backup though, just in case!) 🙂

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