With most of the Eastern seaboard suffering in a deep freeze, we thought it would be a good time to talk about winter layering. Dave and I have done our fair share of cold weather travel. We spent all of last year exploring Ontario during the Polar Vortex. We’ve faced -30 weather skijorring in Alberta and we’ve been winter camping in weather so cold, the temperature fell completely off the thermometer. We’ve been to both poles and everywhere in between and the most important part of our cold weather travels has been about dressing properly.
Winter Layering Tips
You want to enjoy the cold and feel comfortable in the deep freeze. It is possible to stay warm and enjoy the outdoors during the winter if you follow a few rules. We’ve learned the hard way about how to layer properly. So we wanted to share our layering tips to dress for this latest winter deep freeze from our years of trial and error. It’s easier than you think!
1. Base Layer – Merino Wool by Icebreaker
It was in Alberta last year that our friend Jeff Bartlett raved about Icebreaker merino wool. We hadn’t thought of merino wool before thinking that it would be itchy and uncomfortable. But when Jeff told us that you can wear it for days without smelling and that it is lightweight and comfortable, we bought an entire layering system at SportCheck as soon as we got home. We ended up using our icebreaker layers to train for dogsledding with Iditarod and Yukon Quest dog musher, Hank DeBruin.
We wore it during our 100km trek into the Arctic watershed and we went snowmobiling, ice skating and snowshoeing all with a base layer of merino wool keeping us warm and dry. You know what? Jeff was right, even after 10 days of trekking in the cold Canadian wilderness without a shower, we didn’t smell. When Icebreaker contacted us to see if we’d like to try out their new line of Merino Wool clothing you can imagine how thrilled we were. We already have an entire layering system based around their brand and now we get to replenish our stock. I didn’t realize they had so many choices.
2. Mid Layer
Most people think that you need to wear a huge parka to stay warm. But the key is actually to layer for breathability. We use a fleece mid layer or a very lightweight down mid layer. We alternate between these two mid layers depending on the temperature and the activity we’re doing. We find the down can cause overheating quickly if we are doing vigorous adventures, but if we’re sitting on a snowmobile or tubing down a track, it’s perfect. When we’re working up a sweat snowshoeing or cross country skiing, we prefer fleece.
For bottoms, we suggest fleece pants. You can pack a heavier fleece for very cold days or a lighter fleece for days that hover around the freezing mark. Yes, in cold weather travel a temperature around freezing is the perfect temperature. You are comfortable, and warm.
Icebreaker sent us a heavier mid layer of wool too which is great for light activities. If you are doing very active outings, the wool upon wool can be a bit much. However, the mid layer that Icebreaker sent is stylish and comfortable so it’s perfect for the chalet after your winter adventure. It’s even comfortable walking outside on a day hovering around zero Celcius. I love how wool keeps you warm but is also lightweight. It’s perfect for a walk on a balmy winter day.
3. Outer Layer
Having a waterproof and windproof outer shell helps seal in the warmth. With the proper layers worn underneath, this shell keeps the wind from seeping through the layers. Even though wool and fleece keep you warm, they are useless in wind and you need to protect from the elements. The outer shell perfects the layering system.
Waterproof Gortex Shell Jacket – We’ve found that it worked for all outdoor activities. We wore the shell ice climbing, snowboarding snowshoeing and, skijoring. We’re fans of Canada Goose and Arc’teryx. Both are durable and breathable. Look for shells with zippers and vents to let in air while you are working out.
1 pair of gortex pants -We use MEC brand waterproof lightweight gortex pants that are perfect for high activity in wet snow, freezing rain. We’ve had these for a decade and they still work great!
Snow Pants – If you want to skip a layer, we also have a pari of waterproof snowpants. We wear these with our merino wool leggings and skip the mid layer. It works great for snowboarding, ice skating, snowmobiling or simply going for walks. Once again, make sure it has zippers and vents to let in air. Vents can easily cool you down without have to strip down right away.
Packing Suggestions for winter travel or Expeditions
2 pair of Icebreaker leggings – Our cold weather travel layers consist of Merino Wool layers – tops and bottoms. You can buy Icebreaker SportCheck. It’s more expensive than other brands, but you will have it for years. It’s wicks away moisture and it is odour resistant. With this high quality wool, we can do 10 day to 2 week trips (with no shower) using only two sets of our merino wool base layers (wool usually makes me itchy, but not this stuff) and they worked like a charm. Icebreaker is made of Merino Wool from New Zealand and you can wear it day in day out without odour.
- We bought the 260 weight for extreme cold temperature.
- Icebreaker recently supplied us with the Sprite Ultralight 150 which is an excellent addition to our gear list for weather that is not so cold. It will wick away moisture if we are Ice Climbing or skiing, but keep us warm too.
We suggest having two so that you can change it up for fluctuating temperatures and if you happen to get very wet one day. Even though wool dries fast, it’s nice to hop into a fresh warm and dry pair.
2 pair Merino Wool Crew Shirts – Once again we bought the Icebreaker brand. It’s expensive, but it’s all we’ll need for the next decade and we’ll be able to use it on any mountain treks or winter trips to come. It’s important to have a base layer that wicks away moisture and we like having two pairs with us because we can change if anything is damp, if it needs to be cleaned or if we just want to change it up.
