Winter Clothing for the Northern Wilderness part 1

by Paul Kirtley

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Thermal Layers and Shell Clothing

 

Winter Clothing for the Northern WildernessClothing for winter in the northern wilderness must cope with a wide range of temperatures, from around freezing to -50oC (-58oF) or lower.  Your clothing may also have to fend off serious wind-chill, when travelling by snow machine or skiing across barren terrain such as the Hardanger Vidda in Norway. Your body core must be kept warm to prevent hypothermia and unless your core is warm enough, your extremities are more likely to suffer cold injuries. At times, both in the northern forest and on the northern fells, you will be working hard and generating a lot of heat. At other times, you will be stationary and need a lot of protection from the winter environment. Your clothing system therefore needs to be flexible. Your clothes must be able to minimise heat loss but they must also cope well with perspiration and be easily vented. Outdoor life in winter is tough and your clothes need to be well-made and durable. Another feature of life in the north is fire and hot stoves. Care must be taken with clothing made from synthetic materials that are easily melted as they can be damaged by heat in an instant.

This is the first of two articles on clothing for the northern wilderness. The second will cover footwear, handwear and headwear. You’ll get the most out of this article if you also read my article on heat loss and my article on how to dress for cold weather. Don’t worry, you can read them later. I’ll remind you at the end!

L is for Layers
Layering your clothing is a key principle for staying warm in the winter. Your clothes don’t add heat to your body, they keep you warm by minimising heat loss via conduction, convection, evaporation, and radiation. Air is a good insulator and in addition to air being held within your garments, by layering your clothes you also trap air between your garments. Multiple layers allow flexibility in dressing for varying degrees of cold and activity levels. In a previous article I covered the general principles of how to dress for cold weather. If you have read this article, you’ll remember the acronym COLD. L reminds us that our clothing must be layered.

Wool or Synthetic Base Layers?
You have two broad choices of material for thermal undergarments – wool or synthetic. While the fast moisture-wicking properties of synthetic undergarments are great for high intensity activities such as nordic ski racing, synthetic undergarments have a tendency to smell really bad after only a day or so of wear. Wool on the other hand does not smell bad even after weeks of wear. Moreover, wool garments can be aired for a short while and smell remarkably fresh afterwards. Wool also wicks moisture away from the skin. Wool stays warm when it is wet (up to a point) and, due to an exothermic reaction, actually gives off heat when it becomes damp. Wool has a reputation for being itchy but merino wool fibres are much finer and generally don’t cause any skin irritation. Wool, however, is not very tough. This means that some manufacturers such as Woolpower, add some synthetic materials to the wool to make it both more wear-resistant and machine-washable. Fine wool garments being easily damaged also means that you should avoid wearing them as an outer layer. You should wear at least a light shell layer over the top to prevent snags and pulls to the wool clothing. Wool is heat and fire-resistant though, which makes it good for wearing around hot stoves in cabins and tents. While it’s not critical, you can also buy merino wool underpants, which are warm and comfortable. Good quality wool thermal layers and underwear are produced by Woolpower, Icebreaker, Devold, Janus and Howies.

How to Layer Winter Clothing

The first thermal layer, or base layer, next to your skin should both insulate and wick moisture away from your skin.  Water conducts heat away from your body 25 times faster than air so your clothing’s job of transporting water away from your skin is a critical one. A 200g/m2 top and long-johns from Woolpower are ideal. These garments are surprisingly light in weight. The terry-knit of their base layers makes it warmer for the weight than other woven merino base-layers I’ve tried. 

Frozen perspiration in the northern forest

The frosting on the clothing of the man on the right is perspiration that has been wicked to the outside of his Woolpower garments, then frozen by the low air temperature.

The second thermal layer, or mid-layer, is designed to trap more air. It is generally heavier than the first layer.  Woolpower’s 400g garment works well for this. A second thermal layer for your torso is needed more often than for your legs.

Second Thermal Layer and Shell Trousers

400g Woolpower top as the second thermal layer with Norrona 'Recon' trousers as shell (see below). Also note braces.

