I adore backpacking, as you can probably tell, but I have a confession to make: I am a total wimp when it comes to dealing with cold.
Due to mysterious quirks of my physiology, I run colder than most and am almost always the chilliest person around on outdoor adventures. Whether planning an epic backpacking trip through the High Sierra of California or a bicycle tour in beautiful Patagonia, one of my worst fears is the discomfort of freezing my buns off (and fingers, and toes) for days or weeks on end.
I will probably always struggle to stay warm outdoors, but over the years I’ve endured a lot of trial and error and developed a large set of tricks to take the edge off. Whether on the trail, at camp, or trying to sleep through the night, there’s actually a lot we can do to keep warm while backpacking.
One clarification: these tips, while generally helpful in all situations, are focused mainly on three-season backpacking. If you’re undertaking a full-on snow camping expedition you’ll want to seek advice specifically for winter hiking and camping.
Even in summer though, it’s common for overnight temperatures to dip below freezing if you’re up high in the mountains. This post is full of ideas to help keep you toasty warm – or at least reasonably comfortable – all the way down to the chilly 30’s and 40’s Fahrenheit (or even an occasional overnight in the 20’s… Brrrrr….)
Clothing is our primary defense against cold during the day, and we have so many great options – even if we’re on a budget – that it would be silly to venture outdoors without a basic set of technical outdoor clothing to keep us safe and comfy.
Choose quick-drying clothes that wick moisture away from your body instead of staying damp. Merino wool is great for this, as are various synthetic fabrics designed for this purpose. Avoid cotton; it gets wet and stays wet.
Layering is key for hiking, since we need to regulate our temperature across a wide range of weather and activity levels. A basic layering system for backpacking includes these layers on top:
- Base layer shirt (what you’re hiking in when it’s hot)
- Mid-weight long sleeve shirt, ideally merino wool or a warm synthetic fabric, for layering while hiking or at camp.
- Insulating jacket, usually down or synthetic insulation, for staying warm at camp (here’s how to choose a good down jacket)
- Rain jacket for rain (obviously) and extra warmth
And these layers on bottom:
- Shorts or pants
- Long underwear or tights for sleeping and extra warmth
- Rain pants for rain and extra warmth
Rain gear works great as a windbreaker and for extra warmth. I frequently wear my rain jacket and pants just for warmth in dry cold weather.
Always have a set of warm and dry clothing saved for camp. Keep them safe and dry in your pack. This doesn’t necessarily mean bringing two of everything (see my lightweight backpacking tips for more on this). But if it’s raining, for example, try to avoid hiking in your down jacket if at all possible. Better to run a little cold while you’re hiking then to have nothing to keep you warm once you stop.
Hiking in down or Gore-Tex (rain gear) will almost always lead to overheating and should be avoided unless it’s raining or really, really cold. When starting in the morning, give yourself a few minutes to warm up while hiking and then decide if you still need these layers. Otherwise, save them for camp or stormy weather.
Keep your head warm and the rest of your body will stay warmer. We lose a ton of heat through our heads. A warm hat or hood is essential for relaxing at camp, sleeping, or even while hiking on cold days.
Staying Warm On The Trail
In most three season weather the work of hiking usually generates enough body heat to keep us warm. But there will always be those frigid days, or early mornings or late afternoons, when we start to feel chilled even as we walk. Here are some tips for staying warm while hiking.
Keep warm layers handy and change into them before you get too cold. Once you start to get chilled it can be hard to warm up again. When your effort level is about to drop, for example when transitioning from uphill to downhill or stopping for a snack break, take the time to throw on that mid-weight shirt or rain jacket.
Remove warm layers before getting too sweaty. The only thing worse than cold weather is being wet in cold weather. In shoulder seasons (spring and fall) or quickly changing terrain it’s easy to work up a sweat on some sections while feeling chilled on others. If you find yourself feeling too hot for too long, take the time to remove a layer. Not only will you feel more comfortable in the moment, you’ll also feel less chilled next time the temperature drops because your clothes won’t be wet.
Think ahead and manage temperature for what’s coming. If you follow the tips above it can feel like you’re constantly stopping to add or remove layers in finicky weather or on quickly changing terrain. Always take the time to do what’s needed, but also think ahead to decide which layer changes are most critical.
For example, if you’re feeling chilly in a shady canyon but know you’ll be climbing uphill into the sun soon, it’s safe to endure the chill for a little while. But if hiking downhill late in the day, you know the temperature will only get cooler and it’s worth pausing to add another layer.
Always keep warm layers and sleeping gear dry. They are literally your lifeline in cold weather. Once you get tired, stop hiking, and the sun sets, you have very few options for keeping warm if your clothing and sleeping bag are wet.
To keep critical layers and sleeping bag dry when hiking in rain: use a waterproof pack cover plus an extra dry sack or plastic trash bag inside your pack. When crossing rivers always make sure critical gear is in waterproof bags. Also be mindful of the water inside your pack: old hydration bladders can bust a seam, a bite valve with pressure on it will leak, water bottles with loose lids can spill, etc.
Put on rain gear before you get wet. It may sound obvious, but this is one of those backpacking lessons I learned the hard way. A slight drizzle can leave you hoping for the best, and by the time you get over your denial and admit it’s actually raining, you’re already damp and cold. Keep rain gear (clothing and pack cover) easily accessible and stop to put it on earlier rather than later.
Take breaks in sunny or sheltered places, and not for too long. When hiking in cold weather, time your breaks so they coincide with sunny spots or places sheltered from wind. If it’s a really cold day, consider taking more short breaks instead of a couple long ones, in order to keep the blood pumping. And as mentioned above, always put on a warm layer as soon as you stop for a break on a cold day.
Choosing the right campsite can make the difference between a refreshing night’s sleep and counting down the chilly hours until sunrise. Here are some things to keep in mind.
High elevation campsites are generally colder, especially when you get to high mountain elevations (say roughly 10,000+ feet). Given the choice between camping near a high summit or pass and descending a bit, the lower camp will usually be warmer. Except…
Valleys and ravines can be surprisingly cold. This is an important exception to the “higher is colder” rule above. Since cold air sinks, it will often collect at the lowest point in the landscape, making campsites in valleys or canyons surprisingly frigid. Where possible, look for campsites part-way up a section of elevation change – not at the lowest point around but also not the highest.
Look for shelter in windy areas. When camped on a ridge or wide open plateau, for example, overnight winds can really chill you (not to mention make it challenging to pitch a tent securely). It often pays to look for trees or rocks to break the wind on one side. Beware of trees with dead branches that could fall into camp though.
Seek out early morning sun when possible. This is, for me, the holy grail of campsite selection. Nothing eases the pain of frigid morning air like the feel of direct sunlight on my face. As you probably know, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, so as a general rule the sun will rise from the opposite direction it’s setting in. Campsites in low valleys ringed by mountains will get morning sun later; sites high on east-facing slopes or saddles will get sunlight earlier.
Staying Warm At Camp
The sun is setting after a hard day of hiking and that mountain chill is setting in… Even if you’ve chosen a campsite carefully, this is where many of us struggle to stay warm while backpacking. Here are some tips to help.
Change into warm dry layers immediately after arriving at camp. Before pitching the tent, before starting dinner, before filling up on water… As your activity level drops along with the temperature, you can become chilled surprisingly fast and it’s hard to warm up again once you’re done hiking for the day. Immediately remove any layers that are damp with rain or sweat and replace them with your warm dry camp layers.
Alternate cold and warm camp chores to avoid getting overly chilled. When setting up and breaking down camp, try to sequence things so you have a chance to warm up between any extra-chilly chores. For me, filtering water usually makes me cold (especially my hands) while pitching the tent warms me up (because it’s more active). Cooking goes both ways: the stove warms my fingers but sitting one place cools me down.
Use multi-purpose gear to keep you warm while sitting. Multi-use items are a staple of lightweight backpacking and can also help keep you warm. If you use a foam sleeping pad (not inflatable – no punctures please) consider sitting on it while you eat to insulate you from the cold ground. A sleeping bag, or especially a sleeping quilt, can be wrapped around you as a blanket while eating (just don’t spill food on it in bear country).
Eat a full (and ideally warm) meal before going to bed. A full stomach provides plenty of fuel for the furnace of our metabolism to keep us warm through the night. Ideally you’ll have plenty of food to go around, but if stretching rations until the next resupply, don’t skimp on dinner if warmth is a concern.
Consider eating meals on the trail instead of at camp. If you’re hiking long days and find yourself shivering miserably through breakfast and dinner, consider eating these meals along the trail – after it warms up or before it gets too cold, respectively – instead of at camp. This is also great for bear avoidance, since you won’t be cooking where you sleep.
Generate body heat with exercises. Sleeping bag situps are a classic, but there are plenty of ways to generate some body heat when needed. Situps, pushups, glute bridges, or even resistance band clamshells will warm you up while keeping your glutes and core strong (bonus!) and helping to prevent knee pain. Try a few sets before getting up in the morning and you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to face the cold air.
Once out of your sleeping bag, a few sets of squats or walking lunges, or even some jumping jacks, will have the same effect.
Sleeping Gear and Tips
This is what most people immediately think of when wondering how to stay warm while backpacking. While good gear is critical, I’ve put many other tips first because even the best gear won’t keep you warm if you make other mistakes. That said, here are some key gear considerations for hikers who have trouble staying warm at night while backpacking.
Use a good quality, appropriately rated, correctly sized sleeping bag/quilt. This is one of the most important things you can do to avoid being cold while backpacking. It’s a big topic, but here are a few of the most important points:
- Temperature ratings are often for survival, not comfort. A “30 degree” bag will leave many people chilly in 30 degree weather.
