Staying warm: What’s in YOUR underwear drawer?

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I have to confess: Last weekend, I spent a considerable chunk of time running around in a pair of my wife’s nylons. Pantyhose, that is. I squeezed into those suckers with grim determination, like a man trying to shove 10 pounds of raw meat into a 5-gallon bag.

Worth it?

Hardly. All day, I was painfully aware of this womanly attire squeezing like a python at my lower half. It itched. It made me cranky. Outside, where temperatures had dropped into the low 20s, I felt the sting of cold in my legs while my upper half, protected by wool sweater and Carhartt coat, remained perfectly warm.

As a means of shielding human flesh from the cold, I found nylons as a base layer to be an abysmal failure.

“Did you shave your legs first?” asked Bill Lepack, a mason from Livermore who swears by pantyhose when working outdoors. “It’s either that or cooking spray.”

According to Lepack, since I had neither shaved my legs or doused them in Pam, my experiment was flawed. Pantyhose, he insists, improve circulation and trap so much heat, one can eschew bulky snow suits when wearing them.

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He is both emphatic and unabashed about this preference.

“I wear nylon pantyhose and regular pants,” he says. “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”

Fair enough. But by the time Lepack corrected me on the proper application of hosiery, I had moved back to my trusty union suit, which I had purchased just a week before at Tractor Supply.

You know what a union suit is, don’t you? It’s a type of one-piece long underwear, patented in 1868 when it was billed as an emancipation from flannel. The idea of the union suit is that once you button it on, you can keep wearing it until spring, using the handy buttoned flap in back to do any kind of business that requires access to that region of the body.

Bright red, is my union suit. It’s an Indera brand and cost a mere $20, which is about a third of what one would pay for the elusive Carhartt model. (I searched high and low for the Carhartt union suit locally. While it IS available through Amazon, I didn’t find one at Tractor Supply nor at Paul’s Clothing & Shoe on Lisbon Street in Lewiston.)

My union suit is 100 percent cotton, which would be of a concern if I planned to get wet. But all I wanted from my union suit was sustained warmth, whether I was sitting at my desk writing masterpieces like this underpants story, or dashing out into the night to cover news. And I got that warmth. For the most part.

The union suit will keep you warm from ankles to collar bone when you’re doing ordinary things in ordinary temperatures. Would I wear it ice fishing? Nope. Would I rely on it for a wintertime camping trip? Nossir. Did I render all these questions moot by shrinking my union suit to doll size by laundering it before reading the washing instructions? Yes, yes I did.

If you know anyone who’s three feet tall and really enjoys a butt flap on their undergarments, do let me know.

Is it hot in here or is it you?

Your base layer is meant to sit snug against the skin and is designed to trap a thin layer of warm air against the body. For this purpose, your choices come down to three materials with just the right properties. You want wool or synthetics or silk when you step into those pants or tug on that shirt. Muck up this important phase of your cold weather plan and the rest of your wardrobe will likely fail you, too.

So, if pantyhose aren’t the perfect solution (for me, Lepack. Don’t get your panties in a bunch) and the union suit doesn’t quite cut it, where to go next?

Personally, I went to Cabela’s in Scarborough; a store so dedicated to keeping you warm, they have at least three walls dedicated exclusively to underwear. At Cabela’s, I found base layer heaven. They have everything, from lightweight tops and bottoms for the average Joe, midweight layers for the weekend warrior and heavyweight stuff for you macho types who spend 12 hours on frozen lakes or up in tree stands.

But that’s not all. For the ultra macho or terminally cold, you can get yourself a Merino wool base layer from X-Bionic for a cool $140. So advanced and outright awesome is this set, it comes with a booklet explaining explicitly how your underwear works.

“Wool is not smart,” goes the underpants worksheet. “It only warms by nature. For the first time, X-Bionic makes wool smart by implementing numerous sophisticated technologies like the 3D Bionic Sphere System.”

Bionic Sphere System! Tell me you don’t want this, even if you venture no further than the gelato store all winter. It’s wool, after all, and when it comes to staying warm in cold, wet environments, is anything better?

As it turns out, that depends on who you ask.

