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First Outdoor Tips Blog – The First Layer

[Note: The folks at ABA have invited me to feature “outdoor tips” on the ABA blog, which I envision as topics related to successful birding that do not necessarily involve identifying birds, from clothing to gear to what to do in the field. People come to birding from a variety of backgrounds; some are already experienced outdoors-people but others may not be, and even outdoors-people love a good tip on methods or gear! It happens I came to birdng at a fairly young age but through other outdoor pursuits, and many of my posts will feature lessons learned while fishing, hunting, kayaking, backpacking, camping etc. that apply to my favorite: birding.]

With the onset of cold weather, I figured we’d start with a tip on keeping warm. Most birders are familiar with the concept of layering clothing, which leaves you flexible as conditions change. What too many people fail to realize, however, is that the base layer is more important than what you put on top of it.The base layer is the one next to your skin, a.k.a your “thermal underwear,” and performs two critical functions. First, it creates a layer of warmed air next to your skin that cold has a hard time penetrating, or more accurately, makes it harder for warmth to depart your body. Second (if it’s the right stuff), it will “wick” moisture away from your skin. To do this, it must fit snugly (not tightly), must be of a moisture wicking material, and must be of a weight befitting the conditions. Cotton doesn’t get it done; in fact, just say no to cotton in tough conditions, for all garments from underwear to blue jeans.

The upshot is, when you’re shopping for base layer clothes, make sure they’re not cotton and make sure they wick moisture. Different base layer brands use different ratings according to warmth, typically along the lines of light, medium, heavy and expedition weight. The expedition weight stuff is tempting, and that’s what I wear in extreme conditions, but most of the time it’s too warm for birding. Choose medium weight for an all around cold weather base layer – you can always add another layer on top.

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Don Freiday
I'm a freelance birder/naturalist/photographer living in Cape May, NJ. My professional experience includes 30+ years in the wildlife field, mostly involving education and interpretation, with several government agencies and NGO's. My hobbies include everything natural, especially birding; photography; training and hunting my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Daniel Boone; fishing; canoeing and kayaking; camping; backpacking; and a little cooking. I blog about birds and nature at .
  • John

    I don’t know if you’d be the person to cover this or not, but I would be interested in reading about how to approach attempting to attract birds in the field by pishing versus recorded calls, especially for rare or migrant birds. I’ve heard people with negative opinions of recordings, but then turn around and pish. What’s an appropriate method for a migrant or rare bird or a breeding bird?

  • Well for spending a winter outdoor I mostly prefer to have a fire pit along with me which gives the warm feel with lots of excitement.

  • Ted Floyd

    Do you remember the Beverly Hillbillies episode in which Granny reported to the global media and medical establishments that she has discovered a cure for the common cold?

    I have a similar cure for cold birders. I swear, it works better than layers, wool socks, ski masks, hand warmers, body grease, thousand-dollar Gore-Tex parkas, you name it. Indeed, I’ve been in situations in which I was so bitterly, bitingly, brutally cold that none of that stuff worked at all. Even coming indoors, putting my pathetic-excuse-for-what-used-to-be-toes over a heater, and drinking copious mugs of scalding hot chocolate by a roaring fire–none of that stuff works for me if I’ve been owling in a blizzard, then birding for 8 hours on CBC day.

    But there’s one thing that always works. Without fail. Now it does take some amount of time. It takes 25 minute for me. But it works flawlessly. And, believe you me, 25 minutes ain’t nothing compared to how long it would take me to warm up otherwise. And check this out: You can do it while you’re birding. In fact, it can help your birding. Ready for it?


    Seriously. Run or jog hard for 25 minutes. Even when it’s minus twenty and the middle of the night, running for 25 minutes will warm your entire body to a lovely, uniform 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Even those things that were until recently pathetic icicles attached to your feet will transmogrify back into glorious, full-on, full-function, fully circulating toes.

    A 25-minute run is so much simpler, not to mention thousands of dollars cheaper, than messing with all that Gore-Tex and such. And you can do it while birding.

    Oh. Granny’s “discovery”: Drink plenty of fluids, get lots of rest. Works every time.

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