Dressing for Cold Weather Activities: The Basics of Layering

IMG_20141107_214011-1This week on CBC Edmonton AM we covered the what to wear for activities in the cold. As Edmontonians we’ve probably all had this happen at some point in time: you look out the window and it’s sunny and bright but when you step out the door a massive gust of cold air hits you like a sucker punch with a bag of ice. But we are Canadians. Instead of packing it in for the fall and winter we look the cooler temperatures straight in the eye and punk slap it in the face so hard El Nino shoots out of it’s ears. We embrace the cold. We thrive in it. This is our playground.

Frolicking in the frigid tundra requires a bit more planning ahead in order to ensure that we are dressed for exercise and activities in the cold. Our bodies lose heat in multiple ways which become far more apparent with dropping temperatures:

  • Thermal Radiation: we radiate heat into the air automatically.
  • Convection: wind of any intensity pulls heat away from the body; this is very important with exposed skin.
  • Conduction: direct contact with a cold surface or liquid – your hot booty transfers heat to the cold surface.
  • Evaporation: sweat is meant to draw heat away from the body.

Clothing is meant to slow these types of heat loss by keeping sweat and moisture away from the skin, trapping the heat produced by your body, preventing contact with cold surfaces or liquids, and preventing air from pulling heat away from your body. Cold weather gear is a bit more of an investment because it needs to balance all four factors; it needs to vent air and moisture while preventing the loss of heat with exposure. Staying warm, but not too warm, and dry is the key. I had a chat with David Arsenault from Campers Village and he suggested these best tips and tricks when dressing for exercise in cooler temperatures:

1) Dress in layers and bring more layers for times when you’re inactive:

For the most part you should have three layers while active:

Base Layer: serves to wick moisture from direct contact with your body to keep you dry. The layer should be tight fitting like long underwear or long sleeved shirts and made of fabrics like polyester, and merino wool.  Avoid cotton since it stays wet and near your skin.

Mid Layer: this is the insulating layer that traps air and heat close to the body. The layer can be made of natural (wool or down) or synthetic (fleece or polypropylene) fibers. Ultimately the choice of fibers depends on the type of activity and weather conditions: down is great for insulation in dry cold but wool is great for damp conditions, and synthetics are generally better for moisture management while active.

Top / Shell Layer: serves to protect from wind, rain or snow.  The weather conditions and activity type will determine the amount of weather proofing and breathability needed for this layer.  Shells can be: waterproof and breathable (more expensive), water-resistant and breathable, an insulated shell, or a soft shell made which is ideal for aerobic activity if the weather permits.

These layers apply to hands, feet, and your head too. A bit of air cushioning between these layers is essential since it air itself acts to insulate. If the layers are all sandwiched together it actually decreases the insulating properties.

2) Dress 10 degrees warmer than the temperature reading:

Most clothing and their temperature ratings do not account for body heat and sweat generated in combination with the venting that is created with movement. Although you might be a bit cold for the first five minutes in dressing for a warmer temperature, you will not overheat as quickly.

3) Bring extra layers for pre and post activity when you are resting:

It is important to trap the body heat before and after exercise to prevent yourself from cooling down too quickly. The extra layer is great to have at hand so you can put it on right away instead of dashing into a cold car and huddling by the heating vents.

4) Make sure all of your layers fit together and are comfortable:

This almost sounds too obvious but many of us purchase individual pieces without thinking of how the clothing layers and reacts with the other ones. For instance, if you buy a top shell that just fits snug on your body it probably will not fit with layers underneath – or you’ll look like a balloon and you won’t be able to move.

5) All of these tips may not apply to people from warmer climates:

We all have relative perceptions of what is considered cold. Imaging if you came from a climate average 30 degrees Celsius with humidity no adaptation time to five degrees – you’d be wearing a pretty thick sweater or a winter jacket. Bodies need to adapt to the cooler temperatures and that is one of the reasons why it’s great to stay outside and active during the fall season.

With respect to most intense active outdoor activities Dave also pointed me towards cross-country ski gear as an outer shell. This type of clothing has a wind and water protective font while having a well ventilated back which is ideal for running and other sports where the air generated and wind generally comes head on. Many sports clothing companies are coming out with an aerobic winter line now a days so it is definitely good to shop around for what fits the best and what is within your budget. Don’t blow your fun budget on the most expensive gear and be left out in the cold with nothing to do!

About Chris Tse

I’m a scientist turned owner of Blitz Conditioning, a Fitness Columnist at CBC Radio on Thursdays at 8:20 am, and owner of Tse Social Strategy. Follow me on Twitter or Read my full bio.

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