One of the biggest enemies of cold-weather activities is water: from streams, rain, snow, perspiration, etc. Even though it is cold, it is easy to get overheated and sweaty if you are exercising in the sun while wearing the gear you put on to stay warm while standing around waiting for breakfast. Being wet or damp makes you cold, and when wet, it is very difficult to warm up. Add to this that fabrics have reduced insulating ability when wet and you have a dangerous situation.

We have one main way to control moisture: our choice of clothing. Our clothing needs to keep the water out, keep perspiration to a minimum, and still insulate if (when) it does get damp or wet. But choosing the right fabrics is not the only concern. We must also be able to control our temperature (to keep from overheating), and this means layering.

Wearing a single huge coat over a T-shirt does not give you any control over your body temperature. You can be warm in the coat, or open it up and be cold. Given this choice, most of us will stay too-warm, and therefore perspire and get wet and then we are cold. Not what we had in mind when we bought that nice coat.

Dressing in several lighter layers is the solution. Layers actually insulate you better than a single coat, and allow you to add and remove layers when you are cool or warm. And layers are a great value, too, as they can be used year-round for various conditions.

The "3 W's" of winter clothing are: Wicking, Warmth, and Weather. These are our layers first layer to wick the moisture away from your body, the second layer for insulation, and the outer layer to keep out the weather (wind, rain, snow, etc).

Fabrics (Cotton Kills!)

Cotton is the absolute worst material for winter outdoor-wear. It is very comfortable, so most of us have lots of cotton clothing in our closets. But cotton soaks up water like a sponge (or a towel?) and does not dry well. And it completely loses any insulating properties it might have had when it is damp. Other materials are available which wick water away from the skin, dry quickly, and yet still hold much of their insulation value when wet.

Wool is a good choice; it insulates well and holds its insulating value when wet. Some people don't like the feel (itchiness) of wool on their skin, so you might want to look for wool blends like Merino and SmartWool. Many newer synthetic materials are now able to out-perform wool. The fleeces like Polarfleece and Polartech are excellent insulators, and keep their insulation when wet. They are also quite comfortable. Down is a good insulator, but is difficult to dry and loses all its insulating value when wet. To be useful, it must be properly cared for to keep it clean and dry in the field. So it is not a good choice for youth.


Socks are one of the most important pieces of clothing in the winter, because your feet are easy to get wet, and hard for your body to keep warm. Feet get wet from sweat, standing in snow, stepping in a puddle, etc. And cold feet make your entire body feel cold. If not corrected, cold feet will lead to frostbite a serious medical problem.

White cotton athletic tube socks are terrible. Wool, Smart wool, Merino wool, Neoprene, Polypropylene, Thermasilk, and other materials are available. Outdoor socks come in several "weights", from "hiking" to "winter" or whatever. Any of these should be good at controlling moisture; they just vary as to thickness and warmth. Sock liners can also be nice. These are thin socks you put on under your main sock that wick moisture away from your foot and keep it dry. They can also be good if you have wool socks, but don't like the feel of wool on your skin.

You need 3 or 4 pairs (at least) of good socks for a weekend (2 pair is an absolute minimum for something like a day hike). When your feet get wet, you need a pair to change into and still have one backup. Often, I find that second pair ends up soaking up the water in my boot, so I need to change again before I have been able to dry out the first pair. An additional dry pair to wear at night is also good.

Wearing more is not necessarily better: make sure the sock is not too thick for the boot. Wearing too many socks, or a too-thick sock, can constrict the blood flow to the foot and make it colder than a single (or thinner) sock.


No tennis shoes. You might bring them for wearing in the car maybe, but you must have some kind of boot. Your boot needs to keep your foot dry, so it must be water-resistant or waterproof, and should keep snow out of the top (gaitors can do this). It should be insulated, and large enough that you can wear thicker winter socks. And the sole should have a good tread for walking in snow or ice.

A minimum would be a good water-resistant hiking boot. If your boots are not water-resistant, get a waterproofing product to apply. But hiking boots are not insulated, and probably are not large enough to let you wear a warm sock, so they are not recommended for cold weather or in the snow.

A good winter snow boot will have a waterproof shell, removable insulated liners, and probably a furry top to keep snow out of the boot. Removable liners allow the insides of the boot to be dried more easily, and also let you bring the liners into your tent or sleeping bag to stay warm overnight.


