What I thought would be a calm after-work stroll this week gave me a harsh reminder of how hard it can be in the Northwest to stay warm without the proper clothes. I’m a Portland native, so for nearly 40 years I’ve heard people visit during the summer and marvel at how lush it is. Indeed, the Northwest is blessed with some of America’s most beautiful forests, mountains and waterways. But that green comes at a price: about nine months of rain. That’s only a partial exaggeration. So how could I have forgotten that staying dry is key to staying warm?
I’ll blame it on the unseasonably warm and dry 2015. The Oregon Dept. of Agriculture and Dept. of Forestry say we’ve seen “record or near-record warm and dry conditions across much of the state since last winter,” and the upcoming El Nino should hold more rain than we’ve seen since 1997-98. The El Nino pattern normally results in warmer temperatures. The problem is that a huge part of staying warm is keeping dry, especially for people who are sensitive to the cold. And staying dry can be hard in El Nino years.
I was only partially prepared for what the late-afternoon clouds had in store. I set out in a sprinkle, undeterred by the dark gray sky because I was wearing Columbia Sportswear Omnitech rain pants, Keen hiking boots (review forthcoming), and what I thought would be a waterproof REI rain jacket. Nearly an inch of rain and a wet sweater later, and I was clamoring for a space heater.
Hardcore winter-activity junkies know that hypothermia can be accelerated by being wet for a prolonged period of time. Much like sweat evaporation pulls heat from the body, so too do hundreds of raindrops pull heat from your skin. If you suffer from Raynaud’s syndrome or just hate being cold, you’re not likely to go out in weather conditions that would ever even risk hypothermia. But the principle still holds true: staying dry is key to staying warm.
Even on rainy days when the temperature is well above freezing, water on the surface of your skin can cool you in no time flat. During my stroll-turned-swim, my feet and pants stayed dry and toasty even as the deluge mounted. But in those areas where my waterproof jacket was less than waterproof, the moisture made those areas chill quickly. As the moisture slowly spread to other areas of my sweater, a wider area of my torso dropped in temperature. Although the air temperature around me was the same, the body parts that got wet felt undeniably colder.
It’s tempting to shop only for hiking and camping hoodies and jackets that are chock-full of down, merino wool and other such insulating materials. After all, if they’re rated for super-cold temps, they must do a great job at keeping you warm. That’s very true — until you get wet. Once the clothes underneath your outer shell is wet, it’s nigh impossible to dry out and even harder to keep warm. So don’t look blindly for temperature-rated clothes and gear. Look for warm and waterproof.
The Appalachian Mountain Club recommends choosing a breathable rain shell and rain pants rather than using coated nylon, rubber, or vinyl. Another thing to keep in mind as you try to stay warm by staying dry is to steer clear of cotton. This gear site for survivalists points out that cotton saps heat from your body when it gets wet, and this Montana fishing outfitter reminds those of us with Raynaud’s that cold feet only get colder in cotton socks because they turn sweat into a heat-robbing goo. That’s both gross and unfortunate. Instead of cotton, perpetually cold hikers and campers should choose socks “made of wool, IsoWool, shearling, fleece and similar type synthetic materials” because of their insulating properties and ability to wick water.
Down, wool and insulation layers are important to enjoying your time outdoors. In fact, I started this site in large part to test some of those products so other people with Raynaud’s can identify the warmest options. But if there’s rain in the forecast, remember that staying dry is key to staying warm, and there’s more to keep in mind than just insulation.
Photo credit: Grant Gunderson, via Outdoor Research