How to Dress for Cold Weather: COLD or COLDER…

How to Dress for Cold Weather: COLD or COLDER…

Dogs Pulling Sledge during first Australasian Antarctic Expedition, circa 1912.
Dogs Pulling Sledge during first Australasian Antarctic Expedition, circa 1912.

Cold weather clothing makes winter activities and travel possible. Dressing correctly for cold weather makes you comfortable and is your primary defence against hypothermia and cold injuries.

In addition to acquiring and wearing appropriate cold weather clothing, it is necessary to properly manage and care for your clothing.

Managing your winter clothing is an essential skill.  Even the best outdoor clothing requires management.  You are the one who must adjust your clothing by, for example, taking off or putting on layers, zipping up your jacket, putting your hood up or donning a warmer hat.  Your clothing will not do this by itself.

Caring for your cold weather clothing is very important.  Only winter clothing in good condition will perform to its potential.  If your clothing is dirty or damaged it won’t work as effectively.

The ability to select appropriate cold weather clothing and use it efficiently increases with experience.  To remember the general principles of how to dress in cold weather and manage your winter clothing, the acronym COLD is very useful:

C – Stay Clean
Dirty, greasy clothing loses some of its insulating properties. It may also lose some of its breathability. Staying clean, and keeping your clothing clean, keeps your clothing effective in protecting you from the environment.

O – Avoid Overheating
Overheating causes you to sweat. Sweat on your body and in your clothing will later cause you to be cold, through increased heat loss.   As described in more detail here, to avoid overheating, you can adjust layers, ventilate and regulate activity.

L – Clothing should be Layered and Loose
Employing a cold weather clothing system made up of layers has several benefits. Multiple layers of clothing trap insulating air between the layers as well as within them. Having multiple garments of different levels of insulation (including hats and gloves/mittens) allows fine-tuning of your insulation.  You can increase insulation in colder conditions or you can reduce insulation if it is warmer, or you are working hard, thus avoiding overheating.  Multiple layers of clothing allow you to select the best materials for each job;  for example, in extremely cold, dry conditions, wool underwear and pullovers for insulating layers and a windproof cotton outer shell.  For wet-cold conditions, fewer insulating layers and a Gore-Tex or similar breathable waterproof shell would be more appropriate.

Cold weather clothing should be loose to allow freedom of movement and to avoid restriction of blood supply to your extremities.  In cold environments, particular care is needed to make sure your footwear and hand-wear is not too tight.  After making sure the sizing is generous and the fit is comfortable, you can avoid cold injury by adjusting items of clothing in the field – even loosening off a bootlace a little can make the difference between a cold foot and a warm foot.

D – Stay Dry
Damp clothing will make you cold.  Moisture in any clothing increases both conductive and evaporative heat loss.  Excessive moisture will also reduce the insulative propterties of your winter clothing.  Moisture in your winter clothing can come from inside – from sweat (as discussed above in ‘overheating’) – or from outside your clothing, from the environment.  Protection from rain and sleet comes from good quality waterproof shell clothing.  Even in a very cold, freeze-dried environment, protection from environmental moisture is necessary.  You should take measures to prevent snow from entering, or adhering to, your clothing where it can then melt due to body warmth.  This includes, for example, preventing snow from entering the tops of your boots by wearing gaiters or similar.  Wearing a shell that sheds snow easily is important when digging a snow cave or qunize, as well as when exposed to snowfall.  Standing near a warming fire or entering a warm environment such as a heated tent with snow on you will cause the snow to melt and introduce moisture to your clothing and boots.  Avoid this by shaking or brushing off the snow first.  If your winter clothes do become wet, dry them inside a warm environment such as a heated tent or, if outside, by a fire.  If you don’t have access to either and it is below freezing, allow the moisture to freeze in the garment then break up the ice and shake it out of the garment.

