4 Myths About Staying Warm Outdoors

Emily Woodhouse Big Adventures, Living Adventurously, Practical Advice

Okay, remember this post just before my Scotland winter trip? Remember how I was talking about needing an EVEN WARMER layer than my belay jacket?

Well, before I decided to splash any cash, I thought I’d do a little bit of research. Several interesting articles later (including this great blog post by Becky Coles), I figured I probably didn’t need an uber-down jacket just yet. Instead it was time to experiment.

Here are the results of my human guinea-pig tests. I’ve packaged them into a friendly 4 Myth format, so let’s get started busting some myths.

Myth 1: More Layers = More Warmth

I took exactly the same set of layers to Scotland as I took to the Lake District. Believe it or not, I don’t have that much kit. I often wish I had more, because washing gets complicated when you wear things weekly! My clothes list includes:

  • winter baselayer (HH Merino)
  • 2x micro fleeces (Berghaus or Mountain Hardwear or Craghoppers)
  • belay jacket (Rab, pertex)
  • waterproof jacket (Mountain Equipment)
  • thermal leggings (cheap long johns)
  • walking trousers (Kilpi)
  • waterproof trousers (Berghaus, rarely wear)

I also had  a hat, buff, big gloves and a pair of merino liner gloves – my only new bit of kit for the trip. During the days out walking, I switched around which layers I was wearing, when I put them on and how easily accessible my “accessories” were (that’s hat etc). At first I felt like I was massively faffing, but very soon I had a system.

The Results

After reading about the power of keeping your wrists warm, I did also try wearing an arm warmer (for cycling) on one arm all day. The results were not significant. I couldn’t tell the difference and when asked which hand was warmer, friends chose the hand without the arm warmer on it…

Overall, I found myself consistently warm enough in my baselayer, 2 fleeces and a hat – whilst walking in normal snowy conditions. Unlike the Lakes when I felt cold wearing all the clothes I had.

There are several reasons for this – some will be coming in the following myths. The main reason is that I stopped trying to be warm and started trying to be comfortable. I never let myself get to the stage I was so hot I just had to stop and take a layer off.

Myth 2: You’re Keeping the Cold Out

Reading one of Andy Kirkpatrick’s blog posts about staying warm, I had a lightning bolt moment of understanding. It happened as I read the line:

  “… all you have to remember is that there is no such thing as cold – only the absence of heat.”

It’s all about trapping warm air. Your clothes are not a barrier against the cold. They’re a way of keeping in the warmth that your body creates. Just by existing, you are producing heat. This process is amplified in the outdoors, when you are exercising.

The more challenging bit in the mountains is that how much heat you produce changes with the terrain. If you are storming up a steep slope – that’s going to be hot work! But then you sit around having lunch, or enjoying the view from the summit.

The trick to managing this is to be intelligent about layering. Think about and pre-empt the terrain. I guess that’s where the mantra “be bold start cold” comes from. In the opposite way, put your belay jacket on as soon as you stop, to keep in as much of your warm air as possible.

Myth 3: Wearing a Waterproof Jacket Helps

In the Lakes in February, I began to think that my waterproof jacket needed re-proofing. The weather was snowing on the tops, or sometimes raining, but nothing torrential.

I would get down off the hill, take my waterproof off and find that my belay jacket was wet underneath. Typically this was down the front and middle, so I kind of assumed the zip was leaking. I’ve had the waterproof 4 years, so it is probably time for a reproof, but…

Happy Bunny (me) on Helvellyn Trig

What I learnt is something that we all know, but I hadn’t really thought about properly before. We all know that waterproof jackets aren’t as breathable as other clothing. Typically, a jacket is either very waterproof or very breathable and not both.

What does that mean? It means that it’s harder to regulate heat under the jacket. So you start sweating to try to cool yourself down. And sweat is the enemy, because as soon as you stop any dampness is going to make you feel cold quickly.

I was wearing too many layers under my waterproof, which was making me sweat, which made me feel cold when I wasn’t walking uphill. So I put another layer on underneath and continued the cycle…

During our trip to Scotland, I only put my belay jacket on when we stopped. If I was wearing a waterproof jacket, I would put the belay on OVER it and then take it back off as soon as we started moving.

Myth 4: You need Super-Fancy Kit

A fleece is a fleece. Hats, gloves, buffs or scarves or snoods are all the same really. You can do a heck of a lot with layers of fleeces. I spent my entire teenage years walking around Dartmoor in:

  • a stretchy polyester top from Gap
  • Tesco micro fleece
  • thicker fleece that came inside my waterproof (2-in-1)
  • oversized Mountain Warehouse waterproof that I could grow into – actually I think it was men’s because I didn’t want to wear pink.

My accessories included: a random Thinsulate hat, a pair of Tesco ski gloves and an actual real Buff. I was never seriously cold (except when the gloves got wet or the waterproof just wasn’t).

Compare that to my list of gear now. Okay, the belay jacket was a bit of a game changer in the snow. Similarly, discovering a waterproof jacket that is actually waterproof (I have had several iterations in between). But really, you can go a very long way without having to splash cash.

The key thing is to avoid materials like cotton or denim, that suck up water and hold it there. Like we’ve said about sweat, you want to get rid of it as quickly as possible. That’s why synthetic materials and wicking-type fabrics really help. Don’t get sucked down the gear snobbery route (unless you want to). It’s not about the brand, it’s about what it does for you.

Hope this was helpful – feel like I waffled a bit. If you’d like clarification on anything, let me know in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer.