Don’t let a dip in temperatures stop you from heading off for a backpacking mission. While cold-weather backpacking can be intimidating — not only does it have the potential to increase the level of discomfort you might experience, but it can also turn dangerous if you don’t take extra precautions — there’s a lot to enjoy about the shoulder season, from fewer crowds to crisp frosty mornings. And, fortunately, there are several different strategies you can implement to increase your comfort when the thermometer slides.
Don’t Forget Your Base Layers
One of the best ways to keep yourself comfortable in a volatile environment is by bringing the right base layers. Wool material is famous for its ability to wick moisture while moderating temperature. Since most wool has air pockets in it, it tends to be more breathable than synthetic alternatives as well.
Depending on the type of trip, cold-weather backpackers may want to carry a base layer, mid-layer and outer shell, allowing a hiker to add and shed layers to easily adjust temperature on the go. The more you can keep yourself from sweating, the less moisture you’ll need to wick and manage.
Make sure to bring a warm hat or insulated hood, too. About 10% of body heat escapes through the head. Additionally, mittens or gloves, a puffy down jacket, down booties, warm socks and insulated long underwear are all essential parts of a cold-weather kit.
Bring Extra Fuel
Cold-weather backpackers often use more fuel than warm-weather backpackers for a number of reasons. Hot water can be a great deterrent for hypothermia, warming you up from the inside out — think herbal tea, hot chocolate or turmeric in coconut milk as a bedtime treat. Also, when it’s cold out, there’s a bigger temperature difference between the ambient environment and boiling, necessitating more fuel to get the job done.
Eat Enough Calories
Research shows that outdoor adventurers burn more calories in the winter than in the summer. This could be for a number of different reasons that range from pack weight to the amount of effort it takes for your body to keep itself warm.
But, cold-weather backpackers need to carry extra food, in addition to extra fuel, to account for the caloric differences. Eating enough food throughout the day and before you go to bed is a key component in keeping yourself warm throughout the night.
The calories we consume kickstart a process called dietary thermogenesis in which our bodies create heat as the by-product of our digestion, absorption, metabolism and storage of nutrients. This heat will help you maintain your body temperature while you’re exposed to a cold environment.
Eat ‘Warming’ Foods
Not only does the amount of food you eat play a role in your body's ability to stay warm when it's cold, certain foods have what are referred to as ‘warming effects’ that can keep you toasty while you rest. Generally speaking, foods that take longer to digest will help raise your body temperature, think complex carbs like sweet potatoes and rice, protein rich fuels like red meats or eggs, and healthy fats like avocados and nuts. Adding some spices to your meals like cinnamon, cumin, pepper or turmeric can also help keep you warmer longer, but avoid spicy spices like chili powder, which can make you sweat.
Wrap Fuel Bottles with Tape
If you’ve ever cooked a meal with a stove in the cold you’ve probably noticed that your fuel bottles get really, really, really cold. In order to convert the liquid to gas, a certain amount of heat is required. And, in cold situations, sometimes the stove borrows heat from the liquid, which causes the canister to get really cold. In order to protect your hands from freezing canisters, you can add a few layers of duct tape to the outside of the canister. While this isn’t a complete cure for cold fuel bottles, it may help to reduce your exposure when cooking.
Sleep with a Nalgene Filled with Boiling Water
One of the most underrated cold-weather camping tips is sleeping with a Nalgene (or a similar water bottle) filled with boiling water. This strategy allows you to create an external heat source to get your bag nice and toasty, which means that your body won’t have to do all the work of heating your sleep system. And, depending on the temps, your water bottle might retain heat all night long. Just fill it with hot or boiling water before you’re ready to crawl into your bag, and you’ll be warm in no time!
Level Up Your Sleep System
When the temperatures start to dip low, it can become difficult to get a good night’s rest in the backcountry. And if you’re not sleeping well, you’re probably not performing well during the day. One way to confront this issue is by leveling up your sleep system. Look for a sleeping pad with a higher R-Value to increase the insulation between your body and the ground. Add a sleeping bag liner to your setup to increase the temperature rating by 10-15 degrees. Or if you tend to sleep cold, it might be helpful to invest in a 4-season sleeping bag for added warmth.
Set Aside Your Night Clothes
In the cold, backpacking with wet clothing is a recipe for hypothermia. While your physical exertion during the day may keep you from becoming uncomfortable, your body doesn’t produce the same amount of heat at night. Because of this, it can be really helpful to bring two sets of clothes: one for day time and one for night time.
Keep your night time clothing stored in a dry bag to protect it from becoming moist or damp during the day. Then, when you’re ready for bed, you can separate your wet belongings from your dry ones to create a safer environment.
Protect Your Electronics' Battery Life
Nothing will drain the battery life on your phone, GPS, headlamp and other electronics quicker than than cold temperatures. To mitigate this, it can be a good idea to keep electronics next to your body; for example, tucked inside an interior pocket of a mid-layer. At night, be sure to turn the power off on all of your devices, and consider stowing everything in the foot box of your quilt or sleeping bag. Alternatively, or additionally, Cold Case Gear, which employs NASA technology, can protect your phone from extreme cold and heat.
Shelter Your Shelter
Try to set up your tent in areas where you will be sheltered from high winds, falling rain or snow and evening dew. Staking under trees with a big canopy will help lower the amount of rain and snow that collects on your tent, and lessen the amount of dew that builds on your shelter. Look for natural barriers like bushes, dense forests, or piles of large rocks or cliff faces, to help block incoming cold wind gusts. Also, make sure to use your guylines properly to stabilize your shelter, and utilize your vents to help clear out condensation that is created by breathing throughout the night.
Pack a Few Freezer Bags
Freezer bags are amazing, multi-use items for backpackers. When you’re slogging through mushy snow, you can slip them over your feet to create a barrier between your toes and the moisture. When it rains, you can tuck your electronics into a freezer bag to protect them from damage. And, if you often sleep with a water filter at night to keep it from freezing, which renders some water filters useless, you can easily tuck it into a freezer bag in order to keep the moisture separate from your sleep system.
Empty Your Bladder
When your bladder is full of urine, your body expends precious energy to keep that liquid warm. Since that energy could be better used keeping more important parts of you warm, be sure to empty your bladder when it feels full.
If it’s too cold to ‘go’ outside, consider bringing a pee bottle along when you camp in cooler conditions. Women can make good use of a Pstyle or other urinating device to make hitting the bottle target a bit easier. Make sure you put the lid on tight when you're all done!
Camping in the cold is a great way to beat the winter blues and maximize the shoulder season weather. It'll help you build your resilience and make you really appreciate a hot shower when you get back home.
Do you have any tips and tricks for staying warm outdoors on a cold night? Drop them in the comments below to help keep us all toasty!