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A Guide to Staying Warm

John Moe

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(An)Artic Expedition
(Matt Schonwald)
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I don't need to play beach volleyball, I just want to get out of the house. Take a walk. And not, you know, die of hypothermia. What would it take to take a walk anywhere in America, any day of the year? The easiest thing to do, I figured, was go downtown to the flagship store for REI, the outdoor apparel and equipment chain. Gabe Maricich is a salesman there. Dress in layers, he said. But how many and what kind?

"Kind of a three layer kind of trifecta is kind of how I describe it," he said. "So you've got something against your skin that pulls the moisture off, keep your body dry, insulating layer in between, and then a shell of some kind, something water resistant or water proof or wind resistant or wind proof."

I asked Maricich to select the warmest stuff they had. What would be the price of maximum warmth and the closest thing to a guarantee of a pleasant stroll anywhere in the nation, even Alaska?

He started totaling it up. "Looks like we got basically everything going on here. We got the shell on the outside for our pants. We've got our insulating pants -- it's a fleece pant here. And then we've got our long underwear we wear right against our skin. Only one layer of socks but with the insulating boot we've got right over here. It's going to be just great."

The socks alone were $13. We'll get back to Maricich. But that's just what to wear. For tips on what to do in hardcore cold, I stopped by Matt Schonwald's house. He's the program director and senior guide for Mountain Madness, a company that runs expeditions to places far-flung, daunting and really cold. Schonwald knows about cold. Couple years ago, he was snowed in for five days while leading a group up Vinson Massif, the highest point in Antarctica.

"To put in perspective, in terms of the temperature range we encountered, the teams at Camp 1 said that even with the winds, they were thinking it was -40. And we were 2,500 feet higher," he said. "And one of the things that happened besides our pee freezing is that the rubber seals in our stove shrank. So fuel would shoot out, so we can only guess it was -50 or maybe colder."

Wait a second. Your pee freezes?

"It actually -- as it exits it's still liquid, but when it hits the ground it's a solid. Yeah, you took your time and made sure your back was to the wind. "

Okay, now it doesn't feel so cold where you are, right? So that's one way to stay warm -- compare your neighborhood to Antarctica. Schonwald says another way is to conserve the heat you generate and maintain the fuel to make more: "And also right at the base of your head and neck you lose a lot of heat. And so those are places that you want to protect from heat loss. One of the ways I manage that is I'll often make sure I get everything tucked in really well and pull my pants up high. That way my back is protected by my pants and my jacket, and I don't expose my lower back to the elements. Cause that's one way, once you get a chill up and down your spine, it takes a lot more energy to reheat yourself than to stay warm. And just any flesh that's exposed. Like I had my face mask tucked under my goggles and there was one sliver an inch long and a millimeter wide. A couple weeks later when I finally looked in the mirror, a little piece of skin peeled off like a sunburn."

And remember the chicken soup mom gave you to stay warm? She was on to something.

"Some people bring tea or coffee," said Schonwald. "I also do that, but I tend to bring broth because when you work, you expel salt, and a lot of times just the electrolyte balance helps, like a warm cup of miso or chicken broth, just a little cup of that will do a lot for you."

In short, use layers, pull your pants up, drink something warm like soup and be grateful you're not in Antarctica. I think I have some broth at home, and I can remember to keep moving and cover my lower back. Back at REI, Gabe Maricich was almost done totaling up our cart. Three layers of coats and pants, mittens that resembled oven mitts, boots, socks, a hat that looked perfect for robbing arctic banks. Grand total: $797. For that price, Gabe said, you could be warm and dry anywhere. Pricy. But at least you can go for a nice walk.

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