Tips for Staying Warm in the Backcountry

The Cold Natured Adventurer’s Guide to Hiking and Backpacking

Chill bumps bristled on my arms. Gazing out over snow-tipped peaks, I felt torn. After hiking one of my first of Colorado’s 14ers, I wanted to remain in the breathtaking landscape surrounding me. I had entered another world, one that only existed above the clouds. I longed to linger there, but I was growing colder and colder with every breath. My mind clung to the chill as I shivered. It was summer. While others sported short sleeves and light jackets, I was swimming in multiple layers with gloves, a Buff, and ear warmers all haphazardly pulled on, looking like the whipped cream and a cherry atop an icy sundae.

Years later, comfortably soaking in a chilly morning in the lower creases of Mt.Hood, I thought back to my cool experience in the clouds.

For cold natured adventurers, battling your body’s thermostat can prove a consistent and worrying challenge. Try these 10 practices to finally forget the chill and fully enjoy your adventure.


The Cold Natured Adventurer’s Guide to Hiking and Backpacking

Any serious hiker should be equipped with a proper array of layers. Appropriate layers are made out of a “warm-when-wet” material, like wool or polyester, which maintain insulating ability in all conditions. A basic collection includes:

  • A base layer for wicking moisture
  • A mid layer made up of one or more insulating pieces
  • An outer layer, able to block water and wind

These layers allow you to add on insulation as needed. My favorite pieces of gear have zippers or snaps for multiple levels of ventilation that do not require an outfit change, making them ideal for days on the trail. Finding a fleece that opens near the neck, or a shell with pit zips will let you control your body temperature both with ease and precision.

While these necessities are the foundation for keeping cozy, the cold natured should not stop there! Never venture without an easily-accessible pair of fleece pants, and an extra pair of wool socks. Accessories are the cold-natured hiker’s best friend. Keeping your head covered with ear warmers or a beanie will make a temperature difference that reaches your pinky toes. Other essentials for the chill-inclined are a pair of mittens and an insulated buff.

Think Ahead

The Cold Natured Adventurer’s Guide to Hiking and Backpacking

Preparation is especially key for the cold natured. Check the weather report before your adventure, and experiment with layering to find the best combinations for you. Remember, it is better to be over prepared than to risk the experience of your hike, and your personal safety. Carry the 10 essentials at all times, and be thoughtful about handling situations like significant elevation gain and river crossings.

On the Trail

The Cold Natured Adventurer’s Guide to Hiking and Backpacking

With the right layers, you are off to a strong start. No matter what gear you have, however, layers only insulate the warmth of your body. When your body temperature begins to drop, try a few of these tips to bring back the heat.

Let it out
Holding your pee uses up additional body heat. If you find yourself avoiding a trip to the bathroom, it might actually be making you colder. When you feel the urge to go- go!

Staying hydrated stimulates blood flow. For a bonus warm up, fill a bottle or thermos with hot tea and sip it occasionally throughout the day.

Loosen Up
Tight bands, laces, and straps can hinder proper circulation. I learned a harsh lesson in this when I bundled my feet in multiple pairs of socks and jammed them in my boots. Though I was trying to keep my feet warm, the tightness actually made my feet colder. I had numb toes from frostnip for months following this snowshoeing trip. Learn from my foolish mistake: keep your blood flowing.

Munch a Bunch
“Counting calories” takes on a very different meaning on the trail. The more calories you consume, the warmer you will be. Notice the calorie count of your meals, and add in fatty foods for an extra boost. Since digesting food also burns warmth, try to find some easily digestible snacks for the trail. Peanut butter, avocado, and dried fruits are ideal for easy processing and positive fats. Eating throughout the day also allows you to maintain a steady temperature. I like to tuck an easy-to-eat snack in my hip belt pocket and grab bites without interrupting the hike.


The Cold Natured Adventurer’s Guide to Hiking and Backpacking

Before my first backpacking trips, I was afraid that I would not be able to stay warm once the sun went down and my legs stopped moving. Fortunately, creating these before-bed habits ensures you have everything you need to sleep soundly through the night.

Pajamas and More
Bring your layers and accessories into the tent. It is good practice to keep a pair of wool socks clean and dry just for sleeping, and though any backpacker should have a rain jacket beside them in case of a rainy morning, I like to tuck my feet into my rain shell for extra toasty toes.

Having an insulated sleeping pad is crucial for explorers who easily get cold. This extra thermal layer makes a significant difference. Another powerful addition to your sleeping set-up is a down blanket. Though these can be pricey, they are incredibly light, packable, and warm. For a cheaper option, pick up a fleece blanket for a smaller but still notable boost.

Before Bed Routine
For your warmest possible night under the stars, try going to bed quickly after dinner. If you are already feeling chilly, do some jumping jacks to bring up your body temperature. Make sure that you take one last pee jaunt, and keep water near your bed. Finally, my most loved tip of all: for external heat, pour boiling water in a Nalgene and tuck it in your sleeping bag with you. Keeping the bottle between your thighs will warm the blood in your femoral artery, meaning a lasting, full-body surge of warmth.

Now that you are prepared to pack, hike and sleep warm, you can safely and more fully experience the trails you trek. Enjoy the journey!