The winter hiking question I’m asked ALL the time is: “How do you stay warm?” Part of the trick to staying warm while winter hiking is attitude. I can’t help you with that – you either want to be outside in the winter or you don’t. If you don’t wanna be outside, then this website is NOT for you. If’n yer wanting to enjoy the winter woods, I can give you some tips that’ll have you laughing at the cold.
If there was ONE thing I wish I knew BEFORE my first winter hiking trip, this would be it. NO COTTON! Don’t get me wrong, I love cotton. I sport a cotton tee everyday during the summer. Cotton has no place on a winter hiking list. Cotton is downright dangerous as it not only loses all its insulation properties when wet, it will actually draw the warmth from your body like a heatsink. Cotton holds moisture like a sponge. Freeze wet cotton and you have a very cold, rock hard, non insulating layer of death. Leave the cotton at home and get the stuff next on the list:
The ultimate miracle fiber, there is nothing like WOOL. Tough, warm and it insulates when wet. Trust me… you’ll get wet no matter how hard you try not to. Wool will remain supple when frozen, it withstands exposure to a campfire, its strong enough to take a thrashing and it is a natural fiber available from sheep everywhere. Yeah, poly fleece is good but wool is best. The only problem with wool: it can get scratchy and you really don’t want it next to your skin so pick yourself up some:
Polypro or other Inner Synthetic
You need to keep your body wrapped in a synthetic layer designed to wick moisture AWAY from your skin. The synthetic fibers like polypropylene cannot hold water. The moisture from your body (sweat) as well as any water you may come in contact with as you hike are driven outward by the heat and natural vapor pressure of your skin. This will create a protective layer that will keep you warm and your skin at the right moistness. Sometimes the combination of wool and synthetics aren’t enough. That’s when you call out the big guns:
Goose down has been the favorite insulation for winter travelers for centuries. Its that good. Lightweight and highly compressible, down is still better those synthetic fills for ultimate performance. But it requires care and if it gets wet its totally useless. Keep it safe and wrapped in a waterproof bag until you need it. As an extra layer, it will top off your system and keep you nice and warm when you’re just sitting around camp. Get yourself some lightweight down booties as well. At the end of a hard days chuff, nothing feels better than stuffing your tired boot free foot into some soft, toasty down booties. Ahhhhh.
The right size gear makes a difference. If you choose layers that are too tight, you’ll never get warm. Constrict the body’s blood circulation and it’ll have a tough time warming up, especially the extremities. Loose fitting layers over a synthetic fiber covered body is the way to keep warm. Yeah, the inner polypro layer IS skin tight but the rest of your layers shouldn’t be. Pay close attention to your boots. Too tight and you’ll never keep your toes warm. Too loose and you risk blisters. Sorrel style boots with a removable wool liner work great.
A Good Hat
Even your Mom knows this. If your feet are cold, put on a hat. You lose a lot of heat off your head. And if you’re bald like me, you get real cold without a hat. I carry a light synthetic hat and a thick wool one. The best secret for sleeping warm in the winter: wear your thickest hat to bed.
I can hear all those “low impact” hikers groan. Here’s the deal… If you’re gonna have a fire, you’re gonna need wood. Even if you don’t plan to have a fire, a saw in the pack is a good survival item in case you do. The best, most effective tool for getting wood fast is a saw. Leave the axe (hatchet, matchette, bolo knife) at HOME. You will be cutting dead wood and nothing cuts dead wood better than a bow saw. I recommend the Sven Saw. Building a good, warming fire is fast becoming a lost art. I believe every winter hiker should find a place where a big ripping fire can be enjoyed without guilt. Fire building is still the primary survival skill everyone should master.
Resist the urge to thrash. Keep your pace steady and don’t chuff too strenuously. If you’re wearing your polypro, you’ll be alright if you do perspire but, to best manage your core temp you wanna try not to sweat too much. Layers allow you to regulate your temperature easily by adding and removing a layer as needed. A zippered inner layer as well as front buttoning tops will allow you to vent when you feel as if you’ll overheat. Slow down, enjoy the woods, don’t sweat. You’ll stay warmer and stink less too.
Hot Food and Drink
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: hot food and drink will warm the coldest body and uplift the lowest morale. When packing for a winter hike, be sure to make it as easy as you can to access, cook and consume heat. Anything hot will warm the core and nothing warms like a cup of Hot Cocoa or a steaming bowl of Hamburger Helper. This is where a good, easy to operate cook stove will come in handy. It is a vital survival skill in the winter woods to be able to produce hot food and drinks at a moment’s notice.
Good Sleeping System
Research this. Get it right. If you don’t get a good night’s sleep, it will be hard for you to keep warm the next day. Your body requires the recuperative boost that only a deep sleep can provide. Get a thick, effect insulating pad underneath you. If you’re on snow or in a shelter, at least 2 layers of foam should be used. Be like Vincentoli: “Foam – air – foam and you’ll be sleeping like at home.” Make sure the sleeping bag fits you. When in doubt, get the LARGE. Compressed or stretched “fill” does not insulate well. I prefer a down sleeping bag because they are the lightest. Just don’t get it WET. I also use a bivy sack and a vapor barrier. A vapor barrier can add 15° to a sleeping bag’s rating and keep moisture from YOU getting into your bag. The bivy will keep the elements off and add 10° as well.