Two Septembers ago, a South Dakota snowstorm caught me off guard. I packed light — too light — for a trip to the Black Hills, to participate in the Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival at Custer State Park. Huddled in the bed of a pickup truck in the middle of a thundering herd of buffalo, wearing every article of clothing I had and still cold all the way down in my bones, I swore I’d never be unprepared for the conditions again.
This winter, as the ongoing pandemic makes it unsafe to gather indoors, you may find yourself spending more time outside if you want to do any socializing, braving low temperatures and less-than-ideal weather in many parts of the country. You may not have plans to race across the frigid prairie chasing buffalo, but even if you’re just having some backyard beers with your friends, the same concepts apply: Preparation is key, clothing choice is all-important, and understanding the science of warmth can help you hang onto it.
Your body is constantly producing — and losing — heat
“For us to have our metabolism, our cells being alive, [that] takes energy,” says Christopher Minson, PhD, a thermal physiologist at the University of Oregon. “The byproduct of metabolism is heat, and that’s why we have a body temperature.”
But as your body constantly generates heat, it also needs to get rid of it to not overheat, and there are three primary ways that happens: conduction, convection, and evaporation.
Conduction happens through contact with surfaces. If your body temperature is higher than the things around you, you’ll lose heat when you touch those things. “Different materials have different conductivity,” Minson says. “Metal, for instance, really conducts a lot. You’ll lose a lot of heat to a metal surface, vs. plastic or something else. Even wood is much better at not conducting heat.”
Here’s the first piece of advice: If you’re planning an outdoor event, consider the furniture. If you skip metal…