10. Winter Survival: A layering guide for traversing frozen tundra

One of the most crucial aspects of being prepared to survive an outdoor winter SHTF scenario is being properly outfitted for extreme temperatures. As an experienced mountaineer who’s climbed above 13,000 ft in 80 mph winds, I can assure you that reevaluating your bug out clothing could potentially mean life or death.

Modern roads and snow crews have made traveling in the winter comfortable and convenient, but if those systems ever became inoperable, traveling would become as deadly for us as it was for the early pioneers. Learn how to properly outfit yourself for those unexpected circumstances here.

Whether you need to cross a mountainous pass by foot during a grid down scenario, your vehicle slides into a ditch off in a remote area without cell service, or traffic becomes so backed up that the road systems are impassible; staying warm will become your first priority.

Disclaimer: As an Amazon Associate, I earn a small commission from qualifying purchases which comes at no additional cost to you, the reader. You can help support this blog by making purchases through any of the links provided throughout this article, or those listed in the affiliate links section.

1. SCENARIO

You won’t survive wearing jeans and a coat when that winter storm catches you at 10,000 ft on your trip back home. Maybe you’re not even headed home, but decided to bug out and get the hell out of dodge. Eisenhower tunnel was the quickest way to Utah from Denver, but now traffic has halted, and gas has been running short all over the state.

The storm is only getting worse. Keep in mind that while you walk at high altitude in high stress situations, you’re going to get a lot more sweaty than when you snowboard or downhill ski. Did I mention the sun is starting to set and the temperature is rapidly dropping?

Unexpected temperature drops can easily turn to fatalities by having the wrong layering system, or an insufficient amount of layering. Check out Mark Scott-Nash’s book Colorado 14er Disasters, where he details tragic scenes of skilled outdoorsmen, which otherwise could have been prevented.

To avoid this kind of situation altogether, let’s start with the basics and double check our layering system.

2. MATERIALS

Never select cotton when outfitting your layers, as cotton easily retains moisture, is difficult to dry, and doesn’t provide any warmth when wet. To maximize heat retention in below zero temps, I’ve found that using two to three sets of base layers for both top and bottom works best.

By layering and diversifying your clothing, body heat is effectively trapped in-between the multiple layers and provides sustainable warmth. Another benefit is the ability to easily adjust your body temperature by adding or removing.

Plan accordingly and consider unforeseeable conditions that could threaten your safety while being exposed to the elements; fast moving cold fronts, blizzards, or even being drenched in sweat after a long days hike while the sun grows low.

Fleece, wool, or synthetic blends of material are good. Both fleece and wool are breathable, retain heat when wet, and are fast drying. Wool is less breathable, but retains high heat value even if soaking wet.

Gore-Tex

Gore-Tex is the gold standard for waterproofing and breathability among the outdoors community. It’s unique perforation design stops rain and snow from penetrating inside it’s layer, while simultaneously allowing moisture and sweat to escape from the inside.

Though Gore-Tex is the most trusted and preferred brand on the market, it’s also typically the most expensive. A multitude of outdoor companies offer similar features for less, and are still reliable. If you are on a budget, don’t let name brands stop you from properly equipping yourself.

3. BASE-LAYERS

Choosing the right base layer is important as it increases the amount of warmth retained from the rest of your clothing. In a situation where seconds, minutes, or even hours are the only thing standing between you and death; having to stop and strip down may not be an option.

Spending enough time shivering at 12,000 feet and getting repeatedly stung by gusts of wind taught me to appreciate base layers. It’s a vital system that you shouldn’t need to take off during action, lest you expose your entire body to the deadly elements, or worse yet, waste valuable time you need to be using elsewhere.

Acquiring the right base layer is affordable, easily obtained, and can be well mastered by regularly walking outside on the coldest nights of the year.

base-layer level 1

The 1st lower body layer should be made from a synthetic, lightweight, breathable, and moisture wicking material. This layer needs to be able to keep you warm and dry during periods of extended physical exertion, as well as retain body heat after you’ve cooled down. I’ve found Under Armour’s Cold Gear Leggings [Amazon link] to be an effective 1st layer.

1st upper body layers should be made of similar materials; synthetic, lightweight, breathable, and moisture wicking. Choose any long-sleeved gym shirt that fits you comfortably.

base-layer level 2

I use Heat Generation’s Thermal Underwear Set, as it is a mediumweight base layer and efficiently traps in the heat from the 1st layer. This thermal set can be used while walking, hiking, or running in below freezing temperatures.

base-layer level 3

The 3rd and heaviest layer to be combined to the base layering system is the US Army Waffle Trousers, and the US Army Mid-Weight Waffle Top. When layered over the first two base layers, and combined with the mid to outer-layers, the addition of level 3 will provide warmth in the harshest of conditions.

USE:

  • Fleece, Wool, and Synthetic Blends.

AVOID:

  • Cotton.

4. MID-LAYERS

Once you have assembled your base layering system, you’ll need to choose a heavy jacket and two warm sweaters and/or light jackets for your mid-layer system. When selecting your mid-layers, it’s important to consider your sensitivity to both the heat and cold.

mid-layer level 1

Choose a sweater or soft shell jacket that you know you’d be comfortable wearing in almost any situation, and can wear all day without becoming overly hot or cold. This will be your 1st mid-layer, and when SHTF, you most likely won’t be taking it off. I wear an older version of The North Face’s Soft Shell, which has been my go to for many years now. For a more affordable option, check out Wantdo’s Soft Shell.

mid-layer level 2

To create a comfortable middle ground between the 1st and 3rd mid-layers, check out the US Army’s Fleece Top. These are one of my favorite fleeces, and are both very warm and comfortable. You can can also create a 2nd mid-layer by making due with an old wool sweater or heavy athletic hoodie.

mid-layer level 3

Select a heavier jacket for your 3rd mid-layer, preferably a lightweight fill like goose-down, or if you need something more cost effective, go with synthetic down. My third mid-layer is a goose-down jacket very similar to Marmot’s Greenridge Jacket. This will primarily be used during storms or at night, and needs to be sleek enough to fit inside your outer-layer coat shell comfortably.

