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7 tips to stay warm and save dough

Cold-weather warmth is not just about keeping out cold, says TODAY gadget guy Paul Hochman. It's also about managing moisture and air — and you might already have what you need right in your closet. (Hint: Fleece up!)
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Cold weather is upon us, and with it come tips from the Gadget Guy on how to stay warm, avoid the chill, and keep your wallet safe from sudden leaks.

That’s right: With the advent of new, high-tech fabrics and materials, most people assume that it will cost hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars to keep their family warm and outfit everybody for the cold. But with a couple of easy-to-implement suggestions (some of which only require you to look at labels in your closet) and a reminder that retailers are offering great deals, you can stay warm and dry for less.

First, a word about warmth: Staying warm is not about trapping heat inside your jacket. Too much heat is as bad as too little. Anybody who has gone sledding in too much clothing (and ended up damp and miserable) knows that letting out a little heat is one key to staying comfortable in the cold.

But here’s another surprise: Cold-weather warmth is not literally about keeping out cold. It’s about reducing the movement of air across your skin and managing moisture buildup. Even in extreme environments like the Rocky Mountains or at the Poles, where there are added technical challenges, the principles remain the same.

So here’s what you should know:

Get cotton away from your skin, now. Cotton is a sponge. Never ever make it your next-to-skin layer. When it absorbs sweat (it ALWAYS absorbs sweat, even when you’re sitting still), the moisture stays on your skin. Any air movement at all inside your jacket will continually draw heat away from you, making you cold. Again, as long as you’re breathing, your sweaty T-shirt will have a nearly endless supply of moisture. And it will guarantee that you stay cold.

Fleece is a commodity. Fleece is fleece!Nobody makes fleece that’s better than anybody else’s. In fact, Polartec in Lawrence, Mass., makes most of it for most brands. On their Web site, they list 45 different companies who use their fleece. If you have old fleece, it’s as good as new fleece. And fleece is great because it “wicks” moisture away from your skin, quickly. A very light, thin layer of fleece is great next to your skin. Got to have new fleece? Consider store brands like EMS or L.L. Bean or Land’s End, which are MUCH less expensive than the trendier labels.

Wool is the best. By far. Why? It moves moisture away from your skin faster and better than any other fabric, including fleece (see above). Plus, it’s incredibly good at trapping warm, dry air next to you, thereby keeping the breeze from moving across your skin. Yes, some of the newest ultra-comfy merino weaves and knits are a little more expensive, but they happen to be incredibly comfortable, insulate even when wet and will last for decades. (Just think: Have you ever heard of a cold sheep?) Consider brands like Icebreaker and Smartwool. And realize that Web sites like REI, EMS and L.L. Bean all are offering specials right now, including free shipping.

Down offers the best insulation per unit of weight. In other words, it keeps you very warm but doesn’t weigh much doing it. But big problem: It won’t work when it’s wet. So having a down jacket is great, unless it’s really wet and snowy outside, or if it’s covered in a waterproof, breathable fabric, like GORE-TEX, which is often expensive. Down is great, but it doesn't make for the most versatile jacket.

Vests are efficient heaters, are highly versatile and often cost less. Remember that kids get cold faster than grown-ups, and women get cold faster than men. One key to success: Kids and women should consider a lightweight fleece vest in their wardrobe; it keeps the heart and body warm, which means warmer blood is sent out to the body’s extremities. You can find a really nice Columbia fleece vest for women at Campmor for $24 and a toddler’s fleece vest at for $16. It will quickly become the most-used item in your cold-weather arsenal.

Layering is a great way to avoid bulk, maximize warmth and save money. You’ve heard it before, and it’s true: Layering works. The fact is, a couple of lighter layers are better than one big (expensive) one. Start with a nice, water-wicking next-to-skin layer (fleece or wool). Follow that with a medium-weight fleece layer, and then a shell of moderate water repellent (nylon won’t work; GORE-TEX is best but is by far the most expensive; treated fabrics are the most economical).

Listen to your mother! Finally, when your mom told you to wear a hat, she was right. Earmuffs are a stylish way to freeze.

Stay warm, stay dry, and keep your money in your wallet. We’ll weather this storm just fine.

Paul Hochman is the gear and technology editor for the TODAY Show and a Fast Company magazine contributor. He covered the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Athens and Torino, Italy, for TODAY. He was also a three-year letter winner on the Dartmouth ski team and has a black belt in karate. Paul’s blog can be found at: