A Beginner’s Guide to Getting Great Gear: The Right Clothes for Playing Outdoors in Winter Weather

There are so many places to buy outdoor gear, online and off, and so many varieties. Prices are all over the place, last year’s top of the line snow pants will end up on clearance at 75 percent, while this year’s models (Oh! We changed the pocket closure from Velcro to zip!) hover around $200 USD. Companies push new technologies or gimmicks or styles, and we buy it – after all, we’d like to be warmer, drier, better ventilated, or just better looking.

What really matters when you’re shopping for your outdoor kit? I’ve been pulling together my gear for a once in a life time trip to Antarctica. I want to be focused on the wonder of the seventh continent, not on cold feet or a draft down my collar or the fact that my jacket pins me in at the shoulders and it’s hard to reach my camera. I’ve been paying special attention to detail as I prepare for this trip. I’m taking gear that works.

My travel conditions will be cold, wet and windy, with some snow, so that’s what I shopped for. But everything I’ve learned applies to blue sky and dry powder days. And as always, when you’re out in the weather, you should be prepared for conditions to change.

A disclaimer: I mention specific pieces by name and manufacturer because they’re things that work for me. This doesn’t mean they’ll work for you; you should check them out and make your own decisions.

The little things

Pity the humble zipper. It gets so little love. Yet it’s a critical part of your clothing – when the zipper gives out, your coat or pants are no good to you anymore. But there’s more. Zippers that are easy to manage with gloves on are rare – most require you get down to bare hands. This is especially true with taped seam waterproof zippers. It’s a trade off. The down liner in the Columbia Black Diamond Parka has an easy to manage zipper, the hard waterproof shell, not so much so. I need that shell to keep the wet out, though, so I’ll take the inconvenience of fussy zips.

If the zipper pulls are big enough, you can open them without taking your gloves off. As long as you don’t disconnect the zips at the base, you’re good. I like to be able to open the underarm or side vents without creating another opportunity for to lose my gloves.

Conclusion? Go for the taped seam skinny zips on your waterproof layers, worry a little less on the insulation layers. And check the zipper pulls. Go grab some gloves from the accessories section at the gear store and try it. Really.

Having a fit

Any outdoor activity is just that – active. If you can’t move freely in your gear, it’s no good to you. I’ve recently learned the hard way that just because it says on the website that it fits a U.S. women’s size 10, there is no guarantee that it fits a U.S. women’s size 10. Nearly everything I ordered was too small, binding in the shoulders, too tight over base layers, and when I went up a size, the pants were way too long. It’s frustrating.

That said, good gear has lots of adjustment built in. The Enigma Shell and Enigma Pants from Outdoor Research have lots of elastic pulls to take up the slack. Even though the pants are too long, I can tighten them over my boots at the ankle. The large jacket, while a little long in the sleeve, accommodates a down sweater underneath and the side vents zip up from the hip, they’re not just pit zips. I like that a lot.

While you don’t want your gear so big that it’s flapping all over the place and letting in cold air, you certainly don’t want it so close cut that you’re unable to move freely. It’s better to err on the side of too big than too small. If it’s at all possible, try before you buy – and if it’s not, check the returns policy.

Working out in all conditions

Almost everything I’ve selected for my trip does double duty. Instead of a full winter parka, I’ve got a down sweater and a rain shell. I’ve got base layer shirts that are styled enough to wear at a casual dinner table. I added a pair of GORE-TEX pants – I can pull them on over my jeans and go out into the weather.

The layers I opted for are across brands – that First Ascent Downlight Sweater fits best under my shell, my base layers are a mix of PolarMax, SmartWool, and Icebreaker. I’ve added a smattering of accessories – a merino wool headband and glove liners from Icebreaker, all the merino wool socks I can find room for in my bag, a Peruvian style hat with Columbia’s 20 percent warmer lining (so they say).

It’s all part of that classic layering system we’re all so familiar with. Pile stuff on, take it off, pile it on, take it off. Open the vents to let air in, zip them shut to keep the air out. Selecting gear for both layers and versatility means I can pack less and get more use out of what I do pack.

Pass the test

You can do all your homework, buy the best top of the line gear with the newest technology, and still find failings when you go outside. A field day is critical to making sure your gear is comfortable and does exactly what you expect it to do. The best way to find out if those pants are going to keep snow out of your boots in deep powder is to go find some deep powder and walk in it. How does that coat hold up in heavy wind – does it funnel the cold air down your neck? Keep all your receipts and tags and head out into foul weather.

Having the right gear for your outdoor adventures can make or break a great day out. Take some time to pay attention to the details. Try to replicate the conditions in which you’ll use the gear as best you can beforehand. And don’t settle for just okay, get gear that fits, moves with you, and works.

Pam Mandel is a freelance writer and blogger, find her online at Nerd’s Eye View or at TravelWild where she’s blogging about Antarctica.

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Pam Mandel

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