The old saying, Theres no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes, may be trite, but theres truth to it.
A lot of outdoors folks stay inside during winter or stick with a few traditional winter sports like skiing or snowmobiling.
But modern clothing allows you to continue most of your favorite outdoor sports when temperatures dip well below freezing. All it takes is the right combination of clothing and matching them to your favorite sport.
If youre buying cold-weather outdoor clothes, beware that comfort doesnt come cheap. But with the right gear, you will find yourself spending more time enjoying the outdoors instead of waiting for the weather to get warmer.
For sake of simplicity, consider cold weather to be anything near or below freezing because it doesnt take special clothing to stay comfortable when its 40 degrees or above.
ESTABLISH YOUR BASE
Any good winter wardrobe starts with a good base layer, which is a techie term for long johns. If youre going to splurge, your base layer is a good place to start because it can make a big difference on a cold day, and theyre also clothes you wear nearly year round.
You have a couple of options for long underwear: synthetic or wool. Dont bother with cotton because its nearly useless for winter weather.
As a general rule, synthetic underwear (which is typically polyester or polypropylene) is less expensive and wicks moisture reasonably well, which means as you generate heat and sweat, the fabric pulls the moisture away from your skin and keeps you dry.
Synthetic fabric doesnt feel as warm against the skin as wool when you first put it on, and it can feel chilly if youre not moving and generating body heat. Synthetic fabrics also tend to retain body odor.
You can expect to spend $75 to $100 for a set of synthetic long underwear.
The second, more expensive, option is wool. Gone are the old days of thick, scratchy wool. Modern merino wool is soft and incredibly warm, even when wet. Wool wicks moisture well and is less prone to absorbing body odor.
Wool is very durable and you can machine wash and dry it (unlike old-school wool), although hang drying is often recommended.
You can expect to pay $120 to $200 for a set of merino wool long underwear.
Hunter Singleton, salesman at The Benchmark in Boise, says wool is warmer and more comfortable than synthetic long underwear, and wool should be considered a long-term investment. He recommends Smartwool and Ibex brands of merino wool long underwear.
Its tough, and it holds up for a long time, he said.
Long underwear is typically sold in light, mid and heavyweight fabrics. If youre doing anything physically active, avoid heavy weight because it will make you overheat and sweat, even in really cold temps.
If youre doing highly aerobic activities, such as Nordic skiing, running or biking, you may want to go with a lighter fabric because you will be producing a lot of body heat, and light weight breathes better. You can always add more layers in colder weather.
BUILDING ON YOUR BASE
This is where things get tricky because how much you layer depends on how cold it is, whether its raining, snowing or windy, and what your sport is.
HOW ACTIVE IS YOUR ACTIVITY?
Most of what you will be doing falls into a few basic categories:
Active: Nordic skiing, backcountry skiing, off-trail or rigorous snowshoeing, biking, running, climbing, etc.
Moderate: Downhill skiing and snowboarding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing (on a groomed trail) hiking, etc.
Sedentary: Ice fishing, duck hunting, fly fishing, etc.
The next layer is either an insulative layer or a windbreaker/shell depending on what activity youre doing.
Singleton said its surprisingly easy to stay warm in cold temperatures if you block the wind.
You dont have to have a lot of layers if you can stop that wind from penetrating your outer layer, he said.
If youre doing something active, a good base layer and a windproof jacket may be all you need. (See waterproof/breathable vs. softshell)
If you need more insulation, add a mid layer, such as fleece, down, or synthetic puffy jackets. This layer may also be an outer layer if its calm and clear.
Remember, the goal with mid layer is staying warm with minimal bulk and not overheating, which will cause you to sweat. Any moisture that soaks into your clothes will lower its insulating ability.
You might also use a light mid layer and add a vest (think of it as a half layer), which will keep your core warm, but is less bulky than a sweater or jacket.
Mid layers, or mid-weight jackets, typically have three types of insulation.
Polyester fleece is ubiquitous in the outdoors. It comes in a variety of weights and styles. Its a favorite because its warm, breathable, wicks moisture, insulates when wet (which you still want to avoid) and is inexpensive. Higher grades are also windproof. A lightweight, zip-neck fleece jacket be found for under $50.
Goose down has the highest warmth-to-weight ratio of any insulation and is a favorite for very cold temperatures. But its expensive and provides little or no insulation when saturated (it can withstand some moisture). Down jackets are often built to be extremely lightweight, which means they can be less rugged and durable than a fleece coat. Down is rated by fill weight, commonly between 600 and 800. The higher the number, the better it insulates, and the more it costs.
