BE BOLD, START COLD: MY TIPS FOR STAYING WARM IN COLD WEATHER BACKPACKING
Backpacking in the cold can be just as fun as backpacking in the summer—if you're not shivering. Here are a few tips on how you can still have fun and not freeze your butt off.
EAT MORE SNACKS
What backpacker needs to be convinced to eat more snacks?! (Me, because I struggled to eat throughout my entire thru hike.) In the cold, it's imperative to remember to keep eating. Your body is burning through more calories than it was in the heat because it's trying to stay warm at the same time. Whether you're shivering or not, your body is doing its best to stay warm, so it's going through those Clif Bars you shove in your face a bit faster.
This is important to remember during resupplies, so try to pack out more calorie-dense foods. Now, I'm a thru hiker, not a nutritionist expert, so I would be packing out a ton of Honeybuns, Snickers bars, Paydays, etc. They were the only things I wanted to eat on trail, so I made sure to eat a ton of them. There's no point in packing out food if you're not going to eat it. It just becomes extra weight. I learned the hard way to just go with what my stubborn body wanted, and it was happy eating like an absolute raccoon.
Additionally, eating right before you go to sleep can help you stay warm at night. After dinner, why not throw in a desert, too? Your body will burn the calories as you're sleeping and stop you from shivering a little bit (hopefully). If you're cooking a backpacker meal on your stove, after adding the hot water, shove it under your shirt. Be careful to make sure it does not leak, but you'll be grateful for the warmth against your core. There were many nights I spent cuddling my meal as I was waiting for it to cool down.
Staying hydrated is key to preventing hypothermia. Drink enough fluids to ensure you're hydrated, but don't drink too much to where you'll have to get out of your tent in the middle of the night multiple times to go pee. If it's freezing and you have to pee, you could have a designated pee bottle and use your pee to keep warm during the night. Just make sure it seals and that–for obvious reasons–it's labeled as a pee bottle so you don't mix it up with your regular bottles for an unfortunate first flavor in the morning.
You don't just have to drink water. Drink the hot broth from your backpacking meal, or drink the hot broth from your ramen. Or, if you're a sad ultra-lighter with a love for deprivation like me, drink your cold-soaked ramen broth. If you're backpacking and temperatures dipping below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, switching out your cold-soaking kit for a stove might be beneficial. No one wants to carry an extra pound, but feeling the sensation return to your fingers while you grip a warm pot just might be worth it.
PICK YOUR LAYERS CAREFULLY
There are few things as annoying as having to take layers on and off because you're getting hot as you're backpacking. There's a saying in the running world: Be bold, start cold. If you start in clothing that you would wear if it was 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than what it currently is, you might not have to take off as many layers. However, I am a weenie in the cold and never did this.
When I would hike in the cold, I was all about layers I could adjust without taking off my pack. If I had to stop to adjust my outfit, it would make me colder, and then there was no point in trying to take off the layer that I had stopped to take off. It was all a frustrating process.
To mitigate having to stop, I would wear a shirt that I was slightly chilly in (like a Smartwool Base Layer) and leggings or my REI Sahara Pants on the bottom.
The REI Sahara Pants was a game changer because I could zip off the bottoms if I got too hot and hike in shorts. I always wore a hat and buff because of how easy it was to take them on and off. Wear a shirt you're slightly chilly in and wear a hat as well — suddenly, you're not as chilly in the shirt. Although you aren't actually losing a ton of heat through your head in the cold, a hat is a layer that is easy to take on and off and does not require taking off your backpack. I could easily stuff the hat back into the side pockets of my Unbound 40 and store it for later in case I got cold again and wanted to put it back on. My buff worked perfectly as a scarf or a less efficient hat.
SLEEP WITH YOUR GEAR
It's important to remember to sleep with certain pieces of your kit. If you have a Sawyer filter, it could freeze and crack if temperatures dip below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Battery packs, camera batteries, and your phone can lose their charge quickly in the cold. I would usually sleep with my phone in the pocket of my fleece and my battery pack, camera battery, and phone in the pocket of my puffy. This prolongs their battery when I'm outside and allows me to stop in town less to recharge them.
KEEP GEAR DRY
If you're going to follow along with any of these tips, follow along with this one. Wet gear won't keep you warm. A person can become hypothermic even in temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit if chilled from rain or sweat. This is why it's crucial to have a set of clothes to hike in and a set of clothes to sleep in. It's where your stuff sacks come in handy. I rely on my Hyperlite Stuff Sacks to keep my quilt and sleep clothes dry. I use a different one for my puffy, and sometimes stuff my fleece and hat inside of it, too, if it's warm enough to hike without them.
On the AT, I packed my gear like I expected it to rain daily. Weather can be unpredictable, especially in the mountains. With everything in Stuff Sacks inside my Unbound 40, I know all my clothes and quilt will be dry and keep me warm at the end of the day, no matter what. Sometimes, the only thing that kept me sane was pulling on my dry Smartwool base layers and getting cozy inside my quilt after a long day of walking in the cold rain.
CHOOSE YOUR SLEEP SYSTEM WISELY
There's never really been a standardized, agreed upon, fool-proof system of measure for rating the warmth of sleeping bags or quilts, so one company's rating can be different than another's. Depending upon how much they stuff their quilts and how they judge how much heat is being lost through them, their temperature ratings might prove unreliable at times. For example, a Katabatic 20 Degrees Quilt will keep you comfortable at 20 degrees, whereas an Enlightened Equipment 20 Degree Quilt is judged based on limit temperatures, which is the lowest temperature a person in a curled-up body position will not be cold.
Additionally, some people run colder than others. Sleeping bags rated for women are usually warmer than those rated for men since women tend to run colder due to a differing metabolic rate. It's important to know if you regularly sleep cold or warm during the night. You should also take into account the R-value of your sleeping pad or its capacity to resist heat flow through it, which will keep you warmer as you sleep.
I usually sleep cold, so when I think temperatures will be below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, I bring my 0-degree Enlightened Equipment Quilt and Nemo Tensor Ultralight Sleeping Pad. The sleeping pad has an R-value of 4. This combination is more than enough to keep me cozy at temperatures lower than 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Everyone's sense of cold is relative, so make sure to pick a sleep system based on your needs!
If all goes well, you'll find yourself looking out over a snowy mountain, curled up in your cozy quilt, sitting on a sleeping pad with a high R-value, in dry sleep clothes, and eating a Honeybun. That's the ideal we all hope for. Environmental conditions can have a huge impact on our enjoyment of the outdoors, so make sure to prepare for them well — and you'll have fun (and stay warm, too.)
Abby Evans (Sh*twater Fireball Queen of the Salamanders) hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2023 and loves to write about gear and outdoor misadventures. They look forward to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail this coming summer and hope to triple crown before they're thirty. You can find them cutting their toothbrush in half, eating cold ramen and embracing the struggle on a trail near you! You can follow their journeys through their Instagram: @abbigator53