T-shirts- We’ve recently added merino wool T-Shirts to our packing list. We didn’t even know you could get T-Shirts in merino wool until Icebreaker sent them to us. I love their colour choices and they look so great I wear them all the time.
4. The Chalet
I used to say, don’t worry about how you look in the chalet if you are at a ski resort. It was always about functionality and staying warm and dry. But when Icebreaker showed us their new line, my whole outlook changed. Dave and I ordered merino wool items that work both for adventure and indoors. We loved our new layering wardrobe so much, we wore it on TV. I am in Icebreaker from head to toe with merino wool skirt, T-shirt and leggings. Dave has a stylish merino wool button down top that looks great on camera but has the functionality to be worn as an underlayer. Seriously, my mind is blown.
TV Outfit: Deb’s leggings, Skirt, T-shirt. Dave’s seeker Long Sleeve Shirt
5. Anticipate your body temperature
The most important part of outdoor adventures is to never work up a sweat. Too many people leave their heavy winter coast on as they work. But the key is to strip down to your base layer as soon as you start feeling hot. The wool will protect you and keep you warm, but it will also wick away the sweat. While we trekked up in Northern Canada, each day was around -20C. We spent most of the day hiking in our base layers only. We were pumping out enough energy to keep our body temperature heated and because we stripped down to the base layer, we didn’t sweat making our skin cold.
Taking a break – As soon as we stopped for a snack or lunch, (which we had to eat outdoors because we were in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, we put on either the rest of our layers or if we were sitting for a long while, we put on parkas.
Warm Layer – There are times when a parka or heavy down jacket are needed. If you are going outside for a long day of snowshoeing or activity without a chalet or hut to warm up in, you need to bring a warm coat. A heavy 800 count down jacket will keep you warm and is lightweight for carrying. If you stop for lunch or tea in the middle of the wilderness, you want to put that warm coat on as soon as you stop before you start to feel the cold. If you wait until you start shivering, it’s too late. You are going to take a long time to warm up and you maybe never will until you start moving again. Put on those hats, mittens and coats and settle in for a nice rest.
Once you start moving again, begin to shed the layers as soon as you start warming up. It’s a fine line of anticipating when the sweat will start and taking off the coat too soon. But listen to your body, don’t be in a race and take care of yourself. Winter adventure can be dangerous, but if you dress properly, it can be a lot of fun.
6. Head, Face and Toes
We were all guilty of it as kids. We never wore hats and we rarely wore gloves, but keeping those extremities covered will help keep you warm. It’s not a myth that all your heat escapes through your head, feet and hands.
We always bring two hats with us. One ultra warm to put on when resting at camp or lunch and a light hat to wear when doing activity.
- We love the Aviation or trapper hats with earflaps are our favourite for keeping us warm and a merino wool beanie is excellent for activities.
- Last year we really fell in love with Merino wool. Our Canada Goose and most recently our Royal Robbins merino wool hats are our favourite head gear at the moment. It keeps the head warm while letting the heat out at the same time. We wear it trekking and going out on the town to do errands.
Scarf – I’m really liking the tube scarf designs. I used to always wear a dickie but the fleece always caused me to break out. I chose a merino wool Irish scarf by Icebreaker and it feels soft on my chin but keeps my neck warm. I tend to really feel the cold in my neck and need that extra layer to finish off my layering wardrobe.
2 Buffs – We always bring two sets of buffs. They can be great for keeping the next warm and to be used as a light hat or headband.
2 pairs of liner socks – Liner socks are lightweight and small, but perfect for wicking away moisture. It’s important to keep feet dry to keep them warm.
2 pair mid layer socks – The mid layer socks are thick warm wool socks that insulate our feet. Usually this is enough and we don’t have to add anymore, but when the temperatures get really cold, another outer layer is great.
Heavy Socks – As you can see we like layering everything. If you are going to be in some extreme cold weather, a third pair of heavier wool socks will keep your feet toasty warm.
Goggles – Goggles are a must for snowboarding or skiing, but we’ve found them to be excellent for skijoring and even snowshoeing. Your face stays so much warmer when it is covered and googles keep the eyes from water. We highly recommend having them in your cold weather kit for everything.
Besides your snowboarding or ski boots, all you need are two sets of boots. Hiking boots and something stylish to wear around the chalet.
Winter Hiking Boots – For trekking and other activities a good set of gortex hiking boots will fit all your needs. Make sure to buy a size that accounts for the extra layers of socks. Tight boots will freeze your toes. But you also don’t want floppy boots either. Wear the socks you intend to wear on your adventures when trying on your boots.
Gaiters – Gaiters are waterproof boot leggings that go over your boots and up your calf. If you are walking in deep snow or slush, it will keep your pants dry and keep water from sinking in to your boots. If you are ice climbing, they will protect your expensive gortex pants from getting a crampon stuck in them. Instead of kicking your pants, you’ll be kicking your gaiters with those sharp spikes.
So as you can see, it’s important to layer when you are going outside to face the elements for an extended period of time. Make sure to think about everything from head to toe. If one spot on your body is cold, it can ruin your day. You may think, “I have a good jacket” but just because your chest and shoulders are warm, doesn’t mean everything else will stay warm. You have to think about the whole package.
Do you have any layer tips to stay warm in this winter deep freeze? We’d love to hear.