NOT LOOKING FOR TROUBLE -
We’ve all heard the stories of cold weather “survival”---like the oft-told tale of having to kill a sled dog in order to plunge ones’ frozen hands into the entrails in order to keep them from freezing off and dooming the poor soul who fell through the ice or whatever. You won’t get that from me and I hope you never will.
I don’t actively seek out “adventure” in outdoors Alaska---I get all I can handle without looking for it. Nor do I have a bunch of narrow-escape survival stories---I avoid those situations whenever I can. The idea is to catch any potential problems early---before they become emergencies.
For instance, last Winter there was only one time when I felt slightly threatened by the cold. It was 30-below and I was just taking a little afternoon walk in the woods a few miles from my cabin. I was wearing a huge down parka (my “Governor Hammond parka,“ see below), insulated pants, expedition mitts and Sorel snowmachine boots. My fingers got cold because, as usual, I had been manipulating a camera. As evening approached, my face became cold as well. But when I tried to fasten the snaps to secure the hood of the parka around my chin I couldn’t do it. No doubt, the tips of my fingers were starting to frostbite----just those little areas. Happens to me a lot. But I couldn’t feel the snaps to press them together.
Fortunately, this is a great, well-designed parka with a substantial draw-cord system in addition to the snaps for tying the hood in place around the face. My frozen fingers---unable to fasten the snaps---easily managed to manipulate the cords and tie them together.
A small point? You are correct! However, in a true survival situation, that is exactly how a small matter can initiate a cascade of events that could easily threaten ones’ well-being by taking away use of the hands and then freezing the face.
PARKA PERSONALITIES -
Most Alaskans own a parka---a more or less full-size, insulated coat with some sort of hood. The choice of parka reflects individual personalities, which tendencies of emotional expression often need to be repressed!
A pilot once asked me (rather hopefully) if a down vest would suffice instead of a parka for his aircraft survival kit.
“No, no and no!” I told my minimalist, efficient, thrifty and non-acquisitive friend.
“Even in Summer?”
“Not even in Summer. You‘ve crash-landed somewhere; you may be injured; and you are facing an overnight outdoors in Alaska.”
For a change I was the cooler head. I explained (and he readily understood) that cold arms mean cold hands on one end; and cold arms terminate at the underarms and shoulders that lead directly to the body core which is where you don’t want to get cold under any circumstances. Exposed arms suck heat from the hands and the body core.
I realized his dilemma---size and weight matters, especially in an aircraft. But a vest is inadequate.
STYLISH OR THAT MICHELIN MAN LOOK?
I see them all the time in Alaska---inadequate parkas. They are thin and body-hugging with little effective insulation. They are short, often barely reaching the hip bones. They are stylishly tight---no room for any extra sweaters underneath. The sleeves are just long enough to reach the wrists---no extra length to pull over frozen hands. And the hood, if there is one, is thin and often small enough to be rolled up in some little zippered or Velcro compartment around the neck. Or, it is detachable and missing.
Forget style, forget fashion, forget jaunty and forget about “making a personal statement,” “creating an image” or “expressing yourself.” Except for the fact that there was no hood on his giant black parka, George Costanza on TV’s “Seinfield” “the parka” episode was dressed for the cold. Sure, he looked ridiculous, but once it got cold he started looking a lot smarter.
IDEAL PARKA AND LAYERS -
A parka does not cover all body parts but is the one most vital garment to cover the most crucial areas from head to torso. Let me start with the ideal parka for me in extremely cold weather. Thick, huge, oversized with a hood large enough to cover a watch cap, a scarf and muffler (for breathing through) without squeezing my head.
There is also the alternative of a fur wolverine (preferable) or wolf ruff around the front of the hood in order to warm the air for breathing. Works great except it fogs my glasses. And it does add weight and bulk. I breathe though a synthetic fabric or a soft, cashmere wool scarf to keep the cold out of my mouth and lungs.
My basic Alaska survival gear is a super-thick, extra-long, oversized, down (or polar guard) parka with a gigantic hood. Plus---if needed in wet conditions---a suitably weatherproof, hooded parka shell (or outer covering) to wear over the top of the whole thing.
