Enjoy the outdoors this winter – Dress to stay warm

Enjoy the outdoors even in cold conditions with this guide to staying warm.

Winter is here, but you don’t have to hibernate on the sofa with a blanket and hot drink until spring comes around, you can still enjoy the outdoors and Southern Africa’s truly impressive landscapes (although a comfy sofa and a steaming hot chocolate does have an appeal too).  The key to staying warm when it’s cold outside? Layers!

If you venture out in the cold, it is tempting to put on the biggest, thickest coat you can find and hope for the best.  This isn’t your best strategy, especially if you’re going to be active and you have a passing resemblance of the Michelin tyre man.  Wearing multiple thinner layers of clothing will work better at keeping you warm than one thick item of clothing because you trap a small amount of air between each of the layers.  This is great because air is a poor conductor of thermal energy (stay with me through the sciencey sounding bit) and will slow the amount of heat your body will lose to a cold environment and because the air is trapped between your clothes, once its warmed up it’ll stay put helping to keep you toasty.

The second benefit of layering clothing is that you can adjust how warm you are.  If you are going to be physically active, activities such as walking and working outside, your muscles generate heat as they work (fun fact – this is the reason that you shiver when you get cold).  The more heat you generate as you enjoy the outdoors, the hotter you’ll feel.  By wearing multiple layers, you can be nice and warm when you start out and then, as you heat up, you can remove layers to control how hot you feel.  This is vitally important as you do not want to get sweaty – firstly, it feels yucky and, secondly, sweat is the enemy of staying warm.  When you sweat, your skin will get damp which will lead to your clothing getting damp.  Now this is fine when you’re still active, but when you stop whatever activity you are doing that dampness will leave you feeling very cold very quickly – in a suitably cold environment it is a hypothermia risk.  Why? Water absorbs heat energy from your body as it evaporates (dries) which will cool your body temperature (sorry, more sciencey sounding stuff).  This is why we sweat when we’re hot, but if that moisture is still on your skin and clothing when you’re not hot any more, your body will continue to lose heat that it doesn’t need to and you will get cold.  The same theory applies to rain, snow, heavy dew and immersing yourself in water – to stay warm you must avoid getting wet.

A follow on point from reducing and increasing the number of layers you are wearing in order to control your body temperature is the winter weather patterns in many areas in Southern Africa.  During the winter there can be huge temperature variations between day and night – it is not unusual to encounter an overnight temperature in low single figures and a daytime temperature in the high teens accompanied by strong sunshine.  If you are outside in the early morning or late evening you are going to encounter cold conditions, but by lunchtime the weather could be much warmer.  Wearing layers allows you to navigate the temperature changes in the environment around you whilst maintaining a comfortable body temperature without an entire wardrobe of outfits.

So, what do we mean by layers?

Normally a layered clothing approach involves a base layer worn next to your skin, a warm mid-layer and a waterproof and wind proof outer layer.  In extremely cold temperatures a fourth layer can be included – another jacket between your mid layer and outer layer.  If you think about it, many of us use this layered approach in our day-to-day lives without realising – a shirt, a jersey and a coat is pretty standard winter wardrobe territory (we’re all cold weather geniuses without even knowing it, well, sort of).  If you are going to enjoy the outdoors, however, it is essential to think about the exact nature of all of these layers as it’s not easy to go somewhere cosy to warm up if you get it wrong – there’s no coffee shop half way along a hiking trail.

A good base layer should fit comfortably next to your skin and should be made of a fabric that is good at wicking perspiration away from your body.  In cold weather cotton isn’t a good choice as it absorbs water (sweat) and can really chill you.  Look for man-made fibres like polyester and fabrics that specifically mention wicking or the best choices for natural materials would be wool or silk.  In cold weather long sleeves are a definite, but if you are going to an area with warm daytime temperatures and strong winter sun, a short sleeve could still be an option.  Although keeping your core warm is ‘core’ to staying warm, if you are going to be out in the very cold then keep your legs warm with long base layer bottoms (ok, long johns).

Your mid layer is where your insulation comes in – the more efficiently heat is trapped by this layer, the toastier you will feel.  A fleece is a popular choice here – there are available in lightweight, mid weight and heavy weight (you might see these labelled 100, 200 and 300 to sound technical), they are breathable so less sweat will accumulate if you do get hot and they dry quickly if they get wet.  One thing to bear in mind is that fleece is not usually wind-proof and should be combined with a wind proof outer layer to prevent that nice warm air layer being blown away in a stiff breeze, although there are some fleeces available with a wind blocking lining.  Another mid layer choice is a jacket filled with a synthetic insulating material.  These will offer wind and water resistance via their outer shell and provide good insulation.  Down filled jackets are expensive but provide excellent insulation in a lightweight, easily packable and compressible format.  Their big down side is that their insulating properties are lost if they get wet – ducks have waterproof outer feathers to prevent this, your jacket doesn’t but that’s where your outer layer comes in.

The outer layer is your protection from wind and rain – in bad weather this layer allows all your other layers to work by preventing that precious warm air from being blown away and keeping your base and mid layers dry.  There are expensive tech-fibre jackets that are both waterproof and breathable at the same time which are excellent if your budget allows, but a simpler water repellent treated wind resistant jacket can also do a great job at keeping you warm and dry – just ensure that there is some ventilation to allow sweat to dissipate.

These layers are referred to as base, mid and outer but this doesn’t dictate any combinations that you may want to wear, circumstances should guide you as to what to put on or take off – feeling a bit warm in fine conditions? Take off your outer layer.  Encountering warmer but wet weather? Ditch the mid layer and keep the waterproof outer.  Hopefully common sense should tell you that the base layer stays put, but having said that, I have previously had to scrabble through a bag to find a t-shirt having underestimated the temperature Northern Limpopo can reach in July!

Don’t forget your head, hands and feet.

Contrary to popular opinion, your head doesn’t lose much more heat than any other part of your body, so wearing a good hat isn’t going to make up for not layering on your body.  It is another part of your body though and it’s one that really feels the cold, so it is still just as important to keep it warm with a hat as any other area.  It is also important to protect your ears in the cold, they are susceptible to poor circulation in icy conditions and there are some people (me) that find that cold and windy conditions can result in painful earache – a hat that you can pull over your ears is useful, or consider one with ear flaps (I have some ‘interesting’ hats in my collection, but it beats earache)

In cold conditions your body will prioritise blood flow around your core organs and reduce blood flow to extremities like fingers and toes in order to retain warmth.  It is therefore extremely important to protect your hands and feet with gloves and warm socks.  Remember that traditional wool gloves get soaked when handling things in wet or snowy conditions and your hands will then get COLD.  If you are likely to be using your hands a lot in cold and wet conditions then it’s definitely worth considering a water resistant glove.

Well fitting socks that don’t rub and fit inside your footwear without causing pinching are essential, especially if you’re walking any sort of distance.  It is also critical to keep your feet dry to keep them warm and to prevent skin problems (if you’re feeling brave, google trench foot – it’s up there with searching frostbite).  If you are outside in wet or snowy conditions or are going to have to cross streams or walk in boggy areas, then protect your socks (and your feet) with waterproof shoes or boots.

So, don’t let winter put you off – layer up, remember your fingers and toes and get out there. Go and enjoy the outdoors and all it has to offer, whatever the temperature.


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