Eric Larsen is no stranger to the cold. This polar adventurer is on a mission to make cold cool. Growing up in Wisconsin with numerous dog sledding, mountaineering, and polar expeditions under his belt, it’s safe to say Eric loves winter. And with the current state of the world’s environmental crisis, he sees it extremely important to convince others to love winter, too.
Last week I had the opportunity to spend a few days with Eric in beautiful Crested Butte, Colorado. We got a glimpse into why Eric chooses the gear he does, how to use it, and tips and tricks for staying comfortable outside in winter, regardless the temperature.
In the somewhat hostile places Eric likes to explore, the margin for safety is much smaller than your average outdoor adventure. Therefore, you need to be deliberate and thoughtful in your gear choices. It will come as no surprise, then, that Eric has his layering technique down to a science.
In any extremely cold environment, sweat is the enemy. So on any expedition, Eric’s focus is on controlling sweat, which he does through layering. Eric splits his layering technique into three basic categories: wicking, insulation, and wind protection. These three levels make up Eric’s action suit, as he calls it, which varies little whether he is fat biking across Antartica or pulling a sled to the North Pole.
The first thing you will find is that Eric is not a big fan of wool for winter athletic pursuits. While wool is warm and naturally antimicrobial, it holds onto moisture. Eric’s number one goal is to move moisture away from his skin as quickly as possible because it’s this moisture that causes you to get cold and in extreme environments, this could prove deadly.
For this reason, Eric starts with a synthetic T-shirt — something that is very thin and porous and will move moisture rapidly outward. He has been known to ride across Antarctica on his fat bike in just this T-shirt.
With insulation, Eric’s philosophy can be best described as lighter and more rather than fewer and thicker. Unless you are sitting around doing nothing outside in winter, Eric ditches the heavy fleeces and down- or synthetic-filled midlayers (these can trap moisture much like wool) in favor of multiple layers of wicking base layers that not only excel at moving moisture, but also trap warm air between each piece.
Depending on just how cold it is outside, he will add long sleeve synthetic base layers of successive weights on top of the synthetic T-shirt. For example, on his trips to the North Pole, where temperatures were well below zero, Eric would wear two long sleeve layers (one lightweight, one medium weight like the Terramar Cloud Nine Scoop and the Terramar Vertix Half Zip) over his T-shirt — all under a shell. That’s it. As long as he kept moving this was enough to keep comfortable without sweating.
On top of the wicking and insulation layers goes a shell — either hardshell or softshell depending on conditions. In Colorado or even at the poles, you can count on relatively dry conditions so a softshell offers plenty of protection from the wind while upping the breathability factor — if you haven’t figured it out yet, a key feature for Eric. The hardshell is always at the bottom of the pack for when conditions get nasty.
Just because he doesn’t wear them while he is moving doesn’t mean Eric shuns a warm down jacket. A big puffy (like the Baffin Nepal Jacket) sits at the top of his pack or sled to throw on during breaks. As he is wearing so few layers when moving, he can get cold quickly as soon as he stops. So out comes the huge down puffy to trap in all that earned warmth. He usually also brings along a lighter down sweater to wear inside the tent to stay comfortable at night.
The same layering principle applies to your legs, feet, hands, and even head — successive wicking layers under some windproof outer layer. For example, on his legs, Eric usually wears a wicking base layer and softshell pants (and an extra base layer of homemade synthetic shorts if it’s really cold). On his head, Eric layers a lightweight balaclava, a hat, and a neck gaiter.
When Eric is on the move, he constantly monitors his body and the conditions. If he starts to sweat, it’s either slow down or remove a layer, doing the “polar striptease” as he goes. The easiest layers to remove first are the head, then on to the core if necessary.
Eric strongly believes that the reason people get cold outside during winter is because they wear the wrong layers or too many layers causing them to overheat and sweat. Admit it — how many times have you just kept pushing along even though you were overheating because you can’t be bothered to stop and take off a layer or slow down for ego reasons? Pretty much all of us.
Later, I’ll share some of Eric’s further tips for staying warm outside as well as tips for better winter camping including some sweet new gear from Therm-a-Rest.