One of the reasons I never took up ice skating in a big way was due to the excruciating pain I suffered as a child because I wore tight-fitting skates with no insulation and skimpy socks.
The skating rink near Seward’s elementary school was unprotected from fierce winds that came out of the north. With wind chill factors sometimes zero degrees and colder, my feet quickly became numb. Thawing out back at the house was as you might know an agonizing experience. Perhaps it’s the reason why today, my toes are highly sensitive to cold and require maximum protection.
I don’t blame my mom. A transplant from Pennsylvania, she just didn’t know any better. In fact, I think most of the neighborhood kids wore similar skates. The only difference is – they seemed to be smart enough to not stay outside as long as I did. No matter what I did outdoors, winter or summer, I never wanted to go back inside.
Living the Scout motto, being prepared
When my son was in Boy Scouts, I noticed many kids woefully ill-equipped for the planned activity, particularly winter campouts. In some cases, I’m sure a lot of parents didn’t know any better. Along with that, it is quite expensive to keep children outfitted in good outdoor gear when they’re growing like dandelions.
An important part of the training Scouts received during my four years of involvement was how to dress and equip for the outdoors, with special attention to winter. Cotton, which is a soft and absorbent fabric, doesn’t dry once it’s wet. A wet layer loses its insulation properties and can contribute to the loss of body core temperature, or hypothermia.
Thus the ongoing slogan at Scout events was and still is today that, “cotton kills.” Instead, we recommended inner layers such as polypropylene and polyester blends that readily wick moisture (sweat) from the body but dry much more quickly.
We also recommended a medium layer such as polar fleece, which is excellent for retaining body warmth. And for an outer garment that is breathable, windproof and water resistant, we recommended a Gortex shell. Parents often balked because of the cost, but there were and still are other less expensive water-resistant membrane shells available on the market.
For winter hikes I’d sometimes see Scouts in rubber boots with no linings; and thin, fingered gloves instead of mittens. For snowshoeing and stationary pursuits such as fishing, Sorrel boots with removable felt liners are good protection in cold temperatures, as are Bunny Boots.
Hiking, however, requires a well-constructed, insulated winter boot. My Keen-brand boots have 400 grams of insulation, but they go much higher. The trick is to have a boot that has ample insulation but is also flexible enough for winter hiking.
Cross country ski boots can be made significantly warmer with neoprene overboots. I advocate getting winter hiking and ski boots at least a size too large to accommodate heavier socks. And that also goes for ice skates.
I’m no expert in outdoor winter clothing, but I do know what works for me.
For maximum winter protection in dry conditions, a 700-800 weight goose down coat is the ticket. But for strenuous activity, such as skate or classic cross-country skiing, ice skating, biking or snowshoeing, multiple, removable layers are better. Parasailers and paragliders who create their own chill factors must have a unique set of protective gear.
I’m also an advocate of wool, starting with Smart Wool long underwear. I have 100-percent wool long-sleeved shirts, pants and wool hat. We all know about the importance of hats, since about 70 percent of the body’s heat can be lost through the head. Wool, as you know, will retain warmth even when wet. In winter I recommend a wool balaclava to cover the face in case of wind. Wool is a bit heavier than synthetics, but it works well and has stood the test of time.
Heating from within
Most of the time we don’t eat the kind of foods necessary to generate heat in our bodies. On that score the Inupiat of the high Arctic have it figured out. A three-inch square chunk of bearded seal, for example, is high in fat and delivers about 800 calories. I defy anyone to find that kind of heat-generating punch in the very best, top-of-the-line power bar.
Noted Alaskan adventurer Dick Griffith consumed sticks of butter during his Arctic expeditions. I once ate a chunk of fried walrus meat given to me by a friend at Barrow (now Utqiagvik), and I was toasty warm outside for two days in subzero temperatures while wearing considerably less clothing than before.
Smoked Salmon, salami, cheese, nuts, peanut butter (but not if you’re allergic to peanuts) are good foods for combatting cold. On a winter Eagle River campout several years ago when it was -20 degrees, a large Snickers candy bar at 3 a.m. allowed me to sleep comfortably through the rest of the night.
Keeping well hydrated is also critical for the body to generate and sustain its heat. I have two insulated Nalgene water bottle cases made of urethane-coated nylon that works well in cold temperatures, but I haven’t tried it yet in -15 degrees and colder. I always carry a thermos with something hot in it.
Alcohol consumption in the cold can be dangerous. In addition to affecting judgment, it can deceive you into thinking you’re warm when you’re not. Alcohol dilates the peripheral blood vessels near the skin, which means more blood – and heat – flows to these vessels. But that takes blood and heat away from the body’s core. So while it feels like you’re warm because your skin is warm, your vital organs aren’t as warm as you might think. And if you’ve got a lot of heat on the periphery of your body, you can lose it very quickly.
Chemical warmers work well for me on toes and hands, but I’ve talked to some folks who say they’re useless. I’ve noticed that before use, the warmers need to be shaken vigorously to activate the chemicals. They also need to be fully enclosed inside gloves or mittens before effectively rendering warmth.
Singing the body electric
Battery technology is improving and I’ve been told battery- equipped socks and gloves are also on the rise. Lighter, more efficient lithium-based batteries are used in some of these products, and I’ve read that earlier design flaws that caused ignition are being researched and remedied.
Knowing one’s body and being sensitive to the signs of frostbite or hypothermia are essential. On a recent ski trip across Eklutna Lake, for example, my hands were getting painfully cold and the chemical warmers inside my mittens seemed to be losing their effectiveness. But instead of stopping along the shore to build an emergency fire, I opted to keep on skiing. I figured it would have taken about 10-15 minutes to find wood and get a fire going, and during that time my hands would have gotten even colder and number. Relying on heat generated by my body while skiing, facilitated my hands’ feeling and warmth to return completely in about 20-25 minutes.
The buddy system is a good safeguard against cold-related injuries. On a rabbit hunt up near Clear at about -15 degrees with a light wind, my friend alerted me that my nose was white, something that occurred in just a few seconds. I immediately covered my face with a balaclava and warmed myself.
I’m always looking for routes and rest stop areas away from the wind. If I’m lucky enough to be in direct sunlight, I like taking breaks in front of something dark—like a spruce tree or a dark rock. I’ve found that such spots will increase the ambient temperature by as much as five degrees.
Most of the equipment and protective measures mentioned above come readily to a person who adamantly wants to get outdoors in the winter. But to me, getting the right gear is the easiest part. The hardest part is mental; for example, getting off the couch when the sun is behind the mountain and an icy draft wafts across the room when someone opens the front door. Overcome that, and you’re out there. And once you’re out there, it all seems to fall into place.
But then, on any cold winter day, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a good book and a hot beverage.
Editor’s Note: Frank E. Baker is a member of the ECHO News team, an avid and highly experienced outdoorsman and a freelance writer living in Eagle River.