In 1909, when Admiral Robert Peary made the first of several expeditions to the geographic North Pole, dressed in so-called Arctic gear, his uniform consisted chiefly of indigenous furs similarly worn for centuries by Inuit inhabitants. While doing a rudimentary job to stave off the cold and chill, over time the celebrated explorer lost eight toes to the biting, sub-zero temperatures, as it is said 70 percent of body heat is lost through the extremities. A time machine into the future and access to modern all-weather fabrics such as Gore-Tex and Polartec may have prevented the physical sacrifice Peary made in the name of discovery, but textile science and its resulting high-tech fabrics were decades away.
As children, and at lower latitudes than those frequented by Admiral Peary, but with hours of skating, sledding, skiing, and other frosty pursuits on the winter horizon, mom always taught us to layer, layer, layer against winter’s harsh realities. Swaddling ourselves in thick, itchy woolen socks, bulky sweaters, bunchy thermal underwear, puffy balloon-type jackets and fur-lined, clunky, double-soled, waterproof boots that more or less added half-a-dozen pounds to our feet and ankles, we may have found refuge and a durable climate shield. However looking (and feeling) like the Michelin man probably didn’t raise our stock on style registers, nor did it allow us a real ease of movement. And in summer, when the great outdoors encourages us to run, hike, cycle and more, who likes to feel soaked to the so-called gills after just a few minutes of exertion on the sunniest of days?
More and more, with textile science and evolving materials, and following the example of the military which has lead the race to develop cold weather clothing systems out of extreme necessity, it’s possible to comfortably endure hours in extreme temperatures. Snowshoeing in Yellowknife (average daytime temperature in January: -17 F) can be manageable, and even enjoyable, when engineered fabrics protect our core and extremities.
Modern material marvels like Polartec and Thinsulate, among others, by their very nature imbue us with some of the same hardy principles inherently found in species that include ducks, wolves, polar bears, penguins, whales and seals, who live and thrive outdoors in various kinds of weather.
So what are some of the best climate performers that allow us to ignore Mother Nature at her harshest?
A Layer for All Seasons
“We use our business to influence environmental change. Our first goal is to build the best product possible while doing the least amount of harm to the environment,” Patagonia’s Jeremy Stangeland explained. A professed surfer, snowboarder, hiker and soccer player, aside from availing himself of the company’s waterproof garments, raw materials quality analyst Strangeland’s go-to garment is his simple, chlorine-free merino wool “silkweight” baselayer crew. Its properties make for a garment that is effective in the temperate Patagonia lab, where Stangeland wears it, as well as outdoors when he’s snowboarding, as it helps regulate body temperature. “It keeps you cool or totally warm.”
When the Weather Outside is Frightful
L.L. Bean, a Maine-based company clearly with a cold climate provenance, took tried-and-true down to the next level in 2012 when it engineered its Ultralight 850 Down Jacket with trademarked DownTek technology. Though down is considered an industry standard for warmth, it can get wet which mitigates its performance– even rendering its insulating properties completely ineffective. DownTek, a result of nanotechnology (which alters atoms and molecules), makes the end result both warm and water resistant.
And remember long johns — that itchy, bulky long underwear that kept us warm but felt like a woolen wetsuit beneath our clothes? L.L. Bean produces a Polartec Power Dry Baselayer, Crew and Pants Expedition Weight, with synthetic moisture wicking material to keep the wearer dry during extreme aerobic activity in cold weather. An antimicrobial treatment controls odor and stains, and bonus thumb loops keep sleeves from riding up at the most inopportune moments (like a mile from the finish line!).
Columbia’s Omni-Heat Thermal Reflective technology reportedly retains and manages body heat in sub-zero temperatures while dissipating moisture and extra heat that might build up during your outdoor workout. Applied to men’s, women’s and children’s jackets, baselayers, footwear and equipment, such as their Reactor sleeping bags with Omni-Heat Thermal Reflective linings, camping under an icy December sky is like a day at the beach.
Roadrunner Sports, which supports runners with all-terrain and all-weather clothing and gear, features what are commonly called “smart sleeves,” “thermal arm warmers” or “running sleeves” for cold or transitional temperatures. Designed on the principles of 1980s legwarmers but thinner and made of pliable knit or fabrics such as fleece that wick away moisture, these items can provide more warmth than a traditional long-sleeved shirt or be used in place of one, as additions to a T-shirt, either alone or under a jacket.
With a little diligence, it’s not difficult to find the right clothing to insulate, warm, and protect so almost no weather condition represents a missed opportunity to breathe, stretch and just get out and laugh at the weather.
Beth Herman is a freelance writer with interests in healthy living and food, family, animal welfare, architecture and design, religion, and yoga. She writes for a variety of national and regional publications, institutions, and websites.