Schandelmeier: When mercury drops, know how to dress warmly

John Schandelmeier

November was a cold month. Fairbanks was about 10 degrees colder than average, as was Paxson. I have no idea if that portends a cold winter, and, when browsing the Internet, it seems that no one else knows either. What I do know is that dressing for working outside in temperatures ranging from minus-25 to minus-35 is a challenge.

I have been building outside recently. I stay plenty warm while I am carrying materials, but not so much while pounding nails. When traveling by dog team or snowmobile, everything is peachy during the prep stage but a lot colder once you are moving. I can manage when building because I have the wood stove up and running, so even without a roof, I can warm my hands once in awhile. The snowmobile or dog team is a different animal all together. Good gear becomes a necessity.

Whether it is a machine or a dog team, the most important thing to remember is that "if it isn't on your person, then you don't have it." A day-pack with emergency gear is a good thing to have, but if it is tied to the rack on your snowmobile, there are situations where it is worthless. If you should drop your machine in the water, your pack is gone. You are left standing, maybe wet, miles from anywhere. It would sure be nice to have those dry matches...

Most mushers wear a lot of gear. If they lose the team, they are usually pretty well set, plus it is easy to stay warm chasing after them. The team usually heads for home, so hopefully someone will come looking soon enough. Again, a fire would be pleasant while you wait.

What should you carry in your pockets, besides matches? At least two pairs of dry mittens. Not gloves. I prefer polar fleece. Wool is also good. Two pocket knives, one of them in an outside pocket where you can get it without unzipping your gear if your get wet -- zippers freeze, and hands get stiff. You should also carry an extra face mask.

In these days and times, a cell phone with a good charge could be pretty darn helpful in some locations. And as much as I dislike chemical hand warmers, a couple packs of them in your pocket could be a real asset.

What you wear is probably more important than what is in the pockets. Start with a good base layer. There are some excellent new fabrics out that work incredibly well. They are expensive. The alternative is military surplus stuff. It is as good, for a tenth of the price.

The lighter polypropylene fabrics that wick moisture away from your body also carry off body heat. There is a fine line between wicking moisture and losing heat. Try it out before you leave the yard. Every person is a little different. I can get away with wearing cotton over my base layer. If you perspire a lot, then that may not work for you. Polar fleece would be my next layer, it is as warm as wool and a lot lighter. Fleece also absorbs less moisture, so can be dried quickly.

Your outer gear is extremely important. Personal preference will determine whether you choose bibs or a full snowsuit. Both have advantages. Both need an over parka in cold conditions. Whatever the choice, down is not the type of insulation you want. Down is only warm if you can dry it every day. Over a two or three day period of being outside and absorbing moisture, the insulating quality will halve. Chose a good poly insulation instead.

Feet, hands and head are always challenging to keep warm.

I prefer double polar fleece mittens with a good, heavy over-mitt. The military makes one of the best outer shells going and they are available as surplus.

Feet are always an issue. There are as many choices as there are feet. Bunny boots are the best. When folks talk about what they wear outside, invariably you hear, "They are as good as bunny boots, except..." Nothing else works like bunny boots do in the water. Some of the insulated foam boots allow your feet to warm back up after you get wet, but you will freeze if you have to work in the water getting a machine out of overflow. If you get wet and are a long ways from home, every other boot that I am aware of will need to be dried before you can reliably travel again.

Your head is the most important of all. Not only do you need to keep your head about you, it must be warm. You lose more heat through your head than anywhere else.

Frostbite noses are so common in Alaska as not to be even commented on. I choose to wear balaclavas. Two of them -- an inner of thin poly-pro and an outer of poly-knit. With a good stocking cap over it all. If you are snowmobiling with a helmet, wear the thin poly-pro and carry the other in your pocket. Your parka hood or snowmobile suit needs a outer ruff to keep the wind off your face. Fur is the obvious choice, but if one is opposed to that, there are some fair imitations that are better than nothing.

What I have outlined for gear here is only a rough guide, but it will get you started. The thing to remember is to try your gear before leaving and don't spend a ton of money on advertised wonder gear before asking hard questions of someone who has actually used it in situations such as you intend to.

Alaska in the winter is a cold place, but far from inhospitable if you know how to be comfortable.


John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Paxson.



Daily News correspondent