Love the outdoors but dread the winter temps? We asked Stephen Cheung, a Canada research chair in environmental ergonomics and an expert on how the human body functions in cold weather, for advice on staying warm. Time to science the hell out of this!
The core is key
When your torso gets cold, your body stops sending blood to your extremities, because it’s trying to keep your vital organs warm. Keeping your core warm is the best way to keep every other part of your body, including fingers and toes, warm.
Layers are your friends
If you plan to be active outside, dress in layers. When you get warm, remove a layer before the sweating starts. “Water conducts heat away from the body much faster than air,” says Cheung. On the other hand, if you plan to be sedentary, “your goal is just to maximize insulation.” Feel free to bring on the parka.
Shivering is good
It generates heat. But uncontrolled shivering—along with decreased manual dexterity, confusion, and mood changes—are signs of hypothermia. Shivering uses a lot of energy, so if you stop altogether, “it means your carbohydrate and glycogen stores are so low that you can’t even shiver anymore,” says Cheung. “Essentially, your body has given up.”
Alcohol is bad
What? Okay, fine: it’s bad when you’re outside in the cold. Booze opens up your skin’s blood vessels. “Your skin temperature is warm, and you feel warm,” says Cheung, but—psych!—that’s actually the sensation of your body losing heat. “Save the alcohol for when you’re back at the cottage.”
1. Avoid stopping suddenly and resting after heavy exertion. You’ll lose body heat quickly. No good.
2. Stay dry, Sir Sweatsalot! Bring a change of clothes if you plan to ford any rivers.
3. Eat. Cheung recommends trail mix, granola bars, and hot tea with honey or sugar to top up your carbohydrate stores.