Backpacking at Ten Below Zero

We were both thirteen years old and backpacking in Michigan without adults (times were different back then). Camping miles from the nearest road, in a single-wall pup tent, we tried not to move too much, because doing so resulted in a shower of icy crystals raining down on us – the frozen condensation from our own breath. When we got up that morning, the thermometer read ten or eleven degrees below zero.We got out of the tent and everything was glittering with those same crystals, which only seem to form on the coldest days. Jim suggested that we should take off our coats, sweaters and shirts and shake them out. They get flattened by sleeping in them, and this would fluff them up, making them warmer. That was his theory. Soon we were standing there in the snow at ten below with our bare skin turning red.

Fortunately, we were able to dress again before losing the feeling in our fingers. Fluffing up the clothing did help it to trap more air and insulate better, so we warmed up quickly. Probably this would have been a better idea after we had the fire going, but it worked. Add it to your list of ways to stay warm when backpacking, but you might want to do it before you leave your tent (provided it is dry in there). What else can you do to stay warm?

Staying Warm While Backpacking – Six More Ways

1. Stay dry

Always keep as dry as possible when there is a chance of getting cold. It is always surprising to me how often I see hikers walking right through streams without rolling up their jeans. Given how slowly jeans dry, this usually means being wet when the sun sets. Roll up those pants! Put on your rain pants when walking through dew-covered tall grass and bushes. Dry your wet socks by hanging them on your pack.

2. Have the right clothing.

The jeans mentioned above shouldn’t be part of most backpacking trips. Jeans are too difficult to dry. Good hiking pants made of some type of brushed nylon (nylon that feels soft and comfortable), dry fast. I have seen my pants dry in less than thirty minutes after a good soaking. If the weather calls for long underwear, use polypropylene or some similar material that will stay warm when wet and dry easily. The same goes for other clothing. Avoid cotton.

3. Dress in layers.

Layers of clothing trap more insulating air and keep you warmer. Having more layers rather than one thick coat also means you can more easily adjust for differing conditions. That is important to keep you from sweating. If you sweat too much, the wetness can cause you to get chilled when you stop exerting yourself. Dress in layers, then, and remove them as you warm up.

4. Eat and drink properly.

Hot liquids will warm you up – no surprise there. But many people do not realize that foods are not all equal in their ability to produce heat in our bodies. Fats actually produce heat as they are digested, which is part of the reason that whale blubber is eaten in arctic areas. Army survival courses teach soldiers to eat large chunks of butter to stay warn in winter conditions. For backpacking purposes, you can have olive oil on your pasta or eat oily foods like corn chips to get the same warming effect.

5. Learn how to make and place shelters.

A simple shelter of sticks covered with piles of dry leaves and grass can insulated you and save your life if you are caught out in the winter without a tent. Learning how to make a few of these simple shelters is smart planning for possible emergencies. But even if you have a tent with you, it matters where you set it up. It is normally colder the higher you go, but cold air also collects in the bottoms of valleys at night and into the morning. A level area somewhere in between is best. Try to find a place out of the wind as well.

6. Learn a few tricks for staying warm.

Apart from the basic principles of staying warm during winter backpacking, there are a lot of little tricks you can learn and use. Fully fluffing up a sleeping bag, for example, makes it more effective. Doing sit-ups in your bag before going to sleep gets you a warm start to the night. Some water bottles or canteens can be filled with hot water and kept in the bag with you (some bottles will distort if filled with boiling water). Keeping water bottles inside your clothing during strenuous hikes keeps it warmer, so later you won’t have to drink cold water, which can suck away some of your heat in the evening.