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Winter Backpacking Tips

winter hiking

Cold weather means everything takes longer. Anticipate and plan for the extra time needed. Be realistic when it comes to hiking mileage.

Stop to rest when hiking. Excessive sweating and non-wicking clothing will make you colder.

Protect exposed skin and lips with lip balm (SPF 15 or higher) and sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher). Check EWG for the best-rated sunscreen and lip balms.

Drink plenty of water throughout the day, generally 2-3 quarts per day. You will not realize how dehydrated you are during the winter since the air is drier and sweat evaporates before you know it. Consume your water by eating soups and other brothy meals, and make hot beverages such as cocoa or cider at night. Warm drinks (and food) have a pleasant effect on the body when it is cold outside and also help warm you from within.

Carry a wide mouth water bottle. To prevent the top from jamming with ice, carry it upside down in your pack. Water will freeze at the top, and when you turn in right side up to take a drink, you will have water instead of ice. You can also make foam covers by duck taping closed cell foam around your water bottle – works well for steel canisters. At night, you can store water bottles in your sleeping bag to prevent freezing or bury it in the snow. Snow is a good insulator.

To prevent your Camelbak from freezing, blowback any water left inside of the hose back into the bladder after taking a sip. The water hose is the first thing that freezes. At night, you may want to remove your hydration unit from your backpack and put near your sleeping bag.

Insulate by layering clothing. Three layers will cover most outdoor conditions. When it is freezing, you may need up to four layers, but often 3 is enough if using a heavier weight mid-layer. If it is less cold, you will need only two. Hiking rule of thumb: if the temperature is less than 20 degrees F, you will need all 3 layers (up to 4 or heavier mid-layer when it gets below 0 degrees F). If the temperature is between 20 and 50 degrees F, you can usually get away with 2 layers: a wicking base layer and an outer layer. When adding layers, any successive outer layers should be larger than the inner layer; otherwise, the outermost layer will compress the inner layers and will decrease the insulation properties of the clothing.

Never wear a single heavy garment when hiking in the cold, even if it is heavier than the combined weight of the layers. A single layer does not insulate.

Do not wear cotton, silk or down. These fabrics are not suitable for outdoor activities because they do not wick away moisture. Instead, they readily absorb water and when wet, lose almost all their insulating qualities. Cotton in particular readily absorbs sweat and does not dry quickly. The moment you rest, it will leave you feeling dangerously cold. Ditch all your cotton gear, including your cotton socks, shirts, underwear, and pants. One last disadvantage of cotton for packing is the weight and space. It is bulky and heavy for packing.

Underdress for the temperature. By starting out slightly underdressed, you will feel a little cold at the start of your activity, but in a couple of miles your body will generate heat and warm you right up. This does not mean you should not bring enough clothes. Always take extra clothing for layering and use it when you actually need it.

Cover your head. We lose a fair amount of body heat from our head – anywhere from 10 – 30%. Wearing a hat that covers your winter backpackinghead and ears helps prevent heat loss due to radiation. Look for insulating wicking fibers. Wool and fleece are both excellent.

Cover your mouth. Respiration from breathing in the cold air also results in heat loss. Covering your mouth and nose with a bandana, balaclava, buff, or scarf will trap dead air and allow it to warm up before breathing in. This will significantly improve respiratory comfort by increasing the warmth and humidity of the air before entering the lungs.

Cold hands or feet are a sign that you are losing heat from your head or torso. Keep your torso warm by layering, or adding a hat. A warm torso allows your body to maintain warmth (blood flow) to your extremities.

Cold feet can be caused by improper shoes/insoles. Feet are subjected to conductive cooling through the soles. Replace worn out insoles with wool/acrylic felt or fleece for the most warmth. Another option is to add thin sock liners underneath your insulating socks. Make sure the sock liners are thin. You don’t want the shoes to be so tight that it cuts off blood flow to the feet.

Use your head as a thermostat. Because 10-30% of our heat is lost from our head, it is easy to remove a hat or put one on to regulate core body temperature.

Wear Mittens instead of gloves. All things being equal (the type of fabric and insulation), mittens are the most effective way of keeping hands and fingers warm. Layering also works when it comes to insulating fingers. Try adding a thin, tight-fitting polyester (or wicking) glove underneath your mitts or gloves if they are not warm enough.

