A mountain guide once said to me, "only children and stupid people get cold.” We were at the top of very exposed and windy mountain peak in the Canadian Rockies with windchill temperatures close to 40 below zero. We were dressed properly and warm, but over time I thought of a lot of smart people I know who get cold in temperatures far less extreme. It is common for people to get cold, even on hot days in an air-conditioned room, or at high altitudes on an airplane. More relevant to most of us is the chill one might get after breaking a sweat during exercise as temperatures start to drop in the fall and winter.
Many know the term “layering," and its importance for safety when training in cold weather. The big misconception though is in what not to use, what to use, and just how many laters, because more layers is not necessarily better. Before I discuss layering, one word of warning:
STAY AWAY FROM COTTON. Cotton is so absorbent, that when gets wet it swells up, gets heavy, and clogs any ability for any moisture to escape. You might as well be wearing a big, wet, heavy, plastic bag. Cotton is a nice natural fiber that may be comfy when wearing a t-shirt, or a hoodie and sweat pants at home by a fire, but the minute you actually sweat it, it will become your downfall.
How layering should be done:
Layering should apply to the entire body, although most will need fewer, or thinner, layers on the legs and arms.
1. Base Layer - The fabric that is going to be against your skin should be made of a lightweight, good quality synthetic material. A polyester fiber is the most common, but polypropylene is simply the best. It absorbs a fraction of the moisture of polyester. If you are sensitive to synthetic fabrics or you insist on wearing natural fibers, then consider silk or a thin Merino wool. Whatever your choice, you will be more comfortable after you break a sweat if this base layer is stretchy and skin tight. This will not only stop the sweat from rolling down your skin, which is typically what make you feel itchy, but it will also eliminate air from getting between your skin and the fabric. You will stay warmer when temperatures change during your workout. It is abolutely possible for this base layer to be wet, yet for you to be warm. During cold temperature workouts, the goal is not just to stay dry, but rather to be warm and comfortable, even if you are wet.
2. Thermal Layer - Add one or two layers of polyester fleece or wool to insulate the warmth you are creating from exercise. The more time you spend exercising in certain temperatures, the more you will learn if you need one thin layer vs one thicker layer, or if you really need two thermal layers. While these do not need to be skin tight, the thermal layer will keep you warmer if it is also somewhat stretchy and warn snug as opposed to oversized and loose.
3. Outer Layer - Wear something that is as wind-resistant as possible. Water-repellency will help a lot, but if this layer is truly wind resistant, you will still be warm even when wet. If you exercise in heavier rains or snow, consider a heavier outer layer with some sort of highly water-resistant laminate and sealed seams.
OPTIONS: The three layers do not need to be put on in this order. Your environment and your ability to withstand cold may allow you to wear a base layer with a lightweight outer layer, or just a base layer with a fleece over it. Many times wearing a thin wind resistant jacket over a base layer and under a thermal layer helps to insulate you just as well if it is cold but dry.
WHAT A LONG STRANGE TIP ITS BEEN: Do you you ski or snowboard? Do you find that your hands and feet never seem to stay warm in those boots, even with those hand/foot warmers? Here is the strange part, do you shower or bathe in the morning when you wake up?
THE TIP: Try bathing the night before, and do not bathe or get into a hot tub in the morning, and do not put your feet in front of a fire place. Instead just get out of bed, and put on a set of thin socks (again not cotton, polyester is better, and polypropylene is best). Keep your boots indoors and not in a car or garage, and get your boots on before you go outside. Everyone I have ever told this tip to has found it to be effective. I have no explanation for why this works, but it just does.
We have more cold climate products coming very soon like the Makani Wind Jacket!