FROM Louisville to Lillehammer, people have become hyperconscious of cold weather in recent months. Record-low temperatures and record-level snowfalls earned this winter the classification as one of the ``worst in decades'' in much of the Midwest and Eastern part of the United States. It was so bad that even the Chicago schools and the federal government had to shut down for several days.
So what does all this have to do with you and me and Marquette, Mich., when it's minus 27 degrees F. outside?
To be sure, no one is doing the arctic-cold-wave dance to rev up their personal BTUs. They're looking for warm clothing to keep comfortable in frigid weather, or better yet, a warm-clothing system.
The question is, how do you avoid looking like the Michelin Tire man without turning into a popsicle?
Who better to ask than the experts - winter sports enthusiasts and suppliers of outdoor clothing and gear.
For the most part, the basic technique of staying warm - layering - has not changed, they say. But the availability of ``performance'' materials has. Technology keeps improving, and manufacturers spend millions to keep people warmer, drier, and more comfortable.
If this sounds like a Pampers commercial, don't laugh. Diaper research allowed the Scandinavians to develop polypropylene long underwear, which transports moisture away from the skin quickly.
``There has been so much * & D money spent in this category - warmer, drier - that people can approach the outdoors with more bravado than in the past,'' says Mike Herralson, spokesman for Patagonia. ``For those who have had the desire to be outdoors and have been scared off by too many bad experiences, there are less excuses than ever.''
If layering is the science, it's important to consider how to apply this approach, Mr. Herralson points out. ``Are you going to the grocery store or winter camping in Yellowstone?'' Layering takes practice in terms of adapting it to your own physiology, too, he adds.
Performance is the operative word in outfitting these days. Certain fabrics and materials are designed to perform in certain circumstances. The two critical factors are the elements and your activity level. Obviously, going to a Minnesota Vikings football game involves less exercise than hiking in the Sierra Nevadas.
In addition, these performance clothes come in weights and grades. ``Expedition weight'' long underwear might be appropriate for ice fishing, for example, but not for an hour of paddle tennis or cross-country skiing.
The questions to ask, say the experts, are: What will the conditions be: cold, windy, wet? What will I be doing: exercising and perspiring, sitting still? How long will I be outdoors? (See accompanying story, left.)
Technology has come a long way in the past two decades, from Velcro replacing some snaps and zippers to high-tech polyester replacing the cotton waffle-weave long underwear (which takes much longer to dry) and itchy wool union suits (with their trap doors). Insulators commonly known as fleece or pile are alternatives to wool sweaters and down vests.
``As there are more and more people wanting to do things outdoors during the winter, there continues to be a demand for high-performance fabrics,'' says David Mention, manager of product testing for L.L. Bean.
He rattles off names of high-tech synthetics such as Malden Mills's Polartec, 3M's Thinsulate, DuPont's Supplex, W.L. Gore and Associates' Gore-Tex, and more. ``Whether that means that people are trekking in the Himalayas - depending on it for their lives - or out on weekends, they want it to perform well and look good,'' he says.
THIS is not to say that natural materials are falling into disfavor. Mr. Mention says that while some materials might perform better in lab tests, it's often a matter of personal preference. Duck or goose down and wool continue to be high-performance materials for keeping warm, even if they take longer to dry than some synthetics.
Possibly the most talked-about technology in outerwear today is waterproof-breathable fabric. Companies are taking these high-tech materials and developing their own lines of clothing with names such as Gore-Tex, Ultrex (Burlington), Sympatex (DuPont), H2NO (Patagonia) and Omni-tech (Columbia).
How can a fabric be waterproof and breathable? Microporous laminates, which are tiny holes, or pores, small enough that water droplets can't pass through, but vapors - such as condensation on the body - can escape.
W.L. Gore has been successful at marketing Gore-Tex and many people applaud the product as a technological leap, says L.L. Bean's Mention, who adds that it has received high marks in his test lab. But, he's quick to point out, the performance of the breathability works on a pressure differential: ``It has to be less humid outside the jacket than inside the jacket. The moisture moves from the more humid environment to the less humid.'' In that respect, you probably wouldn't want to wear it jogging in Guatemala.
While clothing technology has greatly improved, outfitters caution against expecting miracles. When buying outdoor clothing, it's also important to keep things in perspective, says Patagonia's Herralson.
``You shouldn't have to mortgage your house to do this,'' he says. If you're serious about spending time in the outdoors, you want to start looking into good technical outfitting. But if you're just racing from the subway to work, you'd do better in an all-in-one coat or jacket - probably something down-filled.