November 18, 2017
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Ways to stay warm in Maine’s snowy outdoors

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff
Updated:

As the temperature drops and snow piles up, many people hide indoors. And it’s no surprise. The frozen Maine wilderness can be a harsh and unforgiving place. But it doesn’t need to be, according to guides who spend their winters helping people enjoy the snowy woods and icy lakes.

With the right gear and a few tricks up your parka sleeve, you can stay warm and comfortable, even on the coldest days. The following are a few tips from registered Maine guides that may help you spend more time exploring the great outdoors this winter:

Stay hydrated.

When you exercise in the cold, dry air, you lose moisture every time you breathe. In addition, you lose more water through increased urine production in the cold, a phenomena the medical community calls “cold-induced diuresis.” You need to replace this water in your body. Having plenty of fluids in your body aids circulation, which helps you stay warm.

Registered Maine guide Tim Smith, founder of Jack Mountain Bushcraft School in Masardis, always makes sure his clients drink plenty of water.

“We were in Aroostook County when the bottom fell out of the thermometer last week,” Smith said. “We had lots of hot drinks. When it’s really cold in Maine, the air you’re breathing is drier than the Sahara Desert. Staying hydrated keeps your blood liquidy, not thick. Liquidy blood gets to the extremities a lot easier.”

Try wool.

Wool has long been the material of choice for Maine guides. While it can be heavy, wool is a good insulator, dries quickly and doesn’t burn easily. It wicks moisture away from the body, and it doesn’t trap in odors like many other materials do, making it the ideal durable material for the active outdoors person.

“I usually wear long johns that are a wool and cotton blend, but quite a bit of wool,” said David Tobey, who has been a registered Maine guide since the 1970s and lives in Grand Lake Stream. “I’m very fond of wool. I think it breaks wind better than fleece and other things. And if I get damp, wool has a tendency to dry out very quickly.”

Many people think of itchy sweaters when they hear the word “wool,” dismissing the material entirely. But did you know that there are different types of wool, and some are much scratchier than others? Merino wool, for example, is almost as soft as cotton.

Wear layers.

You’ve probably heard it before, but it’s extremely important to bundle up by wearing layers of clothing. Start with long johns made of wool or synthetics — or some blend of the two — and add to the outfit from there with insulated pants or snow pants; a shirt or light jacket of wool, fleece or synthetics; and, for those really cold days, an outer coat filled with down or synthetic insulation. Wearing a windproof and waterproof layer is also a good idea, especially in wet and windy conditions.

“Never wear cotton — even cotton undergarments,” said Todd Flagg, a registered Maine guide who runs the guiding business Good Life Adventures out of Fryeburg. “It holds moisture and won’t dry out.”

Don’t sweat.

Soaking your clothing with sweat while in the cold outdoors can be problematic because water is a good conductor of heat, meaning it will pull heat away from your body. This may seem fine when you’re on the move, but as soon as you stop being active, it can become a real problem.

“The goal is to walk just fast enough or exercise just fast enough so you don’t sweat,” Smith said. “If clothing is sweaty or wet or dirty, it doesn’t insulate as well.”

If you’re skiing or snowshoeing and you start to feel hot and sweaty, take off a layer of clothing and store it in your pack. That way your body won’t overheat and produce sweat to cool you down.

Blouse your pant legs.

Do what, you say? Blousing your pant legs means rolling the bottom of your pant legs into an elastic material so it’s snug to your winter boot.

“It something that’s kind of forgotten, but being kind of old school. It’s something I do,” Tobey said. “You’ll see pictures of older folks in tall L.L.Bean boots laced up with pants rolled up. Military people still do it, and Maine game wardens still do it.”

Blousing your pants prevents cold air and snow from getting into your pants and your boots, thus keeping your feet and legs warmer and drier. In warmer seasons, it also deters ticks from crawling up your legs.

“If you happen to poke a foot into any open water, it can act as a temporary seal and keep the water out,” Tobey said.

Tobey said that in the past, Maine guides used to use the rubber seals at the top of jars as the elastic loop. Nowadays, Tobey uses stretchy medical tubing, and people can purchase elastic blousing garters from outfitters and boot shops.

Another option for keeping snow and cold air out of your pants and boots is wearing gaiters, a lower leg covering that bridges the gap between your pants and boots.

Get off the ground.

If standing or sitting, consider the fact that the frozen ground is a decent conductor, sapping your body of heat. Placing something between yourself and the ground makes a world of difference.

“If I’m standing around a lot, I try to find something to stand on, even if I have good warm boots on,” Smith said. “I’ll stand on sticks or something. My feet tend to stay way warmer when I get off the ice or direct ground.”

Spice things up.

Speaking of feet, Smith has one other trick for keeping feet warm — dousing socks with certain kitchen spices.

“Some people don’t have great circulation in their feet and are prone to cold feet,” Smith explained. “So I put some cayenne pepper in their socks and shake it around. It will irritate the skin, which will increase blood flow to the skin.”

If that culinary remedy isn’t your style, consider packing a few hand warmers for your feet and hands, just in case your mittens and socks aren’t cutting it. L.L.Bean’s Wicked Good Handwarmers claim to last for 7 hours and have a five-star rating on the L.L.Bean website.

Don’t bundle up too tight.

You should have enough room in your boots to wear thick wool or synthetic socks and wiggle your toes. Tight boots minimizes circulation, Smith said.

And when it comes to your hands, Flagg suggests wearing mittens instead of gloves.

“If you’re wearing mittens, your fingers are all together so they get warmth from each other,” said Flagg, who wears mittens over glove liners on especially cold days.

Cover your head.

You may have heard the saying, “you lose 80 percent of your body heat out of your head.” It’s a myth. In fact, scientists at the Indiana University in Indianapolis debunked the myth in a 2008 article in the British Medical Journal. Nevertheless, it’s important to include your head when you bundle up to go outdoors. Like any other area on your body, it will lose heat if left uncovered.

Sometimes you need to trade fashion for comfort. Make sure the hat covers your ears, which are one of the first things to get frostbite if left uncovered, and has a bit of insulation, such as fleece lining.

Be prepared.

Think long and hard about the gear you will need in the outdoors to be comfortable and safe. It takes effort and a little money to create a good outdoor backpack, but once it’s packed, you don’t have to fuss with it too much.

Several things you should consider including in your pack for the winter are sunglasses, sunscreen, lip balm, a compass and map, a GPS with extra batteries (batteries die faster in the cold), snacks that don’t freeze, an insulated bottle of hot water (takes a long time to freeze), a face mask, a cell phone with an extra battery, a headlamp (it gets dark quickly in the winter in the woods), a fire starter, an emergency blanket and a first-aid kit. For more ideas on what gear to bring on a winter outing, refer to Appalachian Mountain Club’s list “Essential Winter Gear for Northeastern Hikes” at outdoors.org.

Looking at the conditions, consider how you might want to travel. You may need crampons or ice cleats to deal with icy surfaces. If the snow is deep, you may want to use snowshoes or backcountry skis. And always invest in a warm pair of waterproof winter boots.

Most importantly, tell multiple people where you are going and what time to expect you back. If something goes wrong, they are your backup plan, so make sure they write your plans down and expect to hear from you when you return.


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