While mulling my various underwear solutions, I spoke with people whom I suspect know more than anyone about the cold: firefighters, game wardens, construction workers, newspaper carriers and a garbage collector among them. When it comes to staying warm – with both under and outer layers – these folks tend to agree on some points while they disagree on others. I’ll let you come to your own conclusions whilst I go try on something frilly from my wife’s underwear drawer.

You know. In the name of research.

Daryn Slover, Lewiston, news photographer, camper, skier, general outdoor stud

“Dress in layers and no cotton. Cotton is useless when it is wet. Synthetic materials that wick moisture away from your body are key if you are active and involved in an activity that may cause you to sweat. I wear synthetic long underwear every day during the cold months.”

Since Slover leans more toward synthetics and away from materials like plain old wool, he’d love the offerings at Cabela’s, where most base layers are a polyester blend.

“Just as long as it’s synthetic, which can be expensive,” says Slover. “So it’s a huge score when I find it at Marden’s.”

Kyle Franklin, Durham, Maine Game Warden

Franklin, a new recruit to the Wardens Service, has been assigned to work in Estcourt Station, Maine’s northernmost point, where winters are said to be twice as extreme as points south. Here, Franklin shares his base layer secrets and throws in a few additional tips, which you should heed if you don’t want to die in a snowbank.

* Polyester or polypropylene like Under Armour material;

* Wool socks and wool anything, basically;

* No cotton – it soaks and absorbs water. Not a good idea to wear during cold months;

* Down jackets. Air can also be a good insulator, such as a down jacket;

* I’ll keep some heat warmers with me as well in the truck. I usually have a set of spare clothes in my truck just in case I get wet and need to change. Also extra dry boots.

Paul Ouellette, Lewiston fire investigator, former firefighter

“I wear traditional wool socks, long johns and a thermal top, pretty much in layers. The guys don’t bulk up too much when they go on a call – the fire fighting gear keeps them plenty warm and does not restrict mobility. But yours truly, who tends to stand around doing investigations, I tend to layer up! Long nights in the cold can be rough. I carry two pair of firefighter gloves. When one gets wet and cold, I shove them on my dashboard with the heater on and grab the spare set and swap them out again if needed.”

Dave Marquis, Lewiston, owns and operates Marquis Building & Remodeling

“I wear Columbia ski/snow pants and a pair of sweats. Long sleeve T-shirt, sweatshirt and a rugged cross-grained hoody most days. When the wind is a factor I add a parka to the mix.”

John Clement, mailman from Glenburn Center

“Silk long johns, polypro(pylene) undies from L.L Bean – that stuff is awesome. Dress in layers and stay hydrated. If you get dry, cracked skin, it’s because you aren’t drinking enough water.”

Gary Henault, retired U.S. Navy and recruiter

“Also having worked part time at Lost Valley Ski Area as a member of the lift crew for many years, I spent a great deal of time outside in the cold. . . . Keeping the head warm was essential as well as keeping the feet both warm and dry. The advances in cold-weather clothing — particularly thermal underwear beginning in the early 1950s with companies like Damart with their Thermolactyl — no one today should have to endure the cold like back in the day, as they say.”

Luke Coburn, Auburn, trash collector

“We dress in layers – no problem there. But when you gotta dig for garbage your hands get wet and cold, and you’re miserable for the rest of the day. And don’t forget your feet stomping in the snow banks just to pick up someone else’s trash. We wear good boots – I personally wear Carolina logging 800 grams of Thinsulate, with a boot pullover gripper so we don’t slip.”

Laurie French, construction

“Layers of shirts and sweatshirts to stay mobile but warm. My other half is the contractor – Carhartt all the way! From base layer Underoos (I mean long johns) to long-sleeve shirt to two hoodies, and one is a rain shield. I do however know the L.L. Bean River Driver shirt has taken the place of one layer on most cold days.”

Rick Jewett, Auburn, snow maker, lift operator at Lost Valley Ski Area

“I wear wool socks with steel-toe boots for footwear. Regular boxer briefs, thermals, sweat pants and then jeans on bottom. Top, I wear a thermal top, sleeve-cut-off T-shirt, another regular T-shirt with sleeves, a hoodie and a winter jacket. A winter hat and different types of gloves depending on what work I’m doing. I usually end up shedding layers throughout a shift. It works out pretty well. Lots of moving around on the mountain. Up and down the slopes when making snow and I tend to get a little hot. Better to be hot than cold, though.”