Even when you are not sweating your body is continuously moistening your skin.  So a small amount of moisture in your clothing is inevitable.  To avoid this moisture building up over time, it’s important to air your clothes every day.  Your clothes must be made in a way that allows them to be easily dried, particularly your footwear and hand wear.  Boots, mittens and gloves with removable liners will dry quickly when they are separated.  In very cold, dry environments, this is much more important than boots and gloves being ‘waterproofed’ with built-in breathable membranes.  Such items with integral liners take much longer to dry, sometimes so long that they can be rendered useless.


For extended periods outdoors, on winter camping trips or in a cold weather survival situation, it is useful to extend the COLD acronym to COLDER, with ER standing for

E – Examine
Make sure to examine your clothes every day for wear and tear, and dirt.

R – Repair
Remember a stitch-in-time saves nine! Carry at least a small sewing kit to effect repairs.

It should be obvious that an article is no substitute for experience in the selection and use of appropriate cold weather clothing.  ‘COLD’ and ‘COLDER’, however, provide a very firm foundation on which to build experience and, even for the experienced, it is a good reminder of what is most important.

Related Articles

Take Care When you Enter the Blue Zone.

Creeping Death – Hypothermia and How to Avoid it.

The Four Horsemen of Heat Loss.

27 thoughts on “How to Dress for Cold Weather: COLD or COLDER…

  1. I would like to react on the “loose” aspect. It could be interpreted as “oversized”. Clearly any constriction should be avoided. However if the garment is too large, the air trapped inside will be easily lost by convection when moving or just through the wind pressure.

    I think that is one of the reasons why woolpower/ulfrotte is so efficient. It stretches very easily so that it conforms close to the body, without constricting.

    When wearing an oversized outer layer, using a belt over it to close it at the waist will prevent some of the convection loss.

    Or so I generally heard and experienced myself to some extent.

    1. Let’s not forget to check each other on synthomps of hypothermia. Some people are eager to keep on moving to their goal/destination and can bring a group in trouble.
      Better to take some extra time and reach your destination without danger.
      Sometimes a quick chat is enough to check. Know your and other groupmembers limits !

    2. Hi Pierre

      Yes, by loose I mean not tight. I also mean roomy for outer layers. You do need to be able to seal them with good cuff fastenings and drawcords though.

  2. Thank you Paul, a good detailed yet succinct break down of the acronym COLD(ER).More useful stuff again ! From personal experience based on my own difficulties and others, keeping ones feet comfortable for longer periods can be difficult.Even in our temperate climate where overnight temperatures , in Winter , can vary by 10 degrees it is easy to get caught out. I have a pair of Mukluks, I find them superb in the ‘drier cold’.The Layering system of wool socks plus felt liner and canvas outer works a treat.You just get very funny looks when you where them in deepest darkest Somerset !

    Enjoy your trip…Go well


  3. One question, which is better, mitts or finger gloves? i often find my extremiies get cold more so than other people in severe cold. In japan people sometimes wear a ‘toed’ sock it would be interesting if these were warmer than a mitt type one.

  4. Hey Paul,

    I read this before my trip to the Alipine National Park in Aus and it was very helpful. We are not talking about extreme cold in Aus but once the sun went down tempatures got to freezing and a couple of degrees below. These pointers were great. Thermals, layers, staying dry, and staying off the ground (air mattress!) all made this a very enjoyable camping trip.

    1. Hey Eoin

      Thanks for your comment. A lot of people don’t realise it can get that cold in Aus. Good to hear that you were sensible and took appropriate kit. As you point out, it makes the trip enjoyable (rather than uncomfortable). Glad I was able to help in a small way.

      Take care


  5. great series of articles about the cold, cheers paul!

    few of the things in this one ring home for me, i had a pair of sealskinz gloves they were good, waterproof, warm and very dexterous only down side was they were quite tight and affected circulation so after extended periods of wearing them my hands became like ice blocks and i ended up with a touch of frostbite in the end of my thumb where a hole in the end of the gloves was. wish i had heard about COLDER then! on the upside i have a pair of fleece lined wool gloves now that are loose fitting and 10X warmer

    1. Hi Itchy,

      Thanks for the feedback. Good to hear your story and that you got away with things relatively lightly. Having the right set of gloves is really important but, as you say, the most important aspect isn’t having a high ‘technical’ specification but being the correct fit. Maintaining your circulation is vital.