Conserve body temperature. Did you get hot while hiking and remove a clothing layer? If so, put the layer back on as soon as you stop moving; this will conserve your body heat.

The most fundamental way to keep your core warm is to eat – often. Food calories generate heat in the body to keep you warm, especially fat, which offers the most calories per weight (9 calories per gram). The best fats to consume are those from nuts, seeds, and plant oils. See also backpacking foods to eat when it is cold outside.

Put on dry socks and clothes as soon as you are finished setting up camp. Put any wet socks inside your sleeping bag to dry.

Know the route to the bathroom before dark and look around for any dangers around your campsite. Invariably, you will have to get up in the night at least once, and you don’t want to accidentally stumble into holes or water in the middle of the night.

Do not cram too many people into a tent. More bodies equal more breathing and less ventilation, thus more moisture/condensation. Your tent should be large enough to move around comfortably and store winter gear, which is bulkier.

Insulate your body when resting and sitting to prevent heat loss by conduction. Use your sleeping pad when sitting to eat/rest. A closed-cell foam pad generally provides the most insulation (R-value). If you prefer to sleep on an air mattress, place some sort of liner underneath it for better insulation. A foam pad, while bulky, can be used as a liner under the air mattress and is a good backup if the self-inflating pad gets punctured. The foam pad can also be used to sit on when resting or eating lunch.

Rather than covering the entire underneath of the tent with a ground cloth, you can keep your sleeping bag dry by making a waterproof liner (tarp/heavy garbage bag – cut to size) and placing it underneath your sleeping pad. An old shower curtain liner also works well as a bag liner (or ground cloth) and is very lightweight & cheap.

Get a sleeping bag rated 10°F lower than the coldest temperature you expect to camp in. There is no reason to have more than one sleeping bag rated for different temperatures. During the warmer months, use the same bag and open it up for ventilation, or sleep directly on it.

Bring tomorrow’s clothing into your sleeping bag to stay dry and warm. If your clothes or socks do get wet, don’t dry them near a fire. Synthetics melt or burn quickly. Dry them inside your sleeping bag instead.

Put removable shoe insoles inside your sleeping bag at night to prevent cold feet in the morning. If it is freezing and you fear your shoes/boots may freeze, put them inside an inverted stuff sack and bring them into your sleeping bag.

Drink hot, nonalcoholic and noncaffeinated drinks before going to bed. A warm drink increases your body temperature and delivers psychological benefits. Since caffeine is a diuretic, it will pull water from your body, and you’ll have to pee in the middle of the night. Alcohol speeds up heat loss by dilating the blood vessels near the skin surface.

Get into your sleeping bag when you are warm. Don’t expect the sleeping bag to warm you. It can, but you’ll be ahead of the game if you are warm when you first climb into the bag. If you’re not warm, drink hot liquid before bed or start moving once you get in your bag by violently kicking your legs to generate heat. If you have any empty space at the bottom of your sleeping bag, fill it with dry clothing. This will reduce the area your body must heat.

Don’t forget to cover your head when sleeping. Wear a beanie on your head. With your entire body zipped inside a bag, your head and face are the body surface areas where heat can radiate away.

Bring extra batteries for electronic devices. If you are on your last battery, switch the batteries around or remove them from the device, so they don’t get turned on by mistake and drain.

Warm up batteries before using them. Nickel-cadmium batteries are rechargeable and work well in the cold.

Wear latex gloves when washing dishes. 

Take care of your feet, always! They carry you where you want to go. Wear correctly fitting shoes and bring extra moleskin or adhesive bandages in your first aid kit.

Do you have any winter backpacking tricks or tips on staying warm? We’d love to hear what works for you!

Article Sources: AUDUBON CENTER of the NORTHWOODS, Sandstone, MN

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5 thoughts on “Winter Backpacking Tips”

  • Use hand warmers… in your hat.

    Don’t overdo the layers on your extremities.

    Sip a hot drink before bed and use the leftovers as a hot water bottle.

  • I thought that sleeping totally inside of a sleeping bag, body and head as well would lead to carbon monoxide poisoning cuz the CO we exhale doesn’t vent quick enough. prove me wrong if ya can

  • the USGI sleeping bags have implicit instructions to only cover the head with the bivy, and to keep head exposed

  • The key is how you dress. Multiple layers and staying dry is most of it. Rain jacket suffices as an outer layer to keep dry. I prefer it over a bulky winter jacket.

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