Tracy Clark Gosselin, Lisbon, fly fisher

“Do not wear cotton next to your skin. It absorbs sweat and holds it there, allowing the cold to suck the warmth away. My layers for standing in liquid ice are: nylons or tights, polar fleece, then my waders. I’d trade a wind-blocking layer or rain gear for dry-land use.”

Katt Roy, FedEx driver

“Sweat pants under work pants, Under Armour long sleeve, multiple layers. Keep ears, fingers and toes warm! I just find that sweat pants keep me more warm – not to mention that also, because I’m short, long johns never fit properly.”

Bruce W. Grant, Auburn, outdoorsman

“Multiple layers is the trick. And gents, believe it or not, nylons work great, are lightweight and work as good as long johns. With a bit of adjustment in the front of course.”

So there you have it. And, don’t worry, I get it. Nylons are just awesome as a cold-weather base layer and I should give them another chance. I’ll be sure to do that. In fact, perhaps I’ll get around to liking them so much, I’ll wear them year-round like that Lepack character, who so chided me for neglecting to shave my gams. But only if he tells me how to keep my smooth skin from drying out.

Mantyhose? Guylons?

In 1996, the pantyhose company L’eggs discovered, through an online web forum, that most of the people talking about their products were men.

Turns out that a sizable number of guys had taken to wearing the L’eggs hosiery, citing improved circulation, athletic performance and the soothing of aching legs as the reason.

In 2012, Forbes magazine suggested that pantyhose for men might be the next billion-dollar undergarment concept.

According to Wikipedia, now that men are openly talking about their fondness for hose, there are all kinds of details about who are wearing them and why.

* NFL football players wearing them under uniforms in cold weather;

* Hunters and campers wearing them as a base layer beneath other cold-weather attire;

* Men with varicose veins or other circulatory problems that may or may not require surgical hosiery;

* Horseback riders wearing them to prevent chafing and saddle sores;

* Soldiers who have to wade through deep water and want protection from leeches;

* Motorcyclists wearing them under their riding gear to aid movement and to prevent chafing.

* A possible measure against ticks and chiggers; also blisters.

“I wear nylon pantyhose and regular pants. Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”

— Bill Lepack, a mason from Livermore who swears by pantyhose when working outdoors.

“I wear wool socks with steel-toe boots for footwear. Regular boxer briefs, thermals, sweat pants and then jeans on bottom. Top, I wear a thermal top, sleeve-cut-off T-shirt, another regular T-shirt with sleeves, a hoodie and a winter jacket.”

— Rick Jewett, Auburn, snow maker, lift operator at Lost Valley Ski Area

“Do not wear cotton next to your skin. It absorbs sweat and holds it there, allowing the cold to suck the warmth away. My layers for standing in liquid ice are: nylons or tights, polar fleece, then my waders.”

— Tracy Clark Gosselin, Lisbon, fly fisher

“Sweat pants under work pants, Under Armour long sleeve, multiple layers. Keep ears, fingers and toes warm! I just find that sweat pants keep me more warm – not to mention that also, because I’m short, long johns never fit properly.”

— Katt Roy, FedEx driver

Stay warm for less

There are all kinds of “Best Base Layers for 2017” lists out there on the Web, although many of them are pushing commercial products – they don’t offer the poor man’s DIY ideas that we offer here.

Almost every one of those lists I encountered plug Merino wool as the very best of the best – Merino “smart wool,” to be precise. But brands and prices are all over the place.

The last time I was at Cabela’s, they were offering an X-Bionic brand of Merino “smart wool” for half off the $140 list price. That’s still $70 a piece, by the way, which may be a strain if you’re pinching pennies.

Many of our readers pushed simpler ideas, such as plain old long johns, pantyhose and even sweat pants as cheap but warm alternative base layers. (If you’re planning on actually sweating, readers were unanimous you should avoid cotton in those products.)

And if you’re looking for something a little more than that, check out a couple of the online lists, including this one from SwitchbackTravel.com or this one from Outdoor Gear Lab.

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