Windchill Mythology

We have all seen articles through the years on windchill, and we have all experienced it for ourselves in the mountains, but the usual discourses on the subject fail to provide the complete picture, and the usual tables of windchill figures with which we are usually blinded are no substitute for practical advice on how to interpret them and what to do about it. The formula currently in vogue for the Wind Chill Temperature is:

35.74 + 0.6215*T - 35.75*(V0.16)+ 0.4275*T*(V0.16)

where T is the air temperature in degrees Fahrenheit and V is the wind speed in miles per hour. Here is a table of effective Wind Chill temperatures using this formula for wind speeds of up to 60mph and for air temperatures of from +40 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit:

Windchill Table

Laws of Physics

Fundamental to interpreting this (or any similar) table is the following simple understanding. If an object (such as a human body) is surrounded by air, then the heat flow between the air and the object depends on their relative temperatures and the speed of any air flow. There are 3 cases to consider:

The Mountaineering Situation in Adverse Conditions

Windchill tables apply solely to bare flesh, which is invariably minimised in adverse conditions, when we will probably be wearing effective thermal base and mid layers inside a windproof shell garment. In such circumstance the external shell surface will adopt the same temperature as the surrounding air, irrespective of the wind speed (and ignoring evaporative loss from a wet external surface). This means that the temperature gradient across our insulating layers from our skin to the outside surface, and thus our rate of heat loss, will be largely unaffected by wind speed.

Minimising Heat Loss in Adverse Conditions

Most of the body can easily be protected by the use of good thermal insulation inside a windproof shell. The weak points in this armour are usually heat loss from the head and especially from the face, but also a lack of draught-proofing principally at the neck but also marginally at the wrists and ankles. The combination of wearing a reasonably draught-proof balaclava plus woolly hat in conjunction with a waterproof hood and a pair of ski goggles, a neck scarf, gaiters and efficient wrist seals at the junction of sleeves and gloves genuinely make a very significant contribution to one’s level of comfort if caught out in a bitter wintry gale. They should always be carried in one’s rucksack if one is venturing far in the winter whenever strong winds cannot be ruled out.

Cold Extremities

If you suffer from very cold hands or feet, the best answer might not necessarily be to provide them with better insulation, surprising as this might sound. Whenever the vital organs in the trunk detect that they are not quite as warm as they should be, the body reduces the blood circulation to the extremities in an act of self-preservation, immediately leading to cold hands and/or feet. Another symptom is an increased need to urinate. In these circumstances the best solution might well be to wear additional layers on the body, such as an additional fleece and long-johns. This increases the blood circulation to the extremities, keeping them warm.

Shell Garments: Airtight or Breathable?

If our outer shell is genuinely airtight it cannot breathe. And if it is made from a breathable material which is saturated by rain it cannot breathe either, which is why some wearers of breathable shells think that their shell garment is leaking when it rains heavily. In neither case can perspiration escape, and it is this perspiration which causes the dampness.

If our outer shell garment CAN breathe, then there are two factors to consider:

If your outer shell garment CANNOT breathe, then evaporating perspiration cannot escape and your insulation layer will gradually get wetter and wetter and thus become much less effective as a heat insulator, particularly if you are exercising strenuously for a protracted period. The only guaranteed answer to this is to add a second airtight shell inside the insulation close to the skin, but obviously if you are working hard you might soon be swimming in perspiration .... but at least the insulation layer will still be dry, so you should still be warm even if wet! Being wet only makes you cold if the wetness has means to evaporate, but under these circumstances, it cannot evaporate, so you remain warm. This is also why some backpackers in very low temperatures use light poly bags (bin liners) inside their sleeping bags, although a technique occasionally encountered is to swathe your bare skin in cling film! One key benefit is that you can usually manage with a lighter sleeping bag ... or in lower temperatures.

There is no ideal answer; we are up against the laws of physics.

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This webpage was first web-published in 2008 and was last updated 16th May 2018