How to Dress for Extreme Cold - Appalachian Mountain Club

How to Dress for Extreme Cold

January 3, 2018

Bitter cold has settled in the Northeast, with temperatures plunging into the single digits and below throughout the region. Such temperatures aren’t just unpleasant, they can be downright dangerous, especially if you add any sort of wind to the bone-chilling equation. Here’s how I dress for warmth when I’m spending time out in such conditions.

Base layers

I put on the warmest options I own, in my case a top and bottom made from Powerstretch—my all-time favorite base layer material. As you contemplate your best, warmest base layer option, keep in mind these three tips for maximum warmth: 1) Your base layer should fit as snug as possible without being constrictive. 2) You should avoid the “waist gap” caused by an insufficiently long top layer that pulls away from your bottoms when you lean forward. 3) Choose polyester or wool fabric and avoid cotton at all costs, which will rapidly absorb moisture and suck away precious body heat.

Mid-layers

If I’m moving at a leisurely pace or standing around in the cold, I’ll wear two mid-layers on top and one on the bottom. For the top, my preferred system is a warm vest and thick fleece jacket. This gives me three insulating layers over my torso while avoiding the bunching challenges often caused by having three different sleeves over top of each other. For the bottom, my preferred option is a pair of zip-on/zip-off synthetic fill pants; the full-length side zippers allow me to take the pants on and off without having to pull them over bulky winter footwear.   

Keep in mind, however, that you will not want to wear all of these mid-layers if you’re exercising vigorously—hiking uphill, snowshoeing, etc. Even in extreme cold, you will rapidly overheat wearing all of these layers and start soaking your garments with sweat—a surefire recipe for chill.  

Shell layers

You’ll want a windproof outer layer to block any breeze. For the bottom half, I strongly recommend choosing bibs over pants, which offer much more complete coverage, especially around the waist. (For some key tips on bib features, you can see my previous post The Best Snow Pants Aren’t Pants At All. They’re Bibs.) For casual, around-town use I often just wear a pair of thick flannel-lined pants; I more or less live in these all winter long.

For the top, a range of shell options are available. Soft shells are windproof and more breathable but not fully waterproof, which is OK in super cold conditions where liquid water is a rarity). Hard shells feature Gore-Tex or the equivalent  and are windproof and waterproof, but less breathable. Key features to consider are a good fit, pit zips for ventilation, a good hood, and deep pockets large enough to hold your gloves and head- and neckwear when not in use.

“Big puff” layer

This is your atomic bomb of warmth—a big, puffy jacket that should be large enough to throw over all your layers when you stop to rest during a winter hike or are simply sitting or standing around in the cold. Down jackets are my preference in terms of weight, compressibility, and durability, though synthetic fill options are available that better handle moisture in damper conditions and over prolonged multi-day, sub-freezing excursions.

I personally prefer a longer-length parka over a waist-length jacket, largely because I am tall and find that jackets often don’t extend as far down over my waist as I like. (For more, see Jackets vs. Parkas: What’s the Difference?)

Boots and socks

For casual around-town use and short outings like walking the dog in the woods, I tromp around in a pair of insulated winter boots with thick wool socks; Smartwool mountaineering socks are my preference. (Learn more about choosing the right winter boots and socks.)

For long winter hikes and winter camping trips, I wear a pair of double-plastic mountaineering boots and a triple-sock combo of liner socks, vapor barrier liner (VBL) socks, and a thick wool sock over the top. The VBL layer not only adds considerable warmth, it prevents your foot sweat from saturating your thick wool socks, keeping them dry and toasty for the duration of your adventure.

Gloves and mittens

In my experience, the warmest combination by far is a pair of liner gloves inside a pair of thick mittens. For the liner gloves, you’ll want the thickest option that still gives you full dexterity and does not require you to take them off for small tasks. For the mittens, thicker equals warmer though you don’t want them so puffy that they completely kill all dexterity. A thick pair of gloves is also an option; they’re not as warm but provide better dexterity and are vastly superior for holding trekking poles or an ice ax. (See Mittens vs. Gloves for more.)

For your thick gloves or mittens, one of the key features to look for is a long cuff, or gauntlet, that extends over the end of your sleeve and fully covers any potential gaps around the wrist. (For more, see Choosing the Best Winter Gloves.)

Headwear

I go with three core items—a neck gaiter, liner balaclava, and windproof hat—and add a face mask and goggles if I’m out in extreme conditions where you cannot have a single square inch of skin exposed. A neck gaiter adds an astonishing amount of warmth, both from insulating your neck and by preventing warm air from escaping out of the top of your jacket. A liner balaclava is like long underwear for your head and neck; my preferred option these days is the Pearl Izumi Barrier Balaclava. (For more, see The Liner Balaclava: The Warmest Two-ounce Garment You Will Ever Buy.)

For heading above treeline or into other extreme conditions, I add a neoprene face mask and pair of oversized goggles. For more on completely covering your head, check out my video Four Essentials for Protecting Your Head and Face.

Stay warm and safe out there!

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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.