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Wrap up warm: How to dress for cold weather

We’ve all experienced the familiar chill that lets us know our outdoor wear isn’t quite up to scratch. Whether you’re boating or hiking, keeping warm can be a real challenge. So, we asked Kari Johanne Andersen, Development Director at Helly Hansen, to teach us about wrapping up for winter.

Kari Andersen from Helly Hansen steering a boat in sailing gear

Photo: Maria Muina/Mapfre

Kari Andersen, Development Director at Helly Hansen

Understanding layering 

When it comes to outdoor clothing, you’ve probably heard of the layering system: base layer, mid layer and outer layer. The base layer helps to regulate your body temperature and wicks moisture away from your skin. The mid layer, like a fleece or softshell, traps the warmth your body creates. And the outer layer, such as a waterproof or windproof jacket, protects you from the elements. You can add or remove layers depending on how you feel and the conditions you’re in. 

‘Start with fewer clothes on, even in wintertime, and layer up if and when needed,’ advises Kari. ‘Allow yourself to be a little chilly at the start of your activity. Your body is like an engine: it needs to warm up and needs airing afterwards to cool.’

Kari recommends bringing a small backpack to store your layers in. ‘Even if your jacket or trousers have big pockets, a backpack is better,’ she says. ‘Filling up the pockets with stash will block the moisture from being transported throughout the fabric.’

When it comes to layering while sailing, Kari suggests: ‘Use a lighter spray top together with the regular bib trouser. Bring the foul weather jacket onboard but don’t put it on before it’s really necessary.’ This will keep you more comfortable, dry and warm for longer.

Airflow between layers and a good fit are essential for retaining warmth and wicking away moisture
Airflow between layers and a good fit are essential for retaining warmth and wicking away moisture

Choosing the right materials 

One of the most important elements of dressing for the outdoors is picking the right materials. ‘This is especially important for your next-to-skin garments and socks,’ advises Kari. ‘I enjoy hiking and always use thin wool liners in my shoes as this helps keep me warm – even if I get wet, muddy or sweaty. Wool dries fast and it’s less smelly because it has hollow fibres that trap the air and retain the warmth. Polyester also dries fast but doesn’t give the same warmth. Cotton is the worst, as when the fibres get wet, they feel cold and don’t dry fast. 

‘For your next-to-skin garments, I’d recommend thin technical wool on chilly days and technical polypropylene or polyester for warmer days. If you’re hiking for a long time and maybe camping outside, I’d recommend wearing wool next-to-skin, with some fitted hiking gear and a shell jacket and trousers for wind and rain protection.’ 

You can also control your temperature using ventilation zips, on both jacket and trousers. ‘This avoids trapping sweat inside, which will make you feel cold over time,’ says Kari. ‘Start with less clothing, put on a mid layer or jacket when having a break and take it off when you start your activity again.’ 

A young woman in a beanie ties a knot on the deck of her boat

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

‘Bring the foul weather jacket but don’t use it before it’s really necessary’

Why waterproof? 

Whether you’re into exploring the coastline or seeking adventure offshore, waterproof clothing is a year-round essential. 

Waterproof treatments have changed a lot over the past years, as Kari explains: ‘To be more environmentally friendly, the durable water repellent (DWR) treatment that causes water to bead up on the fabric’s surface now contains less-harmful chemicals. This results in fabrics which are more easily wetted out, so the need to develop the right fabric for its purpose is even more important! 

‘For example, an offshore sailing jacket needs fabric which can withstand a combination of salt water, sun, wind and beating from the boat surface. With weight on waterproofness, the design will need to be more relaxed (less body-hugging) and fabric should be very sturdy and smooth on the surface to trap less water beads. A coastal jacket can be more lightweight, more regular in fit, and some are longer in length to protect the thighs – it’s still waterproof, but the fabric also needs to be more breathable. 

‘A mountain hiking or scrambling jacket needs more freedom in movement, stretch material and a shorter length for climbing up rocks. Waterproofness and breathability go hand in hand. It’s hard to make a fabric that is waterproof over a longer time while keeping breathability high.

The fabric membranes are made to let moisture through from inside and keep water out from the outside. But with less help from the DWR treatment nowadays, the fibres in fabrics are more easily clogged by dirt, salt water and sweat, so the care and wash of your garment is really important to keep it functioning.’ 

An RNLI crew member wearing Helly Hansen crew kit

Photo: RNLI/Harrison Bates

RNLI crew kit is designed to be layered for optimal warmth and breathability while our lifesavers work

Getting the right fit 

Almost all brands offer a variety of fits – slim, regular, relaxed – depending on your activity and personal preferences. 

‘When designing a garment, the fit is essential to its purpose,’ says Kari. ‘For example, offshore sailing jackets usually have a boxy and relaxed fit, as there should be room to layer up underneath and allow airflow.’ 

The airflow will regulate your temperature and transport moisture away from your body, so you stay warm and dry. ‘The same fit principle goes for hiking or rain jackets – a too-snug fit looks flattering, but it traps little air to keep you warm and it’s harder for the moisture to escape,’ Kari explains. ‘A too-big fit isn’t good either, as you won’t be able to warm up the air around your body – most of it will flow through the hem, sleeve and neck openings, resulting in you feeling chilly.’ 

Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to go out and buy all new clothing. Now that you know more about how the right layering, fit and materials will help you keep warm, you may be inspired to take a fresh look at your wardrobe. Perhaps there’s a better jacket for that hiking trip? Maybe that wool jumper you got for Christmas will have a new lease of life. And remember: take good care of your items. It will help them last long into the future. 

What about wetsuits and dry suits?

We spoke to Alice Beetlestone, Volunteer Helm, on when you’ll need wetsuits, dry suits, wet weather gear and foul weather gear. 

‘Wetsuits are designed for people venturing out to do an activity where getting wet is either highly likely or, in some cases, inevitable!’ she describes. ‘When fitted correctly (fairly snug), wetsuits work by holding water next to your skin which your body heat warms up – so the heat-sapping effect of the cold water is reduced. And, as an added bonus, you get a little bit of impact protection from bumps and knocks.

‘Dry suits are designed to do exactly what they say on the tin! They keep you dry but offer very little in the way of thermal protection by themselves, except protecting you from windchill. Make you wear suitable layers under your dry suit, depending on the conditions.

‘Wet weather gear, such as waterproof jackets and trousers, is designed for wearing over your day-to-day clothing when generally out and about enjoying our coastline. It’s not really designed or suitable for going afloat in.’

‘And finally, foul weather gear. It’s perfect for protecting you from the elements if you’re sailing or boating, and plan on keeping your feet firmly on deck! It’s a sailor’s best friend.’

Kari Andersen from Helly Hansen, hanging out with RNLI mascot Stormy Stan

Photo: Kari Andersen

Kari Andersen hanging with our mascot Stormy Stan!

About Kari

‘I design and develop professional-grade gear to enable professionals to perform their best. My drive and passion is to contribute where people put their own lives at risk to help others. And when professionals challenge the limits, pushing their profession even further – such as the sailors in The Ocean Race.’

Whether you're sailing or coastal walking, get more advice on our activity pages.