Surviving The Cold! Dressing For Your Health
Tips for dressing in a healthy way as the temperatures drop. Photos by Daniel Berman.
Winter months arond these parts are marked by blustery, short, cold days, and lots and lots of rain. Many people struggle through the winter months and usually vacation somewhere tropical, if they can, to try and break it up! Exercise routines adhered to during for most of the year tend to fall away during the winter months.
Dreary conditions are an obstacle for many who feel that they do not even want to go outside for any length of time and do anything at all.
The number of calories burned through decreases with inactivity, thereby decreasing metabolism. According to research reported by Johns Hopkins University, people tend to gain five to seven pounds on average during the winter months. Previous negative experiences with being cold and wet in the outdoors stifles many and keeps them from leading a more active lifestyle during the winter. But, dressing for success in the PNW’s cold, wet, windy outdoors is possible.
Some people’s constitution just seems to be conducive with being outdoors during the winter months. These individuals wear shorts or t-shirts when everyone else grabs coats. Genetic factors play into being more or less sensitive to the cold, as does environmental conditioning. For example, someone who grew up in Michigan may be “better prepared” for the cold than someone from Southern California.
Wearing the proper clothing is the best preparation for spending time outside. Besides people just being uncomfortable from the outdoor elements, hypothermia can quickly turn a dangerous situation deadly.
DANGERS OF COLD WEATHER
Hypothermia occurs when the body gets loses heat faster than the body can make it. This can occur when exposed to cold air, water, wind or rain. The body temperature can drop to low levels at temperatures of 50 F or higher in wet and windy weather, or if you are in 60 F to 70 F water.
Hypothermia gets worse as the body temperature continues to drop. Watch for the “-umbles” — stumbles, mumbles, fumbles and grumbles, which show changes in motor coordination and levels of consciousness. Mild hypothermia is marked by a core body temperature (rectal) from normal 98.6 F down to 95 F and symptoms of shivering, pale blue/grey skin, poor judgment, mild unsteadiness with balance and walking, and numb fingers and hands. Getting out of the elements and rewarming may treat mild hypothermia.
As the downward progression of hypothermia continues, medical attention becomes imperative. Moderate hypothermia is marked by a core body temperature of 95 F down to 93 F and symptoms of violent shivering, dazed consciousness, slurred speech, lack of concern/flat affect, and irrational behavior such as undressing despite the cold.
Severe hypothermia occurs at a core body temperature of 92 F down to 86 F and lower, which is immediately life-threatening. Shivering occurs in waves with pauses in between or ceases entirely, muscle rigidity occurs and immobility ensues — pulse rate decreases, and the pupils dilate. At 90 F, the body moves into “hibernation” mode where everything slows down: peripheral blood flow, breathing and heart rate.
At 86 F, the body is in a state of “metabolic icebox.” The person looks dead but is still alive. Often, a hiker or skier’s body temperature will drop really low before others notice that something is wrong. Hypothermia is an emergency condition and can quickly lead to unconsciousness and death if heat loss continues.
Cold exposure injuries can also occur in wet, windy and cold temperatures as well. Frostnip occurs on the skin of the face, ears and fingertips with whitish to blue discoloration and numbness that goes away upon rewarming with no permanent damage. This is a progression toward frostbite where the skin and the underlying tissues actually freeze and look pale or blue, and feel numb, stiff, and rubbery.
Frostbite requires freezing temperatures, but chilblains do not. When spending too much time in cold but not freezing temperatures, chilblains may cause pale and blistered skin like frostbite after the skin has warmed. The skin does not actually freeze, but can be very painful.
WHY YOU HAVE TO LAYER
Okay, enough with explaining the possibilities (scare tactics) of hypothermia and cold injuries. Remember I said that it is possible to dress for success in the PNW’s cold, wet, windy winters! Only two basic principles need to be understood: layering, and “cotton kills.”
No matter what you do outside during the winter, layering will make adapting to changing conditions and activity levels much easier. There are three layers, each with a purpose, and each may be consist of multiple garments. The base layer (against your skin) manages moisture; the insulating layer protects you from the cold; the shell layer (outer layer) shields you from wind and rain.
“Cotton kills” because the material cotton retains perspiration and can leave you feeling wet, clammy and chilled. Cotton is not a good choice of insulation, especially not as a base layer, and never in the backcountry.
The base layer moves perspiration away from your skin, which can keep you dry and warm. The best base layers are made of polyester, polypropylene, merino wool, silk or other materials that wick moisture and dry quickly.
The middle layer insulates you by trapping warm air next to your body. Here you want to think natural fibers and fleece. Wool, and goose down are natural fibers with excellent insulation properties. The middle layer weight should be chosen based on activity level and temperature ranges.
The outer shell layer is all about shielding against wind, rain and snow. Most allow at least some perspiration to escape, which is vital for the under layers to breathe well, and virtually all are treated with a durable water repellent to make water bead up and roll off the fabric.
From a simple windbreaker to a snow jacket with a removable liner coat and hood, there are many types of outer layers. When selecting outer shells, look for items labeled as “waterproof/breathable,” since they will protect 100 percent against water getting in but still let out perspiration. “Water resistant” means breathable, but it will only hold up for a short time in light rain. “Waterproof and non-breathable” is the equivalent of an emergency poncho, fine for low-key protection but little else.
Gloves, mittens, neck and face protection, and hats also increase success. In colder conditions, or over extended periods, mittens are better than gloves since they keep fingers together, which traps heat more effectively.
The head and neck are major areas of heat loss, so cover your neck with a scarf, balaclava or neck gaiter. Balaclavas, windproof face masks, scarves or hats will all protect your head from the cold. Add a hood over top in extreme cold or snow/rain conditions to keep your head gear dry. Hats made of natural fibers such as wool, alpaca or synthetic fleece are ideal.
Proper footwear is the remaining piece proper of winter wear, starting with socks. Socks made from natural fiber are ideal. Alpaca insole inserts can wick moisture and to further insulate the foot. Boots and shoes come in many different styles to fit just about every application.
As with the outer shell layer, the main factors with boots and shoes are how waterproof are they and how well do they breathe? If you don’t have a ton of money to spend, thrift shops such as Goodwill or Value Village usually carry this type of gear.
Many use the excuse that “it’s just too cold out” to avoid exercise and the outdoors. We need to look for ways to tear down obstacles for burning more calories as an ever-growing nation.
Getting outside is an excellent way to burn more calories and appreciate our great outdoors here in the PNW. So this year, instead of plane tickets to a tropical destination, invest in proper gear so you can dress for success in the Pacific Northwest.