No blue jeans or other cotton pants. In addition to the regular problem with cotton, your blue jeans are going to soak up water from snow and freeze.

Wool pants are great they keep you warm, and shed snow pretty well. Since they are usually pretty heavy, they also block some wind, too. If you don't like the feel of wool, look for lined pants or wear a nylon or fleece pant or long underwear. Wool pants can usually be found at army surplus stores.

Fleece is also very warm and comfortable. You may be able to find fleece-lined pants, with fleece inside and something like nylon on the outside for shedding water and added durability. Another good bet is ski pants or bibs. If you stay away from the fashion snowboard gear, you can find pretty reasonable prices for ski bibs and pants, especially youth sizes.

You can also get good value from layering. Wear long underwear under something like a nylon pant (e.g. the scouting switchback pants). The long underwear can give warmth and the nylon water/wind resistance.

Upper Body

Adjusting layers of clothing on your torso will accomplish most of your heat control. On a campout, you will go through periods of standing around in the dark, periods of running around or hiking in the sun, and everything in between. You must be able to adjust your clothing to match. A really warm coat over a light shirt does not accomplish this goal, as you have only one layer to adjust, and thus most of the time are going to have to choose between being too cold or too hot. The best way to fix this is to dress in several lighter layers, so you can remove a layer when you are too warm (to keep from sweating and thus getting wet), and add a layer when you are too cool.

Again, we are going to stay away from cotton. This means no sweatshirts and no t-shirts. Most plaid flannel shirts are cotton, also.

Choose layers that are somewhat loose fitting. This allows warm air to be trapped between the layers and helps insulate. Tight-fitting layers will let more cold in.

The best first layer against the skin is long underwear, also called a "base layer". Do not get the traditional cotton "long johns" (usually white honeycomb-looking things). You are looking for materials like Polypropylene or Smart (Merino) wool or Thermasilk. Some brands are Duofold, Hot Chillys, or Columbia. The main job of this layer is wicking moisture away from the body, but they also will provide insulation, depending on what you get.

Next, I personally like to wear a long-sleeve wool shirt. A synthetic (non-cotton) turtleneck or light fleece or sweater would be good, too.

Over this, a fleece or wool jacket or heavy shirt. Wool or synthetic sweaters are good here too.

And on the outside you need a coat or a shell that will keep out the water and wind.


You lose a lot of heat from your head. If you can keep your head warm, you will help your body keep the rest of you warm, too. You want to keep your head and ears warm, and also keep falling snow off your head. The basic way to do this is with a beanie of fleece or wool. A balaclava style cap that can cover the face and neck is also a good choice. You can also get a "head-ring" or ear muffs (traditional or "180s"), and wear these with a brimmed hat to keep off the snow. But this doesn't keep the top of your head as warm as the beanie. Or, you can use an insulated cap with ear flaps (an "Elmer Fudd" style hunting cap).

If it is snowing, or you are digging a snow cave or something like that, you will want a hood on your coat or shell, to help keep snow from falling down your neck.

Heat loss from your head is also a problem at night. You should have a beanie to wear while you sleep. Since your daytime hat may get snowy and wet, it's best if you can also have one just for sleeping (pack it inside your sleeping bag along with a pair of warm socks, and they will always be there).

Gloves and Mittens

Mittens keep your hands warmer than gloves, by keeping the fingers together. But gloves are more convenient when you need to use your hands. You need to keep your hands both warm and dry.

Ski gloves or mittens are the best all-around choice. They are up to the task of handling the snow, and are easily available.

Polypropylene glove liners will make any glove or mitten warmer, and keep your hands dryer.

You need gloves that are long enough that they will cover the ends of the sleeves of your coat or shell. Otherwise, you have a cold ring around your wrist, and you will get cold, wet snow in there.

You should also have a pair of fleece gloves. These are not waterproof, but will keep your hands warm, and since they are pretty thin, they don't restrict your ability to feel things and use your fingers too much. They are also small enough to keep in your jacket pocket so you are more likely to have them when your hands cool off.

Sleeping Bags

The best bag for winter is a mummy bag with synthetic filler. The other kind of bag is a rectangle: with these, there is a lot of room around the feet that is hard to keep warm. And just as with clothing, don't get a cotton bag for winter.

Down is a very good insulator, and can be quite comfortable and weight efficient. But it loses insulating capacity when wet or dirty. Thus it is probably not a good choice for a youth. The synthetics are much better for scouts. There are lots of different kinds of synthetic filler, all with different characteristics. So talk to a knowledgeable salesperson about the differences.

Bags are rated by temperature, usually from something like 20 to +40 degrees. The rating is supposed to be the lowest temperature where the bag can be used. Obviously, 0-degree bag is much warmer than a 20-degree bag. But these ratings are not standardized, and vary from manufacturer to manufacturer (and their accuracy varies from person to person). But they are useful as a guide. The "real" temperature for a bag depends on the person inside it; a 20-degree bag might be OK down to 0 for one person, but too cold even at 30 for someone else. If you sleep at home with 3 blankets, you probably need a warmer bag than your brother who sleeps under just a sheet.

Warmth in a bag comes from its "loft" (fluffiness). It also depends on the material inside, but at places where the bag has no loft, it won't be warm, no matter what's in there. So whatever bag you choose, look at the construction. If there are seams sewn through the sides of the bag, each of those seams will let in cold. A good bag will be sewn such that the seams don't go all the way through all the layers of the bag. A good winter bag will also have a draft tube to block cold air from the zipper. And it should have a draft collar, which is a flap of insulated material that can be cinched around the neck to keep cold air from coming in around the shoulders. If your bag doesn't have a draft collar, you can wrap a shirt or scarf around your shoulders to do the same thing.

You can get excellent value from a sleeping bag by layering. If your bag is not warm enough, or you want to buy a lighter bag for spring/fall use, you can increase its warmth (and comfort) by adding a fleece liner. You can buy these, but the best value (and fit) is to buy about 2 yards of fleece fabric from the fabric store. Fold it over like a sleeping bag and sew around the feet and up the side to about your waist. Leave enough of a flap to close the gap at your chest.

If you don't want to make a liner, you can just wrap a fleece blanket around you in your bag. Or lay a fleece or wool blanket over your sleeping bag. It is not as effective (or comfy) as a sewn liner, but it does help.

Sleeping Pad

A sleeping pad is absolutely essential. Your sleeping bag's warmth comes from its loft. But the part under your body is squished flat, and doesn't insulate you. And the ground holds an awful lot of coldness. So you need a pad to insulate you the ground. The basic thing you want is made from closed-cell foam. What you don't want is open-cell foam (like a foam mattress) or an air mattress. These don't insulate and you just end up replacing the cold ground with cold air. Closed-cell foam pads can be either your basic blue foam pad, or a Thermarest self-inflating pad. It only depends on how much comfort you want and how much you are willing to spend.

If you don't have anything else, or need to add extra insulation to your pad, fold a wool or fleece blanket in half and use that as a pad.


Your body uses a lot of energy keeping warm. To do that, it consumes water, even though it is not as obvious as it is in the summer sun. You must have a water bottle. A wide-mouth bottle is best, because the small mouth bottles freeze shut easier. Bicycle-style bottles will freeze shut and can break open. A Nalgene (lexan) bottle will not crack in the cold. CamelBak bladders will freeze: even if you wear it under your coat, the water in hose will still freeze.

Carry the bottle under your coat, if possible, to keep it warmer. Carry and store it upside-down (if it won't leak) will keep the lid from freezing shut as easily (ice will float, and carrying it upside-down will keep the ice away from the lid). Put it in your sleeping bag overnight so it won't freeze.

Sunscreen and Sunglasses

You need sunscreen to protect you from the sun (especially if it is reflecting off of snow). It will also help protect you from windburn and your face drying out. Lip balm is also suggested. And the sun is especially bright in the winter, especially with snow on the ground. So sunglasses are strongly recommended.

Get a small bottle of sunscreen and some lip balm and keep them in your winter coat pocket, so it will always be there when you need it.

Other Good Stuff

Gaiters: In deep snow, it is nice to have a pair of gaiters to keep the snow out of your boot. These are essentially just water-resistant fabric that wrap around your calf. Most have a zipper or Velcro at the back, elastic or a tie at the top, and a hook to go on our bootlace. However, you can do without them if you have tall boots. Or you can duct-tape your pant legs to your boots. Or wear newspaper bags as gaiters.

Neck Gaiter, Balaclava, or Scarf: In extreme cold/wind, or for cold-sensitive people, keeping the neck/chin/mouth/nose warm can really help. They also can keep snow from falling down the back of your neck. You can also usually wear them around the head/ears if your beanie gets wet, lost, etc

Newspaper bags or bread sacks: Save a few of these and toss them in your pack. (A Patrol Leader and Troop Guide should always have a few.) You can wear them between your dry socks and a wet boot or shoe to keep your feet dry. Or put them around socks on your hands as emergency mittens. Or duct-tape them to your legs as gaiters. Or keep your lunch dry.

Large trash bags: Bring one or two, they are magic. If there's not enough room in the tent for your pack inside, put it in a bag to keep it dry and leave it outside. Poke arm and head holes in it to make an emergency poncho. Cut it open for an emergency tarp or shelter. Put your wet clothes in it to keep them from soaking everything else. Or even pack out your trash.

Ziploc bags: More magic. Pack your clothes in gallon Ziploc bags to keep them dry. Organize stuff. Trash bags. Leftovers.

Change before bed: After a day out, you will be damp from perspiration (and maybe other reasons). You must get dry if you expect to stay warm overnight. Strip and put on dry stuff when you go to bed. Put tomorrow's clothes in your bag with you so they will be warm when you put them on in the morning.

Compromises and Exceptions and Objections and stuff like that

Sweatshirts and T-Shirts are usually cotton, and thus are dangerous if they get wet or damp. A sweatshirt may be an adequate compromise as a warmth layer, but only if accompanied by other clothing to control moisture, including a good base layer and a waterproof shell. However, this is only useful for boys who can and will honestly monitor their own condition and correct problems while they are involved in other fun activities. Frankly, this just doesn't happen that often, so sweatshirts are not worth the risk for troop activities.

T-Shirts are really not useful as warmth layers, and thus are not useful in cold weather. Do not wear a t-shirt as a base layer it will hold perspiration next to the skin and be really cold. The only acceptable use I have found for a t-shirt is as a comfortable sleep-shirt. As long as you do not overheat in your sleeping bag (and perspire), a t-shirt can be comfortable and keep you from sticking to a nylon bag, and keep cool drafts off your shoulders. But your base layer shirt or a fleece liner can also serve this purpose. So really, you don't need a t-shirt.

Of course, in fall and spring (and summer at higher elevations) you will need to combine an appropriate mix of summer and winter clothing. Most of the items here are just as good in these conditions as they are in winter; you just need to wear less. In warmer weather, you can usually safely include cotton and cotton-blends (most of which dry faster than cotton). However, most places in the mountains will require you to bring some of these winter items all year round.

I don't recommend white cotton tube socks for any outdoor activity, because moisture control for your feet is important for comfort, blisters, etc as well as for cold. So you should always have hiking socks and/or moisture-wicking liners.

General Shopping Tips

For performance clothing, look in sporting goods or hunting sections of department or "big-box" stores, rather than in the clothing sections. Look at name-brand stuff, read the labels, and find out what materials are. Then, look at the off-brands and see what is comparable. Look for sales in the spring and fall, rather than waiting for the cold weather to hit. Try on everything each year. It may not fit anymore. Give yourself enough time to go shopping and find good deals.

Many stores give a discount to Boy Scouts, often 5 or 10% on non-sale items. Most do not advertise this, so remember to ask a cashier or a manager. You usually will have to show your membership card, so keep it and take it with you.

REI has lots of good quality stuff. You can also order from them and have it shipped free of charge to the Silverdale Stoere - but they are NOT CHEAP- good deals can be had, just resist the urge to load up before you can check prices online.

Sportsman's Warehouse in Silverdale has a big selection of all kinds of clothing and gear. They are mostly hunting and fishing, but have a reasonable shoe and camping section.

Big 5 in Silverdale has a very limited selection gear, but most of it is low end, which is servicable, but not as durable. Focus on clothing there, lots of good deals can be found there.

Wal-Mart has good prices on lots of camping stuff. They carry Coleman among others. They also have fabric, so you can probably get fleece and maybe wool there.

Campmor ( and catalogs) usually has good prices on name-brand stuff, plus some decent quality off-brand gear at reasonable prices.

Sierra Trading Post ( and their store in Cheyenne) is an outlet store for outdoor gear and clothing.

Alps Mountaineering ( has good quality tents, sleeping bags, pads, backpacks, etc. You can find some of their gear at places like Boulder Army and Sportsman's Warehouse to look at. They have a special program which gives scouts a huge discount on everything (their original prices are good to start with). To get the discount, you have to order by phone direct from them. See for the details.

This site is run by Troop 1539, Orca District, Chief Seattle Council, Boy Scouts of America
It is not an official BSA site