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For strenuous wionter sports like cross country skiing and Snowshoeing use use the 20 Degree Rule. Borrowed from running, it simply means to dress like it is twenty degrees warmer than the actual temperature. The 20 Degree Rule is just a rule of thumb that can differ form person to person, but overall the logic is the same regardless: Snowshoeing is an aerobic activity.You will be generating body heat and will soon warm up. If you start off the trip and you are slightly cool, you are probably dressed correctly. When you stop, you can always throw on an extra layer. If you overdressed, you will be soaked in sweat and will be cold quite quickly when you stop.

The quick and dirty rule of clothing to bring on a snowshoe trip is NO COTTON (this means no blue jeans!) While cotton is comfy, it can make for an unpleasant trip. Cotton, when wet, loses all insulating value and will actually take the heat away from your body, possibly causing hypothermia. Additionally, sweaty or wet cotton clothes can cause severe chafing (your “tighty whities”), blisters (your cotton gym socks) and all around “icky-ness”. Try putting on a cotton t-shirt sweaty and damp from the previous day. Talk about a wake-up call! Imagine walking in wet, heavy and cold clothing in winter ?!?!?!? Ack!

In winter, it is very important to use layers of clothing. Rather than one bulky garment (that alternately will leave you sweating and then cold when you take it off), it is better to wear a few different layers that you can take on and off as conditions warrant.

The basics of the layer principle for winter:

1) Wicking inner base layer 2) Middle layer to retain body heat 3) Outer shell layer to keep out the wind and snow 4) What I call the "puffy" layer - a down or synthetic filled jacket

The wicking inner layer is sometimes wool but is usually synthetic. Think of this layer as your “long undies”. Typically the synthetic underwear is known by such names as Polypropylene, CoolMax, DuoFold, etc. This layer will move the sweat away from your body, helping you to regulate your body temperature. This layer is a very important one for keeping you warm and dry.

The middle layer is usually a fleece jacket, a wool sweater or a Primaloft-type jacket (think thin layer of synthetic down).

DO NOT use a cotton sweatshirt. A wet cotton sweatshirt will take forever to dry and has no insulating value. Though chattering up in the mountains may be romantic in a “braving the elements kinda way”, it is much easier to enjoy hot cocoa when you are not shivering.

If you get cold easily in the legs, some light fleece pants or even expedition weight long underwear may not be a bad idea as another layer. I personally find that my legs do not get cold easily and do not need the fleece pants/heavier long underwear.

The third layer is the shell layer. This layer is meant to keep out the wind and the snow. You can use anything from an expensive Gore-Tex jacket to a simple coated nylon pullover. The key is to wear something that keeps out the wind and the snow. I like a simple nylon shell myself. Find it to be more breathable and lighter than a heavy Gortex jacket meant for mountaineering. Your rain gear from hiking will probably work well.

You will also need a shell layer for your legs. You can use expensive mountaineering Gortex-type pants, but that is overkill for most people. Your hiking rain pants will work well, or even unlined wind pants if you are on a budget. Keeping out the wind and the snow is the key. I would not use insulated ski bibs such as the ones used for (ughh!) downhill skiing. You will probably overheat and these are not versatile as separate layers.

The "puffy layer" is the last layer and is usually thrown on during breaks when it is esp cold and rarely worn while snowshoeing. Synthetics are less expensive, but a little heavier. Down is lighter (and very well suited for the cold, dry conditions of Colorado), but is generally more expensive. It is a good layer to have stowed in your pack. For less than two pounds, it can mean the difference between an enjoyable break to look over the scenery and freezing your tootkus off!

Synthetics: Cotton which retains moisture and takes a long time to dry is not recommended for outdoor activities. Polypropylene (PolyPro) and Polyester (Capilene, ...) are the favorites. PolyPro has the disadvantage of retaining odors, including body odors. It also melts easily, so it generally has to be air-dried. Nowadays it seems to have been replaced with specially treated polyester, like Patagonia's Capiline, or other less expensive polyester materials or natural fibres such as merino wool or silk.

Warm Weather:
In warm weather a hydrophilic material such as linen which will hold some moisture will cool you through evaporation, while hydrophobic ones such as nylon and polyPro will not. Linen is a labor-intensive textile produced from the flax plant. Additionally, nonflax fibers, like cotton, woven in a linen texture may also be referred to as linen.

HEADWEAR

Keeping the noggin' warm is very important in winter. With so much body heat escaping from your head (esp. if you are bald like me!), it is important to keep in the heat via good head cover. Adequate management of your head gear can mean the difference between being too cold, too hot (and soaked in sweat) or just right.

The basic components that I find useful for head gear are:

1. Wool or Fleece Hat: Your standard winter hat. Too cold? Thrown on a hat! Too warm? Take it off! Your most important piece of winter gear in my opinion for regulating body temperature. 2. Balaclava : AKA the Ninja Ski Mask. Not to be confused with a delicious pastry... A very versatile piece of clothing. I find a lightweight one to be the most useful. Roll it up for a light hat, roll it down for a neck warmer, roll it over your ears to be worn with a ball cap, wear it normally for more warmth and protection in the high winds and cold. 3. Sun Hat: When it is not cold out, or you just need light headgear, a simple ball cap will keep the sun off your face. Some people like a broader brimmed hat in the winter. 4. Neoprene face mask: In very cold and windy conditions, the combo of a winter hat, a balaclava and this mask is very useful. I keep it stowed in my pack at all times "just in case". 5. Goggles: When the wind is blowing fierce, esp if you are in an area with little-to-no tree cove, the goggles make sure you can see! You don't have to buy anything fancy, even used $10 work well for most people.

Note: For the beginner snowshoer, who is probably sticking to lower elevation trails, items 4 and 5 can be purchased at a later time. As you go to higher elevations or places with more exposure, you'll definitely want those two items!

SIDE NOTE: Wool vs Fleece (or Wool vs Synthetics)

There has been a bit of resurgence in the use of wool for backcountry use (esp in base layers). So what to use? It honestly does not matter for most people; it comes down to personal preference. As long as you do not use cotton, you should be fine. Many people use a combo of wool and synthetics (esp in winter). If you are curious of the pros and cons of each, here is my personal take:

Wool

* Warm when damp * Can be inexpensive (thrift stores, surplus) or expensive (Smartwool, Ibex, etc) * Tends to breathe better than synthetics * More durable * Less odor * Takes longer to dry when wet (and becomes heavier) * Usually bulkier and heavier than comparable synthetics or fleece

Synthetics or Fleece

* Dries quicker (but is not warm when damp) * For base layers, good ole' polypro can be ridiculously cheap * Usually less heavy and bulky than the wool equivalent * Can get a pungent odor

So what do I use?

For winter use, when I am more concerned about warmth than weight (and I am wearing most of my layers), I tend to favor wool base layers (except for the liner socks) as it is more forgiving of sweating I find. A wool hat tends to be warmer if it gets damp in snow vs a fleece hat as well. A surplus wool sweater is now my warm layer of choice, too. In the cold, dry conditions of Colorado, I find wool works very well overall.

In three season backpacking, when weight and bulk is a chief a concern (and most of my layers are stowed), I tend to wear synthetics. Any moisture in spring through fall tends to be rain (or very wet snow), so the quick drying properties of synthetics comes in handy.

Overall, you may find one combo works better than another based on your budget, availability of what you may already have or just personal preference.

Links:
Fabric Comparison Chart,Fabric Characteristics,Comparison Chart of Fabrics,Characteristics of Fabrics
Introduction to Snowshoeing Basics atpmags.com

last updated 20 July 2007