NASA image of the polar vortex that settled over Wisconsin and Minnesota January 6, 2014With all the talk about the polar vortex, record cold temperatures, and people staying indoors, I decided a post about keeping warm in winter was a good idea. It seems people have forgotten that come January, the temperatures tend to dip a little. With the sun going into a sort of solar hibernation this year, we may have a few winters ahead of us with temperatures sure to make a weather-room ratings expert smile.

The weather forecasters love to talk about wind chill. Real feel temperatures. Those things have their place, but only if you don't dress properly.

Growing up, winter temperatures didn't mean much to me. What was the difference between 10 and zero anyway? It certainly didn't change the way I dressed or kept me indoors. I remember walking to fourth grade in a snowmobile suit and arriving drenched in sweat. I hated that suit and was glad when I ripped it open from ankle to crotch while climbing over a cyclone fence (a tale to save for another day.)

Those old snowmobile suits were great at blocking the wind and locking in heat. If you did any kind of exercise in them you began sweating buckets—a recipe for disaster in cold weather.

A childhood spent growing up in Small Town America meant that I usually walked to school regardless of the weather. When I was in kindergarten and first grade, we only had one car and Dad needed that for work. Mom had to take care of my three younger brothers and that meant I walked to school. Subzero temperatures in Northern Wisconsin are nothing out of the ordinary. You learn to take it in stride.

As I grew into early adulthood, I began to scoff at the cold in large part because of all the fuss weather forecasters began making over it. There was one year seemed colder and darker than any other winter. And despite the prediction of bitter cold, we headed up to the family cabin because heavy snowfall had put the roof in danger. Typically, the Northern Wisconsin area where our cabin is located receives an annual snowfall of between 180 and 200 inches of snow. We're located in the snow belt quite close to the Michigan-Wisconsin border, and Lake Superior isn't even half of a summer-day's walk away.

When that Lake Superior Snow Machine cranks up, plan on staying put for a day or so until the plows get a chance to dig you out.

That winter the snowfall was heavier than most years, and in late January Dad got a call from a cabin neighbor saying we better get up there. Another cabin nearby had suffered devastating damage when the roof caved in under the weight of the snow. Fortunately the cabin owners were snowbirds—people who spent the summer in the north woods and headed for Florida long before the first snowflakes appeared.

The snow in the woods was above my waist and like powder. On the cabin roof, it was also waist deep, packed hard, and we struggled all day Saturday to clear it off. Despite the sub-zero temperatures, my brother and I worked alongside my dad to clear the snow away. The day ended and we continued to work in the dark.

Four feet of snow on 1100 square feet of rooftop is a lot of snow to shovel.

I'll never forget how the wind shifted and blew powdery snow off the chimney and into my face. Despite a roaring fire, the chimney cap still had snow on it, but it was mixed with soot and ash and the wind blew it right into my mouth. I immediately tasted the ash and tried to spit it out. I was near the edge of the roof and when I spit, I heard it snap.

Well that was interesting.

I told my brother and he tried it. Sure enough. If you spit off the roof, it cracked before it hit the ground. Imagine a couple of kids about 13 and 15 and standing in snow on the edge of a roof spitting and laughing because it snapped before it hit the snow, just six feet down.

A Galileo Thermometer--glass bulbs float in a liquid to indicate the temperature.Eventually we finished the roof and went inside. Mom had hot drinks for us and the fire in the wood stove was crackling. The oil burner was also on high. The cabin temperature was about 75 inside.

Later we learned the official temperature outside was -57 F, the coldest official temperature I've ever encountered. Unofficially, there were two other people on the lake with thermometers that could measure that temperature. Unofficially, it was -63 F. Since at that time the nearest "official" weather station was forty plus miles to the south, I feel fairly comfortable using the unofficial temperature as the actual record.

And so when folks tell me how terribly cold it is, how that -10 with a wind chill of -35 is terrible and cold and how could anyone stand it, I smile a little. I remember a night when it was much colder, and many, many times when the actual temperature was -30 or -35. Even -40 or -45.

Did you know that mercury freezes right around -38 F? That's why if you buy a mercury thermometer the scale doesn't go much lower than that. How many times did we venture up to the cabin to find it so cold we didn't know how cold it was? Many. I remember those first years we had a cabin there very well, and I remember the broken beads of mercury in our thermometers.

They make thermometers with alcohol in them instead of mercury. They work just as well and you can actually tell when you should be freezing your backside off. Or perhaps what they are saying is stay indoors where it is warm and cozy and hot chocolate makes it even nicer.

But where is the fun in that? Where is the adventure?

A man down the road from our cabin came to us one day on a snowmobile. The official cabin temperature, by way of an ethanol-based thermometer that hung outside the window, was -32 F. He wanted to go ice fishing, but at 72 years of age had difficulty managing the ice auger.

