Modern Antarctic Clothing
Extreme Cold Weather
Clothing in Antarctica, the principles here apply to anywhere when the temperatures start to drop and the wind to blow. The "layer method" of dressing is more effective than a single bulky garment. Several layers are built up, each of which has its own part to contribute and insulating air is trapped between as well as within layers, flexibility is maintained as conditions change.
Last updated - 7th September 2021
Foundation / Base Layer
The layer next to the skin, this should be soft, comfortable and able to wick away perspiration quickly so leaving you feeling dry in spite of your exertions in the cold. Moisture in clothing will reduce the insulation as well as feeling uncomfortable, it is important to get sweat away from your skin and away from your clothes so breathability is of the utmost importance. To function most efficiently the foundation layer should be close fitting to the body.
For the coldest climates, long underwear is a must. Things have come on an awful long way since the string vest (invented for the British Graham Land Expedition to Antarctica in 1934-1937). Modern foundation layer garments are generally made of very fine wool or synthetic materials, they may be treated to prevent the build up of bacteria that live in sweaty clothes and make them smell, especially important on an expedition if you don't have lots of changes of clothes or opportunity to wash them very often.
If you're not going to an extreme climate but the extreme climate has temporarily come to you, a good thermal long underwear layer along with a hat, gloves, warm socks, thermal insoles and scarf or neck gaiter are the cheapest way of effectively dealing with the short-term conditions without spending too much.
The gold standard
of thermal underwear is merino wool,
not a budget option but it really does deliver performance-wise.
A soft and fine natural product, the wool of the merino
sheep, warm, very good at wicking sweat from the skin
surface and naturally odour resistant.
layer bottoms- Long johns - To go under
thick, warm trousers it's unlikely you'll need any long
underwear for your legs in the Antarctic summer in coastal
regions, unless you really do suffer from the cold.
Mid Insulation Layer/s - A versatile layer that provides insulation while being easy to put on or take off. Buttons, zips and the like allow for versatility of ventilation at rest, during exertion or to quickly close everything up when the weather worsens.
The most variable layer which and can be added to as required depending on how cold the conditions are. More than one lightweight layer of a shirt, sweater or jacket allows for flexibility by adding or removing according to temperature and activity levels, they are warmer than one thick heavy layer too as extra insulating air gets trapped between the layers as well as within them.
Traditionally woolen sweaters and natural fiber pants were worn. These may still be used or they may be supplemented or substituted by more modern materials such as polypropylene fleece or lightweight down.
This layer should provide insulation while allowing ventilation and breathability for the passage and release of perspiration.
Insulating Layers for the Upper Body
Wool mix or synthetic shirt, woolen sweater, fleece or down sweater and /or jacket. Adjustability is important, zips, buttons etc. At least one of these layers should be long at the back to avoid exposure of flesh during exertion. The insulating layer can be combined with the wind-proof or water-proof outer layer or could be separate. Don't be tempted to think that you will be able to get away with a fleece as your only outer layer, despite new coatings and finishes, they just aren't wind or water-proof enough on their own.
You might prefer a down-filled parka, while these are extremely warm and can easily be thrown on over a t-shirt for immediate serious insulation, they can be inflexible in terms of layer dressing when walking ashore, go for a more versatile light-weight one.
Arc'teryx Cerium lightweight 850 fill down, with or without hood, outer or mid layer
Men's | Women's
Insulating layers for the lower body
Thick warm trousers of a natural material such as moleskin or heavyweight synthetic material such as polyester. Personally I have worn moleskin (a kind of cotton, named for its texture and not made from either the skin or kin of moles) trousers in both polar regions and wouldn't consider wearing anything else, for warmth, comfort and practicality they have no rival. Trousers should not be tight fitting, so ditch the skinny fits until it warms up again.
Wind chill - the commonest reason that I see people being cold in cold conditions is that they don't take enough consideration of the effects of the wind. Using windproof materials as the outer layer rather than something the wind can blow through can make all the difference and reduce the amount of clothing overall that you need.
At warmer temperatures, the wind makes little or no difference. As the temperature falls the wind begins to have a disproportionate effect. The table shows the effect that the wind speed has on apparent temperature, the numbers in the blue section are the equivalent reduction in temperature at that point.
The colder it gets, the more important the effect of the wind.
|Ambient Temperature C|
At a wind speed of 10kph at 0C, the effect is to cool by another 3 degrees to -3, by the time it's -25C, the same wind has a 8 degree effect to -33.
The Outer or Shell Layer - Direct weather protection, it must be windproof and may be waterproof depending on the temperature it will used at. It can be literally a "shell" or have additional insulation built in, jackets should always have hoods for cold conditions.
The outer layer is particularly important and should have features such as draw-cords and fastening cuffs to prevent warm air being lost to the outside and to prevent snow finding its way into nooks and crannies (snow in the cranny is most uncomfortable).
Waterproof is not necessary for very cold weather as no rain falls, though if you intend to spend any time in boats waterproof is vital as you don't want to get ashore after bouncing over an excitable sea to find you are wet and cold for the rest of the day.
Fully waterproof garments are not as breathable to perspiration as garments that are not fully waterproof and tend not to be as soft and flexible at low temperatures, choose according to your intended use.
Insulating materials for this outer layer where they are used can be synthetic or the traditional and arguably still the most effective - down.
down or synthetic insulation, down is lighter and warmer, synthetic is still effective when wet.
Accessories to Protect the
Extremities- Head, Fingers and Toes (not forgetting
ankles, wrists and neck)
The extremities can get very cold very quickly. Fingers and toes have a high surface area compared to their volume - this means they lose heat easily and generate and retain heat poorly. Particular attention should be paid to keeping them warm.The head can lose up to 20% of the body's heat, in cold weather, the quickest and simplest thing that can be done to warm up is to put on a hat, particularly convenient and useful when taking a rest break after some exertion.
In extremis for the sake of survival, if the body is losing so much heat that it may be in danger, blood flow to those parts losing the most heat and that are "expendable" may be shut down to a trickle (this will not happen to your whole head however!). This could result in frostnip, frostbite and ultimately the loss of that body part, fingers and toes are in the most danger.
In very cold conditions wear 2 (or even 3) pairs of gloves and/or mittens according to the conditions and activity. The layer principle can also apply to the hands. A light first layer, then an insulating layer and/or a weatherproof outer layer depending on use. Starting with lightweight gloves in case you have to do something fiddly, thin gloves are easier than mittens and infinitely preferable to bare fingers and then one or two pairs of mittens (if two the outer pair is usually just a "shell" layer). The outer pair should be wind proof while water-resistance is always very useful when in and around small boats.
Ski-type gloves are good as they are warm and water resistant with it, they are usually adequate for polar coastal regions in the summer. A thin pair of glove liners as well as a warmer pair means that you'll be able to take photographs for instance without taking them off. Fingerless gloves or mittens with a flap so that you can push fingers through without taking them off are hopeless in my experience, don't bother unless you've used them before and know that you like them.
In extreme cold weather mittens are much warmer than gloves, though by the time you have a couple of bulky pairs on to make your fingers lovely and toasty, your dexterity falls dramatically, so it depends on what you're doing. Skiing or skidooing for instance and mittens will be fine, if you are taking photographs you'll find things more difficult.
When your feet are
cold, cover your head." - Inuit saying
You can lose about 20% of your body heat through your head, the quickest way of warming up your whole body is to put on a hat of some kind and having an extra hat in your pocket is always a good idea in cold conditions so that you can put it on when you stop walking/climbing to maintain your temperature even though your exertions are less. In cold conditions you will have an outer shell layer that has a hood whether it is insulated or not, your hat/s should add flexibility so you have a variety of insulation levels according to your activity or lack thereof.
Your hat should reach over your ears which can very quickly become painfully cold in Antarctica's biting wind. This can be a beanie type hat, or one with ear-flaps that can be pulled up or down as needed. My preference is for a fleece hat in wind-stopper fabric with fold down ear-flaps like the one to the right, small enough to easily stuff in a pocket with warmth far better than you'd expect for the size. Balaclavas can be good too, they roll up to look like a normal hat, but can be pulled down and then put your hood up over them too when it gets colder.
While your hood will be wind-proof, you don't necessarily want to have it up all the time, a wind-proof hat can be far more convenient and give better visibility and freedom of movement, saving your hood until it is really necessary.
Hats are probably the most individual piece of cold weather kit you can get with lots of fancy colors and designs. Don't get too carried away by form over function, those cute dangly bits can get mighty irritating when the wind keeps whipping them against your face. Pom-poms on top of the hat can make it impossible for your hood to fit snugly which means there's an air gap resulting in less insulation.
One or two pairs of thick warm socks, wool is the material to go for here, a small amount of a synthetic material such as nylon aids durability and some stretchy material such as elastane gives a snug fit and stops them falling down. There are lots of thick acrylic socks out there which while cheaper just aren't as good as wool in cold conditions.
The layering principle also applies here with more than one pair of thin socks being warmer than a single thick pair. Don't be tempted to cram too many socks on so that your boots are tight. Air is the insulator and squashing it all out means you won't be as warm.
A bit of trial and error to see what works for you and your preferred cold weather footwear, start with a thin pair of everyday socks as undersocks and then a thick pair on top and see how it goes.
Ordinary leather or synthetic hiking boots cannot be worn in very cold conditions as they don't have additional insulation. Boots with soft insulated uppers, thick synthetic soles and insoles to prevent heat loss to the snow and ice are needed for really cold conditions. They are great at keeping you warm, but not so great for walking over very rugged terrain or climbing.
For use in and around boats in the Antarctic summer, muck boots - the modern take on rubber wellington boots are ideal with a close fitting and insulated neoprene upper. They are much better for walking in than traditional wellies and are increasingly used by tourists and guides to both polar regions. They are waterproof to the top so you don't have to worry when getting in or out of the zodiac and can be comfortable in them all day.
