If you are like me you have just made it through the summer and fall hiking seasons and saw that first bit of snow or bitterly cold weather and are now stuck in decision time. One hand is the glories of snow covered peaks and forests and the other the nice warm couch. We have come way to far to retreat back to the comforts of the couch just because Jack Frost has come around!
Winter hiking and snow shoeing can be a lot of fun, or so I have been told, but if you aren’t prepared for the cold weather it can turn miserable and even dangerous in an instant. Warmth is one of the most important steps to making you outdoor adventures enjoyable in the cold winter months.
Joining me today is Corbin Clement. Corbin is the Traffic Manager – North America for Salomon and likes to spend his time outdoors sport climbing, mountain biking, and snowboarding.
What is Salomon
Salomon has been an innovative force in winter sports since they were founded in 1947. They invented ski bindings that made their way to the Olympics in 1966 and by 1972 they were the #1 seller of bindings in the world.
Fast forward to 2018 and Salomon affiliated athletes captured 18 medals in the Winter Olympics. Before you ask, no the Fatman was not one of those Olympic medalists but maybe soon if I keep hiking! For 73 years they have been perfecting winter sport and leisure and I am happy to have Corbin with me today. For more on the history of Salomon you can click here.
Disclaimer: I have an advertising affiliation with Salomon and any purchase you make by clicking on one of the links on this page could result in me receiving a small commission.
Winter sport risks.
Fatman: Winter can be a beautiful time to get into the outdoors but can bring with it some serious dangers. What are some things to look out for in regards to health if you aren’t prepared to be outside in the colder months?
Corbin Clement, Traffic Manager North America, Salomon: First thing that comes to mind is volatile weather, especially in the mountains. You won’t have thunderstorms like during summer months, but storms come in unannounced just the same.
If there are hazardous weather conditions, it’s also likely less people will be around to come to your aid (especially compared to summer), so ensure you are self-sufficient, have warm, layered clothing, with a fully waterproof shell. If camping overnight, you will need plenty of fuel as well. Water is tough to drink if it’s all snow and ice.
Down, Wool, or Synthetic?
FM: There are many options when it comes to warm clothing. I think everyone has at least heard of down and wool. Could you tell me about the benefits of different materials, old and new, in staying protected from the cold.
CC: Modern textiles, both synthetic and natural (like wool and down), have as much R&D behind them as the electric car these days. Things have come a long way since the 70’s. Fibers are far lighter, dry faster, vent sweat better, and keep weather conditions at bay much more effectively than they used to. Natural materials are great insulators (down) and perfect for moisture management (wool), but are not waterproof, meaning they’re not a complete package. Layering should be completed with a shell for wind and water protection.
Wool (or a non-cotton poly-blend) is the ideal next-to-skin layer. It helps wick away sweat and water vapor, managing moisture, whether or not it’s a full bead of sweat. This is essential because cold temps cause condensation immediately, especially compared to how easy it is for sweat to evaporate during hot temps. Also, modern wool is soft and luxurious, not scratchy or itchy.
Down and wool are more expensive and have a few inferior qualities to synthetic materials, but natural fibers are also less prone to getting smelly, as they are naturally anti-microbial. Modern synthetic materials are treated or woven with silver or other methods to prevent the bacteria growth that causes the semi-permanent smell that older synthetics tend to build (like an old hockey bag, yuck!).
FM: As a hiker I need my clothes to be flexible with a good range of motion. Would layering be the best option here to reduce bulkiness and what is the benefits of dressing in layers?
CC: Layering is always the best option, other than being perfectly simple. To ensure range of motion and reduce bulkiness, be sure to pick clothes that fit well first. Luckily, materials are lighter AND thinner for the same general warmth, so things don’t need to be stiff and bulky.
Next, lots modern technical outerwear can be found with elastane, creating 4-way stretch, even fully waterproof shell materials. Keep an eye out for that, especially for activities like climbing, ski touring, or technical mountaineering.
Layering allows your apparel to be swapped around for any conditions you could encounter. Typically, layering is with three pieces: a baselayer for comfort and moisture management, a midlayer for insulation, and a shell to keep air from cutting through your sub layers and keep water out.
FM: What materials would be good for each layer?
CC: My favorite baselayer is a thin, wool long-sleeve like the Salomon Outpeak Wool hoodie. Wool is soft, comfortable, and rarely smelly.
My favorite midlayer is a hooded modern fleece (stretchy and with a waffle grid pattern) like the Salomon Essential Warm full zip fleece. Fleece is a classic material, but remains extremely light for the warmth it provides and allows moisture/vapor to pass through with ease.
I will wear a light down mid-layer for extremely cold temps and low exertion activities, but the material a down layer is made with will never breathe as effectively as a fleece, so I won’t wear down if I plan to sweat much unless it’s brutally cold and windy (think resort skiing in a blizzard).
My favorite shell is any fully waterproof, stretchy, ultra-light shell like the Salomon Outline jacket. Softshells are great (softer/stretchier) if you don’t plan on being in a downpour.
Old vs. New
FM: I remember growing up that I had these super bulky warm jackets for waiting at the bus stop. Are there now good warm jackets that are small enough to pack into a backpack if I get too warm? Is this function based on material?
CC: The nostalgia of a heavy, warm jacket is nice from time to time, but certainly not very useful for getting outdoors. Down is the best bet for warmth to weight and volume. The higher “fill power”, the warmer/lighter/more packable, the down will be. Synthetic insulators are never as light or packable.
FM: There is nothing worse than being cold AND wet. What type of materials are best for waterproofing my outer layers to make sure that I don’t get soaked in the snow?
CC: A “hard” shell (as opposed to a softshell) is the most waterproof outer layer offered. It is typically 2- or 3-layer material, with fully taped seams, and rating of 20k/20k or higher. Two layer is lighter and softer, while 3L is more durable.
There really are not any good aftermarket coatings for boosting a jacket’s waterproof properties. If seams are not taped and the textile is not waterproof, the jacket will never be waterproof. Coatings like DWR only help water to bead-up in light rain or short-lived water exposure.
A DWR-coated shell with no waterproof membrane will not keep you dry in the mountains and it can be dangerous to make that mistake. Hypothermia in a 35 degree rainstorm happens fast when you are soaked and have no shelter.
FM: I see all sorts of ratings on Down. Could you explain the difference between Down Fill Power and Down Weight and the benefits?
CC: A down rating with a higher number has greater “fill power”. Fill power refers to how much volume, in cubic inches, an ounce of down will fill. Down with greater loft will achieve a greater fill power (a higher number)—same weight/more “filling”.
The trapped air is what keeps the wearer warm, as air is a terrible conductor. The more warm air you can keep trapped around you, the warmer you will stay. Down with a 900 fill power rating is pretty much the top of the scale, but can become pricy. It’s best to understand how cold you tend to be and what activity you’re doing to make a decision on how much you are willing to spend.
FM: A lot of talk about jackets but let’s move to the legs now. After putting on a good pair of wool thermals as a base layer, what should I look for in pants to keep me warm and dry if I’m walking through the snow.
CC: Pants work just the same as upper body materials, but layering is more difficult, as you have to remove shoes to change pants. A nice baselayer and a shell material work best to manage moisture. Choose pants with built-in insulation if you tend to get cold. If you plan to sweat ditch the insulation, but be sure the shell pant layer has adequate vent zippers on the inseam.
FM: I have heard of people talking about gaiters that hook to your boots to keep snow from falling in. Could you explain what these are and how they help.
CC: Salomon has a few great options for gaiters and these are essential for mountainous or glacial hiking/snowshoeing, especially in the spring when the snow surface is softer or mushier. If you’ve hiked in snow before, you know how quickly snow gets in at your ankle, especially when the snow is deep. It will pull up your pant leg and dive right in against your sock, soaking your feet. Gaiters keep the pant leg down and the snow out, so feet stay dry.
FM: My hands are always freezing when I hike and it seems like the wind cuts through my gloves. Are there gloves that are better for wind? Do gloves have a temperature rating? Should I use a base layer glove under a thicker glove? Basically tell me all about gloves!
CC: I tend to prefer mittens unless I need dexterity, as mittens are warmer. Gloves generally don’t have temp ratings, but are made with varying weights of insulation. A very thin base layer glove works well within an insulated and waterproof glove and is nice to have when you pull off the big glove for using things like a cell phone or tying laces.
Most base-layer gloves have touchscreen compatibility. Wind shouldn’t be able to cut through a glove if it’s rated as waterproof, which most winter gloves are. Hands are the most difficult part of the body to keep warm, so follow the same practice as the upper body: thin base-layer and a high-loft, waterproof material to keep as much air trapped around your hand as possible and keep water out.
Corbin, thank you so much for helping out with such good information. I have done a couple of cold weather hikes and I can say first hand how important staying warm is. I have been absolutely miserable on beautiful hikes because I wasn’t prepared. Preparation goes a long way in enjoying any hike. Thanks again.
If you are interested in Salomon products it is the perfect time to get geared up before the winter. As part of the their Cyber Week offer: Take 25% off apparel, gear, and footwear, now through December 4!
If you are interested in more of my Getting Started Guides you can find them on my Thoughts page. I have smarter folks than me answering questions on Exercises, Recovery, Hydration and Snacks, Water purification, and even some diet information and much more.
If you have a suggestion on a future guide or any other comments feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow me on any of the below social media platforms. Happy Hiking!