Happy New Year! This promises to be a bell-weather year and, if nothing else, a very entertaining one.
Today I want to wind up the cold-weather prepping apparel series from last week, and discuss covering your extremities.
Protecting your head from cold weather is really important. You can lose 40 percent or more of your body heat from your neck on up. That can, in the wrong instances, kill you. Plus, of course, unless you’re Nancy Pelosi, that’s where your brains are.
So keeping La cabeza warm can make all the difference in outdoor survival. When your body starts to shut down from the cold, it’s the extremities that are sacrificed first. On the head, that’s your ears, nose, lips and eyelids. Fortunately there are a lot of inexpensive ways to cover up and keep warm. Below are a few things that I use.
A good neoprene face mask is a game-changer. I buy mine locally at the hardware store for about $12. They come in all the colors around here (black or camo). Since they’re water- and wind-resistant, you have to be conscious of sweating, but most have a slit for us nose-breathers and small holes in front of the mouth. The cheap types are pure neoprene, but you can find them with a fleece inner surface as well.
This is the next step up in face protection. A balaclava covers your entire head, top to shoulders. The best, like the Ergodyne N-Ferno, can be adjusted on the fly to open up during exertion or higher temperatures, and really works well with a knit cap “helmet” or waterproof hat. You can get one of these for under $15 and that’s a good investment.
These are pretty good too, and are made by many outdoor clothiers. I own a Carhartt 2-in-1, which combines a hat and a pull-down face mask. You can get a new one for around $16.
Wool (or acrylic) scarves
There is no substitute for a good scarf; it’s a force-multiplier. You can wrap it around your balaclava, and it adds a whole new layer of insulation. As usual, avoid cotton. My scarves are all long and wide; my favorite is about five feet long, 18 inches wide and soft as down. For the Douglas Adams fans out there, forget a towel. Always carry a scarf. (Makes a good sling too.)
No matter what the ads say, there’s really only so much you can do vis-à-vis insulation in your standard glove. R-values are pretty unforgiving, and you can only wrap so much material around individual fingers. So the best thing you can do is to use essentially the same layering system we covered in an earlier post, but with a final layer twist.
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Start with a thin wool or neoprene glove. Add a Thinsulate™ or equivalently insulated flexible glove over that. But for a shell, nothing beats mittens. Yep, mittens. Pound for pound, a mitten will keep your hands warmer than gloves because it keeps still, warm air around your fingers. There are a lot of great high-value insulated mittens out there that can be used as a standalone, but be prepared to pay the price.
Instead, I’ve always gone for a lightly insulated, water-resistant, full sleeve mitten shell because I’ve already added the insulation via my inner and outer glove layers. A good, cheap mitten shell can be found for less than $15.
This particular mitten has a trigger finger, but it can be strapped back and that’s just fine with me. You’re better off removing a mitten when you need greater dexterity, so I add a grommet to the sleeve and put a wrist-band lanyard on each mitten so that it doesn’t end up in the snow.
Actually feet are some of the easiest extremities to care for. All that’s required is money. All good winter footwear is essentially a mitten shell. Add a light nylon sock, a heavy wool sock, pull on a pair of insulated boots and you’re good to go. Unfortunately price is less negotiable. With boots you get what you pay for, and military surplus boots just don’t cut it cold-wise.
My favorite winter boots for the past two years are my LaCrosse AeroHead hunting boot. I’ve spent hours in below-zero temps in these things. Bloody marvelous. Although you’ll have to spend $100+ (look around for sales; I got my pair for around $90), nothing is worse in winter than frozen feet.
There are a lot of other good choices out there. Read the reviews carefully.
Finally, there’s cheating – and I’m all in favor of that. Slip a hand warmer into each of those mittens and smile all day. There are a lot of different types of warmers available: disposables, reusables (either battery or chemical), or mechanical.
A good and inexpensive disposable type is the Little Hotties at about $0.60 a pair. When I’m cutting a downed tree in 10oF temperatures, they’re worth every penny. These work by exothermic reaction of fine-grained iron powder to air (oxygen) when you open the package. They last for hours.
Be advised, though, the plastic packaging isn’t entirely air-proof, so by the second year of storage, your eight hours of heat goes down pretty dramatically. (Nevertheless, when one of these warmers goes dead, don’t throw it out. There are a whole lot of other uses for fine-ground iron oxide that we’ll cover in a later column.)
You can also get reusable hand warmers that work with a chemical reaction between sodium acetate and water. A mechanical “clicker” in the sealed pouch gets things rolling. They’re great heaters, but they don’t provide heat for long and they become hard as a rock while in the exothermic state, so they can get awkward in a glove. You can reuse them by dropping them into a pot of boiling water until they liquefy.
Another hand warmer is an old friend of mine. I’m referring to the hand warmers made by Zippo (of lighter fame). These things are great. You fill them with lighter fluid, light the burner, and you get six to 12 hours of 110o-ish F heat. (Cost-saving tip: Zippo or Ronsonol lighter fluid is the same as the white gas you use in one of the older-model camp stoves. You can get a gallon of white gas for a much better deal than a 12-ounce container of “lighter fluid.”)
You can shut off these Zippo hand warmers simply removing the burner or by placing the unit into a plastic bag for a few seconds and starving the air. Look around; you can usually get one of the smaller six-hour models (which will fit into a glove) for around $15.
Finally, there’s the battery-operated hand warmer. Advances in battery efficiency have made these more effective, and many can be charged at a USB port. A fairly high-rated example is the EnergyFlux.
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Lots of folks like these, but they’re not my cup of tea. For one thing they weigh a third of a pound each. Plus, I’m a pretty old-school prepper. Fresh iron powder (and a touch of salt to speed the reaction) always heats up in air. White gas always burns. But I have to replace an expensive computer every couple of years, so I’m leery of electronic longevity. And I rarely have a USB port available down in the canyon.
Anyway, Happy New Year! See you next week. Stay warm and safe and get prepared.