Trail Tips: 6 ways to stay warm in winter

Baby, it’s cold outside!

Excerpt from A.T. journal entry, May 6, 2016: “It was freezing cold, and as I ascended Whitetop Mountain there was snow already deep on the ground, hail, freezing rain that stung my face, wind gusts of 30-40 mph, icy rocks, deep cold mud, and most of the trail had become a freezing cold stream. I could barely see 50 feet in front of me.”

During my hike, I experienced a variety of weather and temperatures. You learn very quickly how to prepare for cold weather – either from others’ advice, or from personal mistakes. I’m about 50/50. 

Here are some tips for staying warm while backpacking in cold weather.

  1. Clothes make the (wo)man
    • Wear multiple layers – a base layer (wool or synthetic), a mid-layer (wool, fleece, or warm synthetic), and an outer layer (puffy jacket, etc.)
    • Remember covering for the rest of you – a beanie for your head, a buff for neck/face protection, gloves (or your other pair of wool socks as mittens)
    • Keep your clothes as dry as possible – always have a special set of dry clothes in a waterproof stuff sack/bag to sleep in
    • Dry damp clothes by putting them in your sleeping bag at night and hiking in them the next day
  2. Stay hydrated
    • Drink lots of water, but skip the flask around the campfire; alcohol makes you lose core body heat
    • Turn your water bottle upside down at night so that any ice forms at the bottom (temporary “top”) of the bottle and you can drink from it in the morning
    • If you use a Camelbak, MSR, or other reservoir, make sure you clear the hose of water after drinking so that it doesn’t freeze
    • If you use a Sawyer filter, sleep with it in your sleeping bag so that it doesn’t freeze and break, or forgo the Sawyer and use Aquamira Water Treatment 1 oz. drops instead
  3. Sleep warm
    • Invest in a good winter bag rated for 10 degrees lower than your expected coldest night
    • Use a sleeping bag liner to add extra warmth (plus it keeps your bag cleaner)
    • In a pinch (a la blizzard in May), use your emergency foil/space blanket as extra insulation
    • Have a sleeping pad for comfort and insulation
    • Make sure you use a ground cloth for extra insulation and protection from wet ground and snow
    • Pitch your tent or hang your hammock near trees to be out of the wind and protected from snow
  4. Warm up right before bedtime
    • Drink a cup of hot tea
    • Eat a candy bar (calories = warmth)
    • Once in your sleeping bag, kick your legs around and do sit-ups to warm your bag and body
    • Do a little dance before going to bed – and before you start your day:

  5. Make the most of your sleeping bag at night
    • Put your damp clothes in your bag to help dry
    • Put your Sawyer filter or water bottle in your bag to prevent freezing
    • Sleep with your headlamp, cell phone, and anything else electronic or using batteries to prevent battery drain
  6. Stay safe and healthy
    • Use sunscreen and chapstick – my lips were cracked and bleeding from the cold and wind burn, and the sun can zap you with all the leaves off the trees
    • Recognize the signs and be able to treat hypothermia and frostbite
    • Use microspikes and trekking poles to help keep from falling in icy/snowy/wet conditions


2 thoughts on “Trail Tips: 6 ways to stay warm in winter”

  1. Solid advice! I have a tendency to sleep cold and usually wind up burrowed inside my sleeping bag on chilly nights. I read that it also helps to have an empty bladder before bed. Apparently when you resist the urge to go to the bathroom, your body wastes energy (and heat) trying to hold it in.


    1. Hi, Lauren! I sleep cold even at home, so I definitely feel ya! As for the bladder thing, I grew up hearing that, too. It turns out your body isn’t trying to heat urine or hold it; apparently waking up makes us aware of how cold we are, and once we empty our bladder and go back to sleep our body again becomes less aware. But the lesson remains – go when you gotta go!!!


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