Fieldwork in cold places: dress for success (or at least for survival) – Part 1

I have undertaken fieldwork in some pretty cold places over the years (e.g. Canada, Greenland, Norway, Finland, Siberia) and I have learnt a lot in the process. If you are planning fieldwork and you think it might be cold, the following commentary may be of some use to you. That said, I have no doubt that those of you out there with experience will disagree with some (or all?) of what I will say. Clothing choices, after all, can be very personal. Páramo-girls* and Buffalo-boys** will be particularly irate about the comments I make in Part 2 of this blog, I suspect.


Firstly, when does it feel the coldest? I have felt coldest in temperatures between -5°C and +5°C. This may sound daft. Surely it is colder when the mercury drops below -5°C? Well, yes, it is colder, but it does not necessarily ‘feel’ colder. It is very complicated (you need to take into account the temperature, humidity and dew point), but essentially a damp-cold feels colder than a dry-cold. In very cold conditions a dry-cold is more likely, so it is colder, but does not feel colder. I remember conducting a topographic survey with a colleague in northern Finland many years ago, I was wearing five layers of clothing and I was still cold. I had to do shuttle runs after each survey leg just to warm up a bit. The air temperature was about +1°C. Below -25°C is serious frostbite territory and even if you don’t feel cold you can easily acquire cold injuries (frostnip and/or frostbite), but this is extreme and most people will not experience such cold.

Basic Rules
There is so no such thing as bad weather, just poor clothing choices. So follow these rules:

1. Do not wear garments made from cotton when conducting fieldwork in cold climates. Especially do not wear them next to the skin. When cotton gets wet it loses all insulation value and, critically, it holds that moisture and chills the wearer. This is why many mountaineers and backpackers call it ‘killer-cotton’ and why jeans have long been banned on geography fieldclasses.

2. Dress in ‘layers’. The layer principle has been around for a long time and the general idea is that three thin layers are better than one thick one because air is trapped not only within the layers but between the layers (still air is the best insulator). Also three layers are more versatile than one (which is either ‘on’ or ‘off’), so you are more likely to achieve the right thermal balance between body/workload and environment.


3. Avoid sweating at all costs, as this is the key to remaining comfortable in the cold. The problem here is that most people wear too many clothes when outdoors in the cold, especially when working (carrying loads, digging snow pits, coring etc). You should wear the minimum. If you are warm enough when stationary, then you will be much too hot when moving/working. Constantly adjust your microclimate by ventilating/removing a layer or zipping up/adding a layer, as appropriate.

Fieldwork in the mountains of northern Norway. Cool and damp. Plenty of layers needed!

Fieldwork in the mountains of northern Norway. Cool and damp. Plenty of layers needed!

4. Following on from 3. above, you should add a layer when you stop moving/working and before you get cold. If you were wearing too much in the first place (you did not follow rule 3!), you will have been sweating and when you do cool down you will feel really cold.

5. Always keep key insulation items dry. This might mean not deploying certain clothing types if you are wet or the weather is wet. Putting on a jacket filled with goose down at a time when it is going to get soaking wet is a very bad idea. Down jackets are useless when they are wet, the down clumps together and all the dead air space is lost meaning they won’t keep you warm. They are best kept for sub-zero conditions or when you are stationary and under cover (e.g. in the mess tent at the end of a long day).

6. Always pack an emergency warm item (e.g. an extra mid-layer). I always carry a pullover made of a reasonably windproof material lined with synthetic insulation as an emergency spare in the bottom of my rucksack (in a waterproof stuff sac). This can be put on if you get really cold due to a change in weather or an enforced period of inactivity and can be used in wet or dry conditions.

7. Eat and drink regularly. The body can generate a lot of heat if it has the fuel to do so. Similarly, if you get dehydrated your temperature regulation system will falter.

That’s it for now. Next time I will deal with the ‘layers’ of a good cold weather clothing system and talk about fabrics and the like.



*Páramo offer waterproofs (and many other garments) that use a completely different technology from membrane-based Gore-Tex and the like. Many serious outdoor professionals use them because they are hard-wearing and the designs include ventilation options as standard (e.g. ‘pit’ zips). Don’t knock’em, unless you’ve tried’em.
**Buffalo Systems produce garments that have a fibre-pile (what we used pre-fleece) inner and a pertex outer, so they are both windproof and breathable. They are great garments (and have a strong following), although appear to promote an ‘anti-layer’ approach to keeping warm.


SteveGurney_wA bit about today’s blogger: Steve Gurney


  • Chair of SAGES Health & Safety Committee
  • Undergraduate Teaching: Geomorphology; Geographical Techniques; Physical Geography Field Class, Geomorphological
  • Hazards; Glacial & Periglacial Geomorphology.




Areas of Interest:

  • Periglacial and permafrost geomorphology and sedimentology
  • Glacial geomorphology and sedimentology
  • Nival geomorphology and hydrology
  • Quaternary mid-latitude permafrost and periglacial environments
  • The history of mountain glaciers since the Little Ice Age
  • Karst geomorphology and hydrology

The Okstindan Research Project has a Research Station (‘Okstindhytta’) located in the mountainous Okstindan area of northern Norway. The Project has been running for over 30 years and the station has provided a base for teaching and research for the whole of this period. Steve is currently the administrator of the station. Read more about Okstindan.

Dr Gurney also holds the position of ‘Docent in cold climate geomorphology’ at the University of Turku, Finland.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *