Budget Cold Weather Clothing
Extreme weather gear
Dressing for seriously cold weather without buying expensive clothing. This page assumes you will be spending extended periods outdoors in the coldest weather and are not so concerned with fashion, for hunting, ice fishing, snow-mobiling, snow shoveling or just enjoying the winter.
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ECWCS - Extended Cold Weather Clothing System. Developed by the US army as a system of protective cold weather clothing based on layering for versatility and changing conditions. A result is that there are a lot of ECWCS items available as surplus or used for those looking to buy warm layers without breaking the bank. Generation 3 or III is the latest, used since 2007, there are 7 "levels" some of which are alternatives rather than additional layers.
Foundation / Base Layer -
Insulate and wick sweat away from the
Somewhat counter intuitively one of the most important aspects of underwear for the coldest conditions is that it can wick away sweat from the skin. With so much clothing on top, sweat can build up in the layer next to the skin and become cold and clammy, especially after some activity. The key is to avoid cotton and go for synthetics such as polypropylene and polyester. Much more effective than using your usual underwear, probably the biggest "bang for your buck" layer.
Lightweight underwear - For use in less extreme conditions or alternatively if you don't like thicker base layers and can use thicker layers over the top.
Men's | Women's | ECWCS gen III level 1
Mid / Heavy weight long underwear - For colder conditions or use as outerwear indoors. Heavier weight thermal tops in particular can be used as a shirt indoors which makes them more versatile.
Men's | Women's | ECWCS gen III level 2
Layering - I spent time in Antarctica as a marine biologist, the coldest thing I did was setting and retrieving nets through the sea ice in mid winter using snow mobiles. Our clothes consisted as several layers, this worked better than a small number of thick layers. Sometime afterwards I was a school teacher, I used to give talks on Antarctica and part of this I would borrow bags of clothing from British Antarctic Survey and dress one kid in thin layers like I did, and another kid in easier to put on fewer thicker layers. The first kid would always get hotter faster and need to take the gear off quick. Layers work best.
It may seem obvious, but layers need to be on the top and legs too, shorts or skirts can't be compensated for by 3 layers and a parka.
Mid Insulation Layers -
flexibility is important along with ventilation
during exertion or warmer conditions, with the ability
to wrap up warm again when the temperature drops.
A very varied layer that can be put on or off, unzipped, sleeves rolled up etc. during sunny periods or exercise and then closed down fully and another layer put on top when the weather gets bad again. It should be a soft layer for comfort and also to make it a more effective insulator when another layer is put on top of it. Half or full length zips are good and allow it to be used as the outer layer during warmer conditions or to quickly vent excess heat.
Upper body - thick shirts, sweaters and jackets long enough at the back to avoid exposed skin or lower layers during bending. Bib overalls or coveralls work well and can be had as a shell alone or with extra insulation.
ECWCS gen III level 3
Cold Weather Fleece Jacket
Columbia Front-Zip Fleece
Lower body - Thick warm pants of heavyweight synthetic material such as polyester/cotton or brushed cotton moleskin. I have worn moleskin pants in both polar regions and wouldn't consider wearing anything else, for warmth, comfort and practicality they have no rival. Pants should not be tight fitting, a little loose helps keep warm air in. Denim is about the worst possible choice.
Bibs and overalls are particularly good,
they add extra core insulation and keep you covered while
bending or stretching.
The Outer / Shell Layer
- direct protection from the weather,
windproof and may be waterproof depending on the temperature
use. Simply a "shell" with no additional insulation
or with insulation built in.
The outer shell layer can be insulated or not. It may seem unusual at first but the most versatile and effective cold weather shells are fully windproof, but not always heavily insulated. In this way they can be used as the outer layer over any combination of insulating layers underneath. It takes a little more time to get dressed this way, but it works at least as well as a large heavily insulated parka, though more cheaply and for a more versatile and therefore more often used collection of clothing.
There are three categories:
ECWCS gen III level 7
Extreme Cold Weather Insulated Parka - stowable hood
ECWCS gen III level 7
Extreme Cold Weather Insulated Over Pants
Cold weather basic, very warm parka
Extremities - head, hands and feet, ankles, wrists and neck.
Feet - Insulation from the cold ground is as important as insulation from the cold air
Thermal insoles - The only place you touch the ground is through the soles of your feet and you can lose a load of heat this way. Easily added to almost any footwear at little cost, no substitute for proper winter footwear though.Boots:
Thick insulated soles are as important as insulated uppers as a lot of heat can be lost through the only part of our body with which we contact the frigid ground. Boots for the coldest weather have soft insulated uppers, and they are going to be big, it's the insulation that makes them that way.
Wellco Air Force Snow / Extreme Cold Weather Mukluks
Flexible canvas boots felt boot liners
"Mickey Mouse" Extreme Cold Weather Boots
Neos Navigator 5
Over boots with steel ice-spikes
Waterproof cold weather boot, removable inner boot
Kamik Men's Nationplus Boot
Rated -40F/-40C, leather upper, thinsulate insulation, traditional laces
Kamik Men's Greenbay 4 Cold-Weather Boot
Waterproof, easy fasten
One or two pairs of thick insulating socks or a thin liner pair and thicker over socks make a huge difference. Wool gives the best insulation, at least 70% wool is ideal, a small amount of synthetic material such as nylon or polyester helps durability, and some elastic material gives a snug fit and prevents them from sagging. Cheaper mainly synthetic socks aren't so good, they cause sweating and damp retention which as well as being unpleasant will make your feet cold. Too many pairs of socks makes your boots tight and squashes out much of the insulating air.
Thermal socks: Men and Women's
can get very cold very quickly, they have a
high surface area to volume ratio and so lose heat readily.
Hands don't need to get very cold before manual dexterity
suffers which could impact whatever it is you're doing.
Sensor gloves allow you use your touchscreen
device without taking the gloves off.
The issue with gloves when it gets colder is that the dexterity reduces as the insulation and thickness increases, despite what you may see claimed, there is no magical thin, ultra warm glove that is going to allow you full use of your hands down to minus stupidly cold, it's all a compromise.
Winter Gloves, OZERO - Deerskin Suede
Lightweight gloves, good within their limits (ignore the -20F claim)
Hand warmers - Disposable, chemical warmers, these can help your comfort levels significantly, one for each hand works better than passing a single one back and forth..
Rechargeable electronic hand warmers - Power packs that can be used for heat or battery back up for your phone
The head is the largest exposed naturally uninsulated part of the body. Putting on a hat to insulate the head is an easy and obvious big step you can make to hang on to heat. The effect isn't as immediate as putting on a parka and it doesn't always seem to be an obvious thing to do (unless you have cold ears!). Hats are also easy to take off again for flexibility of insulation, and allow greater freedom of movement and better vision than a hood. In less extreme conditions an insulated hat alone is enough, as the temperature drops and wind gets stronger, use the hood on your shell garment too.
Style and material. I prefer synthetic rather than wool for comfort and fit (avoid acrylic, cheap but not so effective). A beanie hat is a very effective shape and can pulled over the ears or should have ear flaps that can fold up. Clean, plain shapes allow a hood to be pulled over and fit closely, bobbles make an air space that reduces insulation. A personal favourite is a close fitting "windstopper" hat with ear flaps, small enough to easily fit in a pocket with a warmth far beyond its size and weight.
Balaclavas are a great choice, they can roll up as a hat or be pulled down to cover the face and neck.
A scarf must be worn correctly to get the best
use from it. Wool
or a performance synthetic material are needed
(cotton is useless and acrylic not good enough), the
scarf should be worn under the shell garment and over
the insulating layer immediately beneath that so that
it restricts air movement as well as providing insulation
and preventing snow ingress. A neck gaiter is a neater
version of a scarf, a tube of stretchy insulating material
than can be worn like a scarf or pulled up over the
lower part of the face like the bottom part of a balaclava.