Cold Weather Work Clothing
What to Wear Working Outside
in the Winter
Whether you spend whole or part days outdoors exposed to the elements, or in cold, unheated, covered spaces, here are some practical principles to apply to stay warm and work effectively without breaking the bank.
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Layering is about different layers doing different jobs. To be comfortable and effective in cold conditions, a little planning and strategic buying is more effective than simply throwing more clothes on. The idea of layering to keep warm is often misunderstood to just mean lots of layers, 3 cotton shirts for instance isn't going to do the trick, they are not a good material for insulation, won't sit too comfortably on each other and lead to a build up of sweat.
For protracted and serious cold - Thick long underwear is used as part of your layering system for extreme cold conditions.
Synthetics or merino wool are the better options as they wick moisture away from the skin to outer layers and provide better insulation, cotton is best avoided, though is a safety requirement for some occupations - the only time you should consider using it.
- the gold standard, the best insulation and naturally
Heavy weight cotton underwear - only recommended if required by hazard exposure to electricity or fire.
For less cold conditions - a thin thermal base layer with your usual clothes on top for appearances sake can add significant warmth. This is a relatively cheap way of adding further insulation and of course because it's invisible to everyone else you don't need a whole range of colors or styles to go with your other clothes. Pick dark or light accordingly so as not to show through the outer layers.
Light-weight thermal underwear, easy care, non-bulky insulation for cold conditions
Women's | Men's
Foundation layer of silk - in a complimentary or contrasting color if partly visible, good insulation
Women's | Men's
Mid Insulation Layers
- A main insulating layer/s,
flexibility is important for changing conditions with
adjustable ventilation during exertion and the ability
to close-up vents when it gets properly cold.
The requirements for insulation vary greatly according to the job and weather conditions. High exertion that generates body heat or more sedentary work with little exertion are considerations as well as the actual temperature. Outdoors the requirements can change quite rapidly, background temperature variations such as the sun coming out, the wind getting up, rain and snow falling all mean that flexibility of dress is vital to remain comfortable at all times and keep working efficiently. Zips, collars, draw cords and the like allow you to open up for ventilation or to shut down again in very cold conditions or during those focused non-energetic work tasks. High exertion needs less insulation with ventilation and wicking materials to remove sweat, but also the ability to increase insulation when at rest and heat production from the "inner-engine" rapidly slows.
Lower body - Thick warm pants of lined cotton duck or heavyweight synthetic material such as polyester/cotton. Personally I have worn moleskin pants (a kind of cotton, named for its texture and nothing to do with animals) in both polar regions and wouldn't consider wearing anything else, for warmth, comfort and practicality they have no rival. Pants should be somewhat loose fitting, too close a fit will affect circulation and make you feel colder while leaving no room for thermal underwear.
Bibs and overalls are particularly good here, they add extra insulation to the torso and keep you covered while bending or stretching.
Insulated bib overalls -
Upper body - thick shirts, sweaters and jackets in natural materials such as wool, down and cotton (for shirts) or synthetic materials such as fleece with a sufficient length at the back to avoid exposure of flesh during exertion. Vests or gilets are good for a moderate level of activity especially where freedom of arm movement is important, An insulated vest is my standard wear for the more energetic outdoor chores in winter.
Soft insulating garments aren't wind or water-proof enough on their own in cold conditions and you will need a shell garment as well if outside at all, you might not need it all the time, but when you do, you'll be glad you're no longer wet or frozen by the wind trying to get by without.
Columbia Front-Zip Fleece
Winter shirts -
The Outer or Shell Layer
- Front line protection from the weather,
this layer needs to be windproof and may be waterproof.
It could be simply a "shell" with no additional insulation
or it may have insulation built in. Jackets should always
If the cold is not so extreme, or if you wear extra layers underneath when it is very cold, an uninsulated shell is a good choice as it can be worn year-round and possibly also as a waterproof in the warmer months. Being static for any length of time in extreme cold however means that you'll need the shell layer to be insulated too. Waterproof isn't always essential if snow rather than rain is going to fall. Like the insulating layer/s the outer layer should have features such as draw-cords and cuffs that can close over the tops of gloves to prevent warm air being pumped out with movement.
