When you think of dressing for the cold, you might imagine a puffy parka coat and some boots. However, keeping yourself warm in extremely cold temperatures is more nuanced than that. A combination of layers and fabrics will keep you cozy in a wide range of temperatures.
So, what clothing is best for extreme cold? The best clothing for extreme cold is a series of layers that will trap your body heat and are made up of a combination of wool, synthetic and down fibers. You need at least three layers: a base layer to keep your skin dry, a mid-layer to keep you insulated, and a shell layer to deflect wind and water. Accessories for your hands, feet, and head are also critical.
Knowing the weather of your destination and the way different fabrics react to cold and moisture will help you curate a set of layers that’s perfect for your environment. Read this guide to find out more about the best clothing and fabrics for cold-weather adventures.
How To Dress for Extreme Cold Weather
The number one tip for dressing in cold weather is to use layers. Not only do layers act as a barrier to the outside, but they trap air between each layer that keeps your body heat from escaping.
There are three layers that’ll work well for most cold conditions. You can adjust fabrics and thicknesses or even add layers based on how cold your environment is. The important thing is to have a base layer against your skin to wick away sweat to keep you dry, a mid-layer to insulate you against the cold, and an outer layer or shell to keep snow, rain, and wind from getting in.
Your base layer should fit close to your body but not so tight that you can’t move comfortably. The rest of your layers should be easy to slip on and off so that you can adjust as the weather and your activity level change.
The same three layers that work at 40°F (4°C) might not be warm enough at -5°F (-20°C). You can use a thicker mid-layer for colder weather or add a layer or upgrade your shell to a warmer material. Layers are customizable, so you’ll be able to stay comfortable no matter what’s happening with the weather.
Don’t forget your extremities and lower half. Layers aren’t just for your torso. The same principle of a base, mid, and shell layer also works for items like socks, gloves, and hats.
Which Fabrics are Best for Extreme Cold?
For cold weather fabrics, it isn’t one size fits all. Each layer has a different set of materials that work best for it because each layer has a different function.
Polyester is a great material for your base layer because it’s good at wicking away moisture from your skin and keeping you dry. Water releases your body heat faster than air, so keeping your skin dry is important to keeping you warm. Most natural fibers aren’t good as a base layer, but you could choose silk if you don’t want a synthetic.
Silk is surprisingly warm for how thin it is, making it good for layering without giving you too much bulk. If you’re going to be active and want to move your limbs more freely, silk base layers are a good choice. However, they do wear out faster than synthetics.
For the mid-layer, you want a fabric that insulates but lets the moisture your base layer absorbs evaporate like fleece. Wool is a good choice for a natural fiber because it’s insulating even if it gets damp. No matter how much you sweat or get rained on, it’ll keep you warm. It’s also naturally antimicrobial, so you’ll be able to wear it for a whole camping trip without it getting too stinky.
Your shell layer should be weather-proof or at least weather-resistant. Nylon is a good fabric for this. Shells are usually insulated as well, either with down or synthetic insulation. Down is warmer, but it loses its insulating ability if it gets wet, so it isn’t the best choice for damp or snowy weather.
Best Base Layer Clothing for Cold Weather
When you choose your base layer, you want to pick one that’ll keep you as dry as possible. While warmth is something to consider, the primary goal for this layer is keeping your sweat from stealing your body heat.
The Thermajane Women’s Ultra Soft Thermal Underwear and Thermajohn Men’s Ultra Soft Thermal Underwear both have moisture-wicking properties. They come in a variety of sizes, too, which will help you find the right fit. Your base layer has to fit under all your other layers, so you want it close to your body.
Best Mid Layer Clothing for Cold Weather
The mid-layer is where you want to focus your efforts on holding in heat. This is a great place for all those hand-knit sweaters from Grandma to shine. If that’s not your style, a polar fleece jacket will work well too.
The Columbia Fast Trek II Jacket is a great example of a fleece that’ll keep you warm without weighing you down. While it’s on the expensive side, it has an adjustable waistband that helps keep drafts out and your body heat in.
When you’re looking at mid-layers, be considerate about your legs. Leggings or fleece pants are better at insulating and are easier to deal with when wet than something like jeans.
Best Outer Layer Clothing for Cold Weather
Your focus for the final layer is deflecting wind and water (including snow). For this layer, the forecasted conditions usually determine what the best layer is. If you know it’ll be freezing and have minimal rain or snow, a down jacket is a good idea. It’ll give you plenty of extra warmth without weight or bulk.
However, if you’re going to be somewhere snowy or damp, a jacket with a synthetic filling is better. You’ll also want it to be rated as water-resistant or water-proof. Resistant is better for letting your sweat evaporate, but water-proof is best if there will be heavy precipitation.
Best Cold Weather Clothing Brands
There are a handful of well-known brands that have excellent cold-weather performance, but most of them also have a hefty price tag. Patagonia, REI, The North Face, and Canada Goose are excellent brands for warm parkas and coats, but a shell layer will run you at least $200 for any of these brands.
Columbia, LandsEnd, and LL Bean are good mid-range alternatives, though their heavier-duty winter gear can be expensive too. Second-hand stores and army surplus outlets are a good bet for finding high-quality winter wear on a budget. However, if you’re spending a lot of time outdoors in the cold, the investment in a top-tier coat is worth it.
Tips To Stay Warm in Freezing Weather
Aside from keeping yourself prepared with the right layers, there are some other ways to keep toasty in the cold.
For starters, make sure your hands, feet, and head are taken care of. If your jacket doesn’t have a hood, wear a good hat that covers your ears. Wool socks and insulated gloves are a good bet too. (Also read: Is It Safe To Hike in the Winter?)
Mittens let your fingers share warmth, so they’ll be warmer than gloves in every scenario. If you have to have your fingers free for dexterity, you can wear a thin pair of gloves inside your mittens so that you don’t have to expose your fingers to below-freezing temperatures.
Finally, change your layers as soon as your comfort level changes. Wearing too many layers will lead to sweating, which can cool you down just as quickly as not wearing enough layers to begin with. The point of layers is to adjust to your environment, so take advantage of the system.
Keeping warm in extreme cold weather is easy with a little preparation. The right layers for the temperature and precipitation will keep you snug and warm even when the thermometer drops below zero. You don’t have to spend a fortune on your outfits, either. Layer pieces you already have with thrift store finds, and you’ll be both cozy and economical.
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Erick is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast. Growing up in Nairobi Kenya and now calling Glasgow, United Kingdom home. Sipping on homemade spiced swahili tea and enjoying a good book is his idea of bliss.