Polyester fill, which is the stuffing inside puffy coats that arent down, isnt as warm as down, so its heavier and/or bulkier. Polyester does insulate when wet, and its considerably cheaper than down. It also breathes well, depending on the thickness of the insulation.
WATERPROOF/BREATHABLE SHELL VS. SOFTSHELL
If the weather is too cold or too wet for your mid layer to double as an outer layer, you want to add a waterproof/breathable jacket or shell as theyre often called, or a soft shell. The difference between the two is subtle, but important.
Waterproof/breathable fabric is self explanatory. Gore-Tex is the leading brand, and its often used generically for all waterproof/breathable fabrics.
They provide total protection from wet weather, and they still let some perspiration out to prevent condensation inside the jacket.
Waterproof/breathable jackets are typically best for the worst weather and/or moderate or sedentary activities, but theyre also used by bikers and runners.
Gore-Tex shells have no insulation, and they tend to be more expensive than softshells. Some high-end shells made with waterproof breathable fabric rival softshells in breathability, but expect to pay $400 to $500 for one.
Softshell is a generic term for jackets (or pants).
Softshells sacrifice some weather protection in exchange for breathability, which means theyre better at venting sweat and excess heat, and they are usually less expensive.
Theyre often preferred for more aerobic activities, such as biking, running or backcountry skiing because they breathe better. Theyre a good option when the weather is dry, or theres an occasional shower or snow flurry.
Softshells are often well-suited for Idahos dryer climates because youre rarely going to be in an extended rainstorm, but you will usually be sweating, even when its very cold. That moisture an significantly reduce the insulating ability of your inner layers, making you chilled.
But remember, breathability also comes at a price. Its going to be venting heat, too. So you may need a little more insulation underneath it. And if youre in that rare torrential downpour, youre going to get wet.
Hannah Bolton, sales associate at The North Face store in Boise, said its about a 50/50 split in sales between Gore-Tex style shells and softshells.
She said their most popular Gore-Tex jacket is the Mountain Light, which is a non-insulated shell that comes with a hood and is designed to be worn over other layers. It costs about $250.
She said The North Faces Apex Bionic is one of their most popular softshells. Its windproof and has light fleece lining and costs about $150.
Pretty much the same principles apply for pants, but you have a couple things to consider. First, if your upper body is warm, your lower body probably will be, too, so you have more leeway.
Start with a good base layer, and if youre active, that may be all you need. Nordic skiers are perfectly comfortable in a thin ski suit in sub-freezing weather.
You can add a pair fleece pants or similar pants and a lightweight rain pants for weather protection. You can also wear old-school wool pants, which work well in cold temperatures and snow, but avoid them for rain.
If youre skiing or snowmobiling you may want to opt for insulated bibs, but dont overlook waterproof, breathable pants. They can keep you surprisingly warm, and they are a lot lighter and less constricting than bulky bibs.
And if you cant part with your blue jeans, wear a good base layer under them and go for it. Just dont let them get wet or youre going to be cold and miserable.
Rarely will the temperature remain the same when youre outdoors all day, or even an hour or two. Your body temperature will also change depending on how active you are. Try to stay in a comfortable range and add or subtract layers throughout your outing. Putting on or taking off a warm hat is often all you need to adjust.
If youre dressing light for highly active sports, keep your outing short and dont get too tired. If your run turns into a walk, its going to be a lot harder to stay warm because youre not producing as much body heat. Ditto if your bike breaks down.
Consider wind chill, both from wind and the speed at which youre traveling. You may need to dress warmer for a bike ride than you would for jogging. Ditto for snowmobiling over ice fishing.
If any part of you is cold, you will feel cold. Be sure to have a hat, neck gaiter and gloves. If it gets really cold, consider a lightweight balaclava to cover your whole head and neck.
Buy the warmest socks you can find. Even if you spend $25 for a pair, its a small price to pay for warm feet, and you can probably get by with just one or two pairs for winter. Merino wool socks work well.
Chemical hand warmers are cheap insurance. You can stash one in the pocket of your mid layer to warm your core area.
Consider your clothes gear. The right clothes will make all your activities more enjoyable and make weather less relevant in planning your outing.
If you have one favorite activity, buy winter clothes designed specifically for it. If you plan to do several, buy clothes that will cross over.
Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors