I am sure that none of you have ever complained, "I am too cold", but you probably know someone who has. Dadgummit, if you are too cold, you aren't dressed properly! Hopefully we can help you here with some principles and concepts that will enable you to stay warm and/or dry when it gets really cold and/or wet outside.
The first thing to realize is that there are three key areas from which the body most readily loses heat: the head, hands an feet. It is a safe bet that keeping your head, hands and feet warm is at least half the battle.
Next, let's think about our activity. If we are just standing around in the cold, there are many possible clothing solutions. That is because we are not working up a sweat. But what if we are working or playing in cold weather? When we work up a sweat, we get wet. This can be very problematic. That is where the concept of layering comes into play. Layering allows us to adjust our clothing for changes in temperature, both body temperature and weather temperature.
The first layer is the undergarment. Cotton can make for a very comfortable undergarment--until it becomes soaked with sweat. Cotton retains moisture and that defeats our purpose of staying dry. Better to go with polypropylene, which actually wicks moisture away from the skin. Polypropylene long johns are inexpensive, comfortable and perform quite well, which are some of the reasons they have been issued to our military service personnel for years. Better yet, you may wish to try the latest in high tech performance long johns, which are made from a special material that actually includes silver. Silver is an excellent antibacterial, so not only will you stay warm, but you will smell better, too!
Now we are ready to don our next layer, the insulating layer, and believe it or not, you probably already own it: regular clothing. Here are some tips. Wool is perhaps the best fabric choice, because wool retains it's insulating properties even if it does become wet. A wool sweater could save your life, unless you itch to death first. If you are afflicted with itchy wool sensitivity, acrylic is a manmade substitute that will serve you well. Not as good when wet, but it is very warm and comfortable. Oh, yeah, it's also machine washable, which is a real plus for people like me. As far as trousers, I would avoid blue jeans in a wet environment in favor of corduroys because cords dry a lot quicker. They also pack lighter and smaller if you are backpacking. Otherwise, wear what you will be comfortable in.
Finally comes the outer layer, or "shell". The shell layer keeps us warm by blocking wind and dry by blocking water. The trick is to find a fabric that will do both without creating a greenhouse effect on your body. If we are dressed to stay warm and dry only to become dripping wet and miserable underneath as our activity increases, well, that is a bad program.
For many years the best possible material for the outer shell was Gore-Tex. I had always heard great things about Gore-Tex, like it is lightweight, strong, windproof, waterproof, and best of all, semi permeable! Semi permeable is just like the roach motel: guests check in but they can't check out. In this case, liquid water, like rain, can't get in but water vapor, like steamy sweat, can get out, and that is a good thing. What this means is that finally the world had a fabric that would keep you warm and dry even if you were being very active. Prior to that the choice was to stay dry by using a rubber or vinyl raincoat, only to become soaked with the sweat that became trapped inside. I don't know about ya'll, but I'd just as soon get soaked with pure clean rainwater than stinky smelly sticky sweat!
You know what, once I tried Gore-Tex, I discovered it was all I heard it was. It was like a magical fabric. It really is all that, I mean, the stuff is truly wonderful. The only problem with it is that it is so dawgone expensive. Well, thanks to modern manufacturing miracles and patent expirations, there are now choices that perform identically for roughly half the cost. This is known as ECWCS, which is military talk for "Extreme Cold Weather Clothing System". This is your best choice for your outer layer if you are serious about staying warm and dry while saving a lot of lute. Not only that, ECWCS packs very small and light. For example, you can fold the trousers into a nice flat square and stow them in a jacket pocket so they are there when you need them. The trousers are designed to be put on easily over your shoes and regular clothing, which is very convenient. And talk about tough--these are the same garments issued to our soldiers posted in cold weather regions.
Lets consider one other specific application, and that is winter sports. We are not a ski specialty shop, but maybe we should be, because they must make a fortune on what they sell, and it is often built for looks rather than performance. We have an inexpensive solution that achieves both good looks and outstanding performance, and that is our one-piece snowsuit. This garment combines the outer shell and insulation layers into what I like to call a sleeping bag you can wear, yet they look sleek and sporty.
The one-piece design allows you to have instant warmth that you can pull on over whatever you are wearing. When I go skiing, I wear my warm-up suit underneath, which allows me to take it off when I return indoors and still be dressed. I keep one in the back of my Jeep at all times, so if I get caught out on the Interstate during one of our famous annual middle Tennessee snowstorms, I can use it as a survival suit. I can literally zip myself up in one of these things and lie down on the snow and take a nap! The waterproof heavy Oxford nylon shell is not quite as breathable as ECWCS, but it works very well if you use the right underwear. The main thing is that when you are rolling around in a snowy environment, the one-piece nature of this garment keeps the snow outside of your clothing, which is where most of us want it. That makes it a great choice for snow boarding, skiing, sledding, snowmobiling, etc.