Eight essential tips for staying warm in winter (hint: you’re doing socks wrong) from a New England extreme cold expert.
By Mel Allen
Jan 31 2023
Getting advice from Dr. Murray Hamlet on how to keep warm on days of bitter cold is like sitting down with Julia Child as she guides you to making her famous boeuf bourguignon. Hamlet is the retired director of the Cold Research Division for the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts. During the 33 years he spent immersed in understanding what extreme cold can do to the human body, his mission was to ensure that soldiers who lived in polar and high-mountain environments would stay warm, dry, and safe.
I met Hamlet more than 20 years ago, and I hear his words of wisdom in my head every winter. Especially when I put on socks before going on a hike — he says 99 percent of us are doing socks wrong. (More on that below.)
Hamlet offers an important message with a light touch. “Clothing is like sex,” he jokes. “The first part and the last part is most important. Gotta have the right underwear; gotta have the right coat and right hat and right mittens and socks and boots.”
1. Shelve the cotton in cold weather. “I like cotton indoors as much as anyone, but cotton will kill you in cold. Cotton holds almost 40 percent of its weight in water, and your body will lose heat trying to get rid of the water.”
2. Protect your head. “Wear a good wool stocking cap, one you pull down over the face if necessary. Be sure to have a hood on your parka. You may only need the hood twice a winter, but when you need it to cut the wind, you really need it.”
3. Know the basics of layers. “The first layer must keep the skin cool and dry. It’s moisture management that’s key.” For this layer, he stressed materials that wick moisture away. “Then I use different weights of fleece. That’s the beauty of fleece. I mix and match the weights depending on the weather. Then a warm, breathable parka.”
4. Take good care of your hands… “I rub my hands with something that looks like hand cream, but it’s magic stuff. It was developed by the military to block bad things from penetrating the skin (commercial alternatives may have names like Gloves in a Bottle or Invisible Glove). Used underneath mittens, it will help keep your hands dry and warm. Then I use a thin neoprene liner. Over the liner I will put on Glacier Gloves. These are the gloves used by windsurfers.
5. …And your feet. Hamlet said how vital it is to keep feet warm and dry. Skiers, snowshoers, snowmakers, and anyone else who works and plays for hours outside in winter knows what it can feel like when feet get wet and cold. “At the start of winter I’ll spray my feet three times a week with a good antiperspirant. You want the antiperspirant to have aluminum chlorohydrate. After that, once a week is enough. This simple task will stop 50 to 75 percent of wet feet. And it’s wet feet that lead to so many cold feet injuries. If your feet do get wet, you must change socks. Powder the feet, and get new socks on.”
6. Do socks right. He says to look for heavy warm socks with fuzz — but then turn them inside out. “Do you ever see a sheep with fuzz on the inside?” he said. Socks need to draw heat and moisture away from the feet. Hamlet and a partner developed a sock for soldiers (with fuzz on the outside, of course), the model for which can be found here.
7. Eat and drink for the cold. “Doughnut lovers love me for saying this: You need more calories in winter. You need to eat more fatty, slow-burning foods. I eat greasy in the morning — doughnuts work for this. Carbohydrates in the afternoon, and greasy again at night. And drink at least one to two quarts of water each day. Dehydration can be as severe in winter as in summer.”
8. Make the most of your sleeping bag. “If you go winter camping, know that by insulating your head and hands at night with a stocking cap and hand liners you’ll double the effectiveness of the bag. Fluff up the bag before getting in. And since the moisture you carry into the bag will condense and make a wet, chilly bag, sit up in the bag before burrowing in. Be sure you’re dry. You’ll lose a pint of water into your sleeping bag at night, so when you awake you need to dry it. Fluff it and compress, fluff it and compress.”