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Dressing for the Cold

Your body is a furnace, but it needs fuel - and layers help, too.

By Russell A. Graves

The outdoors can be deadly. Even in Texas, where the winters are comparatively mild, storms and cold temperatures are enough to kill if you aren't prepared. Hypothermia occurs when the body's core temperature begins to cool. At a core temperature of only 95 degrees, the symptoms of hypothermia, such as uncontrollable shivering set in. The onset of hypothermia usually occurs at very cold temperatures, but the condition can be initiated in temperatures around 40 degrees. Hypothermia aside, being cold in the outdoors is downright uncomfortable.

Care for the core

The key to staying warm is to take care of your torso, or core. The concept is simple: if you keep your core warm, the blood going to your extremities flows freely. If the core cools, the body redirects blood away from your extremities to feed vital functions like circulation and respiration. That's why your hands and feet often get cold first. Wearing layers is the best way to dress your core. Start with a base layer that is made of a polypropylene or microfiber. These undershirts work better than cotton because as you sweat, moisture is wicked away from your core. With cotton, the fabric becomes wet and draws heat away from the body.

Next, wear a lightweight fleece shirt. A fleece half-zip or hoodie adds a layer of warmth to the undershirt and is light enough so that your arms stay mobile.

For the next layer, add a vest insulated with wool or another material. Choose a vest that isn't overly thick and bulky. While wool is a great insulator when the weather is wet, manufacturers now offer high-tech options.

"Thermolite insulation is a good alternative when you need a lightweight garment," says Anne Lindberg, director of public relations for Columbia Sportswear Company. "The material maintains a minimal thickness but has exceptional moisture resistance and is perfect for active use."

Lindberg explains that goose down inside a waterproof shell is a great alternative to wool. "Goose down provides superior warmth and breathability while maintaining lightweight properties. Microtemp is another insulation that is made from tiny synthetic fibers that produce millions of small air pockets to trap heat. This material is a good alternative to down - especially in wet climates."

For the outer layer, choose a jacket with a breathable inner liner. Make sure the outer shell is water resistant yet breathable. The key is to get moisture away from the body while holding heat in.

Extremities

If you layer and insulate your core properly, you'll be surprised at how little insulation your extremities need. For your arms, all you'll need is a microfiber undershirt, a fleece layer and an outercoat. For hand and finger protection, choose a glove that is water-repellent and Thinsulate-filled to ease the bulk.

For your feet and legs, microfiber underpants and wool or water resistant outerpants should be enough to keep your legs warm. For your feet, try wool or polypropylene socks and insulated boots filled with thinsulate or some other lightweight material.

Heads up

Estimates vary, but as much as 40 percent of the body's heat loss is through the top of the head. The key to staying warm in the winter is managing heat loss, and failure to wear an insulated toboggan or hat results in your body losing too much heat. Remember, as the core cools, your extremities become colder. Help keep your core warm by layering and covering your head, your feet and hands.

Your body is a heat-making machine. Through internal chemical reactions and activity, your body is like a furnace. Like a furnace, though, you have to feed it. Therefore, if you plan on being out in the cold for a long time, eat foods like energy bars and eat often. Eating will take your mind off the cold and provide your body the fuel it needs to keep going.

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