Sunday, May 9, 2010

How to: Pack the Right Clothes for Cold Temperatures

In their guidebooks, Lonely Planet loves to say “take half the clothes and twice the money.”

Okay. Good advice. But from all the massive backpacks I've seen on the road, not a lot of people have figured out how to take half the clothes.  A bit of knowledge can lead to a clothing system (yes, system) that really does let you get rid of half the clothes while not sacrificing function.

This post is about the bulkiest part of any travel wardrobe: the cold temperature clothing. Even when going to a warm destination, I've found that having my cold temp system comes in handy. It's kept me warm atop a windy (and erupting) volcano in Guatemala, an ice cave while traveling in Slovakia and has even saved my ass in, of all places, Egypt in July, when a jet powered air conditioner on an overnight bus dropped the temperature to just above freezing.

[At Right: Staying warm on a windy volcano in Guatemala]
Now, if you have a lot of money, you can buy specialized gear that folds into a matchbox and makes you spontaneously combust while wearing it, but this blog is not only about having travel gear that's not only light, but cheap.  Which is why knowing how gear works can let you make smart choices instead of spending money for magical gear.

How Cold Weather Gear Works

The reason a sweater or fleece keeps you warm is because their fibers trap air, creating air pockets that your body heats up. It is these warm air pockets that keep you toasty. Their primary enemy is water (particularly sweat), which collapses them.

Actually, sweat period is a heat-killer. Not only does it collapse air pockets, but it conducts heat away from your body.  That's its purpose. But if you're active in a cold environment (say, climbing Mount Arat at night to watch the sunrise), then the sweat you're producing is actually going to kill your ability to keep warm once you stop moving.

So the goal is also to get your sweat away from your skin so it won't conduct your heat away.  Some fibers (like polyester) are fantastic about wicking sweat to the surface of the strand, letting it evaporate so that air pockets can reform. Other fabrics (like cotton) hold the water in their core, meaning they take forever to dry and the pockets stay collapsed. 

Additionally, one other enemy is attacking you at the same time: air. Wind hitting your sweater also collapses the air pockets and draws heat off your body, and even the air created by the bellows effect of walking destroys those pockets.

So in addition to trapping air and wicking sweat, you also need a fabric that will block wind and rain from getting to the air pockets. Ironically, the materials that do this best also keep water (your sweat) from getting out. So what you need is a fabric that is “breatheable”. What this means is that the fabric has microscopic holes that are big enough for water vapor to pass through but too small for water droplets to enter. This miracle fabric was once the patetented property of Gore-Tex, but that patent has expired and you can now get them cheaply from other companies.

So here we are. You need to wick sweat. You need to trap air. You need to block wind and rain. No fabric is good at doing all three, which is why you need a three piece system.

  1. Layer one: a short or long sleeve shirt that wicks sweat.

  2. Layer two: a fleece or sweater that traps air.

  3. Layer three: A waterproof/breatheable jacket.
Although many jackets are an air-trapping layer and a protection layer combined, I think it's better to buy a jacket that is just a thin shell.  That way it can serve as a light rain coat that you won't sweat to death in.  Buying three layers also lets you "layer up", putting on an additional layer the colder it gets.

Currently, my system is:
  1.        Wicker's Softsilk Long Sleeve Crewneck
  2.        Columbia Men's Fast Trek Full Zip Fleece    
  3.        Redhead Thunderlite Jacket
Although I do like Wickers, I'm not really partial to any brand.  I suggest looking for sales and finding the cheapest that will do the job.

Some tips:
  1. Since the wicking layer is often be worn as its own shirt, don't be afraid to get one that's stylish 
  2. Get the tightest-fitting fleece you can find.  It does it's job better when there is no air between the layers, and the smaller size means less bulk in your pack.  I actually asked my grandmother to size my fleece to me by taking material out along the hems.
  3. Make sure your jacket has a hood
  4. I prefer my jacket to be only a thin shell so it can serve as either a rain jacket or the protection layer.
  5. I also prefer my jacket to be able to zip into its own pocket so that it's easy to store in my pack.

No comments:

Post a Comment