by Andy Dappen and WenOut board members
Finally I’m beginning to sympathize with my wife who has been a cold body for much of her life. For decades I’ve exuded heat, but age is making me soft. For physiological reasons that the Supreme Being really ought to rethink, it’s just so much harder to stay warm with each successive decade past the age of 40.
That being said, winter is way too much fun to avoid. People who downhill ski, backcountry ski, cross-country ski, snowshoe, ice climb, or bicycle in winter understand this. So whether you’re naturally an ice block or an aging lava flow, the trick is not to avoid these sports because you’re uncomfortable but to cloth yourself properly. Many sports have specialty items to stave off the cold, but here’s a bundle of broad-spectrum items recommended by some of our local winter enthusiasts that cuts across most winter sports whether that be skiing, climbing, running, or bicycling.
Uphill Gloves. Whether you’re snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, Nordic skiing, mountain biking, or winter hiking, most winter outdoor sports benefit from a thin, synthetic ‘uphill’ glove to keep your hands warm enough but not too warm when you’re exercising heavily. One of the most important yet most ignored features of such gloves is perfect fit. On one side of perfect fit is the dexterity of the glove to do most of your tasks (manipulating zippers, operating cameras, pushing phone buttons, manipulating straps) without removing your gloves. On the other side of perfect fit is getting absolutely no constriction from the glove around the back of your hand or around your fingers because a glove that is a penny too tight ends up being a dollar too cold. Finally, most winter sports bring hands in frequent contact with ski poles, ice axes, or handle bars – all of which have the nasty habit of biting holes into gloves, particularly in the crook between the thumb and index finger. I’ve worn out dozens of uphill gloves over decades of skiing but Outdoor Research is the manufacturer whose different models of uphill gloves seem to deliver best on all these fronts. My all-time favorite uphill glove was OR’s Omni Glove which, alas, was discontinued some years ago. However I’ve also used and loved several pair of OR’s Gripper Glove ($55). The Gripper has been in the company’s line for 20-plus years and each generation of the product gets increasingly refined. The Gripper has good dexterity, excellent fit, excellent warmth for the weight thanks to the Windstopper microfleece that reduces heat loss to wind, and superior durability due to the use of more durable synthetics throughout the palm. The value on this glove is excellent if you remember the company’s Infinity Warranty – wear the product out (hardcore users eventually will) and the company will repair or replace the glove. Really.
Downhill Mitten Shells and Liners. As go your hands, so goes the rest of you. That’s a more refined way of saying that if you can’t keep your hands warm, the rest of you is screwed. So many things you need to do in winter – dig gear from your pack, manipulate navigation tools, start a fire, start stoves, and use the tools of your sport all rely on your hands. So when you lose use of hands to the cold, your abilities and safety are cut in half. My approach to hand warmth when I’m no longer headed uphill and generating kilowatts of heat through exercise is modular. The outermost layer is a Gore-Tex mitten shell like Outdoor Research’s Mt. Baker Mitten Shell ($99) which is lightweight yet durable, breathable yet waterproof, and has a strap across the back of the wrist allowing the shell to cinch up if you’re just wearing your uphill glove under it or expand if you’re wearing a thick mitten liner for added hand warmth. There are lots of little details to this puppy from loops to pull them on easier to drawstrings to clamp them firmly to your forearms, to their ergonomic cut to the Infinity Warranty (see above) that makes them worth the price. Along with the Baker Mitten Shell for the outer layer, I use Dachstein boiled-wool mitten liners ($60) to keep hands warm while at rest or while winter camping. I used these old-world wool liners as a kid growing up skiing, migrated away from them thinking new-world synthetics must surely be better, and eventually migrated back to them when I realized 60 years of human innovation with synthetics is still falling well short of the natural byproducts derived from millions of years of evolution. These boiled-wool liners from Austria maintain their loft and warmth even if you get them wet. In fact, even if you don’t use them with a waterproof outer shell (which is recommended) they can be crusted with snow and ice on the outside and completely comfortable inside. Until someone makes a boiled alpaca wool mitten liner, these are arguably the warmest hand gear going for the weight and are optimal for the range of cold weather we experience in Central Washington.