A third thermal layer can be taken – a knitted wool pullover, a fleece jacket or a lightweight synthetic duvet jacket – that can be worn over the first and/or second thermal layer to add warmth and flexibility to your clothing system. One advantage of a light synthetic duvet jacket is that the outer fabric will shed snow very well, whereas snow sticks to wool and fleece. This jacket can be worn over just the first thermal layer as an outer shell while digging snow holes or qunizes. It will also dry quickly.

Lightweight Duvet Jacket

A lightweight duvet jacket can be worn over the first or second thermal layer. It also sheds snow well and dries quickly.

Shell Layer
To minimise heat loss, a wind-proof protective shell layer should be worn over your thermal layers. The warm air trapped in your thermal layers must be kept there and a wind-proof shell will prevent this warm air from being displaced. Your shell layer also traps air between it and the thermal layer underneath, adding further insulation to your body. Your shell layer protects your thermal layers from environmental moisture and snow (snow sticks to wool very easily). As mentioned above, a shell layer also protects your thermal layers from wear and tear.

Shell Clothing

Shell clothing - Norrona cotton jacket and Fjallraven G1000 cotton/synthetic mix trousers

The shell layer can consist of a windproof material such as tightly woven cotton, Ventile, Gore-Tex or a similar material. Ventile and other tightly woven cotton fabrics are the most breathable of shell materials in extreme cold. 

A cotton jacket is my first choice if I don’t expect wet precipitation. If rain or sleet are a possibility then you need raingear that will protect you from this. Your jacket should be roomy. It should be loose (remember L in COLD is for layered and loose) enough to accommodate your thermal layers underneath, as well as spare gloves, hats and personal equipment in the pockets. A belt around the waist on the outside of a loose smock is effective in retaining warm air around your torso. Another feature to look out for is a generous hood that can accommodate your largest hat. A fur trim helps keep warm air near to your face. For really bad conditions, a snorkel-type hood is very good. Make sure it will turn with your head so you don’t end up looking at the inside of your hood every time you want to look left or right. The cuffs of your jacket should be roomy enough to accommodate gloves and have a secure fastening that will seal the sleeve around your wrist. This fastening should be easily adjusted.

Loose smock with belt

Custom-made Ventile smock.

There are many manufacturers of cotton smocks. Mine is a Norrona Arktis Anojakke that no longer features on Norrona’s website. I fear that this excellent jacket is no longer made.  For Ventile there are number of good manufacturers and another option is to buy the material and have a jacket made to an existing pattern or even your own design.

For trousers the choice is less critical with respect to breathability as you sweat less on your legs. I make a decision based on how much time I’m likely to be spending in the snow, for example digging out snow shelters, and in the latter case I have a preference for tough Gore-Tex trousers. I find kneeling on snow in cotton trousers melts snow into the fabric, whereas this doesn’t happen with Gore-Tex. You need to be more careful with Gore-Tex and similar fabrics near fires and stoves of course. Braces are a really good idea in the north. Even better if your trousers have a high waist. This combination keeps your trousers high on your mid-section which, with no chilling draughts on your lower back, remains snug.

 

Top Thermal layer or ‘Mothership’ Jacket.
Your mothership jacket is one that can go on over the top of everything else. It should have an insulating material such as Primaloft or down and a wind resistant outer material. Useful when you are waiting to head out for the day or have stopped for a break, you can throw this jacket on and off easily without re-arranging any other layers. A mothership is also good for travelling by snow machine when you need all the insulation you can muster.  When not being worn, you can stow it in a place that is easily accessible.

duvet jacket inside hut

Why am I wearing my duvet jacket inside the hut? Because after we dug through the snow-drift to get in, it was minus 18 Celsius (0 Fahrenheit) indoors!

When ski-touring I keep a synthetic duvet jacket (one size bigger than my normal) at the top of my pack to put on quickly over everything else when stopped for a break. I’ve had to wear this jacket inside cabins they have been so cold when I’ve arrived. In the northern forest, I use a Swedish military M90 jacket, as it is long enough to insulate my whole body core rather than just down to my waist. In really cold temperatures I find this longer design more comfortable than jackets that are cut higher.  Your mothership also makes an excellent pillow.

