Winter wonder gear

Sick of being cold? Outfit yourself in the ultimate frigid-weather wardrobe.

Gone is the day when a serious beaver hat and matching coat were the ultimate winter badge of privilege for the successful Canadian businessman. But, still, we pride ourselves on cold-weather savvy–so what's the ultimate contemporary outerwear for the northern executive?

Dave German has made more than 50 trips to Antarctica. The founder of Toronto's Fathom Expeditions Inc., he arranges luxurious Antarctic excursions inspired by the adventures of Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and led the team that shot the Imax documentary Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure. “We outfit our guides every year for Antarctica and we encounter weather that's pretty extreme,” says German. His travels are mainly scheduled in the relatively balmy Antarctic summer, when the thermometer hovers around -10?C. Still, as German points out, “We get incredible winds–they call them katabatics. They come roaring down the glaciers and they reach speeds up to 100 miles an hour. Things get thrilling at that point.”

German recommends a three-layer approach, beginning with mid-weight long underwear–ideally made of Capilene–and liner socks. Next come mid-weight fleece and expedition-weight Polartec socks. Unlike cotton, these types of high-tech fabrics wick moisture away from the body, which is vital for maintaining warmth.

The third layer, the outer shell, is “critical,” German emphasizes. “We still believe in Gore-Tex, or a similar coating, that allows moisture to escape and still keeps you warm.” Outer garments should be lightweight and made with leak-proof seams and zippers.

German's top choices are the Six chuter jacket and bib pants (about $500 per piece) from California's enviro-conscious Patagonia clothing company. “It's the best combination of function and minimalist design,” he says. “It's the type of thing where you go, 'Oh, I can't believe there's a pocket here!'” Patagonia's slim jacket with its detachable hood would also look stylish in any urban coffee shop.

As for footwear, German turns to Canadian-founded Sorel. “For any kind of polar endeavour, especially where scientists are concerned, you see Sorels,” he says. “If we're just moseying around in the cold, we find the Sorels are amazing.” German recommends the Glacier Boot ($129.99) rated to -74?C.

Finally, German adds Black Diamond Equipment patrol gloves ($105) and an Andean-style Teton hat ($45) from Alberta's Ambler Mountain Works. “They have earflaps and a tie, so that when you're driving the Zodiacs, the hats don't blow right off,” he says.

If you're going to be doing a lot of exercise in the cold, you may want a lighter outfit. At least that's what Shelley Kieran of Kleinburg, Ont., discovered in February 1997 when she ran a marathon in Antarctica. During the race, she faced temperatures of -24?C and winds of 80 kilometres per hour.

Kieran's layering started with silk long underwear, then Pearl Izumi's laser top ($70), followed by a Patagonia long-sleeved fleece like the Synchilla Marsupial ($90) and topped with a Pearl Izumi catch jacket ($240). “They're wearable anywhere,” says Kieran. “The whole idea is that they're so lightweight and they're beautifully designed. The fit is easy without being baggy, and they keep you warm.” (Kieran's shoes were regular runners from Saucony Inc. of Massachusetts.)

In the early 1990s, Rod Taylor was the COO of a large Toronto health company. When it went public, he left for Whitehorse, where he met rafting guide Martha Hobbs. Now married with a young daughter, the Taylors operate Uncommon Journeys Ltd., a company they founded to offer customized high-end vacations that feature single-malt scotch, haute cuisine and outdoor adventure.

Uncommon Journeys provides all the outerwear for their guests, so, as Taylor points out, “I've gone from wearing Boss suits to trying to find the ultimate in outdoor gear.” He estimates that it costs $3,000 to $4,000 to outfit each guest. However, function trumps cost when you're putting people up in Mongolian-style yurts in the wilderness or escorting them on dogsledding excursions.

“To give you an idea of one of the trips, we run to Herschel Island on the Beaufort Sea and camp out on the sea ice,” says Taylor. “We've been there when it's been -30?C and there's been a 70 km/h wind, so the wind chill is 100 below. Those are the extremes we've had to outfit our guests for, and we've never had any guests who've been cold.”

Clients bring their own underwear and fleece layers similar to those described by German. The Taylors supply bib pants, which can be any good quality snowmobile pant that's not too bulky. They're more choosy about the parka. “The top of the line is the Apocalypse Design Expedition Parka from Fairbanks, Alaska.” says Taylor. “You'll see a heck of a lot of mushers wearing them in the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest [the world's premier dogsled races]. They're insulated with quilted Quallofil, and because the quilting is offset, there are no seams where the cold air can get through.”

Taylor orders extras like fleece-lined pockets. Although the basic expedition parka is listed at US$580 with all the trimmings, Taylor figures his come “pretty darn close to $1,000 Canadian.” An important addition is a fur hood ruff. As Farley Mowat fans remember, the best have wolverine on the inside, because it doesn't frost up. The outside could be another fur. Taylor has his made up by the Yukon Trappers Association (phone: (867) 667-7091), who let you choose your own custom pelt.

Then there are boots. Taylor warns against a condition called “overflow”–an invisible slush layer as much as 60 centimetres thick pushed up through ice under heavy snow. It calls for a boot with removable liners that can be pulled out and wrung dry. Taylor's choice is the Northern Outfitters EXP boot ($260). “Their claim to fame is something called Vaetrex insulation,” he says. “I was on a trip crossing the Greenland ice cap, and at the end of the evening the insulation was essentially dry, but the nylon liner would have frost on it. You can just shake that liner and all the frost will fall out.”

Finally, Taylor swears by Apocalypse musher mitts ($135). “They're bombproof.” Although this Yukon-friendly gear is too warm for heavy exercise above -20?C, Taylor cautions, it's fine for just standing around in much warmer settings–like chilly arenas.

Those committed to buying Canadian will enjoy the story of Arc'teryx Equipment Inc. What began as a designer of high-tech climbing tackle now creates a full range of extremely high-end outdoor clothing. Taylor calls Arc-teryx “one of the top two or three in the world.” German warns that Arc'teryx clothing may not be comfortable for casual wear, but serious athletes will appreciate its snug fit. In December 2001, France's Salomon acquired the company, but it maintains a head office and production facilities in Vancouver. Arc'teryx's flagship cold-weather jacket is the Alpha SV ($679), a heavy-duty coat with an oversized hood that fits over a snowboarding helmet.

Outerwear is getting more technically specialized all the time, and those who really need it are looking more to the lab than the trapline for the fabrics that will keep them warm and dry. (We hear there's a new fabric called ComforMax from DuPont that's rated as even more breathable and waterproof than Gore-Tex.) Whether your chilliest challenge consists of camping in a remote tundra locale or hailing a cab in a wind tunnel between office towers, it's good to know the experts are out there, designing and testing ever more efficient apparel to help us face our bitterest season.

Buyer's guide

Order directly through these company websites and/or search a list of retailers and online dealers. Also, while Canada's Mountain Equipment Co-op produces its own gear, it also carries some high-end brands and is a source of infinite wisdom for serious outdoor types.

Ambler Mountain Works:
Apocalypse Design:
Arc'teryx Equipment Inc.:
Black Diamond Equipment:
Northern Outfitters:
Pearl Izumi: