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How to Sleep Warm When It’s Cold Outside

For many of us, dropping temperatures are a sign to head indoors. We squeeze in a few day hikes when the fall weather is charming and perfect, but it seems our backpacking packs and tents find a cozy spot in our closets and begin their winter hibernation.

But sometimes….we just can’t help it. We want one more backpacking trip, and there is good reason for this. The beauty and solitude of a colder weather backpacking trip can be an unforgettable experience. The cool days are optimal for hiking. The wildlife is more active just before the snow sets in. Crowded and famous places become yours alone. It can be really magical, and it is definitely worth it. All of that magic can disappear though, if you aren’t prepared to stay warm at night. Staying warm in your sleeping bag on a cold night is an incredible wilderness skill, one that you will be grateful that you have.

Here are a few tips that will keep you toasty.

  1. Bring a warm bag, with a warmer rating than your expected nightly temperature. This can seem obvious, but it isn’t always that easy. The ratings on sleeping bags are often for survival, not comfort, and we all sleep at different temperatures. You may need a 0 degree bag to stay warm in 20 degrees. At Lasting Adventures we use durable and warm sleeping bags from Marmot and/or MSR.
  2. Change your clothes, and put on fresh socks. After a day of hiking, there is sweat on your clothes, especially in your socks. Moisture allows heat to leave your body more rapidly, and dry layers will hold that body heat in much more effectively. Keep a pair of socks that are only for sleeping. This ensures that you will always have dry socks to put on when you get into your sleeping bag.
  3. Fill up empty space in your sleeping bag. Your body will work hard to heat up the air in your bag. You can reduce that volume by filling the empty space in your bag with extra layers that you aren’t wearing. Shoving a jacket or a pair of pants into the bottom of your bag can be the difference in having warm or cold feet.
  4. Remember: your bag is a thermos, not a heater. If you get into your bag cold, you will most likely stay cold for a while. Get into your bag warm. The fastest way to warm up is exercise. This may mean doing 20 jumping jacks before getting into bed. A favorite is to zip up your bag, and then do some sit ups to warm up both yourself and your bag.
  5. Keep in whatever warmth you can. Wear a hat to keep heat from escaping through your head. Zip up your bag all the way and cinch the opening closed, as small as you can without having to have your mouth and nose in it. Leaving your mouth and nose out will keep you from breathing moisture back into your bag.
  6. Finally, if it is really chilly, you always have the secret weapon- a warm water bottle. Bring a water bottle that can hold hot water without melting or leaking. Fill it with hot water (not boiling, which could melt your bag), and if it’s too hot put the bottle in a sock, which helps insulate it and makes it easier to handle. It can be easy to do this if you put a pot of water on as soon as you finish dinner. Fill the bottle, and put it in your bag. It will warm it right up! It can be helpful to sleep with the bottle between your thighs, as this will keep it close to your femoral artery, spreading warmth through your body more rapidly. This can also be great to put at the bottom of the bag for folks that sleep with cold feet.

It is hard work and takes some planning, but mastering the skill of cold weather camping can open up a whole new world of adventure–or at least a whole new season. Embrace the challenge, and you’ll reap the benefits of a wilder winter wonderland.

Need ideas about where to go? Check out our Yosemite Overnight Snowshoe Trips

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