Thursday, 27 December 2012

Keeping Warm

Staying Warm 99My dance photography project, Postcards for a Dancer, involves taking photographs of dancers outdoors. The photo on the left, for example, was taken in December during a heavy snowfall. Outdoors, particularly in winter, is not the usual place for many dancers to engage in their art, although my opinion is that dancing outdoors is encoded in our DNA.

In any case, the dancers I shoot need to be warm and safe and I have been talking to them so much about my "tips on keeping warm" that I thought I would write up a blog post and save myself some air.

I have experienced a lot of cold situations over the years. I have spent over 38 years with cross-country skis on my feet and in both my coaching certification (Level 2) and my officiating certification (Level 3), we spent a good amount of time studying the cold and learning how to deal with it. When I took my medical first responder course, we spent time learning how to deal with the side effects, such as frostbite and hypothermia. Seeing both sides of the cold issue and being a naturally technically inclined problem solver (I am an engineer) has lead me to stay pretty current on ways of keeping warm.

No matter if you are a photographer going out to shoot, an athlete continuing training through the winter months, a dancer working with me on my dance project, or someone just wanting to stay warm on the way to the store, I hope this blog post will give you a start in thinking about how you can stay warm.

Despite all of the changes in technology over the years, being cold has always come down to the same three issues. It didn't matter if I was ski racing at -32 C, walking to the store at 0 C, or taking photographs at 5 C, if I was cold it was because:

  1. My insulating layer was too thin or I didn't have one to begin with.
  2. My insulating layer was being cooled by the wind (or a draft).
  3. My insulating layer was wet.

Many times, it was a combination of all three.

With that said, it is probably obvious that to stay warm you need to do one or more of the following:
  1. Have the right thickness of insulation.
  2. Block the wind (or draft) from cooling your insulation.
  3. Keep your insulation dry and make sure that it performs well when wet.

Putting it all Together.
Many people start with a "three layer" approach: a thin base layer (which is the "underwear" layer right next to your skin), a thicker mid layer, and then a wind-proof, water resistant Gore-Tex (or similar fabric) shell as the top layer (or a top layer with insulation).

The links above are to general product lists at Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), which is the best outdoor gear store on the planet. I am not sure how long the links will stay valid, so if you come across a broken link, just go to the main MEC web page here.

You can modify this approach to suit your needs. Add layers if you need to. Combine the wind-proof, water-resistant shell and an insulator layer by using a good "winter" coat if you want. Put a poly layer under your jeans if that's what works for you.

The secret is to identify what the issue is (or are) when you get cold. So as you design your own system for staying warm, remember to look for any and all of the three items I listed at the beginning:

  1. Is my insulation too thin?
  2. Is my insulation being cooled by a wind or draft?
  3. Is my insulation wet?

Let's put these three rules to use by looking at an example. If your hands are cold, then consider:
  1. Putting on a pair of gloves if your hands are bare (I usually put on a thin glove liner when it is 5 C. This surprises a lot of people because 5 C is well above freezing, but that is when I start to feel cold in my hands.
  2. Adding a layer, such as a glove liner or a kid's glove underneath your regular gloves.
  3. Adding a wind block, such as an over-mitt.
  4. Changing your gloves for ones that incorporate a wind block, such as downhill ski gloves.
  5. Changing your cotton gloves for wool gloves, since wool doesn't get as wet as cotton.
  6. Changing your wool gloves for polyester or polypropylene gloves, since they retain next to no water.
  7. Changing your gloves for mittens, since mittens loose less heat than gloves.
  8. Taking off a layer if your hands are sweaty and wet (this is a common problem for me when taking photographs. When I take my hands out of my mitts to use my camera, my hands are damp and they get cold quickly). Of course you need to replace any remaining wet layer with a dry one.
  9. Doing more than one of the above, or even all of the them!

That's pretty much all you need to know and you can stop reading right now if you want.

However, if you want to understand the three rules better, then you will need to read the rest of this series of posts:
Keeping Warm: Insulation Thickness
Keeping Warm: Dryness
Keeping Warm: Wind

More Information.
This is also a good time to point out that I did not cover other important items, such as using chemical or electric warmers. Likewise I did not cover related issues, such as the need to stay properly hydrated (no less an issue in the cold than in the heat).

I encourage you to treat this post only as a primer in learning how to stay warm. You should further your knowledge by reading books such as The Secrets to Warmth by Hal Wiess (ISBN-13: 978-0898866438).

A good on-line store for gear is Mountain Equipment Co-op, which is where I pulled examples for the layers above. They have excellent background information on how to buy gear as well as having top-notch gear at good prices. To buy something you will have to join, but I think the fee is extremely reasonable.

Finally, you should also take a look at what people who play a lot in the winter wear. If you have a high metabolic rate and/or do a lot outside, then backpacker, running, and x-c ski stores are loaded with great clothes. If you have a low metabolic rate and/or do not do that much outdoors, take a look at stores that sell to snowmobilers or downhill skiers. They wear some of the warmest clothing I know of.

By increasing your knowledge, you can then make your own decisions as to what trade-offs to make in terms of comfort, cost, and warmth to suit your own needs.

My thanks to Mel (who hates winter but lives in Norway anyway) for listening to my early explanations on how to stay warm. Those conversations were the basis of this post. Thanks also to fellow photographers Polina and Katya, who were kind enough to review my first written drafts and who took many of the illustrative photos above. After the review, and a nice mug of hot chocolate, we braved -16 C temperatures to get my picture in my December running gear (Christmas lights and a Santa hat)! After all, it is only fair that I do what I ask my dance project partners to do, which is to pose in the freezing cold!

Staying Warm 94

If you are curious about the ski photos, you can read about my Olympic adventures here.

The complete Keeping Warm series is here:

Keeping Warm: Summary
Keeping Warm: Insulation Thickness
Keeping Warm: Dryness
Keeping Warm: Wind

1 comment:

Geert Jan said...

Thanks Scott! I found a remark by a lecturer here on the effects of heat and cold on humans very illuminating: "Humans have evolved in Africa and therefore have many more natural mechanisms to cope with heat than to cope with cold." We need unnatural coping strategies and you have done a wonderful job of pointing these out.