The hut from the outside

The hut from outside.

Manage your clothes.
Remember, however good your clothing is, you will only get the most out of it if you learn to manage it properly. You can manage your temperature and minimise sweat by adjusting layers, ventilating and regulating activity.

Adjusting layers: Be bold, start cold. Before exertion, take layers off and start a little cold. The exertion will soon warm you up. After exercise, put layers back on before you start to feel cold. Having a mothership jacket makes this easier.

Ventilation: Open up front zips, expose the neck, use ventilation holes (e.g. some clothing has zipped ventilation holes in the armpits), loosen sleeves or even roll them up. Again, try to do this before you exert yourself. Adjust as necessary during exercise.

Hot and ventilating

Hot after digging snow, my hat is perched high on my head and my jackets are unzipped to allow ventilation and heat to escape.

Regulation: if you are still getting hot and sweaty despite the above measures then you should probably slow down a bit and pace yourself. Apart from pumping moisture into your clothing, you are possibly working at a rate that will leave you exhausted in a relatively short period of time. Low-blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) is a significant factor in susceptibility to hypothermia.

Learn From Experience

Everyone is different and will be warmer or colder than others at different times and during different activities.  Learn to use your clothing to its best potential through experience.  Having a flexible and well thought-out clothing outfit will help you to stay warm but not get too warm.

A range of jackets

Everyone is different. A range of jackets. From left to right: Ventile smock; light duvet jacket; Swedish M90 'mothership'; Norrona cotton smock with duvet jacket underneath.

Picture credits – the author owns the copyright for all images in this article.

To get the most out of the above article, you should also read:

The Four Horsemen of Heat Loss

How to Dress for the Cold: COLD or COLDER…

Related Articles On Paul Kirtley’s Blog:

Clothing for the Northern Wilderness Part 2 covers protection for hands, feet and head.

Take Care When you Enter the Blue Zone

A Winter Camping Trip in the Northern Forest

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Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.

 

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Hotson

Great article – superb photos. Bringing back many memories of my ‘baptism by fire’ in to Bushcraft.The Arctic is the most fabulous place for many reasons, you learn to be attentive and have to understand ‘the routines’. I wasn’t the best student – but was so overcome by my surroundings and the people around me that it helped make Bushcraft a real part of my life.
Thanks Paul !

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Paul Kirtley

Hey Mark

That’s great. It’s good to hear you have happy memories of your time there. And great to see how far you’ve gone to make bushcraft part of your life.

All the best

Paul

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Pierre

Nice article. A few random comments:

– Learn by experience: it is indeed the primary way and unfortunately can turn a bit expensive. Often gears review are biased by specifics about the user and the environment (and probably also by some some urge to defend one’s purchase). In the past 3 years, since I started hiking, I purchased and re-sold a lot of clothing. But my bottom line would be: do not expect huge differences between comparable pieces of different brands. No miracle gear.

– Legwear: often we take less care of the leg part versus upper body. Still femoral artery probably conducts – and loose – a lot of blood. I wonder if a ‘down to the knee’ long john would’nt be a good option.

– All those layers can start hampering move. One way to minimize is to think about alterning long sleeve and sleeve-less garments. Also think about how fabrics will interact: will they slide nicely against each other or not.

– I like woolpower 200 but have been a bit disappointed by Woolpower 400. I’m wndering if there is any point to it vs 2 Woolpower 200 layers.

– I have never tried but heard good things of fishnet-like under garments like of Bryjne. Seems a good bulk & weight to warmth ratio and to help with managing moisture.

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Pierre

Thanks for your feedback and comments. Here are a few random replies 🙂

My ‘learn by experience’ point was more to do with learning to manage your clothing and knowing which garments to wear for different activity levels and environmental temperatures. But you are absolutely correct; it is expensive buying lots of gear and trying it out. That’s one of the reasons I wrote my article – to help people make an informed choice.

Yes, you should take care of your body core down to below your groin not just your torso. That’s why I find the length of the Swedish M90 overcoat so good for staying warm. It is looong.

In the arctic, I’ve never been hampered by layers. This only happens if your clothes are too tight. Remember ‘layered and loose’.