      I’m glad that COLDER has consolidated your knowledge in this area.

      All the best


  6. My late father,A farmer, used to tell us”the best way to stay warm is not to get cold”

  7. Dear Paul,

    Thanks for the information. I enjoyed reading it! Although I did know already part of it – it improved my knowledge on the subject! These days – The cold & hypothermi

  8. Dear Paul,

    Thanks for the information. I enjoyed it! Good work!

    Patrick – from Belgium.

  9. with the loose fitting cloths i use a dr.who type home made scarf as a belt..it can have many uses from face protection…safety line if long enough..tool belt to hold your axe

    1. Hi Duane,

      Tom Baker was a childhood hero of mine and I agree a quality, wooly scarf can go a long way. If it’s colourful, it’s all the better and there are many parallels with using a scarf in the way you describe to the way that a Voyageur sash can be used in winter.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Warm regards,


  10. Great article and write up. One thing I do is keep my base layer thin and progressively add thicker and thicker layers. So if it is really cold I might have 3 inner layers with each one a little thicker wool. All I wear is wool anymore except a cotton anorak.

      1. I have to agree with Paul on this one. I found woollen clothing to be much warmer and more robust to many of the modern style of fabric I’ve tried.
        My Ullfrotte and my Swandri clothing is like a warm handshake from an old friend on a cold winters day. Drawback on these though is the price. My they shot up in the last few years.
        But I suppose you get what you pay for and if your life is depending on your equipment, then it make sense to get the best you can afford.

  11. Nice write up. I have been teaching that (with the exception of the E and R) for 30 years.
    Well done!

    1. Hi again Jeff,

      Yes, and yet we still need to keep on teaching it! 🙂

      Thanks and all the best,


  12. hi paul, nice article i read the whole thing ,i know now i am one of those people in most danger being diabetic (type 2) old 68 and i take quite a lot of presciption drugs. i am now going to think hard about my clothing and footwear, you shure made me think thank you very much kind regards,Whitewolf.

  13. This info helped me reinforce my knowledge and help a young hiker last winter who was succumbing to hypothermia in Michaux Forest. Clear and very well done.

  14. Hi Paul.
    Very interesting article.
    I have lived in some very very cold countries.
    But suffered hypothermia twice in this country (uk)
    As I work out doors all the time I need to get some warmer layer clothing.
    I have worn 4,5,or even 6 layers of clothing and suffered Hypothermia.
    Now I know what it feels like to have it. Perhaps I`ll quit working outside on very cold days.
    All the best.

  15. Hi paul intresting article working with young people have a duty to be aware of the dangers ect advisory level now but always have a hut booked as they are not my children but some body elses vehicles are following should anything happen even on cannock chase . my own ability is thermal layers wam food and drinks hotels incase it gets to cold but a awful lot I do automatically modern materials are a lifesaver the arcteryx are expensive but warm and dry probably overkill for derbyshire hills i use feather and down sleeping bags more at home in himalayas than north wales i also have at my disposal not a satellite phone but a ham radio if i need help it is always there travel in pairs this time of year local campsites not wilderness and robens tents may look like scott of the antarctic but warm dry and pack always bivy bag thermal blankets the later ones with paper between foil thanks for interesting article forgot why i take so much for granted and made me realise to pass skills on to others thanks brian.

  16. The bigest enemy is over confidence when you mess with mother nature.After many years working in arctic temps,i i almost lost an eye (frost cornea) cause i neglect to wear my gogles. One of my crew took his face skin off removing the balaklava to soon after entering the accomodation (also forgot to put some oil in his face before he go out).Very nice article and shering experiances is a must.

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