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Modern Antarctic Clothing - Extreme Cold Weather Clothing

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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, flexibility is maintained too as conditions change.

Base Core (Foundation) 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. Damp clothing in the cold can reduce the insulation significantly, so it is important to get sweat away from your skin and away from your clothes - breathability is of the utmost importance.

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 synthetic material. In some cases the material is even treated so that it prevents the build up of bacteria that live in sweaty clothes and make them smell (especially important if you don't have lots of changes of clothes).

If you're not going to an extreme climate but the extreme climate has temporarily come to where you live, a good thermal long underwear layer along with a hat, gloves and scarf or neck gaiter are probably the easiest and cheapest way of effectively dealing with the short-term conditions between transport and home or work-place.

Insulated base layer tops - A versatile layer that can be your outer layer indoors and help keep you toasty outdoors.
Men's   Women's

Insulated base layer bottoms - Long johns - To go under thick, warm pants (trousers) and outer over-pants (waterproof for the summer months or when on the sea in boats). 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.
Men's   Women's

Mid Insulation Layer/s

This is the most variable layer and can be added to as required depending on how cold the conditions are. More than one lightweight layer of shirt/s, sweater or jacket allow for flexibility by adding or removing according to weather and activity and is better than one thick heavy layer for insulation too as extra air gets trapped between the layers as well as within them.

Traditionally woolen sweaters and natural fiber pants were worn. These days, these may still be used or they may be supplemented or substituted by modern materials such as polypropylene fleece or lightweight down garments.

This layer should provide insulation and also the passage and release of perspiration. 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.

Insulating layers for the upper body. Wool mix or synthetic shirt, woolen sweater, fleece or down sweater and /or jacket. Adjustability is important here, zips, buttons etc. At least one of these layers should be long at the back to avoid exposure of flesh during exertion.

Moleskin pantsThe 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 however, despite the new coatings and finishes, they just aren't wind or water-proof enough on their own.

Fleece - Men's   Women's

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, light-weight ones are more versatile however.
Down - Men's   Women's

Insulating layers for the lower body. Thick warm pants (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) pants in both polar regions and wouldn't consider wearing anything else, for warmth, comfort and practicality they have no rival - Men's moleskins
Pants - Men's   Women's
The Outer or Shell Layer

Outer / shell layer, this needs to be windproof and may be waterproof. It could be simply a "shell" i.e. no additional insulation or it may have insulation built in. Jackets should always have hoods.

The outer layer is particularly important and should have features such as draw-cords and fastenable 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 able to transmit perspiration as readily as garments that are not fully waterproof and tend not to be as flexible at low temperatures, so choose according to your intended use.

The outer layer could be simply that, a weather proof layer of natural or synthetic fibers with no extra insulation, or it could have insulation built in as in the traditional parka. Insulating materials for this outer layer could be synthetic or the traditional and arguably still the most effective - natural down

Alternatives:

  • Polar parka, with down or synthetic insulation
    Men's   Women's

  • Gore-Tex or similar breathable waterproof rain jacket
    Men's  Women's

  • 3-in-1 Jackets, a windproof and often waterproof outer shell that can worn on their own or together shell + insulation
    Men's   Women's

  • Waterproof rain pants for riding in the zodiac and staying dry during landings, light-weight ones are fine and will be easier to pack away into your rucsac. Large zips down each leg make it much easier to get them on and off.
    Men's   Women's

  • Down or synthetic insulated pants
    Men's

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 head however!). This could result in frostnip, frostbite and ultimately the loss of that body part, fingers and toes are in the most danger.

Hands


In very cold conditions 2 or 3 pairs of gloves 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. Usually starting with lightweight gloves (in case you have to do something "fiddly", thin gloves are easier than mittens and infinitely preferable to bare fingers) then one or two pairs of mittens. 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. A thin pair of glove liners as well as a warmer pair means that you'll be able to take photographs without taking them off. Fingerless gloves or ones 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, photography and you'll find things more difficult.

Men's Ski Gloves   Women's Ski Gloves   Men's Mittens   Women's Mittens   Glove Liners

Head

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 of.

Your hat should be able to cover your ears which can very quickly become painfully cold in Antarctica's biting wind. This can be a beanie type hat that you can pull down over your ears, or it can be one with ear-flaps that can be pulled or rolled down when 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 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 personalized piece of cold weather kit you can get with lots of fancy colors and designs, be careful not to get carried away by form over function, those cute dangly pom-poms can get mighty irritating when the wind keeps whipping them against your face. While on the subject of pom-poms, the ones on top of the hat can make it impossible for your hood to fit snugly which means there's a large air gap resulting in less insulation.

Hats - Men's   Women's   Balaclavas

Feet

Socks - Men's   Women's

One or two pairs of thick warm socks, wool loop stitch (like toweling - but wool) or similar, a small amount of a synthetic material such as nylon aids durability and some stretchy material gives a snug fit.

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, I'd start with a thin pair as undersocks and then a thick pair on top and see how it goes.

 

Boots - More on cold weather boots

Ordinary plastic or leather hiking boots cannot be worn when it is very cold and boots with names such as Bunny Boots, Mukluks or Onitsukas are worn. These have soft uppers, thick plastic soles, felt insulation and thick insoles to prevent heat loss to the snow and ice 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, the modern take on rubber wellington style boots are ideal with a close fitting and insulated neoprene upper. They are much better for walking in traditional wellies and are increasingly used by tourists and guides. They are waterproof up to the top so you don't have to worry when getting in or out of the zodiac a and can be comfortable in them all day.

In-between Bits

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:
  • A scarf or insulated "neck gaiter" of some kind to insulate the neck, also to keep warm air from "pumping" out of the body region, and stop wind-driven snow from getting into the clothing where it could melt and become very uncomfortable.

  • Boots that cover the ankles at least.

  • Mittens with long wrist cuffs, preferably reaching about half way up the forearm for the coldest conditions
    Men's Mittens   Women's Mittens

Eyes

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.

  
Antarctic Kit - a run-through of clothing for activity in Antarctica


Layers of clothing for Antarctica, underwear and insulating layers on the left
and then alternatives to go over these depending on conditions and activity levels.


Accessories 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, or ways that you can move around (fairly normally!) and expose flesh or just a single layer at the wrists, neck, midriff (in particular) etc. The outer layer should be just that, the outer layer at ALL times. 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, release draw-cords, remove the hood, balaclava etc. according to changing weather and activity.

Generally Antarctic gear appears rather a bit too big when seen in isolation. Sleeves are long, shirt / jacket / sweater "tails" are long, boots and mittens are long and hoods are large.

Over trousers / pants in particular seem vast 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.


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.

Thanks.

Rae

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.

Reply

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 use moleskin trousers, you could get fleece trousers or almost anything else, jeans are rubbish in the cold.

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 at these points.

3 - Shoes/boots - are the soles thick and insulated? An 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 temps after a while and burn fuel to warm you up - as long as it has enough fuel.

Hope this might help

Paul - webmaster

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