Monday, March 10, 2014
By Ken Allen
The thermometer has dropped so low this winter that news programs have warned us of the dangers of wandering in the outdoors for part or all of a day – and for good reason.
Outdoors folks can bundle in layers and perhaps wear a balaclava that bicyclists, skiers and mountain climbers routinely use in frigid weather to protect exposed skin on necks and faces from frostbite. I own a balaclava, a wonderful clothing purchase for a Maine winter.
These days, I still attack serious winter cold with the same attention to clothing-layer details that my father taught me before my seventh birthday – cotton-lined woolen long johns and a long-sleeve undershirt topped by a shirt, heavy pants, a coat with a hood, a hat with flaps, and mittens, the latter five also wool.
Felt-lined boots with rubber bottoms and leather uppers, polypropylene under socks and heavy woolen socks finish my attire.
Hands often get cold first, but for an intense Arctic front, I wear leather mittens with goose-down fill, which brings up two salient points about choosing proper clothing.
While sitting to call coyotes or walking casually behind a snowblower, the mittens work perfectly, but when activity fills days in the outdoors, my hands sweat in these mittens and dampen the down, bringing up two points:
• Down doesn’t work once it’s wet; wool does.
• Some clothing choices, like the mittens, are too warm for high-energy activities.
In conclusion on proper wear, dress in layers of wool, reduce sweating to a minimum and don’t let snow and rain soak clothing.
I do own two expensive nylon parkas (one with down fill and the other with synthetic material) and also have light, itch-free fleece clothing, the latter being one of those complimentary field-testing products that companies send to writers.
In short, I may use lighter, more comfortable synthetics for outings within an hour’s walk of a warm shelter, but for outdoor activities within a half-day trek of warmth, I go old-fashioned with wool.
If newcomers to winter survival still feel unsure about proper wear for the Maine outdoors, a trip to a place such as L.L.Bean can put them in contact with experienced outdoors folks who know about protection in extreme cold.
In my early 30s, I taught winter survival on weeklong hikes in the White Mountains, and back then the curriculum stressed wearing layers of wool and felt-lined boots and staying dry from the elements and sweat.
Keeping dry meant shedding a layer when exercising hard so sweat didn’t soak undergarments. For instance, if folks start perspiring heavily, shed a layer of clothing off the body core.
Yes, proper clothing offers a balancing act that requires common-sense decisions, sometimes by the hour.
Shortly after the winter-survival experiences, I guided elk hunters in Colorado at 8,000- to 10,000-foot levels, where plenty of snow fell in mid-to-late fall, bringing up a point about snow travel. If the white stuff isn’t impossibly deep, I like to traverse on a horse – just huddled into myself on a saddle while listening to squeaking leather. I’ve never had this option in Maine.
Three Maine outdoor sports test winter clothing: ice fishing, rabbit hunting and coyote calling.
Once anglers have set ice traps or hunters have reached an ambush spot to intercept a circling rabbit or called coyote, it’s mostly a lethargic, waiting game that tests clothing choices.
At these times, the right clothing makes the difference between comfort and pain. Many times, I’ve silently thanked my clothing for making the coldest day bearable – even pleasant.
For the last several decades, I have relied on felt-lined boots with rubber bottoms and leather uppers, incredibly comfortable footwear with almost a slipper-like feel because of the liners. More importantly, they keep feet warm on the coldest days. As long as feet and hands stay warm, the body-core temperature is fine, so hypothermia won’t eventually ruin the day.
Another winter worry is frostbite. Five symptoms to watch for came from WCSH Channel 6 news:
• A painful, prickly or itching sensation,
• Red, white, pale or grayish-yellow skin,
• Hard or waxy looking skin,
• A cold or burning feeling,
The last one fools folks because small areas of body numbness hide frostbite.
Recently, a point about felt-lined boots caught my attention and sort of flabbergasted me. I was looking at prices, and the cost of felt liners averaged $30 – more than felt-lined boots with rubber bottoms and leather uppers 30 years ago. That’s the modern world.
Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: