Extreme Cold Weather Work Clothing
What to Wear Working
Outside in the Winter
Whether you spend part or whole 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.
This is the UK page | USA
Last updated - 12th October 2021
Layering - The idea of layering to keep warm is frequently misunderstood to just mean lots of layers regardless, 3 cotton shirts for instance isn't really going to do the trick, they are not the best material, they will be the same size (ish) and so won't sit too comfortably on each other and give you far more washing to do! 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.
Protracted and serious cold - Thicker long underwear is best used as part of your layering system for extreme cold conditions rather than as a main insulation layer with year-round clothes on top. While it introduces extra insulation it also reduces somewhat the flexibility of dress for changing conditions and levels of exertion as taking off your underwear when overheating is not a very practical solution! 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.
Best performance for warmth, the gold standard: Men's merino | Women's merino
Long underwear: Women's | Men's
A bit of a warm-up - a thin extra base layer underneath your usual clothes for appearances sake can add significant warmth and comfort. There's also the advantage that 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.
Foundation layer of silk - in a complimentary or contrasting color if partly visible, good insulation. Women's | Men's
Cotton underwear - only recommended if required by hazard exposure to electricity or fire - Men's | Women's
Mid Insulation Layers
- The main insulating layer/s, flexibility
of ventilation is important here along with the ability
to fasten everything up.
The requirements for this layer vary greatly according to the job and weather conditions, as well as the actual outside temperature, periods of high exertion so generating your own heat or work that involves little exertion or hours of fairly static activity in cold conditions are important factors. If the work is outdoors, then the requirements can potentially vary significantly from one hour to the next, background temperature variations, the sun coming out, the wind getting up, rain and snow falling all mean that flexibility in dress is vital to remain comfortable at all times and keep working efficiently. Zips, collars, draw cords and the like allow for increased ventilation during exertion or for all openings to be pulled closed while at rest and/or in very cold conditions.
Upper body - thick shirts, sweaters and jackets in natural materials such as wool, down and cotton (for a shirt) 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, Mine is my standard wear for outdoor work in winter.
Insulating garments generally aren't wind or water-proof enough on their own and you will need a shell garment as well if outside at all, you won't need it all the time, but when you do, you'll be glad you're no longer saturated or freezing trying to get by without.
Lower body - Thick warm trousers of lined cotton duck or heavyweight synthetic material such as polyester/cotton. Personally I have worn moleskin (a kind of cotton, named for its texture and not made from 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, too close a fit will affect circulation and make you feel colder, so ditch the skinny fits until it warms up again.
Moleskin trousers: Men's
Outer or Shell Layer
- Provides direct protection from the
weather, this layer should be windproof and may be waterproof.
It could be simply a "shell" with no additional insulation
or it may have insulation built in, hoods on jackets
are always useful.
If the cold is not so extreme, or if you wear extra layers when it is very cold, an uninsulated shell is a good choice as it can be worn year-round and as a wind and waterproof in the warmer months too. Being static for any length of time in extreme cold however means that you'll need the shell layer to be insulated. 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.
There are many modern materials for the outer shell layer, many of which are very tough and resilient to abrasion.
Caterpillar Men's Insulated Parka
Tough outer, synthetic insulation
Portwest 3-in-1 Jackets, men's and women's
Tough waterproof outer, fleece inner
Portwest Hi-Vis 3-in-1 Pilot Jacket
Removable sleeves, fur liner and fur collar
Dickies New Mens 3 in 1 Jacket Fleece Waterproof
Thermally Lined Jacket Warm Pockets
Protect the Extremities- Head, Hands and Feet not forgetting in between bits like 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, often uncovered even when going out in the cold, so 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 if you start to get too warm. A hat allows more freedom of movement and vision than a hood, so have one as well, use the hood too for extra quick insulation.
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 is very effective and should be able to be pulled 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 its size and weight.
Balaclavas are useful, they can be rolled up to work as a hat or pulled down to cover the face and neck.
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.
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.
Insulation from the cold ground is as important as insulation from the cold air
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.
One or two pairs of thick insulating socks, wool provides the best insulation, make sure they are predominantly wool and preferably merino wool, a smaller amount of synthetic material such as nylon or polyester helps durability, 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 too 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 lacks this.
Thermal socks; Men and Women's
Boots are better for cold weather than shoes as they span 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 with which we contact the frigid ground.
Dickies Men's Talpa S3 Safety Boots
Steel Toe, water resistant, insulated
Dickies Medway Super Safety Boot
Steel toe, steel midsole for underfoot protection. Waterproof membrane, insulate
Along with the head, the neck is often another often non-insulated region. It is also a region 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".
A 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 prevents warm air being pumped out and
cold air being pumped in 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.