Originally published January 2012 in Coastal Angler Boston: - What to Wear? By Capt. Tim Egenrieder
Late February, a few years back, I was steelhead fishing with a good friend. It was a few degrees colder than freezing, light snow in the air and we were standing in 38-degree water up to our waists. The water was that perfect shade of green and as the sun lifted I could see quite a few beautiful fish in my drift. 2 fly changes later and “thunk”, I was tight. I yelled out, “this is going to be a great day, get the camera.” That’s when it became clear the day would not go as planned. His hands were shivering so bad that he could barely hold the camera. I had to give up the hole and the perfect drift and head 30 minutes down the road. I don’t expect to ever again see someone that excited to buy clothes at a 24 hr Wal-Mart.
I have only had a few notable occasions where a medical emergency has ended an outdoor excursion. However countless fishing, hunting, hiking, rafting, kayaking, skiing and camping trips have prematurely ended due to someone getting cold
There are only 3 ways that the winter elements can make you miserable: temperature, moisture and wind. This misery is completely preventable. Here are a few tips so that your buddy doesn’t have to frequently remind you of the day he gave up a perfect early steelhead bite to take you shopping.
Important - what you should not do:
Cotton is evil. If you are out in the cold and have the slightest chance of sweating or getting wet – DO NOT WEAR COTTON. You are better off naked than wearing wet cotton. Cotton rampantly soaks up moisture and dries very slowly. Your body will try and fail to heat the accumulated water in the cotton layer removing precious energy from your core. Jeans, white socks, t-shirts, sweatshirts or most of what you are probably wearing now are worthless when wet in the cold.
Never break a sweat and Never shiver.
What you should wear:
Always dress in layers. The 3 layers to consider are primary, insulation and protection.
The primary layer is next to your skin. Look for silk or 100% synthetic fabrics. Different manufacturers call their synthetic fabrics different things. Almost all of them work well at both wicking away moisture from your skin and giving you a primary layer of insulation keeping you warm. Tags from the manufacturer are fairly accurate for the degree of warmth they provide. The primary layer should be a snug fit but not too tight.
Next is the insulation layer. Wool and fleece are all you need to consider here. Both trap air between fibers keeping the cold out and the warmth in while wicking away moisture. I find that wool can be bulky, restrictive and often too warm. Fleece is incredibly comfortable, very warm and gives the greatest range of comfort.
The protection layer is exposed to the elements. This is of course dependent on the planned activity. The primary function is to block wind and water. I prefer PVC coated bibs (oilskins) on the boat, neoprene waders when cold weather stream fishing and higher tech fabrics for most other activities. Look for waterproof, windproof, hoods and fastening cuffs to keep the external elements out.
Headwear is a must. It is well known that the majority of your heat can escape through your head. Wool and fleece are again the only options. The warmest hat I own is made of tightly woven wool and the non-itch liner still itches. I usually take this with me but start with a fleece hat and neckliner and see if I can get away with it.
The one place that I always prefer wool is on my feet. Merino wool socks have become very cheap. I like to wear 2 pairs of socks. 100% Merino wool is best next to my skin for warmth and comfort and then a thick wool sock 2 layer for insulation. Always take this combination with you when trying on boots. I usually end up getting boots one size bigger to accommodate the added bulk. Boots and socks that are too tight will restrict blood flow making your feet much colder.
Fingerless wool gloves are great when you need to stay warm while being able to full use of your hands. Otherwise wear waterproof, well-insulated loose fitting gloves or mittens.
Finally, Never use fabric softener or dryer sheets on synthetic fabrics. The components of these products cling to your clothes diminishing their water repellency, breathability and moisture wicking. I always hang dry my synthetic fabrics as well.
Everyone is different. The ideal components for you will depend on numerous factors. I figured out what suited me from a season as a ski lift operator in college and hundreds of Lake Erie steelhead trips. Never wear cotton, buy quality materials and layer them. Done right, 20 degrees in blizzard like conditions can feel the same as it does in your living room.