If you don’t like the 400 top, maybe go for a synthetic duvet or gilet instead. Personally I really like the 400: A 200, then a 400, then a Nanok ‘Air’ Jacket or similar under a cotton smock is very good for really cold but active days.

I don’t wear fishnet either. I don’t have the legs for it!

All the best

Paul

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Mark Hotson

I guess the I have always chosen or selected the ‘appropriate’ types of clothing based on my own physiological requirements ( I am a very hot person) and the experiences of others. As you say Pierre, the first time you encounter a new environment undertaking different activities you may find different bits of kit do or don’t work for you for various reasons. It can be costly !

Listen and watch the locals , tailoring and the choice of natural materials like wool for instance appear to be the key. Clothing is obviously one of the ‘cornerstones’ to outdoor activities and Bushcraft – there isn’t enough written about it !
thanks

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Paul Kirtley

Good advice there Mark, particularly learning from the locals and those experienced in the environment.

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Marcus Hackney

These articles are so useful. I particularly like the articles on KIT as it reassures me that all that money I have spent is worth it…… Woolpower is awesome….and I am in love with my Swazi gear too… Great Work Paul.

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Paul Kirtley

Thanks Marcus. Wherever I’m travelling, I almost always have a Woolpower 200g top with me – so warm yet very light.

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Gary Waidson (Wayland)

Very well written and concise article, I look forward to the second part.

It is a great shame that good quality woollen trousers are so difficult to obtain in the UK, I had to get mine from over the pond and they compliment this kind of outfit very well in my opinion. Nice to see that you think so highly of the 400g midlayer, I have been seriously looking at the leggings for my upcoming trip to Norway next Winter.

Look forward to meeting you in September.

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Gary

Thanks for your comment. The second part should be out soon(ish).

I do like the 400g layers. I use the top much more than the leggings, mainly using the leggings if it’s cold and I’m going to be relatively inactive or the wind chill is very high (sitting on a snow machine for example). I always take them with me to the arctic forests though.

Looking forward to meeting you too. We can have an in-depth discussion about all things winter then. I’ll bring some kit to show you.

All the best

Paul

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Matt

Hi and thanks for a excellent article. I was wondering were part two is as I am about to purchase some new gloves for winter use and would be interested on reading your thoughts before I parted with my hard earned.
Thanks again.
Mat

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Matt

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed part 1. Part 2 should be out in the next few weeks. It’s largely written and now that ‘summer’ is nearly over, people seem to be looking towards winter trips and equipment once more. In the meantime, if you’ve got any specific questions you need answers to quickly, just post them here or email them to me.

All the best

Paul

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Ruud

Interesting read!

I usually wear the Woolpower 200 garment (pants and shirt), a Buffalo Special Six and a G1000 or Lundhags-pants, which sheds snow brilliantly. I’ve tested this kit up to -20°C and it performed well.

kind regards
Ruud

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Luciano

Hi Paul,
Merino wool is an amazing textile as base layer. However I was wondering what do you think of use of Linen garments as base layer.
Many thanks for this or other great articles.
Luciano

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Luciano,

Thanks for your comment. I have to admit that I have never tried linen base layers so I don’t have personal experience of using them in cold climates. I’ve only ever used synthetic (Helly Hansen, North Face, etc) or Merino (Icebreaker, Janus, North Face, Howies and Ulfrotte).

Does anyone else reading this have any experience of using linen they can relate to Luciano?

Thanks,

Paul

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Luciano

Hi Paul,

many thanks for your reply. I was just interested in linen, as it appears it could perform well by reading his textile characteristics.

On wool side of clothing, I have some EDZ garments, which are cheaper than the brands you mentioned, and they also seem to perform well, though I never tried them in extreme conditions.

Regards,
Luciano

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Alex

Although I have devoured all your winter related articles already (and most of the others), receiving an email about them made me want to peruse them again, when I should be working… Thank you.

One thing I noticed is that in the list of baselayers Chocolate Fish Merino is sadly missing. I don’t know if anyone else reading has had any experience with their products, but I cannot speak highly enough of them.

