I have a great deal of experience dealing with cold weather. Lot’s of us buy winter coats and we think they are warm, as we go from the warm car, across the parking lot, and into the office or store to go shopping. Few of us have truly experienced what it is like to be dependent on our clothing to keep us comfortable in frigid weather for an extended period of time. In an emergency, it can be about more than keeping comfortable. Having the right clothing can mean the difference between living and dying. It can mean the difference between getting to keep or loose appendages. To a lesser and more frequent degree, it can mean the difference between being absolutely miserable for hours on end, or shaking it off with a laugh.
- 1 My Experience In The Cold
- 2 What Are The Best Parkas For Surviving The Winter Cold?
- 3 …But, You say, “I Don’t Live in North Dakota or Near The Arctic”
- 4 The Importance Of A Well Designed Parka
- 5 Elements Of A Well Designed Parka
- 6 My Experience With a Down Parka
- 7 Related
My Experience In The Cold
My most extreme experience with cold is derived from spending four winters in North Dakota, working outside on a flightline. Flightline is a jargon term for a parking lot for aircraft. North Dakota is in just the right place in the lower US to receive frequent blasts of air, delivered by the Jet Stream, from the Arctic. It’s far from the coldest place on earth but it’s cold and stormy enough to take seriously. We would go several weeks at a time without ever seeing the top side of zero degrees. The weather man would say we were going “BELOW THE DOUGHNUT!” He seemed to have a lot of fun telling us that.
I worked through both horrible storms and bitter cold nights, in North Dakota. Imagine being in a basket, 30 feet in the air, spraying an airplane down. Now imagine you are doing this at the end of the runway with the engines running. Why? The airplane is waiting for a hole to open up in the blizzard, large enough to get the plane down that 2 mile runway. You can’t take off if you can’t see where the runway is. Such is the bitter stinging wind of the northern planes. Now imagine laying on the concrete, when it’s -35, and you are doing the intricate task of changing a generator on an aircraft engine. Wind chill is a real thing but it’s a shame they conflate it with temperature. A real -35 is not the same as a wind chill of -35.
Cold Weather Death and Survival Examples
Here is an example of the need to take weather seriously. After one UND college storm party, one man turned up missing. After the storm ended, teams of volunteers form the college and the community went out looking for the man. They walked around with poles poking snow drifts looking for his body.
They eventually found it. The body was in the back of a van, probably frozen solid. He crawled in there, seeking shelter, but a closed van was not enough to save him. Alcohol was a factor in his death but if he had been wearing the right parka, he might be alive today.
In another example, people were out driving in a blizzard. When they could no longer see to move their vehicle, they were forced to do the only thing they could do. They stopped. They were found the next day, alive fortunately. They were in the middle of the road, where the snow had forced them to spend the night. They weren’t stuck. All of the snow had blown away. They must have been asleep when they were found or they would have driven home. A parked car does not stay very warm in a below zero wind storm, even if you have enough fuel to wait out the storm. They must have had the right gear to make it through it The were also smart enough to stay in their car.
The Power of Wind
When you are outside, on the flightline, there is no shelter. Weather reports often tell you of wind but few people ever truly experience the wind. Buildings block it, trees block it, or we are in vehicles. There is nothing to block wind on a flightline, especially when it’s in a plain state, where you can see for miles and nothing blocks your view. Dealing with wind complicates keeping warm.
Sure there is the windchill that everyone is familiar with but there is more to it than that. The wind can expose flaws in the ensamble of your cold weather gear. The tiniest unsealed edge of your clothing can mean letting in air that make you feel like you have no insulation at all. It’s like leaving the window open in a storm. The above picture shows wind blew snow through tiny gaps in a closed door and a closed window. Some materials also let the wind right through them. This is true, even of some materials that claim to block wind.
The picture that leads this section shows power poles that were broken by a combination of high winds and ice. The blizzard that took down those poles also took power out for four days. After living through dozens of them, to this day, I get irritated when people use the word, blizzard, to refer to a snow storm where they live. To 99% of these people: No. That’s not a blizzard. You’ve never seen a blizzard.
…But, You say, “I Don’t Live in North Dakota or Near The Arctic”
I no longer live in North Dakota either but the funny thing about the jet stream is that sometimes it can dip in may parts of the lower US. Probably at least two thirds if not more of the population of the US and all of Canada live in a place where the temperature can drop to negative 20 on occasions. This is serious weather that requires serious gear if you are ever out in it for an extended time.
