Last Updated on February 28, 2019
How to Pack and Dress for Cold Weather!
I get cold. Even after years of winter training and racing, I still feel a nip in the air and scurry off to find layers if there’s a suggestion anywhere is going to be colder than 15 degrees C. I’ve learnt it’s better to start off with an extra thermal and be able to strip off if you’ve miss judged the weather than be quietly (or not) shivering unable to feel your fingers and toes. Québec City is renowned for extreme temperature variation over the space of 24 hours and particularly in the winter – a 20°C (30°F) drop on any given day is fairly common and we experienced a 16-degree difference between sunrise and lunchtime on one day, during our trip to Québec for the Winter Carnival. So packing for cold weather and making sure I was always dressed for a cold climate was particularly important!
So what do you wear in such extreme weather? A major factor to consider is the wind-chill effect (“facteur de refroidissement éolien”) which is given in weather reports daily in the region. Do not let the numbers scare you into staying indoors, however. A temperature of -29 degrees was reached on our visit but Québec winters are less humid than their European equivalent, making the cold very different, and more bearable, with the right clothing, than the bone-freezing ‘warmer’ cold you can experience in Europe.
You don’t have to pack as if you were attempting the Iditarod Trail Invitational, possibly the toughest ultramarathon race on earth and held in Alaska, but lessons can be learned from its participants with respect to durable, warm and light clothing. It is also good to keep an eye on the UK Outdoor Industry Awards winners, and their European equivalent, as well as sites such as that of the BMC (British mountaineering club).
Base layer for cold weather travels:
For men, it’s easy to just go straight to the compression polyamide/elastane (no itch factor) base layer top and bottom of choice, but for women who need to reduce impact stress, Under Armour provide a range of high impact bras that are adjustable and support the thoracic region. This area between the shoulder blades can be stressed in cold windy conditions where there is a tendency to hunch over. For the less well-endowed a seamless sports bra, with a racer back, will keep you comfortable. My personal favourite is a soft elastane knit by Columbia but I have seen similar cheaper versions in bargain shops. Do not wear anything underwired – not only will it be uncomfortable if it rubs, but metal conducts heat away from the body as it requires more energy to warm up, thus staying colder for longer.
Base layers that wick away sweat are a must but don’t have to be expensive to work – Aldi fleece lined tights can work well on a warmer day, under ski pants, as can simple thick yoga pants. In the temperatures we experienced, however, wearing thermal bottoms was very necessary, even under jeans.
Heat patterned base layers differ for men and women and this differentiation is more obvious in the more expensive brands. I have a favourite XBionic Silver base layer but have also found a cheaper Helly Hansen Lifa, A North Face Warm and a Craft Active top all very durable and reliable when worn in true cold climates. I do find that cheaper brands skimp on the arm length, particularly for women, so don’t be afraid to try a top on in the shop – for a base layer to do its job effectively, the material should sit flush with the skin, and not ride up on the arms.
Mid layer cold weather packing:
This is where a merino rich top with a zip neck comes to the fore. There a various merino ‘weights’ available but I’ve found a 50/50 merino synthetic mix works well for hard activity and an 80/20 for hiking etc. This combination of natural wool mixed with polyamide or polyester provides extra stretch for a better shape and durability, as well as the added benefit of not being as affected by being in the wrong wash as 100% merino is. The zip neck allows you to adjust the temperature and release the ‘cocoon’ of hot air created between your clothes and your neck gaiter.
Active layer for cold weather:
Depending on whether you are wearing a 3-in-1 jacket or just a top jacket, an active layer can be a gilet, a fleece, or it can be something more substantial. When I wore my ski parka (Napapijri) in Québec I also wore my lightweight synthetic down coat underneath, but I have a Rossignol softshell with stretch cuffs (my constant companion in winter months in the UK), which also fits well underneath this coat – very welcome when the windchill means I need extra protection. A windstopper layer also provides another pocket of air in your layers as well as providing you with extra pockets, ideal for a mobile phone. If you aren’t carrying your phone in a protective pouch or dry bag then keeping it close to your body will help keep the battery from dying in the cold.
