Find Comfort in Cold-Weather Hiking

Can you enjoy the sunrise if you are cold, wet, and hypothermic? Can you enjoy the sunrise if you are ensconced in layers of warm down with a mug of hot coffee in your hands? Enjoyment and delight in nature is so much easier if you are comfortable.

Read more about my cold-weather hiking tips on this blog post I wrote for Katabatic Gear:


Find Comfort in Cold-Weather Hiking

Find Comfort in Cold-Weather Hiking

By Renee “She-ra” Patrick, Oregon Desert Trail Coordinator

Can you enjoy the sunrise if you are cold, wet, and hypothermic? Can you enjoy the sunrise if you are ensconced in layers of warm down with a mug of hot coffee in your hands? Enjoyment and delight in nature is so much easier if you are comfortable.

I’ve spent many years as an outdoor professional hiking and adventuring in cold and wet weather, and have come to love the time I spend outside, even in the worst weather. Why? Because I’ve slowly evolved my systems so that I can be comfortable in just about any context. In fact, I think more folks will come to outdoor pursuits if we keep comfort at the top of the to-do list. 

I outlined my “comfort in the cold” strategy for a month-long Blue Mountains Trail thru-hike in October of 2020. During the hike, temperatures ranged from 70 to 5 degrees. My general rule of thumb was to plan for the worst conditions I could imagine; if the worst never came I’d still be comfortable…or if the worst came every day of the trip, I would still be able to continue.

Shelter

  • Freestanding tent – I set out to hike almost 500 miles in a month, and knew that October would bring short daylight hours. Most days I would be hiking until dark and possibly pitching my shelter on snow or frozen ground. If I was cold and wet I would need to get into my shelter fast and change clothes to prevent hypothermia, so I choose to bring a free-standing double-walled shelter. A double-walled shelter, even though it is heavier, can save you and your gear from becoming soaked (have you ever brushed the inside of a single-walled tent when it’s wet?). I also used my tyvek groundsheet on the inside of the tent as an extra moisture barrier because I knew my body heat would melt the snow or ground beneath me.
  • Two sleeping pads – I love sleeping on air and have used inflatable pads for years in all types of weather. In the winter hikers need to be aware of the law of thermal conduction. Simply stated, if you sleep on the ground and the ground is colder than you are, the ground will suck the warmth from your body until you are the same temperature as the ground. So to keep the air in my sleeping pad from becoming the same temperature as the ground, I take a closed-cell foam sleeping pad to use beneath the inflatable sleeping pad. It’s amazing how much warmer even an eighth-inch piece of foam will make you.
  • Shelter storage – Your tent will get frosty at night, primarily from your breath freezing on the inside of the shelter. Bring a separate waterproof stuff sack for a wet tent (if you are storing the tent in your pack) or keep it on the outside of your pack. You can take it out to dry during the day, but realize it might not get warm or sunny enough for a drying session, so plan to manage the cold and wet as if you won’t get the opportunity.

I learned to wear my Katabatic quilt as a cape to stay warm while cooking dinner. Photo by Renee Patrick

Sleep system

  • Down booties – Warm and dry down is the lightest and warmest insulation available, and wearing down booties at night does wonders to keep my appendages toasty warm even in the coldest temps.
  • Sleeping quilt/bag – Take a quilt or sleeping bag that matches or is rated for colder temps than you expect to encounter. This was the first time I used a cold-weather quilt, and Katabatic’s version was amazing. I discovered on one very cold night that I could turn the quilt around, keep my legs in the bottom half, and wear the top as a cape. I buttoned the quilt around my neck, which left my arms free to cook and eat. So cozy! And during the night I slept with my hooded fleece layer and my hooded down coat on so that I had three layers of warmth on my head: hat, fleece hood, down hood. Yes, even with a hoodless quilt you can keep your head warm, use those hoods!
  • Fill that empty space – if you find your sleeping quilt has a ton of extra space in it, try to fill that space with extra gear. Down works when your body heats the layer of air between you and the down. The more air your body needs to heat, the longer that space will take to get warm.
  • Don’t wear wind-blocking/waterproof layers to bed– If you block your body’s ability to warm the air in the quilt, you will not get warm, so take those raincoats, wind coats, and rain pants off. They will only prevent you from getting as warm as you could have.
  • Keep cold-vulnerable items warm at night – Electronics, medications (my epi pen), and wet wipes all come into the quilt with me at night. Think through all the things in your pack that could get damaged (or unusable) due to the cold, and throw them in your quilt with you.
  • Damp in the bag– It’s true that you can sleep with damp clothing and dry it out overnight with your body heat, but there are limits. Simply tossing your wet socks into the bottom of your bag might not do the trick if they get wadded up and never are exposed to your body heat. So I put things like mittens and socks next to my body in my long johns. Seriously. It’s a little cold at first, but they are toasty dry by morning.
  • Wear damp clothes to bed – Take the previous suggestion to the next level. The quickest way to dry a damp shirt is to wear it. Granted, this step should not be taken until you yourself are warm. Once your body has warmed up, you have eaten, and that internal furnace is stoked, take a deep breath and put that wet shirt on. It will suck, it will feel uncomfortable, but by morning your body will have dried it.
  • Hot water bottle– You can take a hot water bottle to bed if you have the right kind of bottle (I’ve only been comfortable doing this with a Nalgene). Pour some boiling water into your bottle and throw it to the bottom of your sleeping bag, or cuddle it.

Read the rest over on the Katabatic website

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