Protection from the elements

Right then, on to item two of considerations when packing for outdoors mischief. Here is that list again, in case you forgot.

  1. First aid
  2. Protection from the elements
  3. Water
  4. Food
  5. Mobility
  6. Communications

Similarly to first aid, there are no concrete answers for what to pack for protection from the elements, but the considerations are simpler. In fact, you only need to keep in mind two things – hypothermia and sunburn.


Thinking about hypothermia.

Hypothermia is when the body loses more heat than it can produce, leading to core temperature dropping below 35 degrees. Symptoms of the onset of hypothermia include shivering, confusion, sluggishness and generally having a bad time. If unaddressed, hypothermia can eventually be fatal, which sucks. The body loses heat through evaporation, conduction, convection, and radiation. So to prevent hypothermia, we need to prevent these losses.


Evaporation isn’t really a big contributor to hypothermia on its own, unless you are naked, drenched in sweat or other liquid, and exposed to wind. In which case hypothermia might be just one of a portfolio of problems you are facing. Still, it is worth noting the strong connection between fluid loss and heat loss. That is, if you are getting thirsty while not needing to pee, you are also losing heat through sweating and the moisture in your breath.


Keep a thick insulating layer between the body and cold surfaces such as ice and snow. This is particularly relevant for someone lying on snow, for example when injured. Wear thick thermal socks in your boots on cold days. Also protect your clothing from rain. Water conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than air due to its greater heat capacity, so don’t fall in any rivers fully clothed, jackass! Also ensure sweat is wicked away from your body to prevent it from chilling you as it cools.


This is wind chill. The body heats the air around it forming an insulating boundary layer of warm air on its surface. But wind whisks this away and replaces it with cold air, which the body then has to heat again. A windbreaker can make the world of difference in windy conditions. The same principle is behind why wet suits    work in water.


The exposed surfaced of the body radiates heat, accounting for around 60% of heat loss from the naked body. Minimize exposed skin areas to prevent this.


You can prevent hypothermia by covering the body appropriately to trap an insulating pocket of air, isolating the body from cold surfaces, and keeping the body dry.


Sunburn is funny, not fun.

Sunburn becomes more of a consideration at lower latitudes and higher altitudes. While not as immediately life-threatening as hypothermia, it can still be debilitating and is definitely worth avoiding. Take into account the fact that water or snow can reflect sunlight to almost double the impact.





Yeah, but you still haven’t said what to pack

It all comes down to where you are going and for how long. If there is any possibility of an unexpected overnight stay, you should dress and pack to keep warm throughout a 24-hour period in all the kinds of weather that can be expected in the climate and at the altitude of your activity. As a rule of thumb, I always pack one item of clothing for my top half than I expect to need. Anyway, here are some suggestions for what to pack for protections against the elements. Again, if you are traveling light, you will have to pick and choose.

Mylar blanket

Mylar blanket.

A staple of the outdoors pack, the Mylar blanket, or space blanket, is a compact and light blanket made of thin plastic sheeting coated with a metallic reflecting agent, which reflects up to 97% of radiated heat. They reduce heat loss due to thermal radiation, and to a lesser degree, water evaporation and convection. Their compact size and light weight makes them ideal when space is at a premium. Which it pretty much always is. Since they are made from plastic, they can also be used to improvise a wind-break, rain shelter or bivouac, at a push.

The space blanket usually only comes out in an emergency, so some people consider these a first aid item, envisaging using them to maintain the core temperature of someone immobilized by an injury.

However you look at them though, space blankets are so cheap, small and useful, you really want one in your kit.

Down jacket

Down jackets – perfect for long periods of inactivity.

I love down jackets so much. They are simply warm. I basically have two types – one super light version for hiking, biking and running, and one super fat one for snowy mountains. The light one is slim-fit to keep it small and light whereas the heavy one is big enough I can just put it on directly over the top of my ski wear. (I’m not too keen on taking off layers to put more on when I am already cold, if I can help it.) When deciding on a puffer, the choice is between feather or synthetic insulation. Feathers are warmer and pack down better, synthetic performs better when wet and are cheaper. The Patagonia nano puff is a minimalist down that received rave reviews last year.

Hat and gloves

A thin merino wool or polypro beanie and similar gloves pack down to almost nothing and make a big difference. Or instead of a hat….

Stretchy neck warmer

These are amazingly adaptable. Instead of talking about the multitude of ways these can be used myself, I will just direct you to this video by the company Buff, starring a gent with an awesome West Country English accent.


Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket

Rain wear can double as a windbreaker, but tend to be less breathable and more bulky. Likewise, a windbreaker will offer a little protection against light rain, but not much. Manufacturers are working to make rain wear lighter, more compact and breathable so they can double as both. I have just ordered an Outdoor Research Helium II rain jacket, which I hope will be breathable enough to run in. I’ll let you know how I get on.




Sunhat and/or sunscreen

Here in NZ, protection from the sun is essential during the summer months. Without it you can get burned in minutes, so it is second nature to wear a hat and slap on factor 50 sunscreen.

So, what do you pack for protection against the elements?
Do you have any recommendations for specific products or brands?
As ever, let us know in the comments and give us some context.
Let the conversation begin!

5 Essential Items for Outdoor Sports

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