Caterpillar Men's Heavy Insulated Parka
Tough outer, synthetic insulation, Regular and Big and Tall sizes
Carhartt Men's Yukon Extremes Insulated Coat
Tough outer, Regular and Big and Tall sizes
Carhartt Men's Big & Tall Loose Fit Duck Insulated Traditional Coat
Tough heavyweight cotton outer, Arctic-weight polyester insulation
Hard Land Men's Winter Work Jacket
Waterproof Hooded Insulated Parka
Protect the Extremities - head, hands and feet and the in-between bits, ankles, wrists and neck.
"When your feet are
cold, cover your head" - Inuit saying
When fully dressed in the winter, the head is the largest uncovered part of the body, putting on a hat is the first step to make a big difference to keep warm. The effect isn't as immediately apparent as putting on a coat so it doesn't feel such an obvious thing to do (unless you have cold ears!). The other good thing about a hat is it's as easy to take off again and stuff in a pocket if you start to get too warm. A hat allows more freedom of movement and better vision than a hood, so have both, use the hood for extra quick insulation, to shield from the wind and for the coldest conditions
Styles and materials. I favor synthetic materials over wool for comfort and fit, less itchy and less likely to go out of shape. A beanie type hat is very effective and should reach over the ears or have ear flaps that can be folded up if not needed. A clean, plain shape enables the hood on your shell layer to be pulled over and fit closely, a bobble on top of the hat will give an air space that will make the combined insulation less effective. 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 what you'd expect for its size and weight.
Balaclavas are very useful and versatile, they can be rolled up as a hat or pulled down to cover the face and neck.
Hats - Beanies | Hard hat liners | Balaclavas | Windstoppers
Feet - Insulation from the cold ground is as important as insulation from the cold air
Thermal insoles - Add to almost any footwear to insulate them from the cold ground at little cost while being invisible in terms of what you are wearing, they are no substitute for proper winter footwear however.Socks:
One or two pairs of thick insulating socks, wool provides the best insulation, make sure they are predominantly wool, 70%+, a smaller amount of synthetic material such as nylon or polyester helps durability and some stretchy material like elastane gives a snug fit and prevents them from falling down. Don't be tempted to wear too many pairs of socks and make your boots tight, if you squash out most of the air, you will have lost the main insulator and they won't be so warm. Start with a thin inner pair, then a thick wool pair inside insulated footwear with an extra thermal insole if the boot sole needs it.
Thermal socks: Men and Women's
Boots are essential in cold weather as they cover the ankles so reducing heat loss at a thinly insulated region. Thick insulated soles are as important as insulated uppers as a lot of heat can be lost through the only part of our body in contact with the frigid ground.
Work boots for extreme cold conditions: Men's Women's
Carhartt 10" Pac Safety Toe Work Boot - Men's
Waterproof, Insulated Boot
Georgia Boot Lace-To-Toe - Men's
Gore-Tex Waterproof Insulated Work Boot
Kamik Icebreaker Work Boot - Men's Rubber Winter Boot, Oil and acid resistant, -40F rated.
Canadian Made Industrial Rubber Boot - Men's
Hands can get very cold very quickly, fingers have a high surface area compared to their volume which means they lose heat readily while generating and retaining heat poorly. Particular attention should be paid to keeping them warm, they 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, so keeping you warmer and allowing you to get that call for the next job all the quicker.
Glove liners, lightweight gloves | Winter work glovesMittens are more effective than than gloves at keeping your hands warm, but of course mean less dexterity, you can apply the layer principle here if appropriate with a light inner glove that allows for good handling abilities and then a thicker pair of mitts to pull over the top. The outer pair should be wind-proof while water-resistance is always very useful if handling damp materials.
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.
warmers - Disposable, refillable or rechargeable,
these can help your comfort levels significantly, one
for each hand works better than passing a single one
back and forth..
Along with the head, the neck is often another often poorly insulated region. It is also a place where warmed air can be pumped out and lost to be replaced with cold air requiring warming up again. Both of these issues can be addressed with a scarf or "neck gaiter".
scarf must be worn correctly to get the best use from
it. An over-sized patterned cotton scarf loosely thrown
around the neck is of little practical use. Wool or
a performance synthetic material are needed and 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 that can be worn like a scarf or pulled up
over the lower part of the face like the bottom part
of a balaclava.