My synthetic fill puffa jacket packs very small having a very good warmth to weight ratio. The compressibility also means that it’s a staple in my carry on case as it can double as a blanket or pillow on a plane. Mine is made by Stormtech, a Canadian company. I also always take my RockTheBoat waterproof activity fleece, made from two layers of fleece with a waterproof membrane bonded between the layers. It’s ideal for rainy/wet conditions and has the added benefit of longer sleeves with thumbholes to keep the chill at bay.
The Best Winter Jacket to pack for cold weather:
Your jacket is the last layer of your cocoon and should be one designed for winter, with some form of waterproofing, more usually Goretex. But not all Goretex is the same…and the permeability of a jacket to water is important when temperatures plummet as water cools the body faster than air. Thus wet clothes can give you hypothermia. I have a Patagonia ‘Snowbelle’ 3-in-1 jacket with Recco, H2No technology, and a brilliant hood system. Hoods are vital when the weather turns, which it can do rapidly, and you need to be sure yours fits over your bobble hat or you can detach your bobble! My parka is almost vintage but it has been waterproofed with NikWax wash several times. In-wash waterproofing is a godsend and keeps your kit in good working condition.
Buy a jacket that you can fit layers underneath and play around with the layers to find what works comfort wise before you travel. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’ve been stuff sacked into your clothes and importantly it prevents the creation of air gaps that trap heat generated by the body. Do buy from a reliable source – I have heard of arctic training expedition scuppered because one individual purchased a jacket that was a fake. Taped seams are a must. Water can penetrate quickly and drying clothes takes time and can be difficult, particularly when travelling around.
Most guides wear softshell trousers for a reason – even the non-membrane type are showerproof, windproof and stretch to allow for flexible movement, for all adventures. My softshell’s are ski pants made by Roxy, with a female cut, bought from a bargain warehouse for £10. These have been used in several different types of sport, over the last few years. They would be hard to replace but if I had to then I would look to Decathlon, Arc’tyrex and Rab, all manufacturers producing legwear ideal for ski touring as well as hiking and mountaineering, with good durable water repellent properties. Decathlon, however, is considerably cheaper than the other two makes.
When you’re playing like a five-year-old in the deep snow in Québec you need ski pants or trousers with an inner gaiter, to prevent snow travelling up the inside. Deep snow can act like a giant mattress so I dare anyone not to try just falling in it, whilst, when out back-country snowshoeing you might find a leg ‘disappears’ into a pocket of less compacted snow, which you would then have to dig yourself out of. Trousers are a vital piece of clothing so do take time to find the right pair, length and fit wise, and do consider those with braces against those with adjustable waists.
Cold Weather Socks:
Do not skimp on your socks. I cannot stress this enough. Cold feet will literally stop you in your tracks and it’s not just the pain of them getting cold but the pain of them warming up and, possibly, the resulting chilblains. A minimum cover for your feet, around or a degree or two below zero, is a good pair of long ski socks. Again a mix of wool and man-made fibres increases durability. I have a pair of XBionic ski-light socks that have taken me through mountain marathons as well as the Québec winter, but Aldi do a good wool/silk mix pair and their long motorcycle socks are a brilliant cheap alternative, which I have used extensively.
For extreme temperatures a second pair of socks is vital, and I use SealSkinz socks in a size larger than normal or a pair of hiking cuff length socks over the top of the long socks, not under. This allows you to remove them if your feet get too hot and helps prevent chaffing as the outer layer can be adjusted according to pressure points in your boots.
Again it is important to check how your boots feel with the thicker double layer if you are used to a single layer of sock.
Gloves – what to pack for cold weather:
A two-layer system of gloves is a good idea so that your hands are still protected when you take the outer layer off. Thus either a silk or man-made fibre running type glove worn under a windstopper soft shell outer with some form of insulation is a good combination.
Single layer articulated ski gloves on warmer days are good but against severe biting wind, the only real chance some people have of keeping their fingers warm is to wear mittens which keep the fingers together and trap air around. Your hands freeze very fast once exposed to temperatures below -10 so you learn quickly how to take on and put back on your gloves. It’s also an idea to wear any rings on a chain around your neck.
I personally have ski gloves with leather inserts, which are useful if you are doing something where you have to hold on to a handle, such as a Skidoo. I picked up that trick having learnt from riding a motorbike which type of glove helps me cope with the cold. My fellow travellers stuffed hand warmers inside their gloves but you could buy a Berghaus heatcell glove if you were particularly prone to cold hands and wanted the comfort.
The Best Footwear for sub-zero temperatures:
There is a reason why all Canadians I know own a pair of Sorrel boots. Simply put, they are designed for the type of weather you will get in Canada, with a waterproof foot, an adjustable upper and a cosy lining. Consider these features when buying a good pair of Goretex hiking boots for use on your Québec adventure. You should be able to walk in your boots for a day without any problem – so it’s a good idea to have ‘dry run’ in them before you travel. Again, like the second pair of socks, you might have to go for a size larger than your normal shoe size.
I used a pair of Goretex Salomon boots which I have previously used training on Dartmoor, but I also took a pair of slightly longer leg Sorrel boots. I used both pairs on the trip, with the Sorrels working well whilst walking around Québec City and the Salomon’s being perfect for snowshoeing in, because of the greater ankle flexibility and arch support.
Accessories for cold weather travels:
A neck gaiter and/or a balaclava is a must for your suitcase. I use gaiters on a daily basis in the UK as I run and cycle and have different types for different levels of exertion. I thus layered my neck clothing, using a bandana scarf under a Peter Storm heavyweight fleece motorcycle gaiter on some days and a dual material Buff on others. Bargain stores do good cheap fleece neckwear in bright colours, which are fun, but a motorcycle balaclava or gaiter is a great investment.
A hat or head covering is a vital piece of winter clothing as well as being a fashion statement. I don’t own a wool bobble hat, as such, because I don’t look that great in them, but do have a peaked wool and synthetic mix beanie that combines a normal baseball cap brim with a warm windstopper toque. These are known as Belgian cycling caps and are used under cycling helmets, with the added benefit of keeping the tops of your ears warm!
A collapsible drinks bottle is a useful addition in a world where we are trying to reduce plastic use and the Katadyn BeFree is a good travelling basic as it has a filter in the drinking head. Other travelling basics include lip balm, which can also help with chaffing, and sunglasses because snow reflects sunlight, even on an average day. I would also recommend taking reusable hand warmers, which can be reactivated using hot water from a kettle – mine have fake fur covers so double the comfort and are more ecologically sound than the disposable ones.
Finally, a good daypack is a useful addition to your kit, even if it’s just holding your water bottle and a first aid kit when you’re out and about. If the weather is warmer than expected you can stuff a mid-layer in it. It doesn’t have to be an expensive brand – again the cheap supermarkets have own brand versions of day packs – but I did see a lot of Osprey rucksacks in Canada. A little bit of Californian tech in the northern snow.
Finally, what you can’t pack…
When you’re out and about, do take in the scenery and take a note of the local architecture, also adapted to the environment. I have family in North America and am thus used to the basement being the hub of the house, and verandas fronting the house, which are walked up to. Studies have shown that earth-sheltered houses, designed in this way, are more cost-effective to maintain at a comfortable temperature, in climates that have significant temperature extremes. Earth temperatures vary much less than air temperatures, which means the earth can absorb extra heat from the house in hot weather or insulate the house, keeping it warm, in cold weather. The elevated veranda means houses are still accessible in deep snow. The design has been used for thousands of years in the form of Indian sod houses.
Wearing the right clothing should give you the chance to look around and enjoy the environment – whether you are exploring the vast frozen Canadian parkland, walking across a snow-covered frozen lake or wandering through the streets of Québec. And, hopefully, my cold weather packing recommendations will be useful to you, wherever you are planning to travel.
Pin this post for future reference when you are travelling somewhere cold!
I travelled as a guest of the Québec Tourist Board