Admittedly I have not used their products in the Arctic (yet), but living in Scotland does give me some experience of cold (and damp cold too). In the last quarter of 2010 (cold!), and the following autumn, I spent over five months living out on the west coast alone, in a shelter I built myself – and I found their merino clothing invaluable. In fact, I’m still wearing the same stuff today, more than five years after purchase. A pair of small holes have been fixed, and a cuff has been resewn, but for the amount of wear they’ve had, this is not an issue. Their merino/possum beanie is toasty warm too.

Just thought I’d give them a mention – I don’t have any affiliation with the company, beyond wearing and admiring their products, and their ethical stance too. Does anyone else use their products?

Thanks again for your always informative and well written articles.

Alex

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Alex,

I’ve heard good things about Chocholate Fish Merino, although I haven’t had the opportunity to try any of their clothing yet.

I’d also be interested to hear about other people’s experience with them.

Warm regards,

Paul

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René

Hello Paul,

thank you for the excellent and well written article. Since I am focusing more towards to winter ventures, it will certainly prove to be of practical value in adapting my current temperate clothing set. I have a question however, you might be able to answer for me. Since some time now, I picked up an interest in the Buffalo Pertex/ Pile products like the Special Six because of the sheer simplicity and efficiency in use they must have. They come highly recommended by , among others, Dutch Royal Marine forces, permanently stationed located in northern Norway. I understand that , contrary to a ‘regular’ duvetjacket, it should be worn directly on the skin for maximum effect. Do you reckon it has its place in the layering system you are proposing? If so, would it help eliminating the need of traditional layers and make the whole clothing system more simple?

Many thanks in advance and looking forward to your further articles.

Regards,

René

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Marc Oliver

Hi Paul, I have worn my woolpower top as an outer layer. Now there is lots of fraying all over it. Will this mean it is not as effective? Also I got one with a bit of room so it doesn’t fit tight on the body by quite loosely. Will this also meam it is less effective?

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Jim MacDougall

Sometimes experimenting with different materials sooner hopefully than later will get you to your ideal combination for the activities and environment you will be in. Sometimes they find you, such as when my wife bought me a Boxing Day sale cashmere sweater. Extremely lightweight for the warmth ( warmer than wool) very packable, softer than merino, and hydrophobic along with the flame resistant properties of wool. That as a base with a woolpower zip/ polar fleece under a synthetic puffy jacket, and a Ventile/ Eta-proof shell ( if windy) is top notch for my winter camping activities. When I get settled in camp off goes the shell and on goes the wool jacket to protect the synthetics from sparks. Of coarse all these can be mixed for different temperatures , conditions, and activities. And yes Paul the Norrona Anojakke is a great jacket with the same principles as Ventile but I think even tougher.

Cheers, and thanks for a great website.
Jim

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Marcus Eistert

I just gave several comments about my equipment under other articles, but understand now, it belongs at first here. So I repeat myself here, explaining better, what i mean, and what it is about and how it works:
I am using german army equipment, but changed some parts of the uniform.
The used german uniforms are very cheap, because not long ago germany changed from a service for everybody to a professional army, so it came a lot of stuff on the market in good conditions and all sizes. What you do not get issued, you get most times brand new for a cheap price too, if you compare it with civil equipment manufacturers.
The german army used oliv green materials from heavy cotton till the reunification and then changed to a spotted green camouflage pattern called Flecktarn, this new equipment is a modern system of clothing that is engineered for temperatures between positiv 30*C to negativ 25*C, if you work with woolpower base layers, you should reach lower temperatures too. (Only with german boots in arctic conditions you better should not work, may bee its the same with gloves and mittens.)
After you got out your size, you can just buy the same size for every article of the system, every thing fits over the other. The dealer Raeer gives you next to the shirt Feldbluse a synobsis in tabulated form about the sizes, but I choose the shirt and trosers bit larger, than official recommended. I am 184 cm high, 90 kg heavy and use size 14 par example, because i pull a fleece jacket under the shirt in cold conditions, what the army doesnt do and stick inside the trousers too, if its cold.
The material of that Flecktarn uniforms is a mixed fabric, that containes 65% cotton and 35% syntetics, so it is smoothy, durable and fast drying, because the fabric is light and thin. That system is engineered as a modern modular lightweight equipment, lighter then every other military equipment i have seen.
It works like that: You pull over each other underpants, longjohns, trousers called Feldhose, hang the warm trousers called Kälteschutzhose in the Goretextrousers called Nässeschutzhose and step in. Underpants and longjohns are made from cotton 100% so you replace them with thin or thicker woolpower longjohns. T-shirt in olive or beige in cotton (you can replace with woolpower in winter) thin high collar cotton pullover (i change against one from thin fleece) for winter use, than shirt Feldbluse, which is a light jacket. I wear under it a fleece jacket, which i protect with that shirt against wind, dirt, mecanical forces, and sparks. I often wear a normal shirt between tshirt and fleece, if it is not so cold.
With that you are most times well equipped. Now comes the warm quilted jacket called Kälteschutzjacke, the Feldparka, over that the Goretexshell called Nässeschutzjacke (Nässeschutzjacke and Nässeschutzhose together you buy as the Nässeschutzanzug, in english weat protection suit) the hood of Feldparka and Gtx parka are a bit large, till you need them and wear a hat or balaclava under it. If you hit snow from a tree in winter before felling, the hoods are large enough. Insead of my fleecejacket under the Feldbluse the army uses a woolen thick jumper, but i prefere clothing with full length zipps. Here i add a thin quilted gilet in.
The darkest colour of the Flecktarn pattern is black, so you can not change the colour to green, but you can colour it easily to black, what is impossible with the Goretex suit of course, the warm quilted layer is a middle bright olive.
It is existing a Goretex poncho too and old ones in oliv of an old rubberised ripstopnylon.
You can get Goretex gaiters, winter hat with teddy earflaps or summerhead, (but only austrians and old german mountain troop grey ones are equiped with balaclava function, unfortunately, even if Flecktarn summer hats are looking like Wehrmacht with balaclava function, that is today a fake!)
The Feldbluse over a fleecejacket and the rainparka, or lightweightcamping the pocho is a nice equipment till late autum. With quilted jacked, parka, goretexparka and quilted civil gilet equiped, and the quilted trousers on, i fell asleep last time in the evening, while i was waiting for the stove getting running. I fell asleep, and needed neighther stove nor sleeping bag. I awoke, because it was to hot in my suit and 8 a clock in the mornig time and only negativ 10*C in my cottage! Even my feed didnt become to cold in their socks, because the suit was to hot! I never used that stuff in temperatures lower than 25 degrees, but i think, that should work in lower temperatures too, especially if you take a large thick army parka from the swedish army or something like that with you.
That uniform is constructed to sit in negativ 25 *C in the bush at the end of a forest the whole night. I guess, it should work skiing in lappland too. I dont know that, and will not try, because unfortunetly my eyes became to bad for skiing downhill. But what is made for alpin winter conditions perhaps works with one additional warm military parka in arktic conditions too. That would be an incredible cheap option for a perfect engeneered modern military equipment! And it is for summer use too, dont forget that, it is an all weather modular system!
It continues with 60 liters lightweight rucksack, were the foldable insulation matress is the inner rucksack frame, sleeping bag on top (but i bought the lighter snugpack special forces system). The rucksack has only a thin belt, because that belongs on the large belt with field showel, water bottle, and other heavy military equipment. But that i dont use. For winter use i have a 80 liter fjellraven silicon nylon rucksack, which was the last they produced, before a long, long intermission, because it was too expensive to sell it. But for summer and autum use the german Flecktarn rucksack is very nice too!
That is simply a very intelligent system.
Till negative 25*C walking the german boots Kampfstiefel with one pair of socks are nice too. Like the german army Haix mountaineering boots with goretex lining, i never used, but looked at them and am convinced.
Dont forget: The german army has a lot of experience! You learn better from your faults than from good luck and fortunatly succes. We lost two worldwars, only our austrian friends can hold their with! So we are very, very experienced with bad working military equipment, especially in cold conditions, as you know! ,’;0(
Best regards! Marcus

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Isa

Nice pictures from your days at Woodlore Paul. Dan looks really young in that last one.

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