10 tips for keeping warm while winter hiking/backpacking

I wish I could tell you  that my first cold weather backpacking trip was wonderful. “I was totally prepared and I fell in love with the cold immediately.” Unfortunately, all I can remember is being cold. I spent each night waiting for the sun to come up and my fingers were perpetually numb.

Despite being wildly unprepared and uncomfortable, there was something about it that brought me back. Some reasons I’ve found for wanting to spend the winter weekends outside are:

  • There are no bugs when it’s cold. No buzzing in your ears. No spider webs to fight with. No mosquitoes to keep out of the tent. It’s wonderful.
  • Without bugs, the woods are SUPER quiet and peaceful.
  • Less sweating! In the summer, things get pretty gross because of the sweat and the dirt. At the end of a winter day, no one feels quite as gross.
  • There’s no poison ivy to worry about.
  • Less leaves means more views (especially prevalent on the east coast where many mountains do not exceed the tree line).
  • The cold makes the coffee taste better. Actually, it makes you appreciate every comfort just a little bit more.
  • At the end of the weekend, when I’m lapping in the luxury of a heated car, it’s fun knowing what I’m capable of. I never would have thought that I could sleep outside in temperatures below freezing. I didn’t think ANYONE did that. Now I can, and that’s a pretty cool feeling.

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I could go on and on with the reasons–lets talk about keeping warm out there so that it can be enjoyable rather than uncomfortable.

  1. Prepare for 10° colder than what the forecast calls for

    • It’s mid-November and the winter weather is creeping in on us. At this time of the year on the east coast, it’s tough to know what you’re going to get in regards to weather. The third weekend in November could either be in the teens or it could be in the upper 40s. We watch the forecast to the best of our ability, but it changes constantly. Last weekend, Kyle and I traveled to the Catskills expecting mostly snow, but the temps spiked and instead, we got rain.
      Stay safe and comfortable by being OVER preparing. The Mitteneers like to pack light, but we never skimp on warmth. Mother nature has a mind of her own–she can and will change her mind whenever she feels like it. Be ready and it won’t even phase you!
  2. Dress in layers

    • When you are hiking up you will need less clothing than when you are hiking down. When you stop, you’ll need an extra layer. Your level of exertion dictates the clothing you need and it changes constantly–you need layers.
      • Your layering system should consist of three parts: a base layer, an insulating later and an outer shell. The base layer should wick sweat away from your body. The breathable insulating layer(s) help you retain heat by keeping warm air near your body. The outer shell protects against the elements–it should help you stay dry and block the wind if necessary.
      • There are so many things I could tell you about choosing the right layering system. I’ll get there one day! Until then, check out REI’s expert advice on this topic.

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  3. Bring a complete set of dry clothes for camp

    • You can’t know what will happen during the day. Having a set of dry clothes to change into ensures you will be comfortable at night.
  4. Avoid getting sweaty

    • This one is tough if you’re taking on any sort of elevation. If you avoid getting sweaty, you have a much better chance at staying warm. Try this:
      • When you’re headed up the hill, walk at half speed.
      • Even if your temperature is comfortable, consider losing a layer before taking on any significant elevation gain. It’s better to start cold and warm up than to get sweaty.
      • Invest in a REALLY nice base layer. It should transport the sweat away from your skin and allow it to evaporate rather than linger and give you a chill.
  5. Carry spare hats and gloves

    • Yes, have a spare set for the evening, but also have a spare set available for hiking. You will at some point put your hand down in a puddle or sweat up your hat–wet gear won’t keep you warm.
  6. Wet clothes will dry faster if you wear them

    • I know, I know, this is hypocritical of number 5. It’s true, your body heat is the best chance your clothes have to dry. If you can, wear your sweaty clothes so that they can dry out. If your gloves or hats get wet, put them in your pants pocket so that it’s close to your body. This way, you can have warm hands and dry your back up gloves at the same time.
  7. Keep moving!

    • Plan a hike that is going to take most of the day light hours. If you’re dressed well and you’re moving, you’ll stay warm. Consider eating lunch on the go or stopping in the sun rather than in the shade. Keep your stops short and make sure to throw on a down jacket while you’re not exerting yourself.
  8. Make sure to refuel

    • When you’re moving, your body stays pretty warm without much effort, but when you stop, it takes extra energy to stay warm. Your body won’t be able to keep you warm if it doesn’t have the calories needed to do that. Make sure you eat enough!
  9. Make yourself a hot beverage

    • A warm drink can make a HUGE difference. Kyle and I bring decaf instant coffee for the evenings. As we set up camp, Kyle boils water for our meal. The meal takes about 20 minutes to “cook” and while it’s re-hydrating, we boil two more cups of water for our coffee. I often need to lose a layer after drinking my evening coffee!
  10. Bring hand-warmers

    • Some people don’t need the extra warmth for their hands or feet, but I have terrible circulation. If it weren’t for hand warmers, I don’t think I could continue running around in the cold all winter long.

Take it from someone who gets cold very easily and who used to think that hiking and backpacking were reserved for the summer months…I’m converted! If you have the right gear and information, winter is the best season for hiking and backpacking.

Until next time friends,

Sincerely Yours,
The Mitteneers

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3 comments

  1. This article is so on point. When we did live back east we did a couple wintwr camping trips- not quite what we expected. But it is so beautiful, you just have to make sure to prepare. So i thank you for these tips 😊

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