Many thing summer is observing season and it comes to a close come November 1st each year. I am NOT of that opinion. I love both fall and winter observing, and some of the best viewing times come in September, October, November, December, January and February here in Utah. Unfortunately, like with many other parts, this is also cold season. NO, not the cold you get from a virus, but COLD, like below freezing temperatures. My friend Mat and I were out together in around -9 degrees Fahrenheit several years ago, and I have been out at -14 degrees F (my personal lowest taken when I was about to break down at 12:15a.m. one January night). So, yes, I am a fanatic about cold weather observing and some of the best objects and most challenging objects for deep sky observing happen in the fall and winter months.
My clothing requirements have evolved as has my observing. Back in September 30th, 2010 I made this post (LINK) on my blog about what I wore cold weather observing. Back then I got a lot of my clothing from Walmart and other clothing stores and a couple of items from Cabelas. My base layer came from Cabelas and did the basic job of wisking moisture away from my body, but there were better options as I later found out. I have given up on the Cabelas base layer and have gone to with HUGE success, Merino Wool Base layers. Now, let me be upfront, back in the day I stayed warm wearing what I wore as I shared in September of 2010, today, my stuff costs more, but I can get by in less layers and be warmer. My Merino Wool Base Layers come from the company Minus 33 (state up front, I get NO compensation from any of the companies I will be mentioning here) and I get the expedition layer for my cold months (basically September through April or May). I get a mid-weight for the summer. Yes, I wear my base layer even in the summer as it may be hot during the day in the desert, but nights are cold and when I go up to the Unitas Mountains, it can get cold even in July and August at night up there. Here is what I get from Minus 33:
The mid-weights I share are in the Big and Tall size. I have now lost 86lbs since June of 2014 and though that is a lot, I have like 70lbs more to go and so I am still a 2XXL(t). I have an extra long upper body and shorter legs. So this Chocurua Men's Midweight Crew Big and Tall base layer top is $75.99 LINK. You can find them at Cabelas sometimes, and at Men's Sportswarehouse and on Amazon. I usually buy mine through Amazon. I also have found my size on Amazon in the green below, and since green is my favorite color, I have gotten them in that color as well. Usually I stick with black though.
The Yukon Expedition crew neck top in Merino Wool comes in at $95.99 LINK and yes, both are expensive but I can tell you that I use them, and when used with the proper layers, your core body is kept nice and warm.
On my base layer for my legs, for winter I get the Katmai Men's Expedition Bottom and they come in at $95.99 also. Again, expensive but man, toasty warm and worth it in my book. I'll state here with your base layers, you don't have to go this route, other base layers are cheaper and probably work sufficient, but the Merino Wool is soft, absorbing, warm and wisks better than any synthetic material I have used. Here is an image of the Katmai Men's Expedition Bottom.
In summer I use the Minus 33 Kancamagus Men's Midweight Bottom and I can use the regular sizes now (I do have to roll up the bottoms or tuck them into my wool socks as I am only a 29 inch length in my legs) and they come in at $65.99 LINK. There are a variety of colors and options if you go to the link/site of Minus 33 and per above, these are green.
Last thing on my base layers. I have often just used my mid-weights in the cold months and in the summer and they have been more than sufficient for me. Now that I have a few extra dollars, I have two sets of each and if needed, I would not hesitate to wear the mid-weight base layers here in the winter.
One of the most important part of your body to keep warm in cold weather, and especially in observing because your not generating heat in this hobby, is our feet. I begin by putting on a base layer sock that will wisk moisture away from my feet. I specifically use Terramar Adult Thermasilk Mid Calf Sock Liner. I found mine at Amazon and usually order them for $7.99 plus shipping. Two pair will last me a full year or sometimes two years depending on how rough the winter is and how rough I am on them. Here is the LINK to the base layer socks at Amazon. No matter what base layer sock you use, and I do recommend one of silk here, you will need them if you want to be out for three to five hours in the cold of winter. Here is a link to Terramar's web site where the socks sell for $17.99 LINK.
Next over the base layer socks I wear wool socks. I have purchased and used wool socks from Cabelas and Sportsmen Warehouse and they are cheaper and do the trick. However, again, I am in love with Merino Wool and use the Minus 33 Merino Wool socks. Minus 33 sells their socks for $13.99 and they claim they are thin, they are not. Like any wool sock they are thicker. I have doubled them up though when going tubing and used in my snow boots and yes, they do keep my overly warm doing that. Really no need for that as a base sock and this wool sock over your feet will keep you plenty warm and toasty. LINK.
Before I leave socks I do want to mention that for your feet and for about $60.00 or so, you can buy heated socks that yes, they do keep your feet wonderfully toasty, as long as the batteries last. Cabelas sells a pair at this LINK for $59.99 right now. You can read about these over there. Cool.
Over the socks now must go shoes, well, in our case boots. I have two boots that I will use, depending. My first boot is a general winter boot I use to snow blow, walk, and to observe IF it isn't too cold. They are the Columbia Me's Bugaboot Plus II Omni-Heat boot. It is a serviceable boot, with good flexibility once it is broken in and does the job. This boot will run you $130.00 over at Columbia LINK. My normal shoe size is a 12 EEE, so for the boots I wear observing and for in teh snow, I go up to a 13 EEE or a 13 1/2 EEE. This extra room allows room for my socks and allows the blood to circulate through my foot, while still providing comfort and control by my feet. Cutting circulation off to your foot by having a boot that with the socks is too tight, will result in cold feet and usually ends the observing session. Big is your friend in winter (but not too big).
My main winter boot though is the Sorel Caribou Boot. Sorel is known for their cold weather boot and this is what I wear into the desert in the winter when I need warmth on my feet. Sturdy, well made and made to last my last set went 10 plus years before 2 years ago I replaced them. I also do own a Kamlik Alborg boot that looks the same as the Sorel in the picture and I like that boot just as much. I don't think anyone can go wrong with a Sorel or Kamlik boot on their feet while observing if they have the right socks on to match. Make sure your boot fits and isn't too tight. Comfort is important.
The layers I now put on my legs on top of my base layer haven't changed a whole lot. Over the base layer goes a flannel lounge pants that help to absorb moisture and still keep me warm. Cabela's Flannel bottoms are great for these LINK. I want to mention that I tend to wear clothing that runs a little big on me while observing. This allows air to get captured between the layers and aids in maintaining warmth.
On top of the flannel lounge pants goes a nice and comfortable fitting pair of wool pants. I just had to purchase a new pair from my weight loss but the price is extremely worth it. Expensive, VERY expensive as you'll see but man, I sweat sometimes on my legs when observing! These were $172.49 on sale at Cabelas and they had my size so I ordered them. LINK.
Now I also own some snowmobiling/ski pants that I will also wear over the base layer and if I think it is really cold, I might wear fleece sweat pants over the flannel just to add a layer of warmth before I put on the pants. Usually though, the base layer, the flannel lounge pants, the wool pants or another warm pant that go into my hunting bibs that I wear are enough to ensure my legs stay nice and warm.
On my torso I wear my base layer and then I always put on a long sleeve cotton tee shirt that is extra long, and this allows any sweat that comes off my torso, to be absorbed by the cotton in the tee shirt. Do NOT put cotton next to your skin though. You will get very cold as cotton will absorb your sweat and not release it, making your body core COLD. Over that I place a nice warm Henley type shirt, LINK about $40 or several hunting shirts I have that are long sleeve and made from flannel from Cabelas and are larger in size(no link, not sold anymore). Over that goes a nice Wool Sweater again a little larger in size, LINK $80.00; and finally a really good North Face or Columbia Fleece ($80.00 plus). Over that goes a winter parka which fits good with the layers on under it, and that cost me about $150 on a winter close out from Cabelas (I got two different ones, one made for fishing in extreme cold and one a hunters parka) and then my hunting bibs LINK that will cost between $150 to $200. Both parkas have draw strings on the bottom and an excellent hood that can be drawn taut. Lined pockets are a must also on both parkas. That is a LOT of money to outfit for observing, but I continue to go to a dark site and there is no house to run inside to to warm up. I need to be warm and dressed warm in case something happens and I have to survive the night. In addition with this layer approach, I do not get cold.
Hunting Parka (warm down below -50 degrees F; not sure but it is VERY warm) Cost $200.00. What I like about my hunting parka is the hood and the high neck that protects the neck from exposure. Pockets are lined and warm and it has a draw string on the bottom to cinch up the coat so no cold comes in form the bottom. Wrists clamp down also to keep cold air out of the arms. Both Parkas are somewhat loose when no layers are worn and are perfect with layers with some room in them still.
Cabela's Men's Tourney Trail® Parka with 4MOST DRY-PLUS (REALLY WARM, normal cost was $250, closeout $120). I LOVE this parka!!!!! It is made for fishermen on the cold, frozen ice covered lakes or for those at sea. It is insulated and warm down to well below zero. Pockets are HUGE and the wrists clamp down. Hood when put on will form a bill to protect the face or glasses from rain or snow while keeping you warm and forms a natural black hood to steer away any ambient light. I LOVE this jacket and it is so warm.
One thing I want to mention is that in no case do I recommend wearing a base layer with jeans over them, even in the summer. Jeans are made of cotton and they do NOT hold in heat. They will absorb but they will not hold in heat. They would need another layer over them but I don't believe that jeans are thick enough or made of the right material (cotton) to wear as an outside covering. You risk not staying out to observe, or if you do, hypothermia (see this LINK for the risks of pushing it too far in the cold and what to do if you do go to far). If your going observing, even in the summer, having too many layers is a better problem to have than too few or the wrong ones. In summer I wear my base layers, a tee shirt that is long, a long sleeve fleece shirt and Columbia Fleece Jacket. I have a nice down coat to go over that if needed. On the legs are a base layer, a pair of flannel pants, then a pair of nylon pants (and if it is cold, a pair of fleece sweat pants). Base socks and wool socks and boots or half boots are on my feet. Usually I do not need gloves, though I have them and a hat if needed.
My head is one of the most important things I have to cover up on, and I usually put on a hat the minute I get to my observing site to keep myself warm. After setting up and putting on the parka and the bibs, I put on a baklava. I use a Minus 33 Expedition Balaclava as shown in this LINK. Cost is $30.00 but I have one and I can raise it up to cover my mouth and nose when not observing, or lower the part over the nose and mouth so I can breath normally and not fog up my eyepiece while observing.
I have a pair of gloves, actually several pair that I use. I always start off with my hands in silk like base layer and a pair of hunting gloves where the fingers and thumb can be exposed. IF and it usually does, get to the point my hands or fingers are getting cold, I have a second pair of hunting gloves that allow me to still feel and move metal and plastic objects quite easily that I got from Cabelas for $55.00 on sale. Last if the cold penetrates there I have a pair of hard core gloves from REI that I wear when snow shoeing that really keep my hands warm, though I may lose some slight mobility with them. IF I KNOW it is going to be down right cold, I just start the night setting up with the first pair of gloves, set up and then switch to the REI gloves. Cost for the REI gloves was retail of $130.00 but I got them at the end of the season for $60.00.
A few other items to mention. One when observing in the cold, take water, drink water, lots of it. You can still dehydrate out at a dark site and your body needs fluids and lack of hydration will help lead to hypothermia. Bring a warm thermos and yes, invest in a thermos that keeps things hot and cold ($40.00 or so) and have hot chocolate, coffee, tea, soup (I recommend soup big time) or whatever warm drink you prefer. I recommend staying away from too much caffeine though as I find it interferes with my observing. I highly recommend no alcohol if your at a dark site. It really doesn't warm you up, drains the body of fluids and you don't need or want to drive home tipsy or drunk. Have some high energy food to eat every hour as your body needs that to keep the body generating heat. Cold weather observing is NOT the time to be faithful to a diet by skipping food (in truth, a healthy diet has you eating more small meals).
Another item that will take up space, but that we have taken to our winter dark site observing is the Dyna-Glo Single Top Infrared Propane Tank Heater. Here is a picture of it.
You will need to bring both the heater top (it is in a box and I recommend you keep the box and store it in there for transport, but transport it after you have cooled it down), and the propane tank. We set it up on the opposite site of a car where it won't impact observing and if someone really gets cold, we light it up and in 3 minutes it is toasting and your warming up. You'll kill your night vision but that can come back. It is nice to have the option of warming up. You can find the heater (top part) at Home Depot at this LINK.
Other items I take in the fall, winter and spring are my dew heaters and their battery power source. Yes I live in Utah, yes I observe in a desert but come fall, dew can hit and hit with a vengeance even out here. Doesn't happen a lot where I observe but it can and if I run my dew equipment, I never have a problem. Make sure your car battery is up to snuff before heading to a dark site and take a good vehicle so you know you can go out and come back. It is essential, and one should do this whenever one observes, I do, but tell a loved one, spouse, friend where your going exactly and when you should be back. Keep towing stuff in your vehicle if you can tow just in case someone in your party gets stuck. It is nice and makes for a great memory of helping a friend get back home on a cold night.
So there you go. An update and yes, a costly one, for what I now wear when I winter observe. I don't camp over as it gets cold and I can be out observing in the eyepiece after November 1st by 6pm and be home and unloaded by no later than 12a.m. when winter comes. I don't stay out late. I arrive by 5pm and set up, cool down and start observing at 6pm and end about 10pm or 11pm. I then take down and load up and drive home, never too tired. That is why I LOVE late fall, winter and early spring observing. I can get in more sessions and still not wear myself out and get to work and give one hundred percent the next day if not more because I am so relaxed and refreshed from observing. Keep enjoying the wonders of the night sky!
I do want to share a link about winter observing from the Saguaro Astronomy Club's website that they recommend for clothing. LINK. Great information there as well. Good reading and keep enjoying the wonders of the night sky!
EDIT: A few more items: Hand warmers.
They work when used inside my glove and if I use a piece of velcro (the kind you use to bundle electrical wires together; they look like this:
I use one of these, or two linked together to secure my hand warmer to my palm and that really helps keep the warmth where I need it. I also picked up for fun at the cost of $1.99 at the end of last winter these Tote Battery Powered hand warmers and I have to say and admit, what started out as a joke, ended in the fact that they really work, generating more heat than a hand warmer packet and because they run off a AA battery a a 10 olm circut they generate a lot of heat. They are bulky but they do work. Again, using Velcro to strap these on between my base layer glove and my outer glove helps. I find I use them the most though in my pockets where I can warm my hands with them, or keep an eyepiece free from dew. That is perhaps there best use, or keeping them in the eye piece case while observing with the lid down. You can also put a hand warmer packet in your pocket for the same purpose or in the case and that works. A Hot Hands warmer works with a rubber band on the side of a Telrad or Rigel Quickfinder to keep them from dewing up also.
On my telescope I use Kendrick Dew heaters. I have a heater for the stem of my secondary mirror to keep that from dewing up. I also use Kendrick Telrad and Finder Scope heaters to stop my Telrad, Finder Scope and 1 1/4 and 2" eyepieces from dewing up. You can see Kendrick's options at this LINK. My friend Mat has made his own and they work wonderfully. For my controller I use a Thousand Oaks Dew Heater Controller that I have owned for about 5 years now and it works like a charm. It turns on automatically after I set when to turn on on the dial, and then turns off if the unit detects that the temperature is getting too high. Love that item!
For power I have two options. First is a Instaboost from Lowes that retails for $69.00. The jump start clamps leave something to be desired, and need an upgrade, read the reviews but overall for powering my dew heater and controller, this is a champ and works well (has for me on two occasions and didn't need a recharge after both times).
I also have now this 5 in 11 Power Pack from Harbor Freight for about $99.00. I like that it also has a USB port on it, DC and AC charge outlets and can jump a car if needed. I take this with me in the car when I go cold weather observing also as a back up and for the car in case I need to jump it (never have needed it).
NOVACC has a wonderful site that offers similar advice to mine at this LINK. I recommend that you also review that site. Observing in the cold can be challenging, but if prepared and done right, it is truly amazing what the fall and winter skies harbor for those looking up to capture the wonders of our night sky.