How to Stay Warm When Backpacking in the Cold

Published 2022-01-20
By: Zach Lazzari

Backpacking through the summer months rarely requires a serious cold-weather strategy. While an occasional snowstorm might surprise backpackers, the midday sunshine typically eliminates the discomfort.

Negative temperatures and challenging cold weather tend to arrive in the fall and continue through spring. Backpackers, hunters and explorers can extend their seasons in the backcountry by learning to manage and even thrive in the cold.

I sat down with MYSTERY RANCH Brand Ambassadors, polar explorer John Huston, and Hunting Ambassadors Adam and Frankie Foss to learn about their approach to cold-weather expeditions. Their advice did not disappoint and will surely help us all become better cold-weather backpackers.

Managing Moisture on the Move

Movement is easily the most challenging temperature management issue in cold weather. While hiking warms your body quickly, it also generates sweat that soaks clothing. Slow down for a few minutes and that moisture becomes a dangerous source of cold and discomfort.

I was surprised to learn about John Huston’s approach to clothing on Polar Expeditions. I assumed his sled was stuffed with oversized down jackets and piles of layered clothing, but his approach utilizes wool and body energy to manage the temperature. When asked about his dress code while moving, he said –

“On my 55-day unsupported ski expedition to the North Pole, we stayed plenty warm in –40°F wearing two layers of wool long underwear and a breathable non-waterproof windshell when on the move and then a big down vest for long breaks and in camp. We skied to the North Pole but didn’t even bring down jackets. Pulling 300-pound sleds kept us warm, and our two-person team was super efficient in camp and on breaks.”

While polar expeditions require constant movement, hunting trips are often interrupted by idle glassing sessions and slow, quiet movements while stalking game. Adam and Frankie Foss hunt hard through the late seasons, and they manage layers diligently throughout the day.

Frankie advises, “Try and keep everything as dry as possible for as long as possible. I layer up when I’m not moving, and I strip down as minimal as possible when I’m on the move and can sweat. You’ll warm up once you get moving, so bite the bullet and take off as much as you can.”

Adam agrees, demonstrating the tactile sync the partners experience on joint trips. “Drying out socks and base layers at night in your sleeping bag is a critical component of backpack trips. But prevention is also key, and never getting them completely soaked in the first place is the ideal scenario. Stopping to put on rain gear when a slight drizzle starts can be annoying but are helpful in the long run. As is peeling insulation layers when exerting yourself, and you begin to sweat.”

Based on the extensive cold-weather experience of John, Adam and Frankie, it’s clear that moisture is the enemy. Strip down the layers while you sweat and bundle up when you stop.

Pro Tip – Don’t Underestimate the Value of Calories

Adam, Frankie and John agree that food is critical on cold-weather trips. Huston advises eating a big calorie-dense dinner to fuel up the body’s furnace before bed and even snacking during the night if necessary (but not in bear country). Don’t skimp on calories and eat freely on cold-weather trips.

John Huston’s Cold-weather Sleeping Routine

Polar expeditions require a unique dedication to enduring cold temperatures. Huston can’t just call it early and head back to the truck when he’s isolated for miles across the ice. His approach to a good night’s sleep is simple and effective.

When the nighttime temperatures plunge, this advice is potentially life-saving. I use the hot Nalgene trick frequently, and it acts as a little heater that can last the entire night. Huston also changes to fiberfill synthetic insulated jackets and pants in camp since they compress well and slide on and off easily.

Adam Foss also recommends upgrading your sleeping pad. “A good sleeping bag seems obvious, but what’s often overlooked is the quality and R-value rating of your sleeping pad. Scrutinize your pad’s specs in terms of heat-retention; this is especially important in cold temps or camping on snow as a lot of body heat will be lost to the cool ground when sleeping.”

Your sleep system and routine all play into sleeping well. Tossing and turning through the night is exhausting and will quickly turn the mood sour on cold weather trips. Take the time to plan and test your system before venturing out into the cold.

Manage the Late Night Urge to Pee

The need to pee has a habit of striking just as you settle into a warm slumber. I’ve spent more than a few nights working up the nerve to get out of my bag, but John Huston has mastered the ability to relieve himself while still inside the sleeping bag.

“Don’t hold your pee. It will make you colder. Your body is spending energy keeping the contents of your bladder warm. I’m a professional when it comes to using a pee bottle

inside my sleeping bag. The position can be a bit awkward if you haven’t done it before, so I advise folks to try it out indoors or at least before the urge hits in the middle of the night. Make sure your pee bottle (empty 1L Gatorade bottles work well) feels distinct from your water bottle. When you are done, leave it inside your sleeping bag. Otherwise, you’ll have a frozen bottle of urine greeting you in the morning. I’ve known a couple of women who have figured out how to use a pee bottle inside of a sleeping bag, but almost all women who I have worked with get out of their bags, take care of business, run around a little bit to generate some body heat and then get back in their bags.”

Adam and Frankie both choose to pee outside as well. Frankie is all business and back to bed. “Get out there, make it quick and then get back in your bag as soon as possible.”

I tend to spend more time thinking about the act than actually completing it and might give the bottle a try on my next winter outing. Sorry ladies, you’ll likely still need to go outside.

How to Beat “The Chill”

The dreaded chill comes with serious consequences in cold weather. Once the chill has set, you’ll need mental dedication to warm back up. Allowing the chill to deepen and slow you down is dangerous and can lead to hypothermia. Huston does not hesitate and attacks the cold with activity.

“If your hands or feet are cold, blood has been shunted away from your extremities to preserve heat in your organs. This is where mental toughness comes in; you’ve got to recognize that your body is cold and get warm blood circulating again. I do shuttle runs, big jumping jacks, run in place, shadowbox and even do push-ups – but all with a controlled vigor to keep from sweating. I keep going until I feel the warmth pumping through my body.”

Adam and Frankie also use exercise to warm up, and they both enjoy a hot drink to warm up quickly. “A few jumping jacks or push-ups can help. We like to whip out our stove and make a hot cup of soup or tea. It gives you something to focus on, something warm to hold in your hands and it feels good in your belly.” Adam also offers excellent advice on beating the wind. “Throwing your rain gear on top of all your layers, even if it’s not raining or snowing, will block the heat-sucking wind.”

Frankie also admits, “Late season backcountry trips can be the epitome of type-two fun. Sometimes it feels more like you’re just surviving out there than purely enjoying the wilderness experience. I’ve been caught out on some chilly ones, but the biggest help is to have a hunting partner or partners who can relish in the misery a bit!”

Cold-weather trips are best approached with a partner or group. While solo trips are great for experienced cold-weather backpackers, having a partner adds a layer of comfort and safety. Find a great person or group willing to brave the cold on your next backcountry adventure.

John Huston says goodnight to his teammates every night. “The cold is such a mental game, and camaraderie is a big part of it.”