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Dr. Tim Hunt: This is How I Stay Warm on the Iditarod Trail

By: Dr. Tim Hunt
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One of the most common questions I get asked about training for and competing in the Iditarod Trail is, “How do you stay warm out there?” 

Let’s take a look at that aspect of racing.

First thing to realize about winter travel is that it has it's good points. First: no bugs. Second: no mud. Third: there are very few people. Each of those three things are good in my book.

So, what is the proper way to dress to stay warm in sub-zero temperatures?

First rule of the game is no cotton whatsoever. Cotton will keep you warm at first, but holds water and then you freeze once the physical activity ceases and you are at rest or not performing an athletic effort but still in said cold climate. Trust me, no cotton.

Second is to learn how to layer your clothing correctly. What this means is using a synthetic type material of your preference (some can retain odor and stink, for example, and should be avoided if you want to have any friends at all!) for your system of layering. In really cold weather (-30 degrees Fahrenheit and below) this could mean three layers of long johns to start off with. Follow this with a layer of fleece pants and follow that with an outer layer of snow bibs or pants. The outer most layer is the same layering but with a vest as well, typically fleece. Not too tight as you want some air interface with the skin, if possible. Make sure it is all breathable with an outer layer that will not freeze in the cold. Gore-Tex, for example, will actually freeze, not breathe and lock all the water in underneath the jacket. That is bad news when you are active in the cold. Jackets stuffed with down just get soaked from sweat and becomes a huge problem.

The key here is the water (perspiration) needs to be able to travel from working human through all the layers and out into the cold. If it doesn't, you will get progressively wetter and become very cold requiring either a complete change of clothes or a heated place to dry or risk becoming a human popsicle. Often a help here is a thin wind jacket, just nylon or similar, to go over everything and worn over the parka and pants. This keeps it all from freezing and is still breathable so moisture can be wicked out.

Proper socks are so important, too. I love a good pair of socks, and it really cheers me up when I can change out of old ones into a new pair. Like brushing your teeth, it always wakes me up. Wool blend is the only thing that works for me with just one layer. Many people layer too many socks, thus not allowing any airspace in the boot. Too tight a fit and your feet freeze. You need to find that boot that works for you and have a fit with one layer of sock that keeps you warm. Some like to use plastic bags over the socks to keep the liners from getting wet so you can just change out socks as they get wet, but wool stays warm when wet.

Make sure to choose the right type of gloves. I love looking at gloves. What’s new, how they might work, how they might fail, etc. Heck. I ordered 60 pairs of fleece gloves for the 2015 Iditarod Trail alone. I use half-fingered wool gloves as the base layer, then a fleece-fingered glove over that. When I need dexterity for doing things like putting booties on the dogs, the half gloves are perfect. Fleece over gloves allow for many other functions except for real defined tactile actions like tying, etc. Putting mittens over those two layers of gloves can help you keep warm, too.

Head wear can be a challenge, but I tend to use a Balaclava as a base because it keeps the neck and ears warm and helps prevent you from getting sick. On the head, you want something that is wind proof.

Finally, the jacket. I tend to use two jackets, both with fur ruffs. The ruff is what saves you from the wind and frost bite -- an absolute necessity. Ruff is wolverine and wolf fur. First jacket has a full zipper and hood, and I use this most of the time. My second jacket is an anorak parka with a fur ruff (this is what is on the hood, and wraps around the sides of your ace). An anorak is a jacket with only a partial zipper at the top as that darn wind creeps through any crevice in your armor and will get you cold. Zippers like to be leaky in 40-mph wind. Again, use a synthetic filler, never down, for these jackets.

Now you have a bit of an idea of how to stay warm in way below zero temperatures and wind. But remember, it is the price to pay for no bugs in the woods, right?

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Voted America's Favorite Veterinarian in 2014, Dr. Tim Hunt provides expert content to Voyce. His role with Voyce is one example of the many terrific expert partners that have dog-specific content featured in the Voyce member portal. To join the Voyce Experience, click here.