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I’ve Figured Out How to Dress for 12-Hour Days in Freezing-Cold Montana

Photo: Maggie Slepian

I started working as a film wrangler in 2020, shooting independent features, union films, and the occasional television show throughout frigid Montana winters. A standard day on set is 12 hours, and working on the horse team means all our scenes are outdoors. On a winter shoot, this equates to full days outside in temperatures ranging from 30 degrees and sunny to -15 degrees with cutting wind and my eyelashes glued together from frost.

The right clothing and layers are critically important, and it can be a tricky job to dress for. I need dexterity to work with stiff leather and tiny buckles, but I also need to protect my fingers from the cold. Sometimes I’m drenched in sweat, lugging 60-pound saddles and running around on foot; other times I’m holding horses on standby or sitting in a saddle without moving for hours at a time. I need full range of motion, my clothes have to wick sweat while also being insulating, and my top layers need to be weatherproof. I choose natural materials (particularly down and merino) over synthetic based on my own gear testing experience. It’s personal preference, but I’ve found natural fibers insulate and resist odors better than synthetic ones.

Photo: Maggie Slepian

I developed this system using my background in outdoor sports, hunting, and ranch work. I only wear every layer on the coldest days. Most days I pack the extra clothes to set, allowing me to add layers based on weather and activity level. I also don’t bother with heated vests and socks, though other crew members swear by them. I don’t want to deal with charging batteries, and my system works just fine.

Elements of this system will work for almost anyone, whether you’re walking your dog in a snowstorm, on a winter run, or trying to stay warm at a cold sporting event. If you’re looking for flattering winter clothes for a first date, you should look elsewhere. But if your goal is staying warm and dry and you don’t mind looking like a Carhartt version of the Michelin Man, you can mix and match these layers based on temperature, wind chill, precipitation, activity level, and how much time you’re spending outdoors.

These fleece-lined merino tights have a high, wide waistband that doesn’t feel constricting under jeans or coveralls. I love the calf-length zippers that make them easier to pull over wool socks, and they’re the warmest tights I’ve worn that still wick moisture and don’t feel too thick when worn with other layers.

I end up wearing four (or more!) top layers during the coldest days, so I avoid hooded or quarter-zip base layers, opting for crewnecks that won’t feel suffocating under other layers. Smartwool designed this line for maximum mobility, and all Intraknit gear is seamless. The more layers you add to a system, the more you start noticing the pieces that restrict movement, annoying seams, and anything that bunches up, so I’m very picky about what I wear next to the skin. This top also wicks sweat and is odor resistant, two necessities for base layers.

Sitka Traverse Hoody

I discovered this layer during late-season elk hunting, and it’s the warmest mid-layer I’ve ever worn. This has an athletic cut, which means it has articulated arms that don’t get bound up under other layers and is streamlined for less bulk. It features Gore’s Windstopper membrane paired with a sherpa fleece lining and has a scuba-style hood. I have this in a men’s small, but I was stoked to see Sitka recently start carrying a women-specific version.

Keeping my core warm is critical, and a down vest is less bulky than a full jacket. I pair this with an insulated jacket for the coldest days and wear it without the jacket on moderate days. The vest offers unrestricted arm mobility as well as underarm venting and is the “running layer” component of my mix-and-match system of hunting, workwear, and activewear. Running insulation pieces are lightweight, designed for full range of motion, and ideal for active days where you’re working up a sweat outdoors in the cold.

This isn’t the sleekest down jacket in my closet, but it is more durable than my ultralight backpacking jackets. Plus, it doesn’t have a hood, so it’s less intrusive in a complicated layering system. The Fahrenheit Jacket was designed as part of a waterfowl hunting system, so it’s perfect for being outdoors all day and has combined down-and-synthetic body-mapped insulation. This means it has extra insulation where you need it more, like your core, and less insulation around areas where you want venting, like under your arms. The face fabric is a higher denier — and thus thicker and sturdier — than my ultralight down jackets, so when I’m leading three horses at a time and bump into a nail sticking out of a fence, I don’t have to worry about the fabric tearing.

I bought these bibs to wear on set, but I also wear them shoveling the driveway, cutting down my Christmas tree, and any time I have to be outside in deep cold. These are full-zip on the sides for easy on and off, have a generous cut for layering, elastic bib straps, and plenty of accessible pockets. Carhartt’s Cryder series was made for mobility, with articulated patterning and without the stiff break-in period associated with canvas workwear. I’ve worn these on an overnight shoot in the woods that had me sitting on a frozen log for five hours keeping an eye on our background horses. I replaced my toe warmers once around 3 a.m., but the insulation in these overalls paired with my upper layers made a huge difference.

Horse work wouldn’t be complete without top-to-bottom Carhartt layers, and I never go to set without this jacket. I wear this on its own during moderate-temp days, but it’s roomy enough to layer with every other item I’ve listed here. It is reliably waterproof, has an insulated lining and deep hood, plus zippered pockets inside and out. The fit is generous without feeling baggy, and the insulation baffle patterning helps make it feel stretchy.

There’s a fine line between sweaty feet and cold feet, and these wicking ski socks are a great compromise. I wore thick hunting socks for a few shoots, but my feet would be a swamp by the end of the day no matter how cold the air temp. These ski socks are supportive through the arch, have a padded sole, and are reinforced at the heel and toe. They have padding on the shins for ski boots, but the padding is beneficial when I’m wearing tall work boots as well. The heavier-weight merino is insulating without feeling too hot, and I also add toe warmers on the coldest days.

I worked a full season wearing non-technical winter boots before splurging on the Western Packer, and the difference in warmth was incredible. This is a pair of specialized hunting boots with a narrower toe (better for riding in stirrups), and they stay warm all day, are comfortable for walking, and have solid grip and traction on slippery snow. They saved the day on a shoot where I was stomping back and forth through a semi-frozen creek resetting saddles during a camping scene where the actor was pulling saddles on and off for each take. They are made in Bozeman, Montana, where I’m based, have a supple waterproof leather upper, multiple layers of insulation, and are rated to -30.

I wear a similarly styled (but discontinued) hat from Marmot, and this Buff beanie is a close match. The knitted upper is combined with a fleece lining around the ears for extra warmth and softness, and it’s big enough to go over a balaclava, but not so big I can’t pull my Carhartt hood over it for extra wind protection. And for anyone asking, the pompom is both for style points and so people can find me quickly on set.

The 20-inch length of this breathable, warm, merino Buff contributes to its warmth: the bunched fabric better insulates against the cold and has made this a necessary accessory to prevent drafts from getting down my jackets. I pull it over my face in wind and snowstorms, and the merino doesn’t get stiff or crusty from my breath. This Buff is long enough to be worn doubled over around my ears and face and has multiple ways to be worn over my neck, face, ears, and head.

Only brought out for the coldest days, this wind-blocking, fleece-lined balaclava might make me look like I’m robbing a bank, but the full head coverage fits under a hat, and the hinged face mask doesn’t get wet or stiff from my breath. The neck portion fits under my jackets to prevent drafts as well. This balaclava kept my face from freezing while I was riding back from a remote location at 2 a.m. in an icy blizzard, and I always keep it stashed in a pocket when I’m not wearing it.

The elastic-cuff slip-on style (instead of hook-and-loop) is easy to take on and off with my teeth when I’m holding a horse in one hand and need my fingers free to adjust a bridle. These gloves are warm enough for active working, and I can put a hand warmer in each palm if I get cold. I stash these in my saddle bags (or a backpack for a non-horse person) and trade them out from my mittens when I need more dexterity. They have great grip through the leather palms and extra padding on the backs of the hands.

These have been my ski mittens for many years, and I poach them from my ski bag for my winter movies — if they’re warm enough for lift-served skiing, they’re warm enough for a film set. They start off somewhat stiff but start to break in after just a few wears. They’re classically styled, have a heat-reflecting membrane, are fully waterproof, and have a soft, insulated lining.

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How I Dress for 12-Hour Days in Freezing-Cold Montana