Timber Wolf, Lake Superior, Ontario

A lone timber wolf greets
paddlers along the north shore
of Lake Superior, Canada
(Photo by Michael Neiger)


overcomes cold.
overcomes heat.
  -- Lao Tzu
  604-531 B.C.




The Rucksack Masthead
By Michael A. Neiger, Marquette, Michigan
Wilderness tripper: backpacking, winter camping, swift-water canoeing
Web site URL: http://therucksack.tripod.com • E-mail: mneiger@hotmail.com
Contents copyright © 1984-2007 by Michael A. Neiger • All rights reserved.


Michael's 3 keys to warmth:
lots of hot chocolate,
lots of layers,
and lots of loft.
(Photo by Michael Neiger)



Bush skills

like an
to stay

By Michael A. Neiger
Copyright 2001

Last updated on October 13, 2004



Looking for
wilderness tripping
equipment and
For 100's of sources for wilderness tripping equipment and supplies, visit the sources for gear page on this Web site.

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finding a book?
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a book, catalog,
or Web site
If you know of a useful outdoor-related book, catalog, or Web site not listed on this Web site, e-mail the book's title, subtitle, author, publisher, date of publication, and short description; or the catalog's address and phone number; or the Web site's URL to Michael Neiger at mneiger@hotmail.com.

** Recommended



The key to enjoying a cold-weather wilderness trip is staying warm. And the easiest way to do this is by imitating an onion, or dressing in layers. The ability to add or remove layers will allow you to remain comfortable whether you're stargazing on a 20-below night or pulling a 100-pound sledge with snowshoes. An effective layering system consists of three layers: an inner wicking layer, one or more middle insulating layers, and an outer wind shell.


Wear polypro underwear

The innermost layer must wick perspiration from the skin and transport it to an adjacent, outer layer. For this to occur, the wicking layer must be very thin and in direct contact with the skin.

Synthetic fibers work best since natural fibers, such as cotton, wool, and silk, tend to absorb or hold on to moisture instead of transporting or moving it.

Look for underwear tops and bottoms, face masks, liner socks, and liner gloves made from polypropylene, Capilene, Coolmax, Dryskin, Powerdry, Thermastat, and Thermax.


Use several insulating layers

The middle, insulating layer traps air and restricts its circulation. This layer keeps you warm. Remember, several thin garments are warmer and more flexible than a single thick layer.

Each garment should be large enough so, in the worst of conditions, they can all be worn together. Pants with full-length, separating leg zippers can be easily added or removed while wearing boots, snowshoes, or skis.

Since cotton and down are very poor insulators when wet, look for pants, shirts, sweaters, jackets, vests, socks, hats, and mittens made from wool; piles and fleeces such as Berber Pile, Borg Pile, Synchilla, and Polartec; and fiber fills such as Hollofil, Lamilite, Lite Loft, Microloft, Polarguard, Primaloft, Quallofil, Thermoloft, Thermolite, and Thinsulate.


Don an outer shell

The outer shell layer protects you from the wind, rain, and snow. For the upper body, a parka with a hood as well as wrist and waist closures is best. Pants with waist and ankle closures work well to protect the lower body.

Both of these garments should be sufficiently oversized so they'll fit over all of the insulating layers when they're worn at once in extremely cold weather.

Breathable, windproof shell garments are often constructed of Ripstop, Supplex, Taslan, Versatech, etc. Waterproof and breathable shells are typically made from Gore-Tex, the industry standard, or Avalite, Entrant, Extreme, Hely-Tech, Ultrex, etc.


Always carry a hat

Always carry a thin polypropylene balaclava (or face mask) as well as two warm hats as you can loose from 50 to 70 percent of your body heat through an uncovered head.

While the head is the body's regulator, the arms and legs are the body's radiators. When your core temperature heats up, the body increases circulation to the arms and legs (read: warm hands and feet).

Similarly, when your core temperature cools down, the body conserves vital heat by reducing circulation to the arms and legs (read: cold hands and feet). So, if you want warm hands and feet, keep your torso and head warm.


Don't forget the extremities

To keep from loosing what little heat reaches your hands, use a layered mitten system consisting of polypro glove liners, one or two insulating mittens, and mitten shells.

To keep your feet warm, wear one or two pairs of thick insulating socks over a pair of polypro liner socks. Boots with thick, removable felt liners and one or two insoles are a good choice in cold weather.

No matter what type of footwear you use, make sure they don't fit too tight. If your feet lack wiggle room, remove a pair of socks. Adequate circulation is essential as tight footwear means cold feet.


Making the system work

For this system to work, it's imperative that each piece of clothing be sufficiently large so that every item can be worn at once, in any order, in the worst of conditions.

When you're active, wear only those layers needed to stay comfortable. As you cool down, add a layer. If you feel yourself heating up, simply remove a layer before you start to sweat.

Regularly drinking water and snacking on high-energy foods will also help keep you warm as well as stave off dehydration and hypothermia.

By carefully assembling a layering system and learning how to use it properly, your next cold-weather outing will be much more enjoyable, not to mention safer.


To learn more

To learn more about how to stay warm in the wilderness, read The Outward Bound Staying Warm in the Outdoors Handbook, by Glenn Randall (The Lyons Press, 2000) or Secrets of Warmth--for Comfort or Survival, by Hal Weiss (Mountaineers Books, 1999).


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In God's wilderness lies the hope of the world,
the great, fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.
— John Muir 1838-1914, Alaska Wilderness, 1890

Content Copyright © by Michael A. Neiger
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