This page contains affiliate links. Making purchases through these links provides me a commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions offered are completely my own.
Planning for a winter hike is one thing, but what do you do when you get caught out in the elements in unexpected cold weather? Fear not, I had this exact thing happen to me during a thru-hike of the Long Trail and survived! Here’s how.
To read more about my (mis)adventures on the Long Trail click here.
Creative Ways to Stay Warm in Freezing Temperatures
One obvious answer could be build a fire. Not only must you know how to properly and successfully build a fire, but not all areas you may hike in allow fires and circumstances may not be suitable. When hiking in Vermont, especially after a snowfall, all downed wood is soaking wet and will not catch fire easily. Fires also cannot keep you warm while you sleep, when temperatures dropped to their lowest points overnight.
A trick I learned to start a fire is using cotton balls soaked in vaseline as a fire-starter. If you are not familiar with making fires in the backcountry I would not depend on this method to keep you warm.
One of the best ways to keep warm is by having or making!) friends. Nothing keeps you warm quite like being sandwiched between two equally smelly hikers. Or a hiker and a dog like Dobby!
As a solo hiker, I was fortunate enough to make friends with a group. We slept in a row, one sleeping bag next to another, to stay slightly warmer in the frigid temperatures.
On the coldest nights Dobby would cuddle down into my sleeping bag as well. A puppy space-heater is a valuable ultralight item.
One of the easiest ways to stay warm is using layers. On the coldest night I spent outside I wore almost all the clothing I had.
I had a tight pair of leggings and a larger pair of leggings to layer together. When that wasn’t warm enough I added my rain pants on top of that.
For shirts (and leggings) I highly recommend wool blends like Smartwool long sleeves. They resist odors and regulate your body temperature, even keeping you warm when wet. Add your hiking shirt over your sleep shirt, a puffy jacket and beanie. Top it off with thick, long, warm wool socks (put on a couple pairs of you have them) and gloves.
Another way to stay warm is by entering an enclosed space. The smaller the space, the less spread out your body heat.
I was surprised how much warmer I was sleeping inside my Nemo Hornet 2P, especially when I made friends with another hiker to share it with.
Tarp over entryway
When sleeping in a shelter try blocking the entrance with a tent, rain fly or tarp. This proved incredibly useful when temperatures dropped below 20 degrees F on the Long Trail. 4 hikers were able to create a small room we could heat with our bodies and sleep relatively comfortably.
Keep a granola bar or other small snack in your sleeping bag. If you wake up cold in the middle of the night eat your snack, giving your body more fuel to burn to stay warm.
All the hot drinks. All the time. Don’t winter camp without a stove.
Pack your sleeping bag
The footbox, or part of your sleeping bag where your feet go, often has open space in it, pack open areas of your sleeping bag around your body with any extra clothing or fabric items you may have.
Insulate your sleeping mat
If you’re like me and do not have an insulated sleeping pad, put items under your sleeping pad to insulate you from the ground. When sleeping in a shelter I used my tent, tarp, and rain gear under my sleeping pad to increase the insulation.
Nalgene bottles can hold boiled water. Putting this in your sleeping bag with you will be a breath of warm life that you will cherish forever.
Side note: In freezing temperatures make sure your shoes are untied and loosened overnight or you will end up with frozen shoes you can’t get on your feet.
Have any additional questions or tips for staying warm on winter hikes? Contact me!