Winter Survival Clothing For Extreme Cold Weather

When heading outside in extremely cold weather; you need to choose your clothing very carefully. If you want to survive sub-zero temperatures or winter survival situations, you will need to retain vital heat. Choosing appropriate clothing will increase your chances of survival, as it helps you avoid cold-weather health issues such as frostbite or hypothermia.

Your clothing approach should be based on layers. You need to choose a base layer with moisture-wicking properties, an insulating layer to keep in the warmth, and an outer layer, which will help in protecting you from the elements.

Why Layering is Important

The air pockets created between the layers of clothing will give you more insulating properties than if you were just wearing one bulky jacket or sweater. Furthermore, you can quickly adjust your layers to adapt to changes in weather or activity, removing an extra layer when you’re active, or adding a layer when the weather takes a turn for the worst.

In a winter survival situation, moisture is your enemy, so you need to do everything possible to stop your clothing layers from getting (and staying) wet. Layers can prevent overheating by helping you manage your body temperature, which in turns prevents sweat from saturating your dry clothes. You can easily add outer waterproof and windproof layers to your other clothing, keeping you warm and dry in extreme cold weather conditions.

Maintaining Core Body Temperature

Your body must maintain a temperature of 98.6℉ in order to function correctly. Any time your body deviates from your temperature, homeostasis kicks in, restoring your core temperature and warming you up. Prolonged periods of exposure to cold temperatures affect your health, including a decreased heart rate and lower blood pressure, which reduces the oxygen delivery to your organs.

As your body warmth is focused on vital organs, your extremities will be cut off from heat sources, turning your feet and hands purple and numb which could lead to hypothermia or frostbite. Exposure to extremely cold weather not only affects your body, but it also affects your cognitive abilities, meaning your thinking is impaired and can turn the situation into a life-threatening scenario.

What to Look For in Your Base Layer

Your base layer is the layer that will be right next to your skin, and it needs to be made of fabric that can wick away moisture from your skin so the moisture evaporates through the material. Your base layer should fit tightly to the body, but not so snug that it restricts your blood circulation, as proper blood flow is vital to staying warm.

For extreme cold weather, pick two base layers to cover your whole body. One for the top half of your body and the other one to cover your bottom half. The arms and legs of the layer should be long enough to cover your ankles and wrists completely, and the shirt and waist should overlap, protecting your back when bending or squatting.

The most effective base layers to keep you warm and dry are the following:

  • Merino wool: This wool is made from fine fibers, and is not itchy like traditional wool. Merino wool evaporates moisture within the fabric, keeping you dry. Another bonus is that it naturally has antibacterial properties, which is essential when wearing your base layer for an extended period of time.
  • Silk: Silk can be treated to wick moisture, and it feels very soft against your skin. A downside of silk is that you need to wash it after each wear, which in survival situations is not very likely to happen.
  • Polyester/synthetic blends: Synthetic fabrics such as nylon, spandex, polypropylene, and rayon will wick moisture away from your skin, and they’re lightweight. Since they are stretchy, they will also move with you, and fit snugly under your other layers without restricting your movements.
  • Cotton: Never choose a base layer made out of cotton. It can be comfortable and soft, but it retains water, so any evaporated perspiration will also make you cold.

What to Look For in Your Insulating Layer

Your insulating layer should be made out of fabric that traps air between the fibers, keeping your body warm while keeping out the cold. More often than not, your insulating layer will be the bulkiest, and it can include fleece bottoms or tops, or synthetic or down puffy jackets.

Fleece and other synthetic materials can keep you warm even when they get wet, as does wool, which naturally dries quickly and has moisture wicking capabilities. Therefore, both fabrics are a great choice for your insulating layer. Down filling is excellent at insulating, but it loses its insulating conditions when wet, so down is only recommended for dry conditions.

What to Look For in Your Outer Layer

The best outer layer for extreme cold weather does not restrict your movements, is breathable and protects you against the elements, such as rain, snow, sleet, and wind. Its vital that the fabric is breathable, as this will allow your perspiration to evaporate, instead of condensing on the inside of your outer layer and making you feel colder.

Your outer fabric should be weatherproof as this will keep out rain, snow, and wind while retaining your body heat. Something to look for is a hood, which will protect your head and neck in cold weather survival situations. The most common weatherproof materials are Gore-Tex and eVent.

You shouldn’t neglect your legs, as they also require protection. When looking for outer layer bottoms, look for the same qualities as your outer layer jacket: mobility, waterproof materials, and breathability.


Your footwear should be insulated, waterproof, rugged and comfortable. The best options are boots that are not too bulky and will keep your feet dry and warm, even during extended wear.


You need to choose gaiters, scarves, mittens, and gloves to cover your neck, wrists, ankles, and head as these parts of your body easily radiate heat and don’t have much body fat to provide insulation.

Final Winter Survival Clothing Tips

  • Keep your clothing clean, as grease and dirt can diminish its insulating properties
  • Remember to keep your layers a bit loose; don’t restrict your blood circulation with too-tight clothing
  • Keep your clothing as dry as you can, protecting your dry layers and if possible, drying out your wet layers during breaks from extreme weather
  • Your head should be kept covered, protecting the blood circulation in your head
  • Evade overheating, as your clothes will absorb your sweat, and damp fabrics lose their insulation value
  • Keep your ankles, wrists, and neck covered at all times to not lose heat from these areas
  • Stay away from cotton; it will absorb and not wick away moisture, making it ineffective for maintaining body temperature

Join the Discussion!

What’s your must-have piece of winter survival clothing? We’d love to hear from our readers – comment in the section below and let’s hear what you have to say!