Better Coats and Layers

A well-designed coat is not what we usually think is one.

The straight-down design type is formal, seen on lots of important people out in chilly places in front of the public, is heavy, and looks like a chimney, but it’s not very warm. They’re not as efficient, pound for pound, at keeping you warm. The stovepipe shape means you’ll have one mass of air around your body. A single mass of air has small breezes that carry warmer air away from your body and bring cooler air to your body. What you need is for the air inside your coat to be broken up, so the air hardly moves. Then the air insulates you.

Lighter weight in a coat is often better. Pounds of a bad design waste weight.

Down coats, however, are not needed. They’re very light, which is helpful in winter backpacking where you carry most of what you need all day on your back, like a camel, and ounces matter in surviving a long trek. Their problem is that good down is expensive to buy and clean. (In one city years ago, the chemistry needed for dry cleaning down was illegal in neighborhoods where people lived. The coat had to be shipped to a factory zone or out of town.) Down has to be in a waterproof shell because down clumps and becomes small when wet and becomes nearly useless until it’s dry again. Lightweight waterproofing, which is what you usually get with lightweight down, tends to last through only a few launderings. And if you tear open your coat and the down goes flying, forget it, it’s lost. I’ve walked too close to a fence and torn my pants. The weight-saving isn’t worth it. In urban and suburban life, you’d hardly notice another two pounds or so.

Fur coats are laughably bad at keeping you warm. Granted, I don’t think I ever wore one, and I don’t doubt that they feel like ovens. But that’s because they weigh under a ton. Fur works on animals. The fur is on the skin, not on a wrapper. Skin has blood moving, so it’s warm. Some animals have fat under their skins. And many animals secrete oil at the base of their fur, and I’m pretty sure your coat doesn’t do that. Among us humans, adding grease or viscous oil (viscous meaning it’s ‘liquid that can barely budge’) to most of the fur every now and then is probably not worth the trouble, plus which it’s icky. Apparently, Inuit (Eskimos), who call the frigid Arctic region home, are not keen on wearing much fur, even when they sit still for long times. Neandertals probably wore fur as the first clothing for staying warm, but we don’t stick to every tradition, because we’ve learned better since then. When I used to shop for warm coats good enough for northern mountains, shopping in serious stores open for campers who could die of freezing cold, the insulation was usually down or synthetic, not fur. (Down comes from ducks and geese and, by the time it gets into a coat, should have no feathers in it.) If you love fur, put the fur inside. On the outside, breezes blow through it. On the inside, and not just on the edge or as trim, fur might help somewhat. Even better, the coat should be snug, so the interior fur is a little compressed. Then the air it traps stays still while you warm it. Even better is insulation designed for the purpose. It looks sort of like fiber or fur. It’s usually contained between inner and outer shells. Better constructions separate the shells with baffles (net-like barriers that compartmentalize so insulation doesn’t fall to the bottom), or at least use double shells with offset stitch-lines to compartmentalize. No one can see fur inside, but you’ll be warmer.

Waist-length is long enough for a coat. Below the waist is a waste. Longer is only decorative.

A coat should be snug. Not tight; not loose. To help it be snug, an inside drawstring or belt, not outside, is good. The outside belt is fashionable, but it compresses insulation, so it should be inside, not out. If it is outside, loosen it.

The hood should be part of the coat or attached to its collar, so your neck is insulated, too, along with your brain. Your neck has important nerves and plenty of blood that has to stay warm on its way up.

A hood’s drawstring is usually on the edge. That you can tighten, to comfort.

A vest is helpful only if closeable or it’s under a coat, sweater, or similar. An open vest may as well be absent, even if it’s insulated. And, if your vest is insulated, your coat should be large enough to be snug without squeezing the vest.

Layers let you open an outer layer and still be toasty. Just don’t let your outer layers squeeze anything. If they do, they become useless.

Suppose you have a coat suitable for a slow walk across the Arctic. You’re sitting in a warm office and go out for a long walk in the briskly cold air. You carry your coat draped over your arm, inside out, because you’re still warm from sitting in the office. After a half hour of walking outside in the chill, you get too cold. You put on your Arctic coat. Physically, are you warmer?

No. The coat, especially because you carried it inside-out for a half hour outdoors, is as cold as the outdoors. It does not generate any heat at all. You put it on and all you did was surround yourself with cold stuff.

But it’s a good thing to do, because your body is still generating heat and the coat, being insulated, will contain your heat. Therefore, more of your body heat will stay next to your body and you’ll get warmer, maybe even crisp. You’ll go from brisk to crisp.

Psychologically, you put your coat on and immediately you feel warmer. Physically, no; psychologically, yes. That’s because your smart brain knows the effect of putting on a coat, and predicts that it will feel that effect in seconds and that it will last a while. Your brain is happy. You get warmth.

Fashion does not a warm coat make. Please allow me to illustrate.

Knute Rockne wearing a coat that hangs almost straight down and which also has an outside belt while he's wearing a traditional hat containing an airspace near his scalp.

Knute Rockne, long ago a famous football coach, was wearing a coat that hangs virtually straight down, so it had cooling convection underneath it, and his hat also had that problem; while the coat had a belt which would have helped him to stay warm if it had been inside the coat, but on the outsde, if tightened, would have compressed the insulation. He may have been warm anyway if the coat was heavy, but coats don’t have to be heavy to be warm. (Image credit.)

Eskimo woman and girl ice fishing and wearing coats with fur trim but with no other outside fur visible.

Apparently, these Inuit people patiently waiting on open ice for fish didn’t need fur on the outsides of their coats. The fur trim was too little to be useful for warmth. “Eskimos woman and girl [sic] ice fishing”, by Hadwen Seymour, United States Fish and Wildlife Service. (Image credit.)

Red crabapples on branches and covered with ice.

Stovepipe coats that VIPs like and fur coats are not very warm. Down is not very practical. Below your waist doesn’t help. Layers do.

Websites of Interest

These websites have some interesting content, although I disagree with some of it:


Hiking organizations:

General retailers of outdoor products:

General information: