Dressing for the Deep Freeze: How to Stay Warm in Extreme Cold

December 12, 2016

Temperatures are set to plummet later this week in the Northeast, with lows in the single digits or even below zero across much of the region. All that bitter air doesn’t mean that you have to stay inside—it just means that you need to dress appropriately to stay comfortable (and safe) in winter’s icy embrace. Here’s how to stay warm:

Temperatures are expected to plummet across the Northeast later this week. Thursday night looks the coldest.
Graphic: NOAATemperatures are expected to plummet across the Northeast later this week. Thursday night looks the coldest.

These are the key extra items I pull out and add to my clothing system when temps dip into the teens and below. Note that these recommendations are mostly for around-town, day-to-day comfort rather than taking on above-treeline peaks in deep cold, which requires additional specific gear and skills.

A really warm down jacket or parka, a.k.a. ‘Big Puff’
Any time I head outside in serious cold, I throw on my super toasty down parka. (When it comes to jackets versus parkas, I definitely recommend going for the longer length parka.)

Sure a Big Puff can be expensive and easily run you hundreds of dollars, but consider it a long-term investment—goose down lasts for decades when properly cared for.

Jackets with deep pockets are nice—you’ll want to be able to easily slide your hands in and out for warmth, even when you’re wearing gloves (fleece-lined pockets are even nicer). Lastly, consider getting a down jacket that is large enough to easily fit over multiple layers, a nice feature when you’re fully bundled up.

A Neck Gaiter
Few things add as much warmth as a simple tube of soft, fleecy fabric around your neck. It prevents warm air inside your layers from escaping around your neck, insulates your heat-pulsing jugular veins and carotid arteries, and can easily be pulled up over your face to protect it from the chill. A neck gaiter is easier to use than a scarf and much more effective at keeping you warm.

Extra toasty long underwear
I live in flannel-lined Carhartt pants most of the winter, which provide sufficient warmth for temps down into the 20s. When it gets colder than that, though, I add a warm pair of long underwear bottoms. As I wrote about last week, my go-to base layer is Polartec Power Stretch.

A face mask
If I’m out biking or cross-country skiing in temps below 20, I usually don a neoprene face mask to protect myself from the biting winds you generate by moving. It’s not something I wear around town for casual activities (see neck gaiter above), but it’s an invaluable item for my coldest-weather winter bike commutes. My go-to face mask for years has been the simple, lightweight, and compact Seirus Masque.

Extra-warm winter boots and socks
You will definitely need some insulated footwear and extra-warm socks. I usually wear Smartwool mountaineering socks inside a pair of thick winter boots. (Made-in-Vermont Darn Tough socks are also great.) Right now my boots are due for an upgrade and I will likely invest in a pair of the latest Merrell boots with Vibram’s new Arctic Grip sole.

Mittens not gloves
For extended play or work in the deep freeze, mittens provide significantly more warmth than gloves. For casual around town walks or short ambles in the winter woods, I usually get by with a pair of windproof fleece gloves and keep my hands buried in my deep parka pockets when I don’t need them.

A brain toaster
An extra-thick hat is a must for deep cold. A windproof version is nice. Fleece-lined wool hats are exceptionally warm, or you could even consider a two-hat layering system. I have a thinner windproof fleece hat that I wear most of the time, but when it’s really bitter I add on an extra-special super-warm hat made from qiviut (or musk ox hair, the warmest natural fiber that exists).

Stay warm!

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.