|cold and wet
selecting clothing and
footwear combinations for use in cold and wet conditions
When I was 12, my parents bought me a neoprene
jacket for a field studies trip. It was incredibly waterproof,
although by the end of each day the inside of the coat was awash
with streams of condensed sweat. So when, a few years later, I
upgraded to a waterproof-breathable jacket, the difference in
comfort was incredible. In the 1990s I found that even
waterproof-breathables have their limits: high on the frigid slopes
of Denali (North America’s highest peak), I wore uncoated windproof
fabrics which remained flexible at minus 40ºC. By contrast, my
climbing partner discovered that his waterproof-breathable jacket
stiffened up like sheet aluminium as the thermometer
These days there are thousands of possible outdoor
clothing combinations which are designed to keep you as comfortable
as possible in all manner of cold and wet conditions. Cotswold stock
an enormous range of garments, and staff are on hand to discuss your
Paul is the author of the award-winning ‘The Mountain
Traveller’s Handbook’, published by the British Mountaineering
Council and available from Cotswold.
breathe'?||the layer system|
There are certain misconceptions about how modern
outer layers allow sweat vapour to pass through their fibres, a
process commonly referred to as ‘breathing’.
On more than one
occasion I’ve overheard mountaineers explaining to friends that
wearing a ‘breathable’ jacket actually stops the user from sweating.
Patently, this is not true! The key to understanding how most (but
not all) waterproof-breathables work lies in an understanding that
the human body releases sweat vapour. Only when this vapour meets a
temperature greatly different from the one it was created in does it
condense into liquid or ice. Because vapour molecules are many times
smaller than droplets of water, your sweat is able to pass through
the microscopic pores in the skin of the waterproof fabric. At the
same time, raindrops continue to be repelled by the
Some other breathable fabrics work by allowing
sweat vapour to travel along individual fibres from one side of the
fabric to the other. Of course, individual manufacturers of
waterproof-breathable materials all have their own way of describing
how their fabrics work and why they are superior to all others on
Despite some manufacturers’ claims to the
contrary, all outdoor clothing adheres to the principle of
‘layering’. Traditionally, layering systems have been described as a
three-stage concept, although as we’ll see later there are many
exceptions to this rule. But three layers is as good a place as any
Working inside out, the first layer – known as the
‘base layer’ – is worn next to the skin. The function of the base
layer is twofold. Firstly, it draws sweat vapour away from the skin,
leaving you feeling dry. (If the skin is left feeling damp from
condensed sweat then the body can chill rapidly once activity ceases
and the body starts to cool down.) The other function of the base
layer is to push this sweat vapour into the next layer of clothing.
Generally speaking, base layers are not designed to retain more than
a semblance of body heat, which is why these garments tend to be
The ‘mid layer’ is worn over the base layer.
Unlike the base layer, the mid layer’s primary role is heat
conservation. Its secondary role is to allow the sweat vapour picked
up by the base layer to continue on its journey away from the skin.
The number and thickness of mid layer fabrics you decide to wear
will be dictated by the ambient temperature and type of activity you
are engaged in. Most people find that two thinner mid layers are
warmer and more versatile than one thick garment.
It is also
worth bearing in mind that when you are working hard, even in
sub-zero conditions, the amount of heat the body generates can be so
high that sometimes there is no need to wear any sort of mid layer
whilst exercising. In these circumstances, it is important to keep a
mid layer or two stowed in the rucksack ready to be donned when you
take a break.
The third component of the traditional layering
system is the ‘outer layer.’ A modern outer layer must perform two
important tasks. Firstly, it needs to prevent the elements from
infiltrating the other layers of clothing. Wind, rain, hail and snow
may all need to be deflected. Secondly, the outer layer needs to
allow as much of that sweat vapour as possible to escape.
resisting wind and precipitation, and by allowing sweat to pass
through the fabric, a high performance outer layer will go a long
way to keeping base and mid layer(s) dry. And dry clothing is so
much better at insulating you than wet garments.
||staying dry from
Regardless of the brand of waterproof-breathable
fabric that you buy into, one thing is for sure: if you wear
absorbent materials under the outer layer, the breathable quality of
the material will be rendered useless by virtue of the fact that the
sweat vapour will become trapped within the fibres of the inner and
mid layers before it has a chance to reach the outer
All of which means that cotton (and to a lesser
degree, silk) are non-starters in cold and wet weather layering
systems. Cotton soaks up moisture like a sponge; that’s great in a
bath towel, but a positive liability in damp and chilly
weather.Wearing cotton in these situations is more often than not a
short cut to hypothermia, a life-threatening medical condition. By
contrast, specially treated polyester fabrics (including fibre-pile
and fleece), and certain natural materials – such as Merino wool –
are superb at allowing sweat vapour to pass through their
It is worth noting that outer layers which are
windproof but not waterproof will almost always enjoy a higher level
of breathability than fully waterproof-breathable products. This
makes windproof-only garments very suitable for dry cold or showery
conditions as they allow sweat vapour to escape even more quickly.