CHOOSE:

  • Soft Shells
  • Goose Down
  • Synthetic Down
  • Boiled Wool
  • Insulated Athletic Hoodies

5. Outer-Layers

An outer shell’s purpose is to protect you from the wind, snow, and rain, while providing a barrier to trap the heat generated from your other layers inside. The material should be made from Gore-Tex or something similarly breathable, as the sweat from base layers needs a way to ventilate.

As well as being made from a breathable material, its crucial that your outer layers include ventilation zippers located at the armpits and pant legs. These allow you to release body heat and cool down without exposing yourself entirely.

Jacket

Marmot’s Minimalist Rain Jacket, has all the right features to stay guarded against the elements. The jacket is lightweight, Gore-Tex, and has multiple zipper and drawstring points. If you have properly layered, your outer jacket won’t need to be insulated.

Jackets are one of the most important and most expensive pieces of clothing in the layering system, and are a big investment. Keep an eye out for sales at your local outdoor retailer, as costs see serious price cuts come early spring. You can also take an old ski jacket and reapply the outer water resistant coating with Nikwaxs Harshell Waterproofing.

Pants

When choosing a pant shell, it’s best to look for waterproofing and durability. The shell should idealistically have ventilation zippers, though a pair of downhill ski or winter work pants will due. For an affordable starter option, check out Arctix’s Snow Pants, which have seen me on many successful climbs.

Boots

Boots are the most important item on this list, and will determine how far you can travel. Make sure to choose a pair that are Gore-Tex, and have Vibram soles. Check out Asolo’s leather hiking boots, which have been a long time classic among Colorado Mountaineers.

If your pinching pennies and trying to save, take an older pair of genuine leather boots and apply a new layer of water proofing. I’ve found Atsko’s Sno-Seal to work very well in keeping moisture out.

Socks

Socks are almost as important as the boots you choose. When climbing 14,000 ft peaks in the dead of winter, I always wear a heavy winter hiking sock, accompanied with a winter sock liner. Consider a product similar to Meriwool’s Merino Wool Socks.

Don’t compensate for the cold by wearing two pairs of heavy socks, as this creates blood flow restriction and quickly makes for cold toes. Use a sock liner as a 1st layer underneath your heavy socks. Try a product similar to Smartwool’s Hunt Liner.

Gloves

Having a well established layer system for the hands determines how well you can function when SHTF. For the extreme cold, it’s best to have 3 layers:

  • liners
  • gloves
  • outer mitten shells

Find a generic midweight glove liner and save your money, don’t go for the brand names that charge $60 plus. Check out Outdoor Research’s Vigor for a pretty reasonable priced liner. Then choose your glove type- I recommend Outdoor Research’s Carbides for a middle ground between cost and efficiency.

Lastly, don’t forget the outer mitts unless you go full Gore-Tex on the gloves, especially if you will be encountering extreme temperatures. It’s fine to substitute the gloves for insulated mitts, though I prefer using Outdoor Research’s Mt Baker Modular as my final glove layer.

Caps

Choosing the right headgear is crucial, as a large percentage of body heat escapes from the head. I’ve found the best way to prepare for the extreme cold is by using a 3 layer system- keeping the 3rd outer layer available only for high winds.

Choose a generic light to midweight balaclava facemask for your 1st layer. Don’t spend to much on this piece, as its only function is to protect from wind and provide minimal warmth. Check out this Generic Ski Mask for a cheap option.

The second layer can be whatever fleece, wool, or synthetic cap you prefer. Keep the material in mind though, as caps get sweaty after high activity. I’ve used Mountain Hardwear’s Dome Perignon for years, which quickly dries after taking off.

The third and final (optional) head layer is a heavy duty billed balaclava, which will keep you warm in itself. When I’m in bitter temperatures above tree line, I carry IceArmor’s Balacalva, granted I’ve only had to use this piece two times in all my years.

CHOOSE:

  • Gore-Tex
  • Waterproof Zippers
  • Ventilation zippers
  • Lightweight

AVOID:

  • 3-in-one Ski Jackets
    • Tip: 3-in-one jackets are typically overpriced.

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Rocky Mountain Preparedness is veteran owned and operated. All site related costs are paid out of pocket, and any donation amount is greatly appreciated. Thanks for reading.

-Michael

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3 thoughts on “10. Winter Survival: A layering guide for traversing frozen tundra

  1. Pingback: 11. Winter Survival Pt 2: Essential gear to outlast winter conditions | Rocky Mountain Preparedness

  2. Now that I’m wearing $5k worth of clothing from following your Amazon links I should be fine right? Lol. $700 coat, $400 boots…..if they are worth it I wouldn’t need 7 layers. I know you mentioned the cheaper options, but the links are the the most expensive version of everything possible. I’ll stick to layers and much cheaper options.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Micky, thanks for letting me know your thoughts, I get where your coming from, mountaineer clothing is not cheap! Try to find used at a thrift store or on ebay, as the quality will last a lifetime. I spent a day training on Monarch Pass at 12,500 ft in Febuary- it was cold. I had 6 layers on- including 2 down jackets, and I couldn’t stay warm enough. When SHTF and we don’t have the local police, rescue teams, or medics searching for us while we’re alone in the wilderness, what we carry will determine life or death. Don’t break the bank on these items, but do prepare the best you can.

      Like

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