Wrapping up properly is the key to wrapping up warmly, writes Jason Osborne
It may seem like a moot point but keeping warm is absolutely vital in the depths of winter. Working in an outdoors shop for a couple of months upon finishing college, I remember being told about the particular difficulties both Ireland and the UK pose their inhabitants when it comes to the challenge of keeping warm.
While other countries might register colder temperatures and see heavier snowfall in the winter months, oftentimes its easier to feel warm there as you make your way to and fro. The Irish climate has a peculiar tendency to refuse you warmth, with many complaining to me of a chill they feel ‘in their bones’.
A large part of this is because the Irish climate is a unique mixture of cold temperatures and damp conditions, which many dry-cold countries don’t have to contend with. As we journey through another heavy, extended lockdown, and as we endure the often-dismal months of January and February, we ought not to let nature have its way with us. The Irish landscape, whether it be urban parkland or rural wilds, has plenty to offer us rain, hail or cold, winter shine.
With indoor activities largely closed off to us, and outdoor gatherings prohibited for the most part too, the only reprieve many of us face from the walls of our home is our surroundings, whether we venture forth alone or with our housemates.
While the cold itself doesn’t make you sick, contrary to many a myth, it has long been theorised that succumbing to the cold has a negative effect on the immune system. Reasons for this may include less vitamin D intake, which researchers believe plays a key role in maintaining the immune system. Other research suggests that colds and cold-like illnesses replicate more effectively at lower temperatures, making the likelihood of catching or encountering one much more likely on a cold and damp winter’s day.
With all this said, it’s time to consider the proper ways to wrap up and protect yourself from the encroaching cold.
Whether it’s sitting at home or braving the chilly January wilds, layering effectively is the most important method with which to stay warm. Layering consists of wearing multiple layers of clothes in order to trap air against the skin, from a base layer to an outer layer, in order to keep you warm. While this might sound obvious, with most of us doing it every time we put on a coat or a jacket, doing it properly is a different strategy altogether.
In Ireland, the familiar claim I mentioned earlier, of a cold that people feel ‘in their bones’, often finds its source in the improper application of layers. Some people wear too much and start to sweat, becoming chill as a result, or they don’t wear enough and suffer from the external cold and damp anyway. How does one straddle the fine line between these extremes? By paying attention to what the different layers consist of.
Any layering system has to begin with a base layer – this is the clothing you wear next to your skin. Most of us toss a t-shirt or the like on in the morning and think nothing more of it, but this is to our peril if we plan on heading out for a bracing winter walk.
What you wear next to your skin is incredibly important, as this is the layer most responsible for regulating your body temperature and wicking away moisture. Your choice of base layer ought to be guided by what it is you’ll be doing – obviously sitting at home calls for a different choice to walking up the neighbourhood hill.
If you’re heading out to do something more active, the material has to be considered a little more closely. As mentioned before, if we’re tightly swaddled and highly mobile, we’re likely to sweat, which will just lead to a chill once the activity has slowed down. Herein lies the importance of a material that interacts well with moisture, such as merino wool or a synthetic fabric (usually made of polyester or a polyester blend).
As is the Irish way, we often throw on a cotton t-shirt as a base layer when we’re heading out for a walk. The trouble is, cotton soaks and retains moisture, drawing heat away from the body, leaving the wearer feeling cold and uncomfortable, regardless of their other layers. It also doesn’t retain heat very well anyway, so closer scrutiny of our usual base layer may reveal why it is we’re always feeling cold.
As mentioned, both merino wool and a synthetic base layer provide much better alternatives. Polyester base layers are generally quick drying, lightweight and will wick away moisture from the skin to keep you dry. They usually come in varying weights, so the one you use is tailored to whatever activity you’re engaging in. Skiing in Austrian mountains would call for a heavier weight than running in Dublin, for example.
Similarly, merino wool is famed for its properties as a base layer. It does all of the same work as a synthetic base but also boasts being naturally antibacterial, meaning it can go for longer without needing a wash. Both are good base-layer options for wet, cold winters in Ireland.
As with the base layer, the most important factor to consider is what it is you’ll be doing. If you’re sitting inside, any sort of jumper or fleece should cover you once you’ve got the base layer taken care of. However, if you’ve got a blustery walk in mind, your mid-layer is a little more important.
Light enough to fit beneath a jacket, yet warm enough to layer effectively, a fleece is generally the best option. Not a traditional woolly fleece, though – a microfleece. Thin and lightweight microfleeces are a great mid-layer but are also suitable outerwear in milder weather. A microfleece will provide a low level of insulation whilst the breathable properties make them perfect for more active pursuits.
Genuine outdoors fleeces are usually made of a manmade synthetic fibre (normally polyester), making them an ideal companion to a synthetic or merino wool base layer.
In Ireland, we have a penchant for wearing the wrong jacket. We wear heavy, down jackets for hiking in the rain, and we wear thin raincoats on their own. Wrong on both counts. Many of the big, puffy coats and jackets on display in outdoors shops are more suited to those dry-cold climates, such as Scandinavia, that I mentioned earlier. These are usually filled with down feathers, which provide the best possible insulation and therefore the highest warmth. The difficulty with wearing this as an outer layer in Ireland is that when it gets wet, which it often does, it loses all its insulation power – leaving you as wet and cold as if you hadn’t bothered.
The best option is to opt for a thinner alternative to the big, bulky down-feather coat. It’s the best insulation, but in the wet and wild Irish landscape, it needs to be paired with a raincoat. Most brands, such as Columbia, Rab and the North Face offer slim, tightly padded jackets to be worn under a rain layer. Both down feather and synthetic polyester do the trick in Ireland once they’re protected from the rain.
A decent rain layer, coupled with a suitable base, midlayer and jacket, make for the best defence against the Irish cold. There’s no way around it – they work together to retain your body heat and keep you dry, nullifying the cold and the damp. While less might work in another country, in simpler conditions, it won’t work here.
The key to a suitable rain layer is to be sure that it’s designated ‘water resistant’, sometimes referred to as ‘showerproof’, or fully waterproof. This information ought to be supplied on the label of the jacket in question. The best way to check whether it’ll keep the water out is by pouring a drop onto the jacket – if it beads up and slides off, the jacket has been treated with a Durable Water Repellent coating (DWR), or a similar water repellent coating. This will ensure the rain stays out and doesn’t tamper with your carefully-maintained layering!
As mentioned above, the key to staying warm in Ireland is layering properly, whether you’re sitting at home or availing of the outdoors our island has to offer. It’s just a matter of doing it properly.