Monday, March 4, 2013

My Winter Backpacking and Bushcraft Clothing

You recently saw my three season clothing. It is the main component of my winter clothing system as well, so if you have not read it, please have a look here.

Before I get into details about the actual clothing, I want to go over some issues that I see with the more traditional approach to winter clothing. In large part, my separation from that approach and what I see as a very limited and somewhat outdated method to winter clothing selection is what has lead to the system that I currently use. For more background on the theory, you can see my post here.

I have read it many times, and it is said fairly often that winter is a time of limited mobility because exerting yourself will cause you to sweat, which admittedly is a large problem when the temperatures are low. This seems to be the predominant view on winter clothing and activity in the bushcraft community. As a result most trips involve pulling a sled or carrying a massive pack over a very short distance, then setting up camp. As I mentioned, I think that is the result of an outdated approach to winter clothing.

There are two dominant approaches within the current methodology, at least in the bushcraft community, that seem to control and inform winter clothing selection. The first is to wear the usual layers (base, insulation and shell) with a large, heavy outer coat like the army surplus parkas. The second is to have the same base layer, then a large amount of insulation, possibly in numerous layers, covered by an oversized shell jacket like an anorak. Both approaches focus on wearing enough clothing to be warm in winter when you are sitting in camp. The unavoidable result is that once a person tries moving, he immediately overheats. At that point, with the first approach, the large heavy jacket is impossible to remove because its size prevent it from being stored in a pack, while with the second approach, having to remove layers from under the anorak and then put them back on when the movement stops is horribly inefficient and leads to much heat loss. As a result of that inefficiency, movement in winter ends up being very limited.

In an attempt to cope with these issues, people tend to mistakenly focus on two components as a panacea for the problems with the system. The first is breathability, and the second is the type of material of which the clothing is made.

It is often thought that if a material is breathable, then you will not overheat. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If your clothing traps too much heat, then you will overheat, you will sweat, and you will get wet. A breathable material does not magically dry you out. Put on a fleece or wool jacket in summer and see how dry you stay. For that matter, put on a simple breathable t-shirt and see how dry you stay after you do some jogging. A breathable material will allow for the movement of normal moisture regularly produced by the body, but if you are overheated, it will do very little for you. To add to the problem, in cold temperatures, breathability becomes less of a factor because the moisture from your body tends to freeze within the material before it has a chance of leaving the clothing. As a result, even breathable clothing will become saturated with moisture and ice.

Similarly, many think that a specific magical material will offer a solution to the problems. Every outdoor community has it’s own magical material, whether it be wool, fleece, Primaloft, Gore Tex, Ventile, etc. Each claims to keep you warm yet cool; be fully breathable yet fully waterproof. Ultimately none of them offer a solution. If improperly used within the system, or if the clothing system is improperly designed to begin with, then no material will fix the problems.

Instead, my solution has been to focus on selecting clothing with specific dedicated purposes and making sure it is properly designed for the task. The functionality comes from properly applying those components, not from the materials themselves. I prioritize the design of the clothing and its ability to be used efficiently.

My approach to winter clothing is centered on mobility rather than insulation for camp use. My system has two components. The first is the action suit. You can see all of its components in my three season gear. Depending on the temperature it may utilize both pieces of upper body insulation and the shell layer, but its ultimate goal is to provide just sufficient insulation and protection for when I am active. Often times that is very little. This light insulation or action suit allows me to move rapidly and exert myself without overheating.

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The second component of my system is designed to deal with the times when I am in fact stationary. Once movement stops, the heat produced by the body drops significantly. When stationary, much, much more insulation is needed to keep you warm than when moving. Because my system is centered around mobility, this insulation layer for stationary activity has to be stored for most of the time. This means it has to be light and compressible so that it fits in my pack. It also has to be designed so that it can be put on quickly when I stop so I don’t lose the heat my body has already generated, and it has to pack away quickly and easily when I am ready to keep moving.

So, now that theory has been covered, on to the details. Remember that I am starting with the components of my three season clothing as my insulation when mobile; it is my action suit. It is enough to keep me from freezing when moving. When I stop however, I add the secondary, heavy insulation which has so far been stored in my pack.

First, for my lower body I don’t use that much additional insulation. I find that if my core is protected and warm, my legs deal with the cold just fine. The only addition is a pair of mid weight Capeline thermal long johns that go under my pants. Also, in winter, since there is usually snow, I wear my shell pants, which provide some extra warmth. Some people like to carry a pair of zip on insulated over pants, and I thought about getting some, but I have not needed them so far.

The main insulation component of the winter system is a large jacket that gets put on over all of my other clothing. It is often called a belay jacket by climbers. It is just a very warm, lightweight, easily compressible jacket. Depending on the temperature, I use one of two jackets.

For temperatures between 32F (0C) and 0F (-18C) I use the Patagonia Dead Air Space (DAS) Parka.


It is a synthetic, Primaloft One fill jacket with 170 grams of insulation. It has a thin water repellant shell, and weighs 1 lb 13 oz for the medium size. At least, this was the 2012 model that I have. For 2013 it has gone through some redesigns including a change of insulation to 60 grams of Primaloft One and 120 grams of Primaloft Synergy. I’m not sure what the overall effect will be.

For temperatures below 0F (-18C) down to as far as I have courage to go – about –30F (-35C), I use the heavier, Eddie Bauer First Ascent Peak XV jacket.


The Peak XV is a down jacket. It uses 850 fill premium goose down, and has a very tough (I think unnecessarily so) cordura shell. The jacket weighs 2 lb 6 oz. I use the large one so that I can easily layer it over whatever I am wearing. The Peak XV is clearly heavier than the Patagonia DAS Parka, and it is not nearly as compressible. It fact, it compresses to the size of my three season synthetic sleeping bag. However, it is extremely warm and well designed.

Aside from the jackets, there are a few other items to talk about. One is the gloves. Other than the liner gloves mentioned in my three season clothing list, I carry the actual OR Arete gloves. Together with the liners, I find them warm enough for virtually any activity that requires my hands to be out of my pockets. The gloves have a Gore Tex shell, which keeps them dry – something I find very important.

The next item is gaiters. I have started using them all the time in winter as they keep the snow out of my boots and keep the bottoms of my pants dry. I use a pair of knee high (just under the knee) REI Havenpass eVent gaiters. I know that the OR Crocodile gaiters are very popular, but I didn’t like them because I find the attachment they use to connect them to the boot laces is pretty much useless. It is much better on the REI gaiters. The pair weighs 7.2 oz.

As far as boots, I use several different ones. For more detailed information, have a look here. For warmer winter weather, down to 0F (-18C) I use the same Solomon Quest 4D boots that I mentioned in my three season clothing. I just put on a thicker pair of socks. It the temperature gets colder than that, I use the Merrell Norsehund Alpha boots. They are a double boot that has a very good amount of insulation and a relatively stiff sole. If I will be doing any more technical travel that requires full crampons, I switch to the Scarpa Mont Blanc boots. They are a completely rigid mountaineering boot that can take automatic crampons. Because of its single boot design, I find it relatively comfortable to use over long distance travel. I typically use vapor barrier liners (VBL) with my boots in winter, which prevents the moisture from my feet from getting my boots and socks wet. I wear liner socks under the VBL.

And that’s it. It’s pretty straight forward. I use just the same clothing all year round with the few additions you see above. I’m sure others will disagree very strongly, but this is the system I have been using, and it is what has worked for me. I find it gives me great flexibility, and most importantly, allows me to be active during winter.

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