The benefits of this increased breathability are exploited in
so-called ‘soft shell’
||duvet jackets||the soft shell
Sometimes, any sort of layering system simply
isn’t warm enough. After all, there is a limit to the number of
layers that it is possible to wear before normal movement becomes
severely constricted. So in deep cold conditions, or in chilly
weather where you are likely to remain static for any length of
time, a heavily insulated garment – known as a duvet jacket – is
useful. Duvet jackets are normally too warm to be worn whilst
active, except in situations such as high-altitude mountaineering.
More usually, they are worn during rest breaks. Lighterweight,
pullover-style versions are also available. These are perfect for
wearing in less extreme conditions, and are a warmer and lighter
alternative to a spare mid-layer.
Duvet jackets are
phenomenally effective at trapping body heat. I find they are most
effective when worn as close to the skin as possible. For that
reason, I normally prefer to wear just a single dry base layer under
my duvet. Of course sometimes this is not practical and the duvet
simply has to be worn on top of all the other layers.
are made from the type of down or synthetic filling used in sleeping
bags, rather than pile or fleece fabrics.
As we have already seen, the current crop of
guaranteed waterproof garments cannot allow as much sweat vapour to
escape as non-waterproof, windproof shells. So in situations where
rain is less likely (for example, trekking to Everest in the pre- or
post-monsoon seasons) or in places where any moisture is likely to
fall as dry powder (such as Scandinavia in the winter months) then a
highly breathable soft shell makes a lot of sense.
seen in a fabric developed for the Royal Air Force in the Second
World War, the modern concept of soft shells owes its origins to
Hamish Hamilton, whose range of Buffalo clothing has inspired many
imitators. Hamilton originally designed his clothing to be used in
the invariably damp pursuit of Scottish winter mountaineering. In
contrast to the traditional three layer system described earlier,
Hamilton’s garments – which consisted of a warm and fast-wicking
fibre-pile with an integral windproof and highly water-resistant
nylon outer – were (and are) designed to be worn next to the skin,
with no base layer. Cleverly-placed zips allow the user to
periodically vent the clothing, allowing cool air to rush in and
quickly dry the skin. Even when soaked, Buffalo clothing continues
to work efficiently, trapping heat and pushing water away from the
body. Field-maintainable, easily repairable and relatively
inexpensive, many of Buffalo’s concepts have now been taken up by
Yet soft shell clothing does not
completely eschew the layering system. Buffalo makes additional
garments that can be worn over its shirts for situations such as
when the climber is loitering on belay stances and likely to cool
down rapidly. Other manufacturers have produced soft shell outer
layers that are simply worn on top of existing, conventional base
and mid layers.
The bottom line when deciding whether to opt
for a traditional ‘hard’ waterproof-breathable jacket, or an
arguably more flexible ‘soft’ shell, is to examine closely the type
of activity you engage in. If most of the time you expect to be in
situations where heavy rain is not only possible but likely, then a
hard shell will be essential from a safety point-of-view. Hard
shells are also pretty much de rigeur on camping expeditions in
temperate climates, where keeping clothes as dry as possible for
days or weeks at a time is important. If, on the other hand, rain is
unlikely and even if it does rain then shelter or an umbrella is to
hand (or is irrelevant as you’ll be working so hard as to generate
sufficient heat to keep warm whilst wet), a soft shell jacket could
be an interesting and more comfortable alternative worthy of further
investigation. Inevitably, many outdoor users end up owning one of
each, in order to give themselves the greatest choice depending on
what the weather is doing on any given day.
Your head, face and hands require special
attention in cold and wet weather. This is especially true in low
temperatures, when fingers, noses and ears can become particularly
susceptible to frostbite.
Given that a large percentage of
body heat is lost through the skull, wearing a wool or fleece hat is
a quick way to raise your temperature; it’s a bit like putting a lid
on a pan of boiling water. Balaclavas help to insulate cheeks and
chins. In extremely low temperatures, a neoprene face mask is more
effective than a fabric balaclava since it remains flexible in
Fingers can be difficult to keep warm,
especially when a high level of dexterity is required. Mittens tend
to be warmer than gloves, as fingers can share warmth in a mitten.
Some mittens have a flap at the base of the fingers to allow digits
to be exposed as and when required. Other mittens have a so-called
‘trigger finger’ which allows the forefinger to be used separately
alongside the thumb. This is useful if you want to take photos. Thin
base layer gloves can be worn under mittens if required.
less extreme conditions, windproof fleece gloves often suffice.
Finally, separate wristlets help to maintain bloodflow through the
wrists and hands.
||keeping feet warm ||garment features|
Contrary to popular belief, it is sometimes
necessary to wear thinner socks in order to keep feet warm in cold
weather! This is because a foot squeezed into tight-fitting footwear
is difficult to wriggle around. Such cramping can lead to a
sluggishness in blood flow. Of course, it is much better to buy
slightly looser-fitting footwear that allows thick socks to be worn
High altitude and dehydration also play a part
in making feet cold. Unlike face and hands (which can be checked
easily for signs of frost damage), feet tend to spend all day out of
sight, which increases the chance of minor frost damage developing
into something more serious if left unchecked. Feet that are cold in
the morning are likely to be cold all day, so do what you can to
warm up your footwear before the start of the morning. Some campers
sleep with their boots in the bottom of their sleeping
High altitude mountaineers wear footwear with integral
overboots and removable liners which make them easy to warm up prior
to putting on. For cold-weather walkers, a heavily padded soft boot
with a special rubber sole – that is particularly sticky in sub-zero
icy conditions – provides a much higher degree of warmth and
traction than a conventional trekking boot.
Thinking about what you want your clothing to do
will help you to decide which features are worth paying for, and
which ones are superfluous to your needs. After all, it is easy to
get carried away with all sorts of zips, pockets, cords, and other
assorted ‘bells and whistles’, leaving you with unnecessarily
over-engineered – and heavy – apparel.
If you are intending
to purchase a waterproof outer layer, then seams that have been
sealed on the inside of the garment with tape are essential.
Otherwise rain will be able to penetrate through the stitch holes.
By contrast, the majority of soft shell and windproof garments do
not have expensive taped seams, as the fabric itself isn’t
Some fleece mid-layers are also windproof. These
can be wonderful in essentially dry and cold conditions, but in
perpetually damp weather you are likely to be wearing some sort of
separate outer layer, making the additional benefits of windproof
fleece largely redundant.
In addition to the venting
characteristics of certain soft shell garments described earlier,
some technical mid and outer layers sport underarm ‘pit zips’ which
allows unwanted heat (and sweat) to escape. These are particularly
useful in wet weather when it is not ideal to have to undo the front
Despite the great lengths that manufacturers have gone
to with advances such as reverse-coil zips, in sustained wet weather
the contents of your outer layer pockets are likely to become damp.
Furthermore, pockets located low down on jackets are likely to be
covered up by a rucksack hip belt or a climbing harness. So if you
are a mountaineer, a small number of chest-mounted pockets might
make more sense.
Take the time to try on each garment
properly. Don’t forget to pull on the hood, which is arguably the
most important feature on an outer jacket.
On the subject of
legwear, the question of side zips comes to the fore. Full-length
zips are more expensive, heavier and potentially less waterproof
than trousers that have half-length zips. But full-length zips allow
easy donning/doffing over snowshoes, skis and crampons. Winter
activists will also have to choose between trousers and salopettes.
Trousers are cheaper, quicker to pull on, and more versatile over a
wider temperature range. Salopettes are warmer, since they trap heat
around the small of the back and across the chest. Braces help to
keep salopettes in position throughout the day.
activities are potentially hazardous. The information provided on this
site offers guidelines only, and is no substitute for personal instruction
from a qualified person. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the
accuracy of the information, no responsibility can be accepted by the
author or Cotswold Outdoor Ltd. for any errors or omissions. By choosing
to follow any of the advice contained in this leaflet, the reader accepts
personal responsibility for a) learning any techniques required, b) any
risks involved, and c) any damages or injuries of any kind - including
death - howsoever caused. Cover shot: Checking the way ahead on the
Trekker's Haute Route, between Chamonix and Zermatt. |
© Paul Deegan
& Flirt Design under license to Cotswold Outdoor Ltd.