Friday, September 12, 2008

Shopping for Winter Wardrobe

Almost as good as Christmas, today I received my Permanent Fund Dividend and Energy Rebate check. I'm not going to go into a big explanation of where the money comes from, you can google it up easily and I can't explain it nearly so well as the bureaucrats and talking heads.

It is nonetheless a very meaningful event, because it means I can afford to finish up my preparations for winter. It means a new set of studded tires to go under the dog truck, some winter clothing to replace some items I've worn out, and enough money to fill my heating oil tank at once, and pay a part of the second filling I'll no doubt need before breakup. There won't be another dime left over for 'toys', but that's the way it goes when the price of fuel stays high.

Having confirmed that my check was indeed deposited into my bank account, I turned my attention to shopping for winter clothing. That's not so easy as it might seem, as my outdoor winter lifestyle demands high quality gear while my budget requires frugality. When everyday comfort and sometimes your very survival is on the line it isn't enough to buy the best gear you can afford - you must come up with a way to afford the best gear you can buy.

Each person has their own concept of "best", especially when it comes to winter clothing. I much prefer natural fibers over synthetics as I personally feel like natural stuff works better. Many others swear by modern, high tech synthetics, but I've been too cold too often while wearing plastic clothing to put much faith in it.

Cold weather clothing has to do three things efficiently. First, it has to allow moisture to escape. Water conducts heat about 15 times faster than air of the same temperature, so water vapor from sweat that is trapped near your body will steal heat like a thief steals gold. In addition, it has to provide insulation that keeps warm air near your body. Finally, it has to do both of things regardless of precipitation or wind conditions.

Just about everyone knows that the most efficient way to dress for cold weather is to dress in layers, but I'm surprised at how many people don't realize that each layer has a specific purpose. If you keep those purposes in mind you can stay comfortably warm more easily.

The purpose of the innermost layer is to move water vapor away from your skin as quickly as possible. Since fibers derived from plant materials trap and hold water vapor, cotton or linen is dangerous stuff during sure-enough cold weather. Literally - cotton kills. Protein based fibers are waterproof, thus allowing the vapor to move right along. Thus the best natural fabrics for your base layer are silk or wool. Since I don't much care for itching, I buy silk to cover pretty much every inch of my body from the neck down.

Today the good folks at WinterSilks received my order for 2 sets of medium weight long johns, 4 pair of stocking liners and 4 pair of glove liners. These are replacements for items that I wore out by the end of last winter and I'm actually concerned that I may have to order more glove and stocking liners before the end of this one.

In addition to allowing water vapor to escape, middle layers must also provide insulation. This is done by trapping air in 'dead space', the same as insulation for a building. Without question this is where wool excels, but good quality 100% wool fabrics are becoming scarce in this day and age and wool blends don't work as well as good old-fashioned sheep's hair. Currently Cabela's seems to be the most reliable source for affordable wool shirts and pants. Before I place my order I want to check a couple of local retailers, though. Sometimes local prices can be comparable. Big Ray's and Prospector Outfitters sometimes have reasonably priced woolens.

For additional middle layers I have a good stock of wool sweaters and a wool vest that works nicely.

The primary role of the outermost layer is to protect the insulating layer from wind and precipitation. In reality, most of the outer clothing worn in cold country also provides additional insulation. I'm in good shape for outer layer clothing having a wide selection of jackets and coats and my Carhartts bibs provide excellent service in a wide range of conditions. I can pick and choose my outerwear based on the needs of the day. During extreme cold weather nothing less than heavily insulated outer clothing will suffice. That's when I choose to either don my Wiggy's parka and bibs, or stay home and hang out near the furnace vent.

My annual clothing budget, for just myself (I have no dependents) is just under $800.00 this year, and most of that will be spent over the course of the next week. It takes a lot of clothings to live in the company of dogs in Alaska.

Dressed for mushing the dogs on a crisp winter day

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