Clothing for the Cold


It can be very cold in the Antarctic, it is also often windy. The cold together with the wind produces a wind chill which can cause a person to become frostbitten or hypothermic.

Modern cold weather gear has greatly improved the safety and comfort of people living and working in the cold. It keeps them warm in cold and windy conditions.

Here are some of the clothing items we wear in the Antarctic which were not available to the original Antarctic Explorers.

Down parka

Down provides lightweight loft in clothing, the real insulation is provided by air which is trapped by the fine structure of the down , stationary air is a terrible heat conductor, in other words a good insulator. Eddie Bauer is credited with the development of nylon-shelled, down-filled parka. Down clothing can provide inches of insulation without adding a crushing weight. Actually steel wool can be made just as bulky as down and will provide almost as much insulation, it would just weigh a lot more. There are several different ways to encase down between clothing layers: you can sew the layers together as in a quilt, called "sewn-through", this leaves cold spots, you can sew cloth baffles between the inner and outer cloth layers to maintain the thickness, this is a more expensive construction technique but is considerably warmer than sewn-through quilting. Good down sleeping bags use baffles. Down does not provide good insulation when it becomes wet which should not be a problem in the at the south pole or in the dry valleys where it never rains.

Polypropylene a.k.a. Polypro

In the old days it was known that wet wool kept people warmer than wet cotton. Cotton is a water loving fiber, hydrophilic, wool has oils which make it hydrophobic and keep it from soaking up water. Polypro has wool-like hydrophobic characteristics and polypropylene fibers can be used to weave clothing. The polypro clothing is lighter than wool and more compressible for the same thickness of insulation. Polypro maintains its insulating value when wet. It also dries quickly.

Polypro Jackets and Pants

When used in coats and pants polypro is called "fleece." Fleece comes in different thicknesses, coded as 100, which is thinnest, 200, and 300. In Antarctica wear a 200 polypro jacket under my down coat plus polypro pants almost all the time when out doors.

Polypro Underwear

Polypro is effective as the innermost layer of insulation, long underwear tops and bottoms. It also comes in different thicknesses: light, medium and expedition weight. I personally get cold easily and wear expedition weight when others might wear medium weight. One problem with early designs of polypro underwear was that it absorbed oil from the skin. After weeks of use this human skin oil would become rancid and so give the underwear a strong and unpleasant smell. Patagonia developed polypro which did not absorb oils and so remained pleasant smelling for a longer time, its trade name is Capilene.

Polypro Mitten Liners

Polypro makes good mitten liner. Mittens get damp when working in the snow and so it is important to be able to dry them out every night. Again they come in different thicknesses. Thicker gloves keep you warmer but reduce your dexterity. Mitten shells which block the wind and keep out water are made of Goretex.


Goretex is an impermeable layer pierced by extremely small holes. These holes allow water vapor molecules and some air to pass through, but they do not allow water droplets to pass through. A raincoat made of goretex allows humid air from body sweat to leave, it breathes. Goretex is very effective at blocking wind.

Some modern down coats use very breathable goretex inside the outer layer of nylon as a wind block layer. The most modern polypro coats also incorporate a goretex-like layer to block the wind. One commercial name is "Windstopper Fleece." We will have goretex pants as our outermost layer.

Double Boots and Bunny Boots

Bunny boots are thick boots which have a rubber inner and outer surface with insulating material between the layers. They received their name from a mistaken notion that rabbit fur was the insulation. These boots keep your feet warm, however they also keep feet wet. Users must take care to dry their feet every night, changing to dry socks and using foot powder to control fungus growth and infections. I know these boots by their older names: Korea boots, K boots and mouse boots (after Mickey Mouse.)

Mountaineers use double boots, these have a plastic outer shell and an insulating inner liner boot. Double boots have soles which can be used to hike on snow, kick steps in snow,and serve as a solid platform for mounting crampons.


Steel crampons have 12 sharp points ten on the bottom and two in front. They allow people to walk on ice. The two front points can be swung into a vertical wall of ice where they penetrate and stick, allowing a person to "walk" up an ice wall.

Ice axe

If you fall on an ice surface you could easily slide over a cliff edge or into a crevasse. Thus mountaineers carry ice axes. When I fall I push the pick of the axe into the surface and brake to a stop. A second sharp ice tool can be carried so that each hand can swing an ice pick into vertical wall of ice to aid in ice climbing.

Scientific Explorations with Paul Doherty

© 2001

6 November 2001