Printed on: December 13, 2012

Stay active, stay warm

Dressing right means there is no offseason for your favorite outdoor sports

By Roger Phillips
Idaho Statesman

The old saying "There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes" may be trite, but there's truth to it.

A lot of outdoors folks stay inside during winter or stick with a few traditional winter sports such as skiing or snowmobiling.

But modern clothing allows you to continue most of your favorite outdoor sports when temperatures dip well below freezing. All it takes is the right combination of clothing and matching them to your favorite sport.

If you're buying cold-weather outdoor clothes, beware that comfort doesn't come cheap. But with the right gear, you will find yourself spending more time enjoying the outdoors instead of waiting for the weather to get warmer.

For sake of simplicity, consider cold weather to be anything near or below freezing.

Establish your base

Any good winter wardrobe starts with a good base layer, which is a techie term for long johns.

If you're going to splurge, your base layer is a good place to start because it can make a big difference on a cold day, and they're also clothes you wear nearly year round.

You have a couple of options for long underwear: synthetic or wool. Don't bother with cotton because it's nearly useless for winter weather.

As a general rule, synthetic underwear (which is typically polyester or polypropylene) is less expensive and wicks moisture reasonably well, which means as you generate heat and sweat, the fabric pulls the moisture away from your skin and keeps you dry.

Synthetic fabric doesn't feel as warm against the skin as wool when you first put it on, and it can feel chilly if you're not moving and generating body heat. Synthetic fabrics also tend to retain body odor.

You can expect to spend $75 to $100 for a set of synthetic long underwear.

The second, more expensive option is wool.

Gone are the old days of thick, scratchy wool. Modern merino wool is soft and incredibly warm, even when wet. Wool wicks moisture well and is less prone to absorbing body odor.

Wool is very durable and you can machine wash and dry it (unlike old-school wool), although hang drying is often recommended.

You can expect to pay $120 to $200 for a set of merino wool long underwear.

Hunter Singleton, salesman at The Benchmark in Boise, says wool is warmer and more comfortable than synthetic long underwear, and wool should be considered a long-term investment. He recommends Smartwool and Ibex brands of merino wool long underwear.

"It's tough, and it holds up for a long time," he said.

Long underwear is typically sold in light, mid and heavyweight fabrics. If you're doing anything physically active, avoid heavy weight because it will make you overheat and sweat, even in really cold temps.

If you're doing highly aerobic activities, such as Nordic skiing, running or biking, you may want to go with a lighter fabric because you will be producing a lot of body heat, and light weight breathes better. You can always add more layers in colder weather.

Building on your base

This is where things get tricky because how much you layer depends on how cold it is, whether it's raining, snowing or windy, and what your sport is.

How active is your activity?

Most of what you will be doing falls into a few basic categories:

Active: Nordic skiing, backcountry skiing, off-trail or rigorous snowshoeing, biking, running, climbing, etc.

Moderate: Downhill skiing and snowboarding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing (on a groomed trail) hiking, etc.

Sedentary: Ice fishing, duck hunting, fly-fishing, etc.

Depending on your activity level, the next layer is either insulation or a shell.

Singleton said it's surprisingly easy to stay warm in cold temperatures if you block the wind.

"You don't have to have a lot of layers if you can stop that wind from penetrating your outer layer," he said.

If you're doing something active, a good base layer and a windproof jacket may be all you need.

If you need more insulation, add a mid layer, such as fleece, down or synthetic "puffy" jackets. This layer may also be an outer layer if it's calm and clear.

Remember, the goal with mid layer is staying warm with minimal bulk and not overheating, which will cause you to sweat. Any moisture that soaks into your clothes will lower its insulating ability.

You might also use a light mid layer and add a vest (think of it as a half layer), which will keep your core warm but is less bulky than a sweater or jacket.

Mid layers, or mid-weight jackets, typically have three types of insulation.

Polyester fleece is ubiquitous in the outdoors. It comes in a variety of weights and styles. It's a favorite because it's warm, breathable, wicks moisture, insulates when wet (which you still want to avoid) and is inexpensive. Higher grades are also windproof. A lightweight, zip-neck fleece jacket can be found for less than $50.

Goose down has the highest warmth-to-weight ratio of any insulation and is a favorite for very cold temperatures. But it's expensive and provides little or no insulation when saturated (it can withstand some moisture). Down jackets are often built to be extremely lightweight, which means they can be less rugged and durable than a fleece coat

Breathable shell vs. a soft shell

If the weather is too cold or too wet for your mid layer to double as an outer layer, you want to add a waterproof/breathable jacket, or "shell" as they're often called, or a "soft shell."

The difference between the two is subtle, but important.

Waterproof/breathable fabric is self explanatory. Gore-Tex is the leading brand, and it's often used generically for all waterproof/breathable fabrics. They provide total protection from wet weather, and they still let some perspiration out to prevent condensation inside the jacket.

Waterproof/breathable jackets are typically best for the worst weather and/or moderate or sedentary activities, but they're also used by bikers and runners.

Gore-Tex "shells" have no insulation, and they tend to be more expensive than soft shells.

Some high-end shells made with waterproof breathable fabric rival soft shells in breathability, but expect to pay $400 to $500 for one.

Soft shell is a generic term for jackets (or pants).

Soft shells sacrifice some weather protection in exchange for breathability, which means they're better at venting sweat and excess heat, and they are usually less expensive.

They're often preferred for more aerobic activities, such as biking, running or backcountry skiing, because they breathe better. They're a good option when the weather is dry, or there's an occasional shower or snow flurry.

Soft shells are often well-suited for Idaho's dryer climates because you're rarely going to be in an extended rainstorm, but you will usually be sweating, even when it's very cold. That moisture can significantly reduce the insulating ability of your inner layers, making you chilled. But remember, breathability also comes at a price. It's going to be venting heat, too. So you may need a little more insulation underneath it. And if you're in that rare torrential downpour, you're going to get wet.

Tips to dress warm

Rarely will the temperature remain the same when you're outdoors. Try to stay in a comfortable range and add or subtract layers throughout your outing.

If you're dressing light for highly active sports, keep your outing short and don't get too tired. If your run turns into a walk, it's going to be a lot harder to stay warm.

Consider wind chill, both from wind and the speed at which you're moving. You may need to dress warmer for a bike ride than you would for jogging.

If any part of you is cold, you will feel cold. Be sure to have a hat, neck gaiter and gloves.

Buy the warmest socks you can find. Even if you spend $25 for a pair, it's a small price to pay for warm feet.

Chemical hand warmers are cheap insurance. You can stash one in the pocket of your mid layer to warm your core area.