Monday, December 26, 2022

Hints for working in the cold

Yesterday, Handsome Hombre wanted to go for a walk. I went with him. We went on our usual, three-mile walk.

Handsome Hombre currently hails from Miami, Florida but originally hails from even more southerly regions. Cold weather is new to him. I took the opportunity to give him a crash-course in being able to survive and work outside when the temperatures are lower than what he normally encounters.

The wind-chill was zero F which is not brutally cold but will get your attention if you decide to be stupid.

The first lesson was that movement makes heat. If sitting in a recliner is 1.0 (Metabolic Equivalent), then walking is 3 METs and trotting is 8-to-10 METS. Not moving makes you cold.

The other side of the equation is that if you dress for not-moving then you will sweat when you start working. Damp clothes do not retain heat as well as dry clothes. Consequently, if you will be outside for a while and will be working, then you need a way to unzip or a hat you can stow in a pocket or a way to roll-up sleeves to balance your heat generation and heat loss. It is always good to be just a little-bit cool.

Then I quickly touched on calories. You cannot make heat by burning calories if you are starving.

Manual dexterity was another topic. A light pair of stretchy gloves or split-leather gloves beneath a roomy pair of mittens is a good option. You can shuck-off the mittens when you need to make a fire or swing an axe.

The preferred course of action for larger projects is a math problem. Suppose you must work on a power distribution panel that is outside. In -20F temps you might be able to work on it for two minutes before you have to go back into your truck to thaw out your hands for ten minutes. OR, you can spread a tarp or build a temporary tent around the PDP to break the wind. If there is a power receptacle you can use a clip-on lamp with a 250W IR bulb to shine on your hands while you work. 

It might take 30 minutes to set-up the tent and heat but then you can work straight through. Probably not economical for a small job but definitely a good investment if you have a lot of work to do in the PDP. Some bosses are jerks and will give you crap for setting up a tent even when it saves time in the long-run.

Specific to PDPs, a couple of times I have seen a recurring, intermittent problem solved when the electrician went through the panel and retorqued every-single-connection. That is a pisser of a job to do if you have to keep hopping back into the truck to warm up because it is easy to lose track of where you stopped. It would be just my luck to skip over the ONE connection that was loose.

Sweaters, fleece and quilted fabrics are warm but not wind-resistant. To stay warm when it is windy requires a wind-resistant shell over the puffy clothing.

Turning your back to the wind for a few minutes can make a big difference.

Your nose will run when it is cold outside.

If your vehicle gets stuck and you cannot extricate it, it is almost always better to stay with your vehicle than to attempt to walk-out. Searchers will find your vehicle much more easily than they can find your body. Also, the shell of the vehicle is much more weather-proof than anything you are likely to build with found or native materials.

Ultimately, each person has to figure out what works for them. I might be able to get away with wearing a quilted flannel shirt, an insulated vest (hi-viz to make Mrs ERJ happy) and a knit cap at zero because I am fat. I need a lot more clothing when I am sitting on a deer stand because I am only making 1/3 the heat sitting as when I am walking. A leaner person might need even more clothing.



  1. ERJ - Great advice (and duly noted, as we do not have that sort of cold on a regular basis here). I will second the "dress for movement, not just for sitting still". This is a big deal in hiking.

    Honestly, with the availability of so many good clothing materials for retaining heat available now, there really is no excuse, except lack of knowledge or unwillingness to learn.

    1. Fair. I have getting some of the "house brands" in lieu of the name brand items, and they work pretty okay for the price point.

  2. And the #1 best thing to take care of when dealing with staying warm in cold weather - keep your noggin covered and warm. A good stocking cap goes a long way toward keeping you warm, and is easy to adjust or remove when you start to overheat. Flipping up your insulated hood over your cap can make a huge difference in how warm you stay.

  3. That hand thawing explanation was spot on. I had to replace a fuel pump and change the oil on the coldest day of 1988-ish. Wind chill was -20 or so. I couldn't even turn a nut a full turn it seemed without stopping to warm up my hands. Did that behind an AutoZone on the way home from college for Christmas. I parked in the sun on a dirt lot, managed to hump some dirt up to make a windbreak. Miserable trip. Heater couldn't keep up so we unpacked all our clothes and dressed the kids in everything we had. My wife was huddled in a blanket like a taco the whole day.

  4. Some years back ran across a "sign materials distributor" - the people that sell materials to the sign shops - and they had a "remnant table" with various colors of vinyl sign backing and some rolls of reflective material; seems it comes in 12 and 24 inch widths, and they sold the "short roll ends" CHEAP. I bought what was left of a a 12 inch wide roll, about 6 1/2 feet, of "school bus yellow" reflective sheeting for $20.

    A couple of times I've stopped on the side of the road I've partially unrolled it and used a magnetic clamp to hold it against the truck tailgate. You can see a 12" X 64" yellow reflective panel a loooong way off at night. If I'm ever marooned in the woods I'll duct tape it to the roof and shell top, a 6+ ft long strip of 12" wide yellow reflective sheet should show up well from a helicopter with a flood light.

