By Jenny Neyman
Jane Adkins, of Kasilof, grew up a California girl, surrounded by concrete in San Francisco. She had little familiarity with temperatures below freezing, much less below zero. She certainly didn’t know there were people who spent days at a time out in minus 10, minus 30, even minus 50 and colder. Willingly. For fun, even. Not until she moved to Alaska, started mushing and was out there herself.
“I didn’t know people did this growing up. I didn’t know where snow came from when I grew up. I was in my teens the first time I saw snow come down out of the sky, so I think I was in awe with a lot of things,” she said. “The more I saw, the more I wanted to be out there.”
Despite the immediate interest she had for outdoor winter recreation in Alaska, being able to embrace it safely was a learning process with an intimidation curve to conquer.
“They taught me the wrong way. They made it scary and they made me nervous,” she said.
While frostbite, hypothermia and other cold-condition dangers are legitimate concerns, outdoor activity in the winter doesn’t have to be out of bounds, as long as it’s done with knowledge, gear and preparation.
“You learn to deal with it. What I used to be able to tolerate and what I tolerate now are very different. You acclimate,” she said.
But first, you bundle up.
Never has the term “dress for success” meant more than in the realm of cold-weather recreation. Proper gear, utilized correctly, makes the difference between a good outing and a merely uncomfortable, or all-out miserable, one.
- Layer like lasagna. Be the onion. Strata like a wedding cake. The key to maintaining warmth and comfort in cold weather is in what you wear. Start with a base layer close to the skin that maintains heat but doesn’t hold moisture.
Wool is the old-school, go-to fabric.
“A wool under-layer is really nice next to the skin, something that will absorb moisture and pull it away from the body. Wool has the tendency not to feel clammy and cool if you decide to stop and rest a little bit after you worked out, or you’re just venturing out somewhere and working hard to get someplace in the backcountry or off the trails,” said Brad Nyquist, Kenai Central High School Nordic ski coach.
Wool also doesn’t melt or burn as easily as some other technical fabrics, such as fleece, so it can be good around campfires or wood stoves at the end of a day spent outside. But as well as wool retains heat, it also can retain odor, and some versions can be itchy and restrictive.
“And it can be heavy and bulky and it doesn’t move as well with you,” Adkins said.
Newer wool fabrics retain the moisture-wicking, heat-retaining properties but lose the itch and smell. Nowadays there is a range of synthetic base layer fabrics from which to choose.
“There’s a lot of different options,” Adkins said. Brand and fabric preferences can vary, but the need for a warm, dry base layer is universal.
Next, layer on some insulation that will hold in heat. Fleece is great as a midweight layer. Something with loft — such as down or a synthetic fluffy fiber — helps retain even more heat.
Layer up depending on the activity, duration and conditions. Obviously, the colder it is, the warmer you dress. But activity matters, too. Going for a high-aerobic activity in civilization, such as skate skiing on groomed trails or a run through town? Then count on your body to provide some of the heat your winter coat otherwise would.
“You can dress in lighter layers if you’re just going to go out for a workout then go back to your vehicle. And you can be out for a long time — for hours — and be fine with minimal layers on,” Nyquist said.
But if you’re going for a ski or snowshoe in the backcountry, bring extra gear.
“I dress in more layers. I’ll take a backpack with me so I can take my outer layers off as I warm up and put them in a backpack where they’ll stay dry. So I’m wearing minimal layers when I’m working and then if I stop I can put a layer on when I feel myself starting to cool off a little bit,” he said.
Mushers and snowmachiners need to prepare a little differently, as they often aren’t moving under their own power as much as skiers or snowshoers would be, plus face the additional windchill of engine- or dog-powered speed. In that case, extra insulation is key to staying warm, so don the big parkas, snowsuits and poofy coats.
“As mushers, we don’t always look so good, but we’re warm,” Adkins said.
- Be wary of wind.
The outer layer should be able to shed water, especially when out in snow. And it especially should be wind resistant.
“If it’s windy that can take the body heat off very quickly,” Nyquist said. This is especially a problem in activities with speed, like mushing, snowmachining or downhill skiing.
Cross-country skiers aren’t immune to windchill, especially those racing in low-bulk Lycra suits. In that case, for guys, wind briefs are worth their minimal extra weight in gold.
