"Preparing to endure the cold is an art and a science" - Matt Worden (blog writer)
As the owner of a guided hiking business in Anchorage, Alaska, I can tell you firsthand the importance of dressing appropriately for your environment.
I take guests into the snowy Chugach State Park – the third largest state park in the nation, located on the western tip of the Chugach Mountains.
On our tours, we can encounter deep powdery snow, wind, sometimes rain, and it can even get a little toasty on a 20-degree bluebird day.
The best general advice I can provide is to select materials that will keep you warm and dry, dress in layers and pick gear that layers and de-layers easily.
ALL ABOUT FABRICS
First and foremost, when it comes to selecting fabrics, you should avoid any materials made of cotton!
I think this is equally important to remember even in Alaska’s summer months with 20+ hours of functional daylight. Why? Because when cotton gets wet, it stays wet, and when you are wet you get cold. In the Alaska summers, cotton can be uncomfortably heavy when it’s saturated.
Our amazing guest and photographer, Julio, braved a tough, cold rainy day in his cotton shirt and jeans.
I should have weighed his pre & post-hike weight to see how much water he absorbed!
My personal favorite fabric is merino wool. Merino wool has wicking properties that pull the moisture away from your body, allowing it to evaporate more quickly while keeping you warm. And it's antibacterial to boot!
When it comes to hats or gloves, 100% wool can also be a good option because it’s water resistant and extremely warm. I prefer merino wool or synthetics for garments like base layers (thermals or long-underwear), because 100% wool can make some people feel itchy.
Comparable to merino wool are synthetics like polyester, spandex, and nylon. These materials are super effective and can save you a little money, though they lack the water resistance and antibacterial properties wool has.
Important-to-note: each fabric comes in varying weights based on the thread count of the fabric. There are typically lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight options available; each can be useful based on your situation.
Check out this 2012 blog piece Andy Hawbaker wrote for Sierra.com describing the benefits of each fabric.
Wearing my thermal top on a cool summer day in late June, 2020
Living in Alaska, I think I wear my thermals nearly half the year if not longer! Weather-wise, every area of Alaska is vastly different. Here in Anchorage, thermal wearing season can start in September, and last all the way through May. As a general rule-of-thumb, you might want to start wearing light to even midweight thermals when temperatures are 45-50 degrees F.
As the temperatures drop, I tend to add layers rather than increase the weight of my fabrics. Winters in Anchorage typically range anywhere from 0 to 35 degrees F. Within that range, I feel comfortable wearing midweight base layers most of the winter season. It’s only during the shoulder months (September and May) where I wear my lightweight garments, and if it goes below zero then I may consider wearing a heavyweight.
This is a breakdown of what I like to use when taking people (or myself!) on adventures in the winters of Alaska.
Layering and delayering can take a while to master. You may have to try a few different items to get used to what works for you. You can thrift shop or borrow items to try out before committing.
UNDERWEAR, BASELAYER, OVERLAYER, OUTERLAYERS
I tend to use 2-3 layers for my upper & lower body. We'll refer to the sequence of the 3-layer methodology as "Baselayer, Overlayer, and Outerlayer".
It’s important to start with your underwear first
🩲😳. Fabric rules apply here too; no cotton!
For dry, warm, supportive comfort. I choose the affordable: Hanes Sport X-Temp Ultralight boxer
You don’t need to spend $40 on your skivvies.
For my upper baselayer I wear an:
For my lower baselayer, I chose the
Alpine Fit Co. uses a blend of silver-lined polyester and spandex which keeps me dry, warm, and they also do well on multi-day hikes.
The company states one of the benefits of the silver in the material is it’s antimicrobial ability, which means...
Natural odor repellant! 😮
For my upper overlayer, I wear a:
It's well insulated, windproof, and water resistant. You can also use any type of fleece jacket for a second layer, which will keep you really warm, but it will lack water resistance.
For my lower overlayer, I use:
These fleece bottoms are well insulated, and will keep me nice and warm. I choose to go for water protection with my outerlayer shown next.
You might want pockets for this layer!
For your outer layers you want wind proofing and water resistance for snow & rain conditions.
For my upper outerlayer I alternate between a:
(Less rainproof, but has pockets - shown)
(More rainpoof, but lacks pockets - not shown)
For my lower outerlayer I wear:
I really wish these had pockets, but they are awesome in the rain.
Think water resistance, warmth, and accessories
EXTREMITIES (HEAD AND FINGERS)
Your extremities lose heat the fastest, so it’s important to keep them unexposed as much as possible. Aim for wicking properties, insulation, and water resistance.
Hat & Neck Gaiter or Buff (Left)
Depending on temperature I alternate between:
I always wear:
Buff's are sweet! You can wear them on your neck, face and head. I usually wear mine as a hat in the cool summer months.
Don’t forget your (sun)glasses! 😎
Gloves & Glomitts (Right)
On my hands I wear:
in combination with an outer glove like the:
Glomitts are nice because they combine the features of a glove and a mitten for when you want that dexterity, as well as additional warmth.
I choose this combination because its easy to layer & delayer, and I can maintain my finger dexterity when using my phone or camera.
FOOTWEAR (SHOES & SOCKS)
For footwear, I tend to believe that your socks are more important than your shoes or boots, but that’s not to discredit their importance.
I will actually wear them both when temperatures get really cold, but you may just want to get a heavyweight hiking sock instead of double layering. All my socks are merino wool.
Shoes or Boots
For my shoes, I’ve been using Solomon’s X Ultra 3 mid GTX hiking boots (Above) year-round. They are called hiking boots but perform like trail runners. They are super lightweight and water resistant and built with Gore-Tex material. I have hiked creeks in Juneau, Alaska in 35 degree F temperatures with these shoes. People may call me crazy, but they do well in just about any condition.
With that said, I am considering getting a more traditional hiking boot with additional insulation for really cold conditions like a model from Keen or Oboz but I am usually more prone to blisters with hiking boots, hence the reason I choose trail runners.
With all the products available on the market, it’s way too easy to get lost or not know where to begin. To recap, there are certain things that you should always keep in mind when you travel into the cold:
1. Don’t wear cotton!
2. Use a mix of fabrics like merino wool, 100% wool, polyester, spandex and Gore-tex to keep you warm and dry.
3. Have accessory pockets for your over & outerlayers, but don't make them a priority over warmth and dryness.
4. Dress in layers so you can remove and add layers. You can always take something off if you get too warm, but if you don’t bring the right layers, you might have to stay cold and wet.
5. If something doesn't work, try something different until it does!
6. You don't have to spend a fortune. Local thrift stores often have fleece, wool and polyester items that will meet your layering needs.
7. The basic system is base, over, outer (BOO!). If you cover those bases, you're good to go!