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!
I heartily endorse using a Nalgene bottle of hot water. However, if you heat the water to boiling and are going to soon follow it into bed, slip it into a large wool sock to prevent from burning yourself.
I would use extreame caution if using a pee bottle while still even partly in your down sleeping bag. You can make a cozy out of windshield reflector material to insulate your fuel canister instead of using duct tape.
Definitely bring extra fuel. I was melting snow for drinking and cooking water on my last backpacking trip. I ran out of fuel right after making morning tea on the last day.
Put your hiking boots or shoes in a plastic garbage and put that in the bottom of your sleeping bag so they don’t freeze. My first winter camping experience I didn’t do that and it got down to minus 25 and my boots were frozen solid making it almost impossible to get my feet in them. Then with my feet in frozen boots I had other problems. Also carry your water bottles in your back upside down. Water freezes from top to bottom so when you go to drink, the frozen water will be in the bottom of your bottle.
It continues to amaze me that the debate still rages on about the false narrative that holding on to Pee does not lower your core Temp!!
As an experienced Mountaineer I can assure you that I and others from the Alpine community know full well to have a pee bottle in your kit and use it. Most times without leaving the comfort of the sleeping bag . Keeping pee in your body uses more calories to keep that excess fluid to body temp. Nuff said on that subject .
Moving forward most winter campers I know don’t change daytime clothing at all. Keep it on and let your body heat inside the sleeping bag dry it off. Unless of course it is completely soaked and that’s another discussion entirely .
As a winter backpacker and camper I always bring my Cashmere Sweater as my first line of defense . Wear nothing underneath so it can do its job. You will be amazed how warm and dry you are .
As to the Black garbage bag on your feet at night save it for what’s it’s intended for- a cover for your Backpack at night so it won’t get wet in case of rain. Instead use your insulated jacket . That keeps the feet warm and toasty.Remember the one Golden Rule of warmth- if your feet are warm your body is warm. !!
I’ve tried the Nalgene bottle trick in your bag before and it leaked on to my down. Never again . Instead use hand warmer packets. They are cheap not bulky and put out tremendous amounts of heat.
Excellent advice, especially the battery nag and taping the fuel canisters.
You didn’t mention that most people dehydrate faster in cold weather, increasing the need for fluid intake.
Put a pair of heavy socks over your hands at night so they stay warm if they find their way outside the bag.
Hang damp clothes in the sun whenever you get the change. Temperature gradient is the only way to dry them out, just hanging them in the open air will do nothing but make them cold.
Put a large trash bag over the bottom 1/3 of your sleeping bag to raise the warmth rating. DO NOT cover then entire bag, that will trap the moisture leaving your body in the bag’s insulation. In a true emergency, put the trash bag inside your sleeping bag to create a vapor barrier, understanding that whatever you’re wearing will get damp (but the bag will remain dry, ergo warm).
Have some kind of platform to set your stove on in slowly conditions; a license plate works well, because it’s big enough to provide stability and you can use the screw-holes to hang it from a tree.
This is good advice overall, but the physiology just doesn’t hold up on the holding your urine one. The urine in your bladder is already at core temperature; you’re not using any energy to warm it up, you’re only using energy to keep it warm. The energy needed to keep it warm is proportional to the amount it increases your body surface area, which is negligible. Increased exposure to go to the bathroom is going to cool you off more than holding the urine!
The hot water bottle to warm your bag has been a favorite of mine over the years. A note of caution… If you use a hot water bottle in your bag and you also employ a pee bottle, be sure to use a good way to distinguish the two in your tent! :-) A point to emphasize is to get out of your day clothes and into some dry night clothes when going to sleep. No matter how “dry” your day clothes feel, they will have some moisture from your body and make you sleep colder. Finally, some sleep in their “next day” clothes to avoid having to get out of their sleeping clothes in the cold morning. Adventure awaits!
Never camp at or near the summit during the winter. Set up camp on the leeward side of the mountain. Pay attention to the prevailing wind direction, and set up camp on the opposite side of the terrain. The reduced wind will make for a much warmer camp!
White gas will burn at any temp as compared to canisters that are problematic when it gets really cold. A canister stove that lets you turn the canister bottom up uses the gas most efficiently. There are 3 different types of gas in the cans, each changing at a different temp between liquid and gas.
And, using a canister stove doesn’t take heat from the fuel inside. Using it reduces the pressure which makes the temp go down. Remember the ideal gas law, PV=nRT ? Pressure and temp are directly related. There was a reason we taught that to you.
Maggie’ s comment is true because a cold gas is heavier than a warm gas. In addition to the cold air pooling at bottoms of depressions, this also influences the directions of winds in evenings and mornings.
Lots of science out there.
When you pitch your tent at the bottom of a hill or cliff, make sure you’re not at the very bottom. Cold air slides downhill and puddles at the bottom. Be sure it slides past you!