    I went back a few months later and bought some more short roll ends and cut 2" wide strips out of them to put on my cheap rain slicker I keep in the truck, put on fire extinguishers, light switches etc. Handy stuff.

  5. I used to be able to clean fish on the ice before going home at -30 but not any more. I’ve read that this is common with people like Norwegian commercial fishermen an I can’t remember what it is called. The old dress in layers is important and the wind resistant layer needs to be able to wick moisture! I don’t understand these people on the news today in Buffalo found frozen to death, they must have been totally unprepared! Traveling in Alaska, even just 40 miles to town I have warm clothes and emergency gear! The people in Buffalo and on Tug Hill have lake effect snow regularly even if this one was worse than the average!

  6. Chaffing fuel canisters (4hr emergency heat), a Mr.heat buddy / camping stove, and a carbon monoxide meter are some things I would carry with me if I ever travel in a very cold environment. 30PPM CO isn't ideal but it is "safe" and heating would be quite valuable in a breakdown / stranded on the road. They require a slightly lowered window to keep CO from building up to lethal levels. A bottle of ISO alcohol pulls double duty as a clean fire starter.

    Engines seem to produce the most CO gas and string trimming my greenhouses is often far worse in five minutes than an hour of fussing with getting a good fire going in the stoves or a night of running non-vented propane.

    - Arc

  7. Hydration. You'll lose fluid volume as fast if not faster in cold weather than in hot. To make things worse, for some reason you don't notice you're thirsty when you're cold. Push the fluids. And make sure to warm your hands BEFORE the inevitable call of nature.

  8. The Norwegians say that there is no bad weather, just bad clothing.

  9. Good advice. It’s always best to get advice on such from people who live and work in it (instead of the usual internet hobbyist, or God forbid a ‘journalist’).

    I have (embarrassingly) more boots than most women have shoes (everything from Nokian Naalis to multiple pairs of size 14 Bunny boots and Scarpa Invernos). More (mostly Hestra but I’m a big fan of those Skytec Argon Extra full-dip insulated work gloves for working in snow) gloves and hats (both to be layered as needed) but … long underwear is my real ‘shame’. Poly types are best with high activity (due to wicking) but merino is warmer (it doesn’t really wick, just stays warm when wet), my current system is Aclima woolnet (merino string underwear that 'does' wick even if I look like an escapee from a German 90's techno rave) then a 200 (Sarma or Ullfrotte) layer (and a 400 on top if it’s really cold). Those under a wool mid-layer (Swanndri shirt and Sarma pants and jacket) then a waterproof shell (if it’s above -10) or a polycotton one (Bergans or Arktis, if below).

    For stopping/working I add (and always carry just in case) an insulated Jerven fjellduken. I’ve been caught-short before and (including an insulated sleepmat I also carry religiously) I have ‘comfortably’ survived a few instances of -40 plus stupid windchill.

    I dress carefully, never leave home/the truck without my “winter bag” (nothing bigger than a satchel with all the necessities) and have become a fervent believer in (Hot-hands) hand-warmers over the years. Away from town/home you learn to carry what you need, or you potentially cease to be able to learn from the mistake. (Not surprisingly, most people aren’t ‘that’ stupid so in real cold they either prepare or don’t go out, most cold injuries and deaths occur from 20’s to the 30’s. Warm enough to get away with for a while, but after something unexpected occurs, fatal quite quickly).

    For someone whose entire wardrobe is either green, camo or black, high-viz and flashing beacons have become somewhat more important to me lately (every outfit now has an Adventure Lights Guardian beacon on it at the least) and don't forget your whistle.

  10. In the cold, I use the Gore-Tex gloves that have a pocket velocroed to back to fit over all the fingers to convert to a mitt. The wrists are usually longer so that they can be tucked in above the end of your sleeve. When hunting, I leave my trigger finger free with the other three inside the pocket. Not bad.

    Thanks for the post - I live in the South where really cold does not visit often. Good to hear what the natives use to keep their digits.

  11. now do hand cracks.

    I use working hands in the tub, vit e all year long and ramp it up starting in the fall, but frequent hand washing leads to dry cracked hands, especially my thumbs.

    1. Those cracks are a plague for me also. Very painful. I try to use disposable gloves of some kind for all water-involved chores. I also use either a dab of baby oil, or high quality moisturizer on my hands at the end of the day.
      Southern NH

    2. I use industrial barrier creams (they're available, silicon free are best, most places) when constant wetting, and cold, has to happen (and I can't use my Skytec Argons, mainly due to dexterity). I find Wilmas Kådsalva Ointment is great for healing any cracks that still do develop.

  12. For hand cracks you can still buy the Original Bag Balm, which is not really the original-original but is still fairly close. You can also buy cotton gloves on Amazon that come by the dozen and are pretty cheap. ( I use them when I'm handling / cleaning guns as they help pick up excess oil and distribute it evenly. )

    Anyway a good slathering of Bag Balm, put on the gloves, go to sleep - that way it doesn't get on everything. I used to have hand cracks so bad I could make a fist and they would appear. This method seemed to help me.


Readers who are willing to comment make this a better blog. Civil dialog is a valuable thing.