Friday, May 29, 2009

Getting Ready - Clothes

We're trading the cool, wet winters of the Pacific Northwest for the frigid, dry winters of the Alaskan Interior. We won't have the random humid summer days pushing 100F anymore either. We're switching from a few minutes in the weather racing between car and building to sustained outdoor activity. Looking in our closets, we realized we had absolutely nothing to wear! The lightweight jackets and fleeces that work fine in Seattle during the late fall, winter and early spring were just not going to be enough in Alaska. Since I lived in Anchorage before, I do have a few of the necessary items collecting dust in the back of my closet; but not nearly enough since Anchorage is much wetter and warmer than the Fairbanks area.

The key to cold climate clothing is layers, lots and lots of interchangeable layers! You have to remember that cotton kills - once it gets wet (from sweat or crossing a stream) it loses all it's insulation value and can actually make you colder. Gloves are great if it's just a little below freezing, or you need the dexterity for short period, but you need mittens to save your hands when it's -40F. You need different boots for different activities and conditions, and different socks to go with them... and a pair or two of gaiters wouldn't hurt either. You can't forget your head, neck and face... and after your eyelids freeze shut a few times, you realize goggles are a good idea, too. These are things I learned in "balmy" Anchorage, so I figure they apply doubly-so in the Interior.

I asked the locals, and most recommended army surplus. I agree it's good gear, but I couldn't find (m)any that were made for women... and I am not going to try to work with ill-fitting clothing and y-front long johns wadding up in my crotch. So, I went in search of commercial brands that had the same thermal performance, moisture-wicking properties, and breathable water/wind resistance. I talked to several "arctic outfitters" and local hunting/hiking guides and they steered me in the right direction. I talked to some natives, and lucked into a wonderful craftswoman who will be making us authentic mukluks to keep our feet toasty during the dead of winter (dry conditions). I was re-introduced to XtraTufs - the quintessential "Break Up" and backwoods boot (wet conditions). The locals inform me that it is cold until it's warm... so not to waste money on mid-weight gear because there's only about a week that it's appropriate.

After all that research and shopping around, this is what we're starting out with (everything is either poly or wool):
  • Moisture-wicking base layer (next to skin) tops and bottoms in lightweight and heavyweight
  • Insulating layer (a.k.a. fleece layer) tops and bottoms in mid-heavy weight, and a few thick wool sweaters
  • Soft shell - thin, breathable, water and wind proof top and bottom to go over the other layers when it's not really that cold but we still need weather protection
  • Insulated shell - heavily insulated, water and wind resistant bib-trousers and parka to go over the base and insulating layer(s) when it's ultra-cold
  • Head/Face - base layer (poly skull cap), insulating layer (fleece balaclava), a wool watch cap for when it's not that cold, and fur-lined hunter's cap with flaps for when it's ultra-cold... plus the hoods on the jacket and parka. And some snow goggles with exchangeable lenses - clear for night time, and amber-smoke for day (to combat snow-blindness).
  • Hands - thin poly-wool wicking glove liners, insulated weatherproof gloves, super-insulated weatherproof arctic mittens
  • Feet - thin poly wicking sock liners, lots of wool socks in varying thicknesses, gaiters, mukluks with removable wool liners, insulated water resistant snow hiking boots, XtraTufs with removable insulated liner
  • Warmers -- and I picked up several "pocket/hand" warmers just in case we need some extra heat. I prefer the HotSnapz and Prism Proheat warmers (even though they aren't quite as toasty) because they are reusable and can easily be "reset" by boiling in water a few minutes.

So, we'll find out if all these layers work properly together to keep me from dying of hypothermia while still being flexible enough to allow me to keep working. I probably went overboard on some things, or find that they are completely useless or unnecessary. I just hope I don't find that I have forgotten something or what I got wasn't adequate. I figure by the end of this winter, I'll have become a pro at putting on and taking off layers to adjust to the conditions!

Who would have ever thought I'd be spending so much time worrying about clothes?! But, hey, this ain't about fashion, it's about survival, so I guess I won't lose my tom-boy street cred. :D


Unknown said...

I think your diary deserves a wider audience - would you publish it on

Plickety Cat said...

We'll contact you about linking in our blog, or at least writing a few articles for you Nick :)

We'll have limited access to the Internet for awhile, so being able to post in one place is certainly a bonus!