The common advice is “dress in layers.“ As with all “layered” systems, it does no good if the layers don’t comfortably fit one on top of the other. So, before I go out, I make sure all the layers fit comfortably when worn all at once!
Furthermore, layers are fine---but especially when "topped off" in extreme cold with a final layer of really thick insulation. This applies to all body parts. Extremities freeze first, so I carry thick expedition mittens and liner gloves (right at the top of the pack for easy access in case my fingers are already starting to freeze). Layers are great---if the layers will fit over one another when worn together. And that includes outer shell garments, which must be XXL.
CONSTRUCTION---SEWN-THROUGH OR BAFFLE -
Most non-fur parkas are of “sewn through” construction. That is, the insulation is contained in pockets, sandwiched between nylon fabric, which is “sewn through” to keep the insulation from moving around. At the line of the sewn-through seams, the parka is as thin as two layers of nylon. They are cheaper to make but these sewn-through parkas can be quite warm---if they are really stuffed with insulation!
Now, combine two separate layers of sewn-through material and insulation and overlap them to completely cover the thin areas that have been sewn through. That is the next step up from the single layer, sewn-through construction. It is as heavy as two parkas but can be very thick and well-insulated because the staggered pockets of insulation comprise a uniform thickness. The parka in my backpack right now for emergency use (or photography sessions) during ski-dogging trips, etc. is of overlapping construction and is my second-warmest garment. I use it on all Winter camp-outs. It takes a beating!
Next is “baffle construction” where the inside and outside fabric is joined by an inner “baffle” to completely eliminate the thin, sewn-through seams without adding the weight of the overlapping layers. The insulation is contained in rectangular compartments of uniform thickness. More expensive but the major advantage is a savings in weight and bulk. The type of construction doesn’t always matter. The final verdict on any of these parkas is the effective thickness of the end-product.
FINAL EVALUATION -
With any cold weather garment, it is up to the user to take it in hand in order to pad it between the hands and fingers to see just how thick and firm it really is. Don’t forget the hood---most parkas skimp on the hood.
It is quite possible to find some good bargains because large, thick garments are not popular and may be on sale. Ladies can buy mens' clothes to get the effective size needed to stay really warm.
For you plus-size folks out there, garments of sufficient size and thickness may have to be purchased from outdoors specialty dealers for considerable sums. “Extra large” is no longer extra large---outdoor clothing manufacturers are trying to save on cloth and materials by cutting down on the size of garments such as parka shells, for instance, which need to be big enough to cover everything else but are rarely found in large enough sizes.
MY GOVERNOR HAMMOND PARKA -
My finest down parka is huge, down-filled, and lightweight because it is of baffle construction. It reaches nearly to my knees and has kept me warm as toast to 50 degrees below Zero Fahrenheit---the coldest temperatures I have known (in Willow proper down by the river beds).
I dearly loved our late Alaska Governor Jay Hammond and greatly admired him. I met him only once---it was maybe 25 years ago at a moving sale in Anchorage at “Two Wheel Taxi And Ski Shop.”
Former Governor Hammond lived in the Bush, and in my opinion really could have used the giant parka he was carefully examining in the store. I watched as he scrutinized every feature of the garment---a huge but lightweight, baffle-construction down coat. He took his time looking it over but finally put the great garment on a hanger and hung it back up. As soon as he walked away I grabbed it up and bought it---for the ridiculous price of $88. A coat like that would cost four or five hundred dollars today.
The former Governor showed his temper by glaring at me. I felt bad about that but I still have the garment, it remains in pristine condition, and has served me extremely well.
The bottom line on extreme cold is that one is rarely faced with the need to protect such gigantic garments from rain or snow---it‘s just too dry for precipitation when the temperate gets to Zero and below. Anyway, I have been wearing the coat during this recent cold snap and high winds here in South Central Alaska. Warm as toast. Comfy and light. I especially like the way it reaches almost to my knees and keeps the thighs warm. The Governor Hammond parka would have served him well also.
A large, thick parka with a skimpy hood will leave your head and face cold. The hood should be evaluated for size and thickness right along with the rest of the garment. Frankly, I prefer hoods that are permanently attached rather than those that snap on---that’s in order to eliminate wind and cold blowing onto the back of the neck. However, I would prefer a large, thick, snap-on hood to a small, thin, permanently-attached hood.
INSULATION MATERIAL -
There are many ways to keep warm and I do not have all the answers. This is something you have to figure out for yourself.
Basically, with non-fur parkas, the choice is between down feathers and some type of synthetic polar guard-type insulating material. Some insulating materials have fancy names but I go by how thick they are on the garment.
I do some things “wrong.” For instance, I rely heavily on down insulating material for my parkas. Because down is light and compact when carried on my person.
Down insulation has two terrible disadvantages. When down gets wet---whether from sweat or snow or rain or immersion---it becomes useless, thin as the fabric layers containing the feathers. It takes forever to dry and almost never dries in field conditions. And, even when dry, down compresses when one sits or lies down upon it. Therefore, I have the “wrong” parkas because they are insulated with down feathers. That’s why most of the rest of my clothing underneath the down is insulated with synthetic pile. I own about eight parkas but only one is insulated with synthetic material---I use it mainly for working outdoors. I do, however, always use synthetic “pile” garments under the down.
Down insulation is the most efficiently warm in terms of its carrying weight and its small bulk when compressed. Down is lightweight and can be well-compacted for carrying compared to other forms of insulated clothing.
For me, long-term survival in the cold depends on keeping warm while "not moving." People have died on climbs because they left their parkas at base camp.
Most outdoors gear is well made and will last for years with proper care. When no longer serviceable for wilderness survival, I recycle all my gear for working around the cabin.
SHELL OR OUTER COVERING -
I make do with parkas having a plain nylon outer shell. The reasons are:
1. Plain nylon breathes better which keeps the insulating material dry.
2. Light weight.
3. I do not use my fine down parkas to do work such as gathering wood or working on vehicles.
4. When necessary I use outer “shell” garments large enough to cover all my parkas in order to protect them from the elements of snow and rain.
There are parkas available with all sorts of outer protective materials built right in---from Gore Tex to ballistic nylon. These outer coverings may be totally “waterproof” or “breathable” or whatever. I mistrust them all for extreme cold for one reason---they do not allow the garment to fully breath and lead to the build-up of moisture in the insulating material (particularly crucial given my preference for down).
Sooner or later, a down garment worn constantly will build up enough body-moisture to start becoming useless. For some measured days of survival, however, it is sufficient for me.
AGAIN WITH THE PERSONALITIES -
If you are one of those slam-bang-get-right-in and get-your-hands-dirty types, you will want a very strong outer fabric built right into your parka. Or, if you work outdoors like on an oil rig or construction or a homestead, you will need a parka with a strong protective outer material.
While using down outer garments covered only with plain nylon material I need to exercise great care not to expose the garment to wet snow and rain. Also, I need to avoid tearing the nylon (duct tape time). This involves some pussyfooting around. It involves wearing the down garment only when necessary and not using it while doing heavy work or traveling, say, through heavy brush.
I do love the security of having a suitably well-insulated and gigantic parka in my pack. Or, in certain conditions, when traveling light, I will use a cord or just tie the garment around my waist with the sleeves while on the move.
BOTTOM LINE -
I’m not saying you should rush right out and buy a gigantic Governor Hammond-type parka…unless you live in Ft. Yukon or Barrow! However, if you want to keep really warm, a large, long, thick parka with a large thick hood is the way to go.
- Rudy Wittshirk
Outdoors Update November 17, 2011:
Ice on local lakes along West Hatcher Pass Road at altitudes around 1000 feet will now support snowmachines…but they are not traveling very far. There may be overflow---slush and water on top of the ice. The two-and-a-half feet of snowfall we had has been completely melted right onto the ice; has mostly refrozen; and is now covered with a dusting of snow.
Ice in Willow Creek Canyon is forming ice dams, which are backing up the flow and raising water levels. The ice is not thick enough for travel on the creek, but this could become real interesting when the dams build up further and finally give way. Already, the creek is being diverted, flooding around the dames and flowing through the forests along the shore. It looks like there almost certainly will be flooding…perhaps a spectacle.
[Next I will deal with moving warmth and inactive warmth and protecting the extremities---the hands, legs and feet.]