Sometimes you think you know a magazine, you think you have a good thing going, and then you get an assignment so antithetical to your very selfhood that you wonder if your editor knows you at all, if anyone really knows you, who even are you, anyway?
On a typical winter day, I wear wool socks, wool insoles, wool leggings, a wool shirt, a wool sweater, a wool neck gaiter, a wool hat, and wool mittens. This is not an exaggeration. It is my uniform and I am content.
But lots of folks avoid wool, whether because of skin sensitivity or to avoid animal products, and that doesn’t mean they should, like, be cold. So I was tasked with finding non-wool winter clothing so good that it would not only hold up to my cold-weather manual-labor lifestyle, but that I would choose to continue wearing it, over my wool alternatives, after the testing was over. I was tempted to cheat with alpaca, llama, and other natural fibers, but no—if I was gonna do this experiment, I was gonna do it right. After vigorous testing via many days in the Wisconsin woods, three pieces of clothing rose to the top. They are, to my dismay, fantastic.
Is 2020 the year I leave wool behind? Not on your life. But as long as nobody’s watching, I’ll be wearing these layers all winter long.
Mammut Aconcagua Tights, $119 (XS-XL)
The world has no shortage of leggings, but if you’re looking for a heavy-duty performance layer, the Aconcaguas are a great choice. They’re thicker than most tights, made of abrasion-resistant Polartec with a breathable grid fleece at the crotch and ankles, which makes them perfect as a base or mid-layer for deep cold. The substantial fabric also means they won’t get torn up if you wear them on their own, and as a base layer, they’ll make a relatively modest option for changing in shared cars/tents/igloos/etc, depending on your comfort level with your travel buddies. I especially like the fuzzy inside and zip pocket, which is big enough to hold the cash you won’t have anymore after you buy them. One note: these run large in the waist, so they’ll fit best on people with a wider waist and narrower thighs.
Cotopaxi Bandera Crew Sweatshirt, $90 (XS-XL)
This layer exists in the liminal space between shirt and fleece, which I hadn’t realize I wanted, although now I reach for it all the time. As with much of Cotopaxi’s clothing, the retro styling and bright colors make it feel like a really excellent thrift store find, but, you know, technical: the inner grid fleece is warm and breathable at the same time. The cut is super-flattering—fitted but not tight—and it’s thin enough to fit under just about any layer.
But my favorite thing about the Bandera is that it somehow stays… nice-looking. It’s hard to describe. I got ketchup on it and then I threw it in the washer and it came out brand new. It’s pilled a tiny bit in two months of frequent wear, but way less than most fleeces and sweaters, and you have to get really close and squint to notice. But the main thing is that, look, I cuddle a lot of dogs, and so I normally look like a human dust bunny. I have to wash my clothes all the time to get the dog hair off. And the Bandera doesn’t need that; somehow, as long as I brush it off occasionally with damp hands, it just never looks that hairy. To test this observation, I rubbed it all over my dog Boo, which he enjoyed. Sure enough, the fleece came away covered in hairs. Then I shook it and the hairs flew off, leaving exactly four behind. Just four dog hairs after a cuddle fest! It’s a good fleece.
Patagonia Nano-Air Pants, $199 (S-XL, Equivalent to Women’s 4-18)
For some reason, as a culture, we’ve accepted the need to add cold-weather outerwear to our upper body but not our lower body, which is absurd, because as soon as you’ve worn leg layers you’ll never look back. Down skirts are fantastic, ultra-warm and easy to throw on, but sometimes you just want pants.
When friends move to cold places, I always recommend that they buy military surplus Primaloft Extreme Cold Weather Trousers, which you can usually find used on eBay for $30 to $40. These insulated pants run large; at 5’8” and size 12, I have plenty of space in a small. The main downside is that they’re cut for men and only come in a tan color, which has never stopped me from wearing the heck out of them.
If you want something more discreet, or slim-cut enough to fit under an outer layer, the Nano-Air pants, are about as subdued as puffy pants can be. They sandwich insulation between two crepe-thin layers of stretch polyester, which means they’re light, almost airy. They’d make a great extreme-weather mid layer, thanks to the smooth waistband and ankles that lie flat under just about anything. But winter’s been warm this year, mostly above zero, so I’ve been wearing them on their own for long days in the snow and felt cozy-warm the whole time. Bonus: deep pockets, ethical manufacturing, and a good durability-to-lightness ratio. Wear ‘em over leggings or thin fleece pants. Or hey, if you feel like it, wool.