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.

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Last updated - 12th October 2021

layering clothes for cold weather

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.

  • Lightweight - approx. 170 gm2
  • Midweight - approx. 250 gm2
  • Heavyweight - approx. 400 gm2
The Foundation or Base Layer - The function of this layer is to provide insulation while also wicking sweat to the outer layers if the wearer is going to be active. It should be close-fitting to perform well.
men's thermal underwearProtracted 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

women's thermal underwearA 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
Icebreaker Merino Long Sleeve Top
Men's | Women's

Mountain Warehouse Merino Top - Lightweight
Men's | Women's

Mountain Warehouse Pants - Lightweight
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.

Winter shirts - Men's   Women's
Vest / bodywarmer / gilet - Men's   Women's  
Sweaters and hoodies - Men's

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.

Winter work trousers - Men's   Women's   Insulated bib overalls
Moleskin trousers:  Men's

work parkaThe 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.


  • Winter work parka, with down or synthetic insulation.

  • 3-in-1 Jackets, a separate shell jacket and insulating inner jacket, which can be worn on their own or combined, windproof and usually waterproof, warmer than you think they're going to be.

  • Waterproof rain trousers, large full length zips down each leg make it much easier to get them on and off without taking your boots off first.

work parka Caterpillar Men's Insulated Parka
Tough outer, synthetic insulation
Portwest 3 in 1 Ladies Elgin Jacket Portwest 3-in-1 Jackets, men's and women's
Tough waterproof outer, fleece inner
Portwest Hi-Vis 3-in-1 Pilot Jacket Portwest Hi-Vis 3-in-1 Pilot Jacket
Removable sleeves, fur liner and fur collar
Blokhus Winter Parka 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

work balaclavaswarm work hatsWhen 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.

Hats - Beanies | Hard hat liners | Balaclavas | Windstoppers


work mittensHands 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.
Sensor gloves - touch screen | Glove liners, lightweight gloves

cold weather work glovesMittens are more effective than than gloves at keeping your hands warm, you can apply the layer principle here with a light inner glove that allows for reasonable handling abilities and then a thicker pair of mitts over the top. These can have extra insulation or just be a weatherproof outer layer depending on use. 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.

hand warmersHand 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

thermal insolesThermal 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.


warm work socks
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.

Work boots for cold conditions: Men's  Women's

The Neck

neck gaiterAlong 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.
Neck gaiters