And it isn’t just the body proper that needs to be protected. Hands are particularly prone to frostbite, so find warm, water- and wind-resistant gloves with enough dexterity to do any task needing done — strapping on ski poles, hooking up dogs’ harnesses, working zippers, etc. — without having to be removed. Again, experiment to find what works best. Adkins swears by wind-resistance fleece gloves and dog booties made by Julie Bowman, of Sterling. They’re cheaper than a lot of the big, fancy mittens she sees, yet keep her warm and allow her enough dexterity to tend to her team without taking them off.
- Heads need help, too.
“Skiing when you’re going down the hills at 20 mph — think of putting your face outside of a car window when you’re going 20 mph and it’s zero out,” Nyquist said.
If temperatures are mild, you should wear, at the very least, something covering your ears. Colder temps or faster speeds necessitate a hat to protect the ears and to prevent heat loss through the head. If wind kicks up or temperatures really drop, make sure skin on the face is covered or treated to prevent frostbite. In a pinch, duct tape over the nose, cheeks and chin can work, though it isn’t always pleasant to remove. Vaseline also is effective, though messy, and there are new gels and creams available that rub onto skin without being greasy.
Bring sunglasses to protect against snow blindness or regular glasses or goggles to protect eyes from the cold, wind and blowing snow. Anyone with serious respiratory problems shouldn’t tempt a medical emergency by attempting to be out in excessively cold temperatures, but people with very mild asthma or on the tail end of recovering from a cold can manage in the winter by covering their nose and mouth with a scarf, balaclava, neck gaiter or a mask made especially for winter use. Covering the mouth allows air to warm before it gets to the lungs. Just make sure the covering is as breathable as possible to reduce sogginess and ice buildup from condensation.
Mushers often use hats and hoods with ruffs to protect against wind. Fur is particularly
useful, Adkins said. Wolverine often is used, because it resists freezing, and wolf is helpful for its longer length, she said. Adkins worked on a documentary about the Serum Run and wore a caribou hide poncho and mittens from a museum collection.
“It was blowing and minus 30 and I was warm. If I moved back to California I would never wear fur there, but I think up here we all know that it works,” she said.
- Buddy system
There are plenty of other practices to perfect — Always take a headlamp and chemical hand warmers, just in case. Have food and water available to help warm you up and prevent the all-too-common cold-weather dehydration. And if you’re carrying your snacks and drinks, keep them close to the body to prevent them from freezing.
Mainly, though, if you’re learning how to recreate safely in the cold, don’t do it alone.
“Go with someone you trust and know to teach you,” Adkins said.
And if you’re the experienced one, be patient and be sure to show, tell and share, not just do everything for them.
“You’ve got to talk about the hand warmers, you’ve got to talk about how to do it, how to stay warm, what to do. And you’ve got to know that people don’t remember everything you tell them. When I go out I take care of the people I’m with. I never leave them. Don’t ever assume they can take care of themselves. So it’s teaching, being with someone you trust, and you’ve got to be willing to learn,” Adkins said.
It’s to everyone’s benefit, really, that a group takes care of each other.
“If you’re going to go far out, travel with somebody else. Check your buddies to make sure they’re equipped correctly, too. They could be putting themselves and everybody else at risk if they get in trouble. And you’re only as happy as the most uncomfortable person that’s along,” Nyquist said.
With a little knowledge, precaution and equipment, winter doesn’t have to be time to hibernate indoors.
“I think we’re a sedentary lifestyle in the United States, and that’s a bad. And I’m also a E.R. nurse and a health fanatic, and I don’t want to be in front of the TV,” Adkins said. “Randy (husband) and I love to be outside and have campfires. That’s a hot date, literally. My friends are all active people. I just saw Denali with the moon over it yesterday while I was mushing. I just enjoy being outside.”
“It is so beautiful to be out and away form all of the hustle and bustle and technology,” Nyquist said. “If you focus on all the negative aspects of it, ‘I have to bundle all the way up and it’s going to be cold and cold is uncomfortable,’ I guess it would be a bad experience, if that’s all you looked at. But if you look at the positive end — breathing in that fresh air and filling your lungs with clean, crisp air, and then throwing some exercise in there and getting your heart rate up, it’s an endorphin rush when you work out in the cold for a while. If we’re going to live in Alaska, you might as well embrace where you live. We always feel better when we’re more active, and it’s one of the ways we can be more active in Alaska.”