Cold Calling

After 32 years of studying what makes people shiver, the Army's king of cold weather research knows what's a safe bet for civilians, too.

January 18, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN OUTDOORS WRITER

NATICK, Mass. - It's the middle of winter. Snow is falling. Wind is blowing. And Murray Hamlet is talking underwear.

The secret to staying warm, confides Hamlet, is not in a $600 high-tech parka. It's in what you put on over your birthday suit.

"Moisture management is the name of the game," preaches the U.S. Army's king of cold weather research from his lab outside Boston. "You've gotta have good underwear, a good first layer. Cotton gets wet, stays wet. Cotton kills."

Dr. Murray Hamlet knows sub-zero. For 32 years, he has studied what makes people shiver and, more importantly, what makes them stop. Soldiers, adventurers, football teams and even presidential inaugural planners call him for advice.

The Navy's elite SEALS, for example, want to know how to stay warm when the mission is "underwater deployment, up on an ice shelf, across the terrain, kill and maim and get back," he says.

His response to that particular inquiry is classified. But here is his uncensored advice to spectators at this weekend's inauguration and parade: Forget about fashion.

"No skirts - you've got to cover your legs - and decent, insulated footwear. You can't have those tight leather boots with heels, and no wingtips," he says scornfully. "A wind-resistant jacket with fleece underneath, a hat that comes down over your ears, and stand on a piece of Astroturf doormat for better insulation."

Also, leave the tobacco and alcohol at home (both make you colder), but take along a Thermos bottle of hot soup. Last but not least, take shelter in a large group of people.

But whatever you do, he says, don't skimp on the underwear. Choose synthetic fabrics such as Cool Max, Power Dry or Capilene.

"Clothing," Hamlet says, "is like sex. The first part and the last part is most important. The right underwear to keep you dry, the right outer shell to keep out the wind and rain."

Test cases

Offering up weather-beaters for folks residing in the mid-Atlantic region is "child's play," says the man who grew up in North Dakota, where brutal winter temperatures make bones ache and skin feel like parchment.

Hamlet came in from the cold long enough to get his degree in veterinary medicine at Washington State University. He then joined the Army and was stationed at the Arctic Medical Research Lab in Alaska as an animal researcher. People became his focus when all the other doctors transferred out of the lab "and I was all they had left," he says, laughing.

When his military service ended, Hamlet took a civilian job as a researcher at the Army's Cold Weather Research Lab in Natick, just outside Boston. Now he directs the program.

Clothing is big business for the military. A single contract for parkas can be worth $90 million. With that much at stake, the Pentagon asks its cold weather researchers to make sure a product will do what it claims.

In carrying out their mission, the folks in Natick have become an informal truth squad for civilian outdoor products, sort of a Good Housekeeping seal against frostbite.

"There's no independent tester, so these companies can make any claims they want and there's no way to disprove it," Hamlet says. "And guess what? You lose."

So when the Marine Corps uses tents from the North Face, SEALS don Polartec 300 jackets and the Army wears parkas made of Gore-Tex fabric, it's a pretty safe bet the stuff will work for civilians, too.

How cold is it?

"It's nasty in here," says Hamlet as he opens the vault-like door to his laboratory - a 60-foot long, 11-foot high tunnel filled with tubing, long ducts and solar lighting. In the cork-insulated chamber, Hamlet can drop the temperature to minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit, crank the wind up to 40 mph and make it rain 4 inches an hour. (Just across the hall is the Tropic Chamber, where researchers can raise the temperature to 176 degrees.)

Soldiers swaddled in the latest cold-weather gear bivouac inside Hamlet's ice box, often accompanied by the good doctor himself and "Uncle Wiggly," a copper-skinned mannequin covered in heat sensors.

"It gets old pretty fast in here," says Hamlet. "Old and cold."

The longest Hamlet has ever kept humans penned up is 16 days. Uncle Wiggly, though, can stay as long as he's needed, making him an ideal guinea pig for the tedious rounds of preliminary tests.

Chances are if soldiers are wearing it, Wiggly's worn it first.

Wiggly has counterparts - that's parts, literally: rubber-coated hands and feet of all sizes that allow cold and heat testing of shoes and gloves.

"We don't need humans until the final tests for fit. We already know the physics," Hamlet says.

Properly dressed, the best temperature range "to play," as Hamlet calls winter activities, is 25 degrees above zero to 10 below.

"As you start down the scale from there, you have to be careful. At 10 to 20 below, you can get in trouble. If you make a mistake and don't correct it quickly, you'll pay," says Hamlet, cautioning about skin damage and hypothermia.

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