The Greatest Socks of All? Between Bridgedale and Darn Tough socks, there are a few brands of wool socks blended with some nylon that are warm, extremely durable, and all-around great products. That being said, for me the greatest of all — the Mohammad Ali of the sock world — is the medium-weight, crew-height Prevail ($22) made by Altera Alpaca. The alpaca fiber is hollow and tests prove it to be warmer and more water resistant than wool – making it a better insulator whether your sock is wet or dry. The fiber is also softer and more comfortable than wool. To increase the durability of the Alpaca fiber, the yarn for the Prevail is blended with a small percentage of nylon. Regardless of the natural fiber being used (wool, cotton, or alpaca), without some nylon blended into the mix, socks will wear out quickly – anyone who has expensive 100-percent Smart Wool socks will have discovered this blend really isn’t so smart. Throw in a little nylon, however, and the Prevail alpaca sock just keeps going and going. Not only do I use these socks for all forms of skiing, I use them at home as slippers. It takes years of daily indoor use to spring a hole in them, which is strong testimony to how tough they are. On top of that, these socks come with a lifetime guarantee similar to the Infinity Warranty described above so if they spring a hole after years of use, mail them in for a replacement pair. That makes the Prevail more than a great pair of socks—they’re also a good deal.
Note from the Editor: We asked some of our team members to chime in on what their favorite Winter gear is, see their responses below.
Gary Kamen: Puma Men’s Sport Socks sold at Costco. Cost for a pack of eight pairs is $12.99 which is less than $2 a pair. As a runner, I go through socks quickly. An 8-pack of Puma’s can usually last me two seasons, while other socks barely make it through one season.
Pete Teigen: An article of clothing that I totally underestimated but am remiss to leave at home when I snowboard, back-country tour, or cross-country ski is the Buff ($10-$32). It’s similar to the ones on the reality show Survivor and has become an integral part of my cold weather wardrobe. It keeps cold air from finding a way down my shirt, blocks the suns rays from burning my neck, prevents snow and freezing rain from burning my chin and cheeks, and often serves as a headband during spring conditions. It is a lightweight, easily compacts and requires no maintenance other than the occasional wash. Most models of the Buff are made of synthetic material (polyester microfiber) but there are also light- and medium-weight models made from merino wool that are particularly good for ultra chilly days.
Adam Vognild: Men’s Trailbreaker Pants ($235) by Outdoor Research are a good choice for snow pants to Adam. They are durable with cool features like a beacon clip and power strap holes in powder gaiter. They have great ventilation, a very breathable softshell material and they have the perfect weight of materials (durable and waterproof).
On the negative side, sizing can be tricky for some individuals. Adam uses a ‘Small’ and although the thighs are a touch tight, the waist is perfect. Otherwise, Adam says he loves these pants.
Chester Marler: High on the list are my OR Revel shell mitts. No lining, simple waterproof/breathable fabric—super light. I use various thicknesses of liner mittens depending upon temp. One pair are old knitted wool ones made by my mother in the 1960s—still good. Even high quality OR gloves do not keep my fingers warm enough when it’s below 20 degrees.
My soft shell touring pants for below 20 degree weather are by Sherpa Adventure Gear. Breathable highly water resistant fabric with a substantial fleece lining. This way I can tour in warmth without using long underwear—I don’t like the tightness of long underwear, plus they tend to overheat. But the Sherpa Nilgiri pant allows my skin to breathe. Great! When the weather is in the 20s I wear my Core Concepts pant made from Schoeller cloth with a much thinner lining—but still adding warmth. In spring-like days I prefer a pair of Cloud Veil pants without a lining—straight Schoeller cloth. Just right.
My base layer upper is usually a merino wool zip top, long sleeve. Because that is usually not enough below 20, I add a Patagonia R-1. When it’s time to remove skins and obtain some fuel, I pull out my light down jacket by Mammut (and I’m thinking about finding a thicker one). A shell doesn’t suffice, although I always have one on if it’s breezy. Ten years ago I didn’t bother bringing the down—I had an extra fleece that was light. But now I always carry the down, and use it often. Being cold does not make a happier ski tourer.
My feet are sensitive to the cold (capillary damage from abuse many years ago from cold/frozen leather boots) so I tour in boots that have a nice, warm liner. Mine are Scarpa Maestrale. I wear thin socks so I don’t unduly compress my feet. Boot liners provide the majority of the warmth.
For my head I carry at least two different weights—a thin merino wool skullcap for uphill in the cold, and a thicker synthetic for the real cold or if I should have to inadvertently spend the night. Both are handy so I can easy make a quick change.