Enjoy the Great Outdoors – Be Weather Wise
by Cam Jamieson
Here’s how to effectively dress yourself and your family for the outdoors to to increase your health and happiness no matter the weather. Outlined below are good articles of clothing in each class, and some example outfits for given weather conditions.
When preparing for the outdoors keep the following attributes in mind:
- Waterproofness: how well the cold weather outfit protects you from rain and moisture. Completely waterproof garments are often not very breathable.
- Breathability: how well the outfit releases sweat/moisture. Highly breathable garments are not usually waterproof. Unbreathable garments will feel “clammy” and “sweaty” inside, and will eventually make you feel cold because damp sweaty clothes do not insulate well.
- Warmth: how well the outfit protects you from the cold.
- Compressibility: how small/light a garment compresses down when not being worn. Very important if you want to fit a lot of extra clothes into a backpack.
When dressing for the weather, your torso, arms, and legs will be covered by 2-3 layers. This is advantageous because:
- It makes your performance clothing collection “modular” meaning you can mix and match different parts of your cold weather wardrobe to obtain the desired level of warmth, style, breathability, waterproofness, etc.
- It allows you to adjust on the fly; for example if it starts to rain while on a mild-weather hike you can pull out your rain layer.
- It keeps the price of your cold weather wardrobe down because you can use multiple items year-round. For example, instead of buying a warm, insulated winter coat for December to March you could use a thick wool sweater and a shell. Both are useful for 3-4 seasons of the year.
- The space between layers provides “bonus” insulation.
Wicks moisture away from your body and provides a little warmth. Often referred to as “thermal underwear”, but any thin, tight garment of the appropriate fabric can work in this role. The best materials are either polyester designed specifically for the purpose, or merino wool. Both are quite comfortable, and polyester is much cheaper and dries very quickly because it will not absorb water. Wool is a little warmer, and will not readily absorb body odors (I’ve done multi-day hikes without being stinky), but it is much more expensive and will absorb some moisture, and takes much longer to dry.
I get very sweaty when I hike, and I sometimes will have multi-day trips where I don’t want to smell. For this reason I wear a wool upper, and a poly lower.
It’s also worth mentioning that you should NEVER wear cotton in cold weather, especially as a base layer. Cotton is a poor insulator to begin with, and gets even worse when wet. It also takes dries slowly.
- Merino sweaters from the thrift shop (~$10)
- Costco base layers (~$20)
- MEC mid-weight polyester base layer ($40-80)
- MEC merino base layer ($70-80)
Wicks moisture towards outer layer, provides the bulk of the insulation. The best materials for this role are polyester fleece, wool, and/or down feather. These can be used in any combination. Fleece can be found inexpensively in varying levels of quality. It is warm, moderately compressible, will not absorb water, but it will absorb body odors, and all but the highest quality will wear out more quickly than other options. Wool is also warm, will absorb water (but maintain most of it’s warmth anyway), and is much more durable than most fleece garments. Down is the warmest, lightest, most compressible option but is also very expensive, and if it gets wet loses the majority of it’s warmth. This is not as significant an issue as it sounds though. If you fall into water in any cold-water situation you will need to take immediate action regardless of what you are wearing.
I often will skip the outer layer unless there is rain or strong wind. For this reason I like to wear a wool mid-layer because it is more durable than fleece and does a slightly better job blocking the wind. I may also wear two base layers depending on the weather.
Protects lower layers from the elements (wind, snow, rain), needs to be appropriately breathable for the activity level. The main options here are “soft shells” that are a hybrid between fleece mid layers and nylon outer layers; and “hard shells” that are made from nylon using various methods to make it both waterproof and breathable. To get an idea of the huge variety of materials, take a look at the MEC waterproof jacket comparison .
I’m going to simplify the options into “treated nylon” and Gore-Tex. Both are waterproof and breathable, but Gore-Tex is significantly more breathable, more durable, and of course significantly more expensive. Breathability is more important for individuals or activities that sweat a lot. For this reason, most people will be fine with treated nylon shells.
Proper insulation of your extremities (feet, hands, head/neck) is also very important. These layers usually have a base/insulating layer and an outer layer, as it would be impractical to wear three hats for example.
Choosing the right footwear could be a whole other article. In general, the best choice is a pair of shoes/boots that are appropriate for the situation (e.g. hiking shoes for hiking, winter boots for sliding), along with wool socks/insulation that are warm enough for the temperature and activity level.
Quality gloves or mitts will make a huge difference to how much you enjoy your outdoor activities. If you will be playing in damp snow be sure to choose mitts of gloves that have a waterproof liner. It’s also a good idea to have a pair of thin “liner” gloves that can be worn in warmer weather on their own, but layered with a pair of mitts or gloves when it gets colder. Cheap polyester gloves that can be purchased for $2 can work in this role, but there are much better alternatives. Also pay special attention to how the gloves/mitts will meet with your jacket sleeves.
The best head/neck insulation is one or more of a hat, balaclava, neck warmer, or hood. My preferred solution is a tight hood with neck coverage, a thin hat, and a neck warmer to cover my face if it’s very cold. If it’s windy or raining I will also use the hood on my jacket. Goggles or sunglasses may also be needed.
Here I show some example outfits. Note that I am generally warm and prefer to be too cold than too warm. If you are not like this feel free to add a insulating layer.
East Coast Trail hike with 5kg pack: light activity level, 3 Celsius, moderate wind, sunny
Upper: merino base layer, tight fleece thermal hoodie, wool army sweater, Gore-Tex jacket.
Lower: heavyweight polyester long john’s, nylon/poly trekking pants.
Head: thin hat, thermal hoodie hood, Gore-Tex hood.
Hands: mid-weight gloves.
Feet: mid-weight socks, day hikers shoes.
Bike ride: high activity, -1 Celsius, light wind, sunny
Upper: synthetic base layer, tight fleece thermal hoodie, bike jacket.
Lower: synthetic leg warmers, bike shorts.
Head: thermal hoodie hood, helmet.
Hands: mid-weight gloves.
Feet: light-weight socks, sneakers.
To be prepared for activity in almost any weather condition, use the tips above. Take a skin-tight non-cotton base layer, an insulating mid-layer, and a wind/rain blocking outer layer. Adjust all these layers as needed for the conditions.
Outdoor Adventure Expert