I love the challenges and rewards of off-season camping. If you’re a summer-only hiker, maybe it’s time to venture into the cool.
The biggest misconception about wintry hiking is that the negatives outweigh the positives. That’s just not true. First, chilly temperatures cause biting bugs to go dormant. Second, the cold deters people, too, making choice campsites and trails less crowded if not empty. Third, less foliage means better views. Yes, it does get colder in October and November. But adapting your clothing, shelter, and food to the chill is easier than you think. Here’s a three-step primer on how to prepare for fall and winter excursions.
What to Wear
The key to staying warm is adding more layers, especially when you stop moving during rest breaks and at camp, and shedding layers when you start to sweat.
For maximum warmth, try this layering system. Closest to your skin should be a long-sleeve synthetic top (polyester long underwear is ideal), followed by an insulating fleece vest or pullover, and topped by a fluffy down jacket. If the weather is rainy or damp, I replace the down jacket with a rain shell, or layer a shell over top. I normally shed the last two layers (down and fleece) when I’m moving, and add them back when I stop. Because you’ll change in and out of your rain shell and down puffy a dozen times during a typical day, keep them accessible on the outside of your pack.
For micro temperature adjustments add or subtract a hat and gloves without removing your backpack. Put on thick wool socks when hiking in cooler temps, and pack an extra pair to wear in your sleeping bag at night, along with long-underwear bottoms (or fleece pants for extra warmth) and a wool hat. Always change into dry clothing before going to bed, and stuff damp clothes at the bottom of the bag to warm up by morning.
Where to Sleep
First, a smaller tent is a better tent when it’s cold outside. It sounds counterintuitive, but your body can heat up a smaller space more rapidly than a larger one.
Can you bring a three-season tent on a winter (i.e., fourth season) trip? Yes, but not if you expect extremely low temperatures. Four-season tents keep you warmer and safer by replacing venting mesh panels with solid fabric and incorporating stronger, crisscrossing poles to withstand high winds and heavy snow.
Second, don’t assume sleeping bags’ temperature ratings are designed exactly for you. Plus, older sleeping bags gradually lose their insulating properties due to reduced loft. A decade-old 30°F bag might only work to 45°F.
Third, a pad underneath your sleeping bag doesn’t just smooth out rocks and roots. Thanks to the laws of heat transfer, the cold ground is quite adept at stealing your body heat during the night. A thick sleeping pad insulates to keep you warmer.
What to Eat and Drink
On cold-weather trips, you need tasty starters to overcome the hunger gap between arriving to camp and preparing your dinner. A basic pre-meal hit can be as simple as wheat crackers topped with salami slices and cheese.
On a winter hike should you drink more, less or about the same as on a summer hike? The right answer is “more” because your body uses liquids to regulate core temperature.
I bring an insulated mug with a snap-tight lid. To keep the mouths of my water bottles from icing over, I store them upside down (the water in contact with air freezes first). On sub-32°F days I stuff the bottles in my pack for added insulation.
Freeze-prone hydration tubes are more difficult to protect. Start by clearing the tube of water after each drink by blowing it back into the hydration bladder. Other techniques include stuffing the tube inside your clothes, buying a $20 custom insulator kit, or spending $6 at Home Depot on a ½-inch diameter piece of foam pipe insulation to slip over the tube.
I hope these tips encourage you to get outside more this fall and winter.