Thermal insoles - to stop the heat leaking away downwards
When the body is insulated including extremities, the next most vulnerable regions become those that don't normally lose heat relative to the rest of the body and so are usually neglected. Wrists, ankles and the neck region can soon become very cold and uncomfortable. They can lose a lot of heat if not wrapped up as they pass the blood between other well insulated areas.The answer is:
Sunglasses are a must to prevent glare from the snow and ice and stop you from developing snow blindness, the highest UV rating is a must.
Goggles in colder weather or in conditions of blowing snow to prevent snow from getting in the eyes and to cover the top part of the face.
Accessories for the extremities are vital, boots, gloves, head and eyewear for Antarctica
In the coldest weather, the gloves and boots required become quite cumbersome
so limiting what can be achieved.
When fully dressed for extreme cold, there should be no cold-spots, there should be no way you can move around (normally) and expose flesh or just a single layer at the wrists, neck or midriff. The outer layer should be just that, the outer layer at ALL times, don't try to use an inner jacket/layer as the outside one, you'll be far too cold by the time you realise it's not working very well. With goggles on and a good hood drawn about the face and a balaclava, it is possible to have no exposed flesh at all.
Also important is to be able to vary the clothing easily, draw-cords and "pit-zips" (zips in the armpit of the shell layer) allow for ventilation when loosened / opened or insulation when pulled close, hoods, balaclavas and hats can be added or removed according to changing weather and activity.
Generally Antarctic gear appears rather too big when seen in isolation. Shirt / jacket / sweater "tails" are long, boots are chunky, mittens are long and hoods are large. Over pants in particular may seem large as they are designed to be put on when outdoors if the weather gets particularly bad. In such conditions, you can't sit down and calmly take your boots off first. The outer layers quickly go over everything underneath and then zip / draw / tie, closer to the body to keep the heat in.
An Antarctic Scenario - layering for versatility
This is me in Antarctica on a relatively mild and calm late winters day at about -15C (+5F). The sun and lack of wind meant it felt unusually warm for a short while, with the potential for the wind to get up and temperature to go down especially when the sun started to set early in the afternoon. This is a realistic use of cold weather gear, in the worst weather it is dangerous to go far outside, so people generally stay on base.
We went out on a trip to some icebergs frozen into the sea-ice. This entailed a 3 mile very rugged overland hike to get to the edge of the sea and then more hard work over a couple of miles of broken flat sea-ice with a substantial snow covering.
This was a day of varied temperatures, changing wind speed, and different activity levels, hard uphill walking and then easier on the flat. There was always the possibility that some hardcore Antarctic weather could arrive in a pretty short time that we needed to be prepared for. The clothing had to be versatile for changing conditions and up to the job of fending off the worst the weather might bring.
Received by email
I found this site by googling "extreme cold weather clothing" because I am sick of being stuck in the house for three months every year when the temp drops too low for me here. I live in Ohio and it drops to twenties and below and often with winds and I get chilled to the bone when I try to wait on public bussing even just for ten minutes.
I bought and wear expedition weight thermal long johns top and bottoms, jeans, wool socks over polyester socks, cotton polyester shirt, two fleece sweaters, a 550 fill down classic Alaskan parka with a fleece gator and thick gloves......AND I'M STILL COLD!!!!! My arms are the coldest followed by my torso and then my legs.
I can't even stand being outside for ten minutes. After ten minutes I am chilled to the bone and start to ache....after twenty to thirty I start to shiver. wicking sweat away?? WHAT sweat??! How do I wick away the icicles????
Any suggestions would be deeply appreciated.
Yes, I wear the tunnel hood secured over the high neck of the parka covering my face from the eyes down and also atop of the gator.
You have my sympathies, some people are just more prone
to the cold than others.
Things that spring to mind:
1 - Jeans, dreadful in the cold, in Antarctica we used moleskin trousers, you could get lined trousers or almost anything else, jeans are rubbish in the cold. Looser fit is better too, tight fitting loses heat more quickly for an outer layer.
2 - Neck (ok sorted), wrists and ankles - are they all insulated? Often they can be one layer at that point, make sure clothes overlap and are insulated here.
3 - Shoes / boots - are the soles thick and insulated? An extra insole may help if they aren't, you can lose a lot of heat this way.
4 - Headwear - you don't mention anything and vitally important, you can lose an awful lot of heat through your head, an old saying - "If your feet are cold wear a hat".
5 - Wind proofs? Is the outer layer windproof? Can make a huge difference if the wind can get through and take heat away (like with jeans!)
6 - Heat from the inside, are you properly fed? Your metabolism will adjust to cold temperatures after a while and burn fuel to warm you up - as long as it has enough fuel, it's not a coincidence that we generally hanker after stews and soups and hearty food in cold weather rather than summer salads.
Hope this might help
Paul - webmaster