- Some people sleep much colder than others, especially women. These people may need a bag rated for 20 or even 30 degrees F below the actual temperature. For example, I use a -10 degree F bag in order to sleep comfortably in the +20’s.
- A sleeping bag that’s too big, with too much air around your body, will not keep you as warm. Women / smaller people especially should consider a women’s bag, or a custom-sized sleeping quilt like those from Katabatic Gear or Zpacks.
- Cinching the bag tightly around your shoulders will make a big difference in how warm it feels.
- Covering your head also makes a huge difference. I use a sleeping quilt (no built-in hood) and separate insulated hood, which works great. If your sleeping bag hood doesn’t fit securely, consider a separate hat or hood.
Use a sleeping pad with high R value. The ground beneath us essentially sucks the heat out of our bodies unless we have good insulation between us and the earth. A sleeping pad’s R value measures how well it insulates. A good sleeping pad is just as important as a good sleeping bag for keeping warm at night.
Use a tent rainfly for warmth in dry weather. Our bodies generate heat during the night, and a rainfly (instead of just mesh) traps more of that heat inside the tent with us. As nice as it can be to have a view of the stars and some ventilation, on chilly nights it’s best to put on the rainfly even in dry weather.
Sleep in warm layers. This may seem obvious, but warm layers aren’t just for hiking and sitting around camp. In cold weather I generally sleep in my mid-weight shirt and down jacket, plus warm tights. In really cold weather I add my rain gear.
Sharing a tent is warmer, but sharing a sleeping bag generally isn’t. Two people in a small tent is definitely warmer than one, but (as my husband and I learned the hard way) those romantic two-person or zip-together sleeping bags aren’t necessarily warmer.
Unless the bag has carefully designed draft collars, that extra space between the sleepers will allow warm air to escape, leaving both people colder than if they’d bundled up separately. This is true even if you’re a cold sleeper sharing with a warm sleeper.
Add a space blanket or emergency bivy for extra-cold nights. These metallic blankets – or for something a bit more durable, these metallic bivies – weigh almost nothing and add significant warmth. I keep one handy to layer between my body and sleeping bag on extra-cold nights. They’re smart to have around for emergencies anyway, in case your sleeping bag and warm layers accidentally get wet. They will cause condensation to build up inside your sleeping bag though, so prepare to dry it out the next day.
It’s usually coldest in the hours just before sunrise. Even if you feel warm enough when going to bed, keep your down jacket or space blanket within reach in case you wake up shivering at 3am.
Hot water in a Nalgene works wonders. For some true backcountry luxury, heat water with your stove and pour it into a hard-sided Nalgene bottle (no, it won’t melt the bottle). Wrap it in a spare layer and spoon it inside your sleeping bag to stay toasty on even the coldest nights. Obviously this requires extra fuel and a hard-sided Nalgene, which many lightweight backpackers won’t want to carry, but in the right circumstances it’s totally worth it.
Sleep with damp clothes to dry them. If you took off some damp layers when getting to camp and worry about having to put them back on wet in the morning, here’s a trick. In all but the coldest or most humid climates, sleeping with these layers on top of your body, inside your sleeping bag, will dry them by morning.
Sleep with your water filter and electronics in sub-freezing weather. This won’t help keep you warm, but it’ll save you some other headaches. Hollow core water filters (like the Sawyer Squeeze) can be damaged if the water inside them freezes, and smartphone batteries can get finicky in very low temperatures. Tuck these both inside your sleeping bag at night for peace of mind.
Cold Hands and Feet
For some of us (raises hand!) even when our core is warm enough, our fingers and toes can still get painfully frigid. I’ve written about this in detail in my guide to dealing with cold hands outdoors. Here are a few quick tips:
- If your core is cold, your hands and feet don’t stand a chance. Use all the tips above to make sure your core stays toasty.
- Warm your hands frequently, before they good too cold. Down the front of your pants is an excellent place to warm your hands. Not kidding!
- Swinging your arms in circles or other fast movements can help force more blood back into them.
- Down booties can help with cold feet while sleeping and are very lightweight.
- A good pair of gloves can help, but mittens are even better.
- I generally don’t find chemical warmers that effective or worth the weight.
Good Luck and Happy Trails
I hope I’ve convinced you that there are many ways to stay warm while backpacking. Don’t let fear of cold get between you and some gorgeous wild nights under the stars. Here’s to happy trails, beautiful views, and warm cozy nights in the backcountry.
More Backpacking Resources
If you’re wondering how to stay warm while backpacking, you might also find these helpful:
- Key Tips for Lightening Your Backpacking Load
- How to Use Hiking Poles Most Effectively
- 6 High Calorie Protein Bars Perfect For Backpacking
- More hiking and backpacking resources here
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