Any time the temperature drops below about 20 degrees, long term exposure to it, without the right gear can be dangerous. Most of us live in places where temperatures below 20 degrees are quite common. If you get stuck in it and all you have is the jacket you wear when you go shopping at the mall, it can be an extremely uncomfortable and even dangerous situation to be in. If you break down, in your car, in winter you might be there for a while.
A quick Story
This happened to my mom when I was a teen. I think the story had an impact on me. She and a fiend were out driving in the family van when it’s timing chain broke. They were stranded, on the side of the road, in a van that wouldn’t run, in winter. They had the typical winter clothes women would wear, if they expected to be in heat for all but the 65 seconds it takes to get from a 73 degree car to a 73 degree building. The two of them huddled under a throw blanket while they waited for someone to notice them and rescue them. They were miserably cold. Fortunately, hours of suffering was their only injury. This was before cell phones. Still, there are reasons you may be stuck outside for hours.
Get Some Experience
If your only experience with cold is those 65 seconds it takes to get form the car to the house or building you are going to or from; I implore to you get some experience. Wait until the temperatures drops below 15 degrees, below 10 degrees if you can. Wait also for the sun to go down. This shouldn’t be a long wait, in winter. Then get in your car and don’t start it. Just sit there and watch an episode of Star Wars on your phone for a couple of hours. See how you feel when the credits roll. If you are feeling anything but comfy, at this point, you need a survival parka.
You could also just go ice fishing, at night. Just sit there in a chair, without a shanty and without a heater. In both the car and ice fishing situations, you are not moving. When ice fishing, you may have some wind to deal with.
The Importance Of A Well Designed Parka
Staying safe, warm, and comfortable for hours or days without heat involves an entire ensamble of cold weather gear. These include things like base layers, hats, cloves, neoprene masks, sleeping bags, and more. Each piece plays an important part. Central and most important to this ensemble of cold weather gear, is the parka. A parka surrounds the core of your body with a bulk of insulation that no other garment, save a full body suite, can match. In addition to supreme insulation, a well designed parka closes the storm window to wind. It also has materials that completely block it and a design that doesn’t let the wind around those materials.
A Jacket Is Not A Parka
The difference between a jacket and a parka is their length and this makes all the difference. A jacket sits at or just below your waist. It would seem that this would cover your core and it mostly does but not quite. The main problem is, a jacket tends to let the window open. Raise your arms up and you waist is exposed. Any wind that gets in, does not have far to travel to get to key parts of your body and robs you of warmth.
A parka goes, at least, to the bottom of your butt. A bigger parka can go down your thighs as well. This ensures that the window to cold can be closed to your core. I say can be because there is more to keeping out wind, than just length. I will talk more about that later. Some of the core of your body actually is below your waist. Your abdomen goes all the way to your crotch. There are major arteries in that area as well. A good mid thigh parka covers them.
A Union Suit Is Cumbersome To Put On Compared to a Parka
Nothing closes the window to your waist like a union suit can but they are cumbersome and you will probably not get much use out of one, unless you regularly play or work outside. You are not likely to have your union suit with you, when you jump into a friend’s car to go to the movies. Your parka, you may very well have because it’s easy to grab. You might even be wearing it.
A Parka Can Be Worn Alone or Paired with Pants or Bibs
You can also augment a parka with a pair of insulated bibs, lower body base layer, or even just rain pants to block the wind. All of these items can be taken off if you get hot, allowing your legs to breath and cool your body. If you have a union suit, that isn’t possible. The best you can do is unzip the top and tie the arms around your waist. Chances are, you will wear your parka without augmenting it, 90% of the time. You can keep your lower body protection in the back of your car and just wear the parka. If you get stranded, you can put your bibs and or long Johns on.
Elements Of A Well Designed Parka
It Closes The Window
The Shell Material
There are a lot of details that go into keeping blowing wind outside your parka. The first, I will talk about, is the shell. The shell needs to be made of a material that blocks wind well. Most parkas have some kind of synthetic material, usually nylon as the shell. Sometimes it’s Gore-Tex or one if its competitors and sometimes, even if it has one of these super breathable waterproof materials, it still has regular nylon over that. All of this is great. Nylon is impermeable to wind. These materials are usually made to keep out water too.
I like to see the shell be a separate layer from that which holds the insulation. Lately, I see a lot of parkas on the market, where you can clearly see the quilting that holds the down in place. I don’t like this. This typically means the shell is less rugged. The insulation holding layer is always more delicate. It just seems like the coat maker is cheaping out on you when they do this. It’s not ideal. You can see an example of this above, in the “A Jacket Is Not A Parka” section.
More on shells – Breathable Yet Waterproof
I decided to make a separate section for this because this really could be a topic for a very long article of it’s own. I’m just going to very quickly touch on this.
Gore-Tex is a pioneer in making a material that is both waterproof and breathable. The idea is to make a porous fabric with holes small enough that water droplets cannot get through but large enough that water vapor can. This helps you to stay dry from both rain and sweat.
The Gore-Tex fabric was invented in 1969. The brand name comes with a price premium. Part of this is because pioneers in technology usually do come with a price premium because people recognize the name for what it does. Part of it is because there is a long history of patent lawsuits keeping competitors at bay. For a long time, Gore-Tex was the only waterproof breathable fabric I ever heard of.
For the last 10 years or so, I’ve seen more and more competing fabrics. Each one comes with its own brand name. Each also comes with it’s own intelectual property claims. This is good news, for us, because it drives down the price of waterproof breathable fabrics and provides opportunities for quality improvements too.
For me, in my survival parka, I’ve never been rained on and I don’t sweat in it much either. This is because I only wear it when it is too cold to rain and too cold to not be able to open it and cool off if I get hot. As long as the shell can block wind, that’s 90% of what I feel it needs to do. The insulation tends to keep snow from melting on it too. Having the absolute best in both waterproof and breathable is not my top priority for this kind of parka. It’s nice to have though. As long as the shell has some residence to water, I’m happy. Every top parka has a sufficient shell material.
This section is an update to this article. I didn’t originally include it because none of the parkas I found at first had this feature. Then I found one. It is the North Face Women’s Cryos GTX Triclimate.
You see the images of my parka. It’s a light tan color. One of the reasons it has lasted over 20 years and looked so nice, is because I can zip out the liner and wash it. I can pre-spot it by putting soap directly on stains and scrub it with a brush. You can’t do this with a dry-clean only parka which most down parkas are. In my case, I have to remove the hood. With the North Face Parka, above, the liner zips out of the hood.
Zipping out also means you can wear the shell alone, as a raincoat. You can put a fleece jacket under it and wear it in warmer winter weather. The zip out liner and a fleece jacket, give a parka a temperature range of -40 to 65 degrees. If raining, 80 degrees. If you are traveling, it’s a good way to cover a lot of weather without having to bring several coats. Without traveling, I’d prefer to just leave the down liner in and use separate coats. Just remove it for washing.
The Window Closing Design Elements
Draw Cords and Snow Skirts: A well designed parka will have some way to tighten at the very bottom. Look for the term draw cord hem cord or something similar. This can be elastic built in. Some draw cords are tied and some have clamps of some kind. Some are elastic and some are not. I like it when there is both an elastic adjustable cord, at the very bottom hem of the parka and at least one near the waist. It’s good if it has some cords towards the middle of your body, in case the coat is too loose on you, you can tighten it up a bit to prevent it from breathing air in and out. You can see that feature in my parka, that I talk about below. A snow skirt is an extra material with a draw cord in it. It serves the same function to keep the outdoor environment out.
Men have bodies that commonly vary more than women do. A coat maker can make a women’s coat with a curvy shape and expect it to fit most women of that size. Women tend to put fat on their legs and behind before their waist. Men, on the other hand, tend to put fat on their bellies before the other places. This can be a challenge for clothing makers. Two men could have the same size shoulders, and chest but waists that vary as much as 10 inches or more in size. One man could be a fit weight lifter with big arms, shoulders and chest but a 32 inch waist. The other man could just be fat and have a 40+ inch waist but both men need the same sized coat to fit their chest and arms. The fit man would need a waist cord to make the coat fit properly.
A hem cord or wind skirt serves to keep the wind out of the coat. The waist cord serves a different function. If a coat is lose around the waist, there could be a gallon or more of air in there. Every time the wearer moves, sits, stands, etc. the movement of the coat acts to pump air in and out of the coat. It’s like a lung, it is pumping out 80 degree air from around your body. Then it replaces that air with cold air from outside. This isn’t just opening the window, it’s putting a box fan in it. A waist cord allows you to adjust the shape of a parka to fit the shape of your body. A good one has a set-it-and-forget-it feature that allows you to adjust it once and never touch it again, until you gain or loose weight.
Cuffs: Some way to close air and snow going in your arm holes. There will be elastic cuffs that go inside your gloves. This feature is not critical but it is nice. I say it’s not critical because if you don’t have it, you can always buy gauntlets that go over the outside of your coat. Still, wrist freezes are an issue with many coats/glove combinations. In addition to wind, snow can get in there and be a real problem. Keeping every part of your parka sealed also means that is some part is not sealed, there won’t be a wind tunnel effect like having windows upon on two sides of your house.
The zipper goes most if not all of the way down to the bottom of the parka and it can be sealed off with flap held down by Velcro or snaps. You don’t want to have Velcro on both your cuffs and your zipper because if you ever wear the coat unzipped, you will have the problem of your cuffs getting stuck on your zipper flap when your and gets near it. This is very annoying. The zipper should be rugged and strong, so that it never splits.
The parka has a neck that can be zipped closed and an Insulated hood with draw strings. This brings the impermeable to wind shell around your head and neck. The hood should have some way to adjust were it lands on your forehead. This is important because without this, if you tighten the hood, it might cover your eyes. Then you won’t tighten it an the window will be left open. Some of them have draw cords in the back. Some have straps too. You can see the hood shaping draw cord on mine, in the pictures below where I talk about my parka. Some even have stiff wires that you can bend to your body’s shape. The hood settings should be set it and forget it. You should not have to make a bow tie, every time you put on your hood. You can see that below as well.
The ultimate hood/neck area, is designed to cover the lower part of your face. There is more than one way to do this. The hood can have an extra flap on it, that can be brought over and snapped or Velcroed to the other side, or the neck can just be tall enough to cover your face when the coat is zipped closed.
Having the right insulation in your parka means the difference between feeling the cold seep through your parka or feeling bathed in the warmth of your own body. I recommend down. There is no insulation in nature that is better and few, if any synthetic materials can live up to it. Down has properties that simply make it supreme at not transferring heat. Fleece is a pretender, at best. Thinsulate is also supreme but it’s super expensive if few coats have it. There is another treason it’s not preferred that I’ll get to below.
Down helps to close the window. Every person’s body has a different shape. Yet coat makers can only affordably make coats in a handful of sizes and shapes. This means, to get a parka that fits you, you will probably have some part of the coat that has more room than you need. Say you have broad shoulders and a lean waist. That parka has to be designed to accommodate waists that are bigger than yours for shoulders your size because many people have that shape. The poofiness of down can act to fill that space in.
Why is filling in lose spaces important to closing the window? If part of your parka is too loose, when you move, that part will expand and contract like a diaphragm. We talked about this in the draw cord section. This will force your coat to breath like a pair of lungs. You will be pumping warm air out and cold air in, with every bodily movement. You might be aware that Thinsulate is a top insulating material. Thinsulate will not fill in the loose spaces and will not prevent this lung action from happening. Down keeps your parka close to your body and traps air inside it’s plume.
A tailor made Thinsulate coat might be very nice to have. It would have to be cut to your exact shape. It would be thinner, and if the right weight, just as warm. It would also be extraordinarily expensive to pay someone to make one for you. You might gain or lose weight and it might not fit right anymore. I suppose one could be made with a series of elastic cords that could fit people of various shapes. I don’t see where a coat like that exists.
Down is rated by fill power. You want a coat that has sufficient fill power to keep you warm. The top parkas all have a minimum of a 550 fill power. If you see that number or anything above that, you have a well insulated coat. A cheaper parka with a lower fill power can be augmented with a down vest.
There are two kinds of down on the market. Goose down and duck down. Goose down is superior in that it is made of larger plumules. This means it can achieve fill powers of 750 and up, where duck down may not be able to do that. Goose down is also superior because duck down comes with an odor that goose down does not. Most everything has been made out of goose down until recently. I think the popularity of down is driving up the cost.
Now I’m going to mostly take all that way and tell you not to worry if you have goose or duck down. They have cleaning processes that can clean duck down so that most of the smell is gone and few people will notice it. Almost no coat made needs the larger plumules of goose down because few of them are filled to the 750 or higher number. It’s simply not needed. You can trek across the antarctic in a coat that has a 625 duck down fill power.
You want to have a parka without gaps in the insulation. I have a coat that has such a gap in the front of it. It has a liner and the liner doesn’t go all the way to the center of the chest. You want for there to be down around your neck and you want the hood to also be stuffed with down. A down fulled hood and neck beats a scarf and hat any day of the week.
I cannot stress enough the important of good insulation around the head and neck. It seems that almost 50% of the warmth of my parka comes when I zip the neck closed and put up the hood. In fact, I can keep cool in pretty warm weather with the hood down and the neck open. Sometimes I wear it that way with a fleece hat and scarf.
Aesthetics are important because if the parka is so ugly that you will only wear it when desperate to keep warm, It’s not as functional as it can be. If your coat is in your closet because it’s ugly and you don’t want to take it with you all the time, it’s ability to save your life, if you are trapped is zero. You could store your ugly coat in your car so that you have it with you more often. I do this with my survival parka, sometimes.
Yet, if your parka is ugly, you are less likely to have it with you, in a friend’s car. Sometimes the best way to ensure you have it with you is to wear it. Also if you are not wearing your coat, it means you are not getting your money’s worth out of the coat. You’ve spent $300 – $1700 on a coat and you don’t use it. 40 years after you bought it, it will be sitting in your closet with dry rotted elastic and otherwise looking like the day you bought it. Your children will throw it in a dumpster, unused. That’s a waste.
I won’t dwell on my opinions of what is nice looking because this is mostly a personal choice. Everyone is going to have different taste. I will attempt to evaluate and select parka’s based on this because I do believe there are some commonalities between people in this. There is some general agreement among people that certain things are attractive and others are not. I will use this as one factor in choosing the top 5 parkas. It’s not the most important factor. I will be rating parkas against their peers and not against all parkas on the market. This will make scores higher than they might otherwise be.
My Experience With a Down Parka
Part of my own interest in these parkas comes from my desire to upgrade the very nice parka that I own. I purchased a mostly well designed down parka 22 years ago. It kept me warm when I wasn’t on the flightline in North Dakota. It actually did a better job than the gear I wore to work. It kept me warm when I went to college in Michigan’s Upper peninsula. It’s a place, not as cold as North Dakota but colder than most. Today, the parka keeps me warm on those days when the jet stream brings Alberta to lower Michigan, where I live. It’s still in pretty good shape but I have some reasons to want a new one, so Iv’e been investigating parkas.
Last winter we had one of those jet stream events and the mercury dropped to negative 20, in lower Michigan. I broke out the parka for this event, augmented it with gear, and went to work at the office. I had augmented the parka with a down vest that day, to make up for the down that doesn’t make it to the middle of my chest. You can see the vest in the photo. I also dispensed with the fleece hat and scarf, I mentioned in the insulation coverage section above. Instead I wore a thin hat with a neoprene mask built in. I used the parka’s hood and zipped the neck closed.
On my way home from the office, I wore the parka that way out to my car. I got in the car and started heading home. Now the first thing you do when it is that cold, is turn off the heat in your car. When you first start driving, all you will do is blow negative 20 air in your face and create a massive wind chill.
About 20 minutes into the 40 minute drive, I realized I had forgotten to turn on the car’s heat when the car warmed up. I decided to ride the rest of the way home that way. I was completely fine. So there you have it, a well designed parka can take you on 40 minute car ride with no heat, in -20 degree weather and you won’t even want heat.
Here you can see some of the elements I was talking about, in a well designed parka, above. There my neck and head are completely encapsulated by the neck and hood of the parka. The hood has quick draw ropes, that stay where you put them, so you don’t have to tie them. There is an adjustment on top, which I’m not using on this coat but I have used on several others. If the face opening were coming down over my eyes, I could use that adjuster to pull it up.
This set up is far superior to any combination of scarf and hat you might come up with. There is not a chance that wind will find it’s way to my neck and my neck is wrapped in down. So is my head. The hood shell material is also impervious to wind where a fleece or nit hat is not.
There is one flaw in this design. There is a gap between the bottom of the face flap and the top of the neck. I have filed it with the mask I’m wearing. It’s not a part of the body that seems to need more than that but this design could be improved. I think the Canada Goose design with the very high neck is better. Plus, I never want to wear this hood, unless it is below 10 degrees out. Wearing it without closing it is a bit awkward.