We went, my brother, father, and I, to a nearby lake (just a mile hike through the woods in waist deep snow following the snowmobile track he left) and we cleared the snow, and ran the auger. The tip ups were set, and we built a fire out there. A big fire, lots of wood and it melted a bowl in the ice that held more than six inches of water. Relax - the ice was about four feet thick and there was little danger the fire would melt all the way through.

Crappies were the main target of our bait and we caught a few. Not a lot. Enough for the man to have a meal. Just another day of fun in the bright sunshine and clear northern air. Perfect.

We had fun. Did it matter that it was -32? No.

And you have to ask yourself, why is that? Why do people complain at 40 or 20 or -20. We like to be warm, but I don't remember being cold very often. Does Wind Chill matter? It does on your bare skin, or if your clothes don't stop the wind. It's all in how you dress.

Dress fashionably, and you are probably assured of being cold. Put on a parka over that thin sweater and cotton jeans, and you're going to be cold. Cold enough to freeze your...

On the other hand, if you know how to dress and dress correctly, you can be comfortable. Quite comfortable. In fact, you won't even realize how cold it is. And people have such a hard time with that concept because they listen to the news and get all worked up over a few degrees and a little breeze.

Wind chill makes for dramatic news casts which get people to watch the news and earn television networks money from advertisers.

Unlike my younger days however, I no longer scoff at the cold. I learned an important lesson one day when a friend of mine came close to meeting the point where cold and death become friends. Even though it all worked out in the end, it was sobering to me because it wasn't the first time I'd found myself in a situation where life teetered back and forth. And some of those times, it was my life that hung on a thread and only luck, my own wits, or more likely my guardian angel let me see another day.

Listen to anyone talk about dressing for cold weather and you should hear the word "layers" mentioned quite frequently and prominently in the discussion. Layers are important for several reasons.

If you find yourself heating up, you can easily take something off. Sweating and then having that sweat freeze is a good way to freeze to death.

Layers trap heat in the intervening spaces between them. It's amazing how much warmer you'll be while moving about in layers instead of an expensive down parka.

Inner layers can act as a wick to move moisture away from your body without losing heat.

Dressing in Layers to Beat the Cold

Let me say right here up front, forget about cotton anything unless you like being cold. As you will notice, I am a big fan of wool. There are synthetics that provide good warmth, but never rely on a single layer to keep you warm.

Feet. I like four layers. Silk socks next to my skin, wool socks over those, wool-felt boot liners, and then boots with rubber bottoms and leather uppers. This combination has seen me through temperatures that would freeze a mercury thermometer solid. If layers make it impossible to move your feet inside your boots, they won't do any good. Buy boots that let your feet move. Invest in both light and heavy wool socks.

After a day in your boots, make sure you remove the liners and dry both the rubber bottoms and the wool-felt liners. Be sure your leather uppers are waterproofed with oil or a synthetic sealer.

Legs. Two layers is usually all I need, but if will be sitting instead of moving, I might go with three. Wool underwear bottoms, then heavy wool hunting pants. They have some fancy stuff these days, thermal underwear that is, and it works very well. I'm just old-fashioned. Wool, even when wet, still keeps you warm.

Torso and Arms. More wool underwear. A wool button-down shirt, then a wool sweater, followed by an insulated wind-proof jacket made of gortex or similar breathable cloth. The jacket should have an insulated hood. I also own a wool jacket and wool shirt jacket that get a lot of use.

Don't forget. If you start to sweat, stop and remove a layer. Stay comfortably cool, not hot.

Parkas Very good for sitting around a bonfire or other activity where there isn't much exercise involved. Wear layers beneath and stay comfortable. Pack it along for skiing, hiking, or other activities so you can wear it if needed while resting.

Hands. If you don't need to use your fingers, wear mittens. Wool liners inside insulated leather mittens work great. A similar combination for gloves, but your hands won't stay as warm. It's a good idea to have both with you in case you need extra warmth. In recent years I've found wool gloves with some sort of rubberized pads on the fingertips that combine excellent warmth with workable dexterity.

Head. Start with a wool hat with flaps that come down over your ears. You can always pull the jacket hood over it for added warmth. Add a balaclava to protect your face if the wind is blowing. You can also use a scarf, which works nearly as well.

Eyes. In very cold and windy conditions, wear ski goggles over the balaclava to protect your eyes. A tinted lens will also help protect against the painful reflective glare off the snow. The first time you wear them, you'll thank yourself for the investment.

I'll finish with this: Shortly before we were married, I took my big-city-girl fiance up to the cabin one January to go snowmobiling. Before we went, I took her shopping for layers. We were having a great time snowmobiling and stopped briefly at the cabin. She commented on how she thought it would be cold, but she wasn't cold. I just pointed at the thermometer which proclaimed it was -24 F.

She was amazed at how comfortable she was, and she'd been riding a snowmobile for hours.

Layers my friends. Layers.

Expert Advice for Outdoor Adventuring by MJ Logan.