By Steve Ancik in TrailGroove Blog 1I have been exploring interesting and scenic areas in New Mexico for several years. Often these visits have been at the beginning or end of longer trips to places farther west, so the visits are often just a day or so – much less time than the area deserves. I am especially intrigued by the so-called “badlands” of the northwest part of the state. These badland areas include several wilderness areas, including the better-known Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness. I first drove down Cabezon Road to ride my mountain bike at a trail system along the road, but soon found that there are several more things to do and see in the area, both before and beyond the mountain bike trails.
“Cabezon'', by the way, means “big head” or ''stubborn”, and is so-named because of Cabezon Peak, which stubbornly stands high above the plains to the northwest. The places that I have explored along Cabezon Road are, at least in part, the Tierra Amarilla Anticline and Ojito Wilderness, and of course the scenery and geology of the bike trail area itself.
Tierra Amarilla Anticline a.k.a. San Ysidro Anticline
An anticline is where the earth’s crust has been folded into an upward pointing curve, like an upside down “U”. Along the east side of the Tierra Amarilla Anticline, the rocks are tilted up to the west, and along the west side, tilted up to the east. The entire center of the anticline has been removed by erosion, as seen from the White Ridge Bike Trails. As you approach the anticline from the east, keep your eyes peeled for a “soft serve ice cream cone” formation on the right. It is somewhat hidden by the hills and ridges along the road until it is at your two o'clock position a couple hundred yards away. This hoodoo is sitting next to a “sinking ship” rock that is quite photogenic. On my last visit, I was climbing around the rocks and there was a pair of ravens watching me very closely and even hovering overhead for a while. I assumed that they had a nest nearby, so I quietly moved on to another area.
The rocks of these formations range in color from tan to orange with areas of yellow, brown, red, and even some that are nearly black. Since the rocks are tilted at a nearly 30 degree angle, exploring the area consists of climbing up and down around the steep slopes. The center of the anticline has been removed by erosion. The bike trails follow the ridge on the left side then wrap around the north end, and then head back south and follow the ridge. I haven’t yet been down in the center of the anticline, but it sure looks interesting. Maybe next visit.
White Ridge Bike Trails
These trails are primarily used by mountain bikers, but hikers are welcome. I’ve ridden there several times and if hiking, would stick to the eastern side of the trail system. There, the rocks and scenery are more interesting and varied. The eastern part of the anticline is exposed here, as well as several old geysers and travertine (a type of limestone deposited by mineral springs) deposits. There are a couple of places where there are open sinkhole-type features with water in the bottom–these are old geysers or geothermal springs. The water from these is high in minerals and has resulted in a series of terraced mineral deposits. The rock of these deposits is called travertine, and, when walked on, sounds hollow in places. To the east of the main mountain bike loop the anticline’s rocks are tilted up to the west, and this area has several interesting places to explore.
The Ojito Wilderness
This is a 11,823 acre wilderness area administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. It was established in 2005. It is open to primitive camping, hiking, and horseback riding.
One of the largest dinosaur skeletons ever discovered, the Seismosaurus, was found here. The area is a dry environment of multi-colored sandstone with multi-level terraces, box canyons, and arroyos. Small numbers of piñon pine and juniper can be found in the area, as well as a stand of ponderosa pine – the lowest elevation stand in New Mexico.
Starting from the Hoodoo trailhead, head north for just over a mile along an obvious trail. Along the way there is an interesting outcrop of bright yellow sandstone with interspersed layers of pink and red sandstone. Continuing on the trail, you eventually reach an area with several 10 to 20-foot tall hoodoos and a few large ponderosa pines. I have camped here on two different occasions. Once you set up camp, the trail continues northward for at least another mile before turning west around the northern end of Bernalillito Mesa, which stands a couple hundred feet high to the west of the trail for the entirety of the hike. The views to the north are beautiful, with most of the wilderness area visible and inviting one to explore more. From my short hikes in the area, it seems that there are ample opportunities for off-trail exploration. I have not hiked the Seismosaurus Trail yet, but intend to on my next visit. For further exploration, Cabezon Peak is apparently accessible by following a series of roads for about 20 more miles to the west and north from the Hoodoo Trail parking area.
Info: Permits are not required for any of these areas.
Getting There: From the intersection of I-25 and US 550 at Bernalillo, go northwest on 550 for about 25 miles, then left (west) on Cabezon Road. A brown sign points to White Ridge Mountain Bike Trails. Along Cabezon Road, after a couple of miles there are several places to pull off to explore the eastern side of the anticline before arriving at the mountain bike parking lot. The parking lot for the White Ridge Trails is on the right 4.4 miles from the highway. Continuing five miles further takes you to the first parking area for the Ojito Wilderness. This is the Seismosaurus Trail, and one mile further is parking for Hoodoo Trail. Visible in the distance to the northwest is Cabezon Peak, part of an old volcano. It is another 19 miles on Cabezon Road.
Best Time to Go: The elevation of these places is around 5700 to 6000 feet above sea level. March thru May have nice temperatures, but April is the windiest month. September and October also have comfortable temperatures, but August thru October are the wettest months. There will occasionally be snow in the winter, and summer months can have daytime highs in the 90s.
Books and Maps: 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Albuquerque (2nd Edition, pages 206 (White Mesa) and 211 (Ojito Wilderness)) by Stephen Ausherman. Delorme New Mexico Atlas and Gazetteer and / or BenchMark Maps, New Mexico.
By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 2Sometimes even a quick day hike can provide inspiration for another quick trip or a subsequent backpacking excursion, and such was the case last year on a family dayhike in the Bridger Wilderness of the southern Wind River Mountains. The plan: a simple morning in and a brief offtrail excursion to a river shown on the map, a brief afternoon of fishing, and a return to the trailhead before evening drew on too long. Logistically simple, the hike went as planned and was a typical summer stroll along and off the trail – until we reached the river.
Summer sights were abundant, but the river itself was nowhere to be found. Slightly bewildered and evaluating the map, we did now stand in a slight depression, entirely dry and it didn’t look like water had ever flowed through it. And we weren’t looking for an intermittent, seasonal creek either – this was a legitimate and named river. Doubting my map skills momentarily, I even turned my phone on and double checked with Gaia GPS – and sure enough, the app showed us standing in the river. Hiking on a bit farther through the lodgepole pine forest, we entered a scenic dry meadow where it seemed good campsites – perhaps for another time – were nearly everywhere you looked.
The more I hike, and perhaps the more bad campsites I stay the night in, the more I’ve come to appreciate the good ones. You know the spot: an actual flat place to sleep where you’re not sliding around your tent throughout the night, one that is protected but still with a view, and one that's close enough to a water source – at least according to the map. But this was just a day hike. At such a site in the meadow we had lunch, but with the day getting late the decision was made to abandon the river search and perhaps, return at a later time. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this in the Wind River Range. While the USGS maps are for the most part quite accurate, it seems that when it comes to waterways assumptions have occasionally been made; water always flows downhill, but not always where you think it might at first glance. In any event, finding one of these inaccuracies, whether on USGS topos or usually equally reflected on other options like the Beartooth or Earthwalk maps has always been a great excuse to explore further and to see what the land truly reveals, and adds a bit of mystery to any follow up hike.
A year later and in need of a quick and easy family style overnight with easy logistics, we headed back to the site. Some research at home and looking at satellite views had revealed the real location of the river – nearly a mile away from where the USGS topos had suggested. After a drive to the southern end of the range ending with a rough final drive to the trailhead, we hit the trail and made our way towards the meadow we’d eaten lunch at the year before, and after sheltering from a brief and quick moving rain shower we eventually made it just as our younger trail companion’s legs began to fade. Although late in the year…so much that aspens were turning yellow…lupine still bloomed and the last glimpse of summer wildflowers was quite the welcome surprise.
After deciding on a reasonable spot to setup the tent, we ambled off in the real direction of the river, to actually find it this time, evaluate fishing opportunities, and load up and filter some water. The meadow was higher, so after descending a game trail we found, and crashing through the brush, we entered a lush soggy meadow and eventually found ourselves on the river bank of the slowly flowing, lazy river that meandered through meadows.
Filled only with small brook trout, fishing was decided against, but water was filtered and returning to complete camp setup for the night, dinner was had – a fire considered but decided against on this mild evening. Much time was spent relaxing, taking photos, and watching the moon rise, then set, and stargