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Gear Not Stuff: Cold Weather Gear

How to build the perfect cold-weather gear system—and my eight favorite items to fill it.

Gear Not Stuff: Cold Weather Gear


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It’s the second Friday of the month, so it’s time for Gear Not Stuff.

The concept for Gear Not Stuff is simple.

We live in a world of mass consumerism and have more stuff than ever. As I point out in Scarcity Brain, the average home contains 10,000 to 50,000 items.

If we want a new thing, we no longer have the pause of traveling to a store to buy it—we can buy it right from our computer, phone, or TV.

Our shift to material abundance has changed our relationship with our possessions—and curious forces are now leading us to acquire more stuff than we need.

For example, online retailers stole tacts from casinos that lead us to buy more faster. (These tactics have probably worked on you if you’ve ever bought some crap and immediately regretted buying said crap. More on that here.)

When we get overwhelmed by how much we own, we often seek minimalism.

But minimalism, you’ll know if you read Scarcity Brain, has failed us. Luckily, I found a smarter way we can get more from less.

In thinking about how we can make smarter purchasing decisions, I’ve begun delineating between gear and stuff.

Stuff is a possession for the sake of it. Stuff adds to a collection of (too many) items. We often buy stuff impulsively to fix boredom or stress or to solve a problem we could figure out creatively with something we already have.

Gear, on the other hand, has a clear purpose of helping us achieve a higher purpose. Gear is a tool we can use to have better experiences that make us healthier and give our lives meaning.

I’ve had to learn and think a lot about gear due to the nature of my work and the wild scenarios it throws at me.

This month, we’re covering cold-weather clothing.

  • I.e., We’re covering what to wear when you’re outside doing 2-Percent stuff this winter. Rucking, hiking, camping, hunting, climbing, mountaineering, or just taking a long and relaxed stroll to take in some fractals (IYKYK).

But this isn’t just a gear list. We’re doing two things:

  1. Teaching you how to create a cold-weather layering system.
    Think of dressing appropriately for the outdoors in winter like putting together a puzzle. Each piece has its place in the larger picture. And the larger picture doesn’t work if you leave one piece out.
    So you’ll learn how to put together a cold weather system so you’ll stay warm and not break Rule 2.
    If you don’t like our gear picks or already own something similar and don’t want to replace it, you can plug-and-play other items to build your own system. A sound cold-weather system has seven pieces (or maybe eight, depending on who you ask).
  2. Giving you a list of our favorite gear items for each part of the system.
    We’ll reveal all eight 2% picks—the best stuff to not break Rule 2.

Let’s roll …

How to create a cold-weather gear system

In short

Use these seven or eight pieces together. Avoid cotton.

The details

John Barklow is the wisest person I know when it comes to outdoor clothing.

He’s now the gear designer for Sitka. Before that, he was a wilderness survival trainer and gear designer for US Special Operations Forces. You might remember his name from this post covering how to not die in the wilderness over the summer.

Most mountain rescues aren’t due to falls or animal attacks. They’re because people get wet and cold.

Barklow says eight cold-weather pieces will get you through most winter outdoor scenarios. The items work together to keep you warm and dry whether you’re moving or sitting.

P.S. This system is for legit stints in the outdoors. You probably don’t need all of this for, say, walking your dogs a few miles around your neighborhood.

Pieces one and two: Base layer pants and shirt

If your skin gets wet when it’s cold outside, you’ll start to get cold. Quick.

These thin layers of clothing sit right next to your skin. They’re designed to pull moisture away from your body to keep you dry and warm.

Look for wool or synthetic fabrics (avoid cotton always—it gets cold when wet and doesn’t dry quickly).

  • Wool is generally warmer and manages body odor, but it’s less durable, more expensive, and doesn’t dry as quick.
  • Synthetic is generally cheaper, dries quicker, and is more durable but can retain odor.

Piece three: Soft-shell pants

These are basic outdoor pants. You’ll want something thick and tough in winter.

Think: Something that can take a beating and protect you from the elements.

Piece four: Active insulation

Finding the right temperature when you’re exercising in the cold is tricky. You want to stay warm but not overheat and sweat. Sweat is bad, because it can soak your clothes and lead you to get cold when you stop moving.

This layer keeps you warm but not hot when you’re moving in the cold. It’s a jacket—usually fleece—that insulates your body but also breathes.

Piece five: Puffy jacket

As soon as you slow down—e.g., sit on the ski lift, in camp, or on a ridge while glassing—you’ll get cold. Fast.

A puffy jacket keeps you warm when you aren’t moving fast and hard. You’ll usually sweat if you move in it unless it’s super cold out.

Puffy jackets are insulated with either down feathers or synthetic fibers.

  • Down feathers are lighter and warmer, but they can also clump up and render the jacket useless if wet.
  • Synthetic insulation isn’t as light or warm. But it stays warm when wet and is generally cheaper.

Pieces six and seven: Rain jacket and pants

Rule number one of not dying in the outdoors in winter: Stay dry.

A waterproof jacket and pants are the only way to stay dry when it’s raining or snowing. They’re your first line of defense.

Look for the language “waterproof” or “GORE-TEX.”

(Optional) piece eight: Wind-resistant layer

Wind sucks away warmth. So if the wind is whipping, you’ll get really cold, really fast.

Your rain jacket can also protect you from the wind (which is why this item is optional). But you can easily overheat if you’re moving fast and hard in a rain jacket.

So this layer is designed to protect you from the wind but also breathe.

2% top picks for each item

Here are the pieces of gear not stuff we recommend for each of the eight parts in the system.