Saturday, February 13, 2016

7 Great Tips for Staying Warm at Night in the Backcountry

If you are a “cold sleeper” or one of these people who can never get warm, you and I have a common bond.  Since campfires are often prohibited in sensitive areas, or in hot, wildfire-laden summers, the task of getting warm before bed can be tricky. The scenario plays out the same every summer…the sunny day has disappeared into a slightly damp, mildly-windy evening and now you find yourself curled up in your sleeping bag, chilly and trying to wiggle every-which-way-ta’-Tuesday to scare up some warmth. My clickity-clacking teeth have been there many times and it can be downright miserable! Those who have internal thermostat issues know how hard it can be to increase your body’s temperature once night falls at camp and your sweaty, sun screened, bug sprayed self is desperate to count some sheep. If you are anything like me, your carcass is tired, dreamland is within grips, but you’d give anything for an electric blanket! To combat my frigid malady, I’ve had to learn a few tips which help me find the sandman, and may do the same for you.

Take damp clothes off immediately. Many of these tips may have you exclaiming “well, DUH!”, but trust me when I say as a guide, I saw sweaty hikers setting up camp, time and again before taking off their perspiration soaked shirts.  Take off your sweaty “everythings” and change immediately when you get to camp into a dry set of duds. Ladies, this is very key to us because wet underwear like sports bras stick against the skin and are often soaked after hard trail days.  Soggy underwear will zap heat like a water to a fire, plus it’s just not comfortable when you stop moving.

Don’t sleep in too many clothes. A sleeping bag in and of itself cannot generate heat, correct? Again, I hear a collective “DUH”, but stay with me.  Therefore, a sleeping bag is not warm, unless you and your snuggly self can radiate enough heat to trap it inside the down/synthetic fibers and let the bag do what it was designed to do!  Sleeping in a puffy jacket and thick fleece pants may only trap the heat in those garments rendering the sleeping bag rather useless.  Instead, bring a thin to medium set of sleeping clothes, such as long underwear, and you might find you sleep toastier.

Drink hot drinks before bed. And, I don’t mean toddies. In fact, alcohol can actually have the opposite effect of staying warm. Instead, heat up water for a cup of tea or cocoa and let the cozy beverage rush over your tongue and into your tummy until it’s gone. Afterward, dive into the sleeping bag and notice how much warmer you feel.  Of course, be sure to empty your bladder before you do, or you might be back to square one at 2am.

Wear a hat to bed. Want to join me for a nightcap?  No seriously.  Years ago before central heat made it to homes, people wore nightcaps to bed to take off the chill. They knew what was up with staying warm at night- these folks had it dialed!  Channel your inner pioneer and fire a toque over your noggin’ before catching some zzzs. Just be sure you get one that fits comfortably that isn’t too tight or too small or you’ll wake up with lines across your forehead and a headache that will make you want to throw the hat off the nearest cliff. 

Sleep with a hot water bottle. If the weather takes a turn or you get very wet and are having a hard time taking the chill off of your body, fill a hard-sided plastic bottle with a secure lid (key words), with warm (not hot) water. Most hard sided water bottles can handle the heat provided it’s not scalding.  Let that warm little rascal hang out in your sleeping bag by your feet then spoon it like you mean it.  Be sure to triple check the lid to ensure this shenanigan doesn’t go sideways.

Choose the right sleeping bag. Go to any outdoor retailer and you’ll stand there like a deer in the headlights when it comes to sleeping bags.  Green ones, red ones, light ones, heavy ones, right zipper, left zipper, half zipper, double, mummy, bleeeeaaaahhhh! First, do your homework and make sure you know approximately what you want. 

Start with the bags innards. Goose down bags are more comfortable in a wider variety of temperatures, are more compressible and are usually lighter than their synthetic counter parts. Unfortunately, they are more expensive and if they get wet, oh baby, they stay wet with a vengeance! I highly recommend those with goose down bags get an ultralight waterproof stuff sack for it to live while you are out trail traipsing. Synthetic bags on the other hand are tougher, cheaper and better in wet conditions, but they are less compressible and usually heavier.  I’ve always had goose down bags because I don’t want to carry one single ounce more than I need, but that’s me and you are you (DUH).  Do what you do.

Next, look for EN temperature ratings.  This rating is the lowest possible temperature that you might experience on the trail.  To that, add 10 degrees if you are a cold sleeper.  It’s a good rule of thumb that usually works for most folks who are fearful of buying a bag that won’t keep them warm. Temperature ratings are not exact science- if it was, every coat out there would have one. Plus, people have different metabolisms and we are all our own beast. Most manufacturer’s tout some kind of crazy metric/testing to arrive at the number.  Look for loft and read, read, read reviews!

Select your gender. Women’s bag are all over the place and a really good option if you deem yourself a female. Because women tend to sleep colder than men, more filling is added to the chest and the foot box, where women tend to loose most of their heat. Their temperature ratings also tend to be more lenient because they know, that a shivering woman, is a force to be reckoned with (I speak from goose-bumping experience). There really isn’t such a thing as men’s bags, but rather a unisex category.  Don’t necessarily buy a women’s bag, just because you are a woman. Some gals have broad shoulders, tall statures or are just strong, burley Bettys.   In the store, climb in both women’s bag and unisex bags before you determine what feels most comfortable.

Be a little mummy. When I worked for REI people commonly mention how claustrophobic they felt in mummy bags and sure, they aren’t for everyone, but if you want to stay warm, they do one heck of a job trapping that warm body air and keeping it inside the bag. A wider bag or a longer bag requires more of your toasty goodness to heat the bag, thus, making it harder to stay warm.  Plus, mummys are often lighter and have great draft tubes (stuffing filled tubes near the zippers which prevent cold air from coming in). For me, it’s a no brainer, but then again, I’m comfortable scuba diving in the dark waters of the Pacific Northwest and enjoy riding elevators.

As a last resort, hand warmers and the buddy system. You know those little disposable hand warmers that heat up instantly when you tear the pouch open?  Those little puppies are great at heating hands and toes in a pinch (well, not pinched toes, but you get me). The downside to them is that they are heavy to pack in and pack out.  But…if you are desperate, I’ve seen worse ideas.  Tent mates are warm too.  Just having another body sleeping beside you rises the temperature inside the nylon walls and helps you regulate your own temperature. It's like your own built-in "friend heater" complete with a laugh to keep you company. Perfect, I say. 

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