When most of us think of a winter vacation, we dream of
sunny tropical islands with white sand and gentle breakers.
When Jim Philips headed off on his snow season voyage,
though, he went several hundred miles above the Arctic
Circle to a deserted place on the frozen ice north of
Point Barrow, Alaska.
To make this “dream trip” more unusual, Jim Philips didn’t
dress in the latest cold-weather wear from L.L. Bean or
Eddie Bauer. Instead, he and his father wore winter
clothing (and even used sleeping systems and mukluks) that
they developed and made for under $100!
The pair started to design their own clothing when Jim was
a boy. “When I was in Boy Scouts,” Jim says, “I could
barely afford what was offered on the market for winter
camping. Then, when I did spend a lot of money on
something that was supposed to be ‘winterproof’ and it
didn’t do the job, I was so disappointed that I decided to
make some gear myself.”
Jim adds that he didn’t just get out of bed one day and
decide to go camping on the polar ice cap. In fact, that
expedition was the ultimate challenge after years of
testing. Previously, Jim and his father had camped in
subzero temperatures at 13,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies
and in blizzards on the infamous Mount Washington in New
Hampshire, to name a couple of chilly spots.
I asked Jim how he could stay warm without the standard
equipment that seems so essential to winter survival.
Immediately he corrected me. “Survival,” he said, “is the
wrong word. I prefer to use the word living in
reference to arctic conditions. A person can
survive but be uncomfortable, perhaps get
frostbitten and lose limbs. That’s not good enough for me.
You should be able to stay warm and not suffer adverse
effects. The clothes I’ve developed aren’t fancy, but they
work because they insulate, they breathe and they’re
Learning how to make your own extreme-cold-weather clothing like Jim’s is both easy
and inexpensive. You need no special tools or sewing skills
for the job. Just gather up a 4-by-8-foot piece of 1-inch supersoft
polyurethane plastic foam (foam rubber and other
substitutes will not work), a very large shirt and
pair of pants, a sharp knife, a supply of Velcro strips and an aerosol can of urethane glue.
One-inch foam can be purchased from an upholstery supply
store for about 30 cents a linear foot. This is the ideal
thickness for living and working in subzero temperatures
and is recommended for the pants and torso sections of your
clothing. You can use thinner foam, 5/8 or ¾ of an inch, for the
Be sure that the shirt and pants are at least four or five
sizes larger than you normally wear and made of a fabric,
such as double-knit polyester, that doesn’t absorb water.
Get Ready to Make Your Own Extreme-cold-weather Clothing!
Using Fig. 1 in the image gallery as a rough guide, cut the pants from a single
piece of large foam with a sharp knife (a dull blade grabs
and pulls the foam). Use long sweeping motions to make
clean, smooth cuts; cut the foam bigger than necessary,
then trim to fit your needs. The belt-line should be 6 inches larger than the normal size. (The drawing gives the
measurements for a man with a 36-inch waist.) No matter what
size legs you have, cut the foam legs 17 inches wide. A little
creative customizing will probably be necessary to see that
the foam fits both the pant and your leg.
You will also need to sew or glue a patch of reinforcing
cloth — about 6 inches square — at the crotch to
prevent tearing. (The top of the crotch should be in the
center of the patch.) A glue specifically made for urethane
foam can be purchased from the upholstery supply, or you
can use 3M Fast Tack Trim Adhesive, found in auto parts
To put the parts together, simply roll up the foam legs and
insert them inside the pant legs. With both foam legs in,
you will have a pair of pants that will almost stand by
The shirt of this Eskimo-like outfit consists of the torso
and the arms, all held in place by Velcro strips. (Velcro
is usually sold by the foot at camping stores.) These can
be glued on with the urethane glue at the abdomen and on
each shoulder. The torso size shown in Fig. 2 should fit
most adults, but as with the pants, you’ll probably need to
modify it some to fit your individual frame.
After you cut out the arms (see Fig. 3), roll them up and
put them inside the sleeves of the shirt. Then wrap the
foam torso around you and hook the Velcro strips that hold
the torso piece in place. Now put the shirt on, and you’re
ready to go!
For best results, the foam should be worn right
next to your skin. Also, you may want to use
suspenders to help keep the pants up.
If you have foam left over, make bun and knee pads. These
are slipped in between the pants and the foam liner to give
added warmth, in case you do any kneeling or sitting on the
To keep your feet frostbite-free, Jim recommends using an
old pair of Moon Boots or waders. Cut off the uppers,
leaving only the soles, then sew on a cloth upper and wrap
your feet in foam. Without socks you can be warm in weather
as cold as 60 degrees Fahrenheit below — right down to your toes. Jim
has used the same foam and a nylon shell to make mittens
and even an arctic parka (which he made from an old Penny’s
jacket he bought at a garage sale for $2).
So, as you can see, with these simple materials you can
make everything you need in order to live
comfortably at extremely cold temperatures. All
that padding may make you look like an overstuffed Santa, but you’ll be a warm one!