Here I’m going to lay out from head to toe the philosophy and best (subjective) ways to stay warm in the winter for paraplegics.
First, I must tell you about science and philosophy related to staying warm. As a scientific man myself, I like to approach the world through physics.
What is Warmth?
From a scientific point of view, it makes no sense to say “warm jacket” or “warm clothes,” it would actually be “good-insulator jacket.” Warmth (heat), is generated. Clothes don’t generate heat unless they have an electrical system embedded, but even then, the clothing itself doesn’t generate heat.
Clothing, especially winter clothing, insulates. It prevents heat from leaving your body as fast as it normally would. A warm jacket does not warm you up, your body was always producing that heat, but now, it’s staying.
Just about everyone paralyzed has cold feet. Any amount of insulation will not warm up said feet. Even if it’s 70℉, my feet will often be cold. In that case, wearing heavily insulated boots and thick socks would worsen the situation. Insulation works both ways, and in this case, it would prevent the 70℉ air from warming up my feet.
I want you to understand this. Your feet very well may be cold even in the best winter boots you can find. However, these boots will nonetheless prevent the even colder air from making your feet colder than they are, which is good.
Okay, now onto the gear. Let’s start with socks. As far as I’m concerned, wool socks are the only socks worth having for many reasons that are already all over the internet. Usually, socks are categorized by weight (light, medium, heavy). When it comes to buying socks for the winter, I go for the heaviest socks available.
- These are the heavy winter socks that I wear – full cushioning, heavyweight, and very long (knee-ish length).
There are wool socks that have electric heating. However, DO NOT get these unless you get a very expensive pair of heated socks. Otherwise, they are more likely to be prone to overheating and electrical failures. If you can’t feel temperature on your feet/calf, then you could get burns without knowing.
When it comes to electric heating, specifically for the legs, here are my guidelines and what to consider if you are adamant about getting electrically heated winter gear:
(If you have similar temperature-feeling issues in your upper body, take the same precautions for a heated jacket)
- If you can’t feel temperature in your legs, be very careful. Test it out multiple times and if possible have someone else try it out, or try it on your hands, or use a thermostat to measure the temperatures.
- Use the inside of your wrist to check the temperature, this is a more sensitive skin area and will give you a good idea of how hot is too hot.
- When it comes to electric heating, the main principle is using a high-resistance wire and a lot of current. Although this likely won’t be enough to kill you, current (not voltage) is what does damage.
- Get the best of the best. Socks, boots, and insoles are the primary electric foot heating options. Get the most reputable brand at the highest premium.
- I must say that if you get thick wool socks and heated boots, that would be a bit safer for two reasons: Socks provide some protection if the boot malfunctions and wool socks burn, not melt. Typical safety standards require material that will burn OFF you rather than MELT onto you.
Alternative Foot Heating
I already said no to all electrical heating. If you also want to avoid electric heating, what should we do? Our feet need some warmth, especially if we’re out shredding the snowy slopes all day.
I use a foot warmer, just like a hand warmer, but made for feet.
Boots will be very important. Here is what to consider
- Insulation, usually in grams. Always go for the most. Typically, a bulk of this will be on the bottom because, for people walking, this is where they make contact with the cold ground.
- Temperature rating. Some boots will say they’re good for -60℉, but note that this is tested with “moderate activity” and someone walking with normal circulation, which means that their feet generate much more heat than someone paralyzed.
- Water proof. Always get water proof, I hope this is obvious.
- Height. The higher the boot, the better. Although, typically, the higher the boot, the lower the temperature rating (with the same parameters mentioned above). Sometimes, jackets will have a lower temperature rating if they have a hood compared to an identical non-hooded model. There is a slight issue, because having more insulation on our calves doesn’t warm up our feet. ALSO NOTE, if the boot has greater height it should have greater insulation weight.
- Tightness. If you’re using foot warmers, these generate heat by a chemical reaction when exposed to oxygen. If your boots are too tight, the foot warmer will not work at all. Make sure the boot is a bit wiggly (1-2 sizes larger if you’re also getting thick socks)
Here is how I layer for my legs when I’m skiing
- Underwear – could be standard, or get wool.
- Winter leggings – I go for tight, but there are looser ones. Again, wool is good.
- Sweat pants – go for thickness.
- Snow pants (with a waterproof shell) – go for the most insulation and waterproof.
There are a lot of options, so I’ll give you my ideal layering system:
- Underwear – SmartWool boxer briefs
- Winter leggings – SmartWool (again)
- Sweat pants – Mountain Hardware Down Insulated Pants (not really sweat pants)
- Real sweatpants (if you don’t like the above) – Fleece sweatpants
- Snow pants – Helly Hansen Insulated bib (bib is important)
These are the best of the best (opinion). If you’re skiing a lot, I would think it wise to heavily invest, but if you’re only in deep winter conditions a few times and not for a long time, do your version.
Top layers will be much the same as bottom layers.
You’ll want a baselayer, a mid-layer, and a top layer (waterproof).
I’m not going to go through this in depth, you can use the suggestions I gave for bottom layers to find similar top layers.
If you want to get a heated jacket, go back and read the Electric Heating section.
When it comes to gloves, you can get heated or just heavily insulated.
If you plan to use these gloves while pushing your wheelchair, here are some considerations:
- They won’t last long. No matter what you get (expensive or cheap), the gloves will get holes in them within a very short time.
- You want goatskin. Some people say kangaroo leather is the strongest, but goatskin is more common and amongst the strongest leather. This will make the gloves last longer (still not that long though)
- Waterproof, of course.
- Keep in mind you need the dexterity to grab the wheel and push, which means full-fingered gloves and probably not heated since this can add bulk.
- There are different cuff types, this is mostly preference, but I prefer longer so that my jacket can be over the glove and it won’t come out if I stretch out my arm.
In my experience, getting expensive gloves is NOT worth it. I bought a pair of $150 gloves and they lasted one winter season before I had to add multitudes of duct tape. I now have $25 gloves from Amazon (still goat), and they’re doing just as well.
Here’s how I search for gloves on REI
I don’t have much to say here. Just get a hat you like. You should be wearing a helmet, so go for one that’ll be comfortable under a helmet. And, you guessed it, go for wool.