How to Dress for Winter Survival Success

by Dave Steen

Going out in the wintertime can be dangerous, even when things are normal and you’re living at home. The cold winter weather can quickly sap your body’s heat, bringing you to the brink of hypothermia without notice. The one defense we have against the risks of cold weather is dressing properly to prevent the cold from winning the battle.

How to Dress for Winter Survival Success

How the Body Heats Itself

Before talking about clothing, I want to make sure we understand how the human body heats itself. Our clothing doesn’t do a thing to generate heat, it merely acts as an insulator to keep that heat inside our bodies, rather than radiating it into the cold air around us.

The body’s heat comes from the chemical reactions involved in breaking down food into energy and then using that energy. The heat produced is actually a by-product of the chemical reaction, albeit a by-product that we need. Glucose is considered by many to be the molecule that cells use for energy, but in fact, glucose breaks down into 38 molecules of Adenosine Tri-Phosphate (ATP), which is the molecule that cells use for energy. It is the process of breaking glucose down to ATP which provides most of our body’s heat.

Each and every chemical reaction in the body produces heat. The liver, which performs more chemical reactions than any other organ, can be seen as the body’s heater. Blood actually leaves the liver warmer than it enters it. However, the liver isn’t the only heater, each and every muscle and organ performs chemical reactions, causing them to generate heat.

The most consistent source of heat in our bodies is from the body’s core. The organs in our body cavity work, regardless of whether we are exercising or are at rest. Muscles, on the other hand, only produce heat when they are active. Shivering is merely a means of forcing the muscles to work, so that they will generate heat.

Heat is moved though the body by the blood. As the blood passes from the core to the extremities, it carries heat with it. If there is not enough heat, this blood flow is restricted, so that the core can maintain its temperature.

Dressing for Warmth

Many people dress in the winter by putting on the heaviest clothing they can, hoping to keep warm. In reality, that may not work. One problem with piling on the heavy coats is that it can make you too warm, causing you to sweat. You never want to be sweating in the winter, as the sweat can turn to ice, pulling out your body’s heat.

The human body’s normal temperature is 98.6oF. So, if you manage to insulate yourself perfectly, it’s going to be like being outside on a 98.6 degree day. What does your body do on such a day? It sweats. Obviously, your insulation job has to be less than perfect, so that your body can get rid of excess heat and not get hot enough to sweat.

It’s actually more effective to dress in layers, than to dress in one heavy garment. That way, if you find yourself getting warm, you can remove a layer, adjusting your clothing to keep you comfortable, without keeping you too warm. Ideally, you want to be just a touch cool, rather than being warm.

Dressing Your Core

The most important part of your body to dress in layers is your core. You’re best off starting with a foundation of a shirt which will wick moisture away from your body. Some athletic wear is designed specifically for this, but other than that, it’s hard to find.

Your next layer should be a long-sleeve sweater, preferably out of wool. Most of the time when doing physical activity outdoors, a good sweater is enough to keep you warm. Wool repels water and can actually insulate when wet; the only material that does.

Over the wool sweater you should have a coat. It’s a good idea to have a selection of coats to choose from, so that you can pick one that is appropriate for the temperature. Even if your sweater will be enough for while you are working outside, you should wear a coat for the time going to and returning from that work. Having the coat with you is also a good precaution in case the temperature should drop suddenly.

Any coat you buy for use in the wintertime should be water repellant. You really don’t want it to be waterproof, as that will make you sweat when you are wearing it. The best insulation for coats is down or polyester fiberfill. Unfortunately, both of those will absorb water readily. Once wet, they will make you lose your body heat considerably faster than being naked. A water repellant covering will prevent that problem.

Dressing Your Legs

The most common pants that I see people wearing out in the cold is blue jeans, which are made of cotton. That means that they don’t resist water at all, but rather, they absorb it quite well. If you are going to wear blue jeans, then you should wear something that is water repellant over them.

There are actual snow pants available on the market, for about the price of a good pair of blue jeans. These are insulated, and have a water repellant nylon covering, which makes them ideal for being out in the cold and snow. However, they may be too warm for wearing out in the snow if you are working. The leg muscles are the body’s largest and can produce a lot of heat. If you are going to be working outdoors, you’re better off with wool pants.

Dressing the Rest

A hat is the most important single article of clothing you wear when going outdoors in the cold. One-fourth of the body’s blood supply goes to the brain. If your head is uncovered, you will lose a lot of heat. A good hat needs to provide insulation to the head, as well as covering the ears to protect them from the cold. The best hats are actually the fur hats, called Ushanka, they wear in Russia.

Good warm boots are an important part of dressing for winter weather. Your feet are the part of your body which will become cold the easiest, as well as being the part which your body restricts blood flow to, in the case of hypothermia. Wearing good warm boots, with wool socks will help prevent any risk of frostbitten toes.

The last thing you need to consider is gloves. After your toes, the next place that your body restricts blood flow to in the case of hypothermia is your fingers. If you are not doing work that requires fine motor skills, mittens will keep your hands much warmer than gloves will. Having all the fingers share the same space allows them to share heat as well, keeping them warmer.

davepreppingplanAuthor bio: Dave is a 52-year-old survivalist; father of three; with over 30 years of survival experience. He started young, learning survival the hard way, in the school of hard knocks. Now, after years of study, he’s grey-haired and slightly overweight. That hasn’t dimmed his interest in survival though. If anything, Dave has a greater commitment to survival than ever, so that he can protect his family. You can learn more about Dave on his site,

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Categories: Gear, Preparedness, Self-reliance, Survival Skills | Tags: , , , , | 15 Comments

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15 thoughts on “How to Dress for Winter Survival Success

  1. Pingback: How to Dress for Winter Survival Success | Modern Homesteader

  2. Caroline Cooper

    I love wool clothing for cold weather! As Mors Kochanski’s states, “your clothing is your first shelter.”

    I use Merino wool underwear as a base layer followed by wool surplus army pants and heavy cotton shirt. (If I could find a cheap wool shirt I would use that!) I use a Swanndri Mosgiel wool bushshirt as a top layer which covers the butt and thigh area. I wouldn’t use anything but wool socks, with a second pair as back-up, with some sort of weather-proof modern-style mukluks. I just found a light pair of Merino wool gloves which I can go under a second set of wool and nylon mittens. I have a light and heavy wool cap for protecting my head. The neck is protected with a balaclava, scarf or neck protection (necker) depending on conditions.

    If things are really bad, a 100% wool blanket made into an arisaid with a hood, would go over everything for walking or sleeping in the cold. A ground sheet could be added as a top layer to the arisaid, in windy conditions, but it would be better to find shelter and lay-up in cold, windy conditions.


  3. Pingback: Prepper News Watch for December 23, 2014 | The Preparedness Podcast

  4. Caroline, you’ve definitely captured the essence of using wool to keep you warm. That’s really great. I have every confidence that you’ll be cozy warm, no matter what, even if you get wet. If more people would dress like you, we’d have a lot fewer people who would die of hypothermia.


  5. Caroline Cooper

    I live in a cold, dry place. When in cold weather it would be best not to exert oneself so much as to sweat. It’s better to work very slowly. If one needs to exert oneself for a period of time, it’s best to remove a layer or two of clothing to avoid getting wet from sweat.

    I would like a wool shirt, but presently all I have is a heavy, “fleece” cotton one.


  6. Caroline Cooper

    Happy New Year, Todd!

    2015 is looking very rosy… Maybe I’ll even find a wool shirt.🙂


  7. Hands, Head and Face radiate heat very quickly due to all the blood vessels. Keep those bundled up🙂


  8. Teri Pittman

    Have you looked at this article about the clothing on the Mallory Everest expedition?

    I find it interesting. He alternated layers of smooth and rough (silk then wool, then cotton.) It seems to cause less resistance and make movement easier.

    I used to wear a pair of wool Navy bellbottoms, which are great winter outerwear, as is the Navy pea coat. I’ve been wearing long skirts lately and I find that all the layers really do keep you warmer, even if they are cotton. I really do put my trust in wool, if it’s cold out.


  9. Pingback: How To Dress For Winter Survival Success - SHTF & Prepping Central

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