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These Outdoor Experts Nearly Froze to Death. Now They’re Telling Us How to Stay Warm This Winter

Bundle up, buttercup. It’s going to be a long winter. Here’s what to wear, drink, and do if you’re spending time outdoors.

Whether you live in Alaska, Chicago, or Florida (yes, there are cold snaps there) winter is here. Given that we’re still in a state of quarantine, more gatherings than normal may be hosted outside. This is, of course, to protect your loved ones from catching the virus and a no-brainer if you want to keep everyone safe. As you socially distance, you may be huddled around the fire pit instead of the fireplace and bundled in two sweaters instead of one, clutching a cup of hot tea instead of a glass of wine, and walking more miles than you ever thought possible as you catch up with a good friend. Or, wanderlust may lead you to try winter sports for the first time or even pitch a tent among a snowy landscape.

Practically speaking, how do you deal without succumbing to frozen toes and wind-burned cheeks? What do you wear to stay warm? Are there any hacks and tips to make this outdoor time more comfortable?

We asked two experts—Niko Dubreuil, polar and tropical expedition expert and director for PONANT, who lives in Kullorsuaq, Greenland; and Surya Ramachandran, andBeyond’s Snow Leopard Journey guide in the Himalayas—for tips on how they survive in the world’s coldest temperatures. Dubreuil spends eight months of the year “near the Poles” and has crossed Greenland eight times on foot and skis. Then there was that time he survived a multi-day snowstorm near the North Pole…by digging a hole 16 feet underground. “I had to give up many of my Western convictions in order to survive in the freezing cold of the Arctic. You don’t fight nature, you adapt,” he says.

It turns out the two, despite near-death experiences, love being outside in the cold.

As for Ramachandran–the former engineer from Chennai, India–he launched Central India’s first walking safari and is based out of Ladakh in the Himalayas—known for its extreme winters—where he studies the snow leopard and other fauna. He also nearly died out in the wild, two years ago on the sixth day of a seven-day trek looking for snow leopards. “I stayed back to keep an eye on the cat—seemed simple enough. However, when you’re standing still, watching one sleeping cat, without moving your body much, the cold creeps back in, big time. It was about an hour at least, but felt like a lifetime, before the party returned. By the time they arrived, I was completely frozen over, teeth chattering, hands and legs trembling. I couldn’t move at all. The guests saw their cat and I survived.” Ramachandran calls that day “the most dangerous and near-death experience” of his life.

It turns out the two, despite near-death experiences, love being outside in the cold, and have some tips for helping you safely enjoy the outdoors this winter.

Dressing for the Occasion

Let’s start with clothing. What you wear for a morning jog or afternoon hike might not cut it if you plan to be outdoors for several hours—particularly if you’ll be sitting (adrenaline, of course, warms you up). “If you have a relatively static activity, then you should choose particularly warm down clothing,” says Dubreuil, who is a big fan of apparel by brands like Patagonia, Ulfrotte, and Devold. “But if you move around, walk, etc., then you need clothes made of synthetic material that wicks away perspiration. The big enemy in very cold weather is humidity. It is important to wick away all moisture and therefore dress in several layers so that the warmth can be adapted to the activity. The hotter you are, the more you undress (you take off layers). The colder you are, the more layers you put on.”

If there’s one thing to keep in mind, it’s to avoid baggy clothes.

If there’s one thing to keep in mind, it’s to avoid baggy clothes. “Never wear anything too loose, no matter how warm they make you feel,” says Ramachandran. In other words, that adorable Fair Isle sweater is not snug. But a polar-fleece zip-up is.

Don’t just pad your torso and feet with layers of clothing, though. It’s important to wear a hat that covers as much of your ears as possible. “There is no vasoconstriction in the skull,” explains Dubreuil. “And therefore, you get very cold through the head.”

And although it can be tempting to plop down by the fire with friends, remember that this may actually make you colder–it’s because you’re no longer moving. “The only thing that really warms you up is physical activity,” says Dubreuil. “Especially the big muscles like the thighs. You have to walk and move. And protect your extremities, hands, feet, and especially your skull.” You can always move part of your body, even if you’re sitting or lounging. Try spinal twists, waving your arms up or down, or kicking your legs around.

Dubreuil has learned a lot from locals in Greenland. Once, he was watching children play on the ice floe in February at minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit. “As soon as a child fell,” he recalls, “he stopped playing and took the time to clean his clothes and remove every snowflake from the inside of his gloves. Because he knows that the snow in his gloves, with the warmth of his body, will turn into water. And this water will eventually freeze and freeze his fingers.”

Keeping Warm Outside and In

Think about the last time you sat around a fire pit or fire and how, before you knew it, hours had passed. That’s because you had conversation and company. Hot food and “warming cocktails” can also be comforting. “I love a good soup with a drizzle of black pepper on top. And a warm dessert,” says Ramachandran. “My standard drink is an Indian Jungle Toddy—consisting of rum, hot water, honey, ginger juice, and a squeeze of lime—served in a beer mug. Nothing warms me up quite like this one. But for those who don’t prefer rum, a gin or vodka with a sliced green chilly usually does the trick. A warming cocktail needs to either be hot or spicy. A hip flask with hot toddy was my secret weapon for a long time.”

And if you are lucky enough to choose the type of fire you’re making, Ramachandran has a suggestion. “A controlled fire–could even be a Weber barbecue–with an elevated cover on top helps push the heat around so there’s less of a need to huddle around the flame,” he says, adding that throwing a rug over your knees may be warmer than a blanket.

“The rules of survival in isolation are curiosity and adaptation. Every day you spend alone is an opportunity to reinvent yourself and discover new possibilities.”

If all this knowledge has inspired you to book a solo expedition in the frigid cold—and maybe test your ability to survive—heed Dubreuil’s advice. He’s taken these types of trips for the past two decades. This includes the deepest reaches of the Amazon forest and the Arctic ice pack, navigating not only on foot but also with the help of skis and sleighs. “The rules of survival in isolation are curiosity and adaptation,” he says. “Every day you spend alone is an opportunity to reinvent yourself and discover new possibilities. Isolation has always been for me an opportunity for positive introspection and an incredible renewal of adaptation and creativity, a kind of rebirth.” Even so, he always brings two items that remind him of home, where he will eventually return: a picture of his wife and daughter, and a drawing of his daughter. 

“It is the most beautiful thing I have on me,” he says. “It is the food of my spirit that makes me strong and allows me to survive any situation.”