"Boys, there's no such thing as bad weather, just different kinds of good weather," my scoutmaster Royce used to point out on winter camping trips. "Take note of how sound and light play among the snow-covered pine, creating a profound and ethereal beauty, and quit whining you little wusses."
Good old Royce was a few toes short of a full set, figuratively and literally. However, he definitely had the right attitude when it came to severe cold and dumping precipitation: As plunging temperatures keep the less hardy at home by the fire, you can discover a world of stillness and solitude unmatched by the summer's crowded trails. So long as you have sensibly chosen gear, a few additional skills and the right mental attitude, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to head out under the great wide skies all winter.
If, like us 13-year-old scouts were, you are utterly new to the idea of winter excursions, here's some advice for the snow adventurer in all of us.
Getting Started: How to Stay Warm
First, the coat is not what keeps you warm--it's the air the coat traps near you. This is why down insulates so well and leather so poorly. Your job is to create this trapped air with insulation layers and defend it with outerwear.
Creating the air. Start with a layer of synthetic long underwear for your all-purpose base layer. There are many good proprietary fabrics available and any quality, non-cotton, wicking base fabric will serve you well.
Then you'll want to add a sweater and pants made of fleece, the workhorse of outdoor gear insulation--as anyone who's ever visited a college campus or coffee bar in the Northwest knows. Fleece traps air extremely well for its weight and lends itself perfectly to layering.
The standard available fleece weights are 100, 200 and 300. This numbering system is the one developed by Malden Mills, manufacturers of Polartec. It's effectively the industry standard, though there are other brands.
Finally, pick up a heavier fleece jacket for colder or less aerobic activities. By adding or removing these layers (plus hat, mittens and thick socks) you can handle the majority of moderately cold situations.
Down is also an incredibly effective insulating material, though a tad warm for modestly cold weather (discussed in more detail later).
Protecting the air. The two enemies of your warm air layer are convection and moisture. Keeping these at bay is the responsibility of your shell outerwear. A high-quality set can get pricey, but will usually last the better part of a lifetime.
Convection, circulating air, is the simple part. It cools you off by transferring the warm air out of your insulation and replacing it with the colder air in your environment. It's not so complicated for a shell to keep out the air-even the cheapest ski jacket and pants usually cut the wind. The main required features are competent closures at the waist, sleeves and collar.
Manufacturing a shell that keeps you dry in wet weather is complicated. The problem is that moisture comes from both within (perspiration) and without (precipitation). To address this, you need pants and jacket with a vapor-permeable barrier, more commonly known as waterproof-breathable.
These barriers come in the form of a laminate or a coating. Most transmit evaporated sweat out of your clothing through micropores, holes small enough for water vapor molecules to pass through but not liquid water molecules. Others are hydrophilic, which means the barrier actually transpires the vapor molecules through a complex process that I'm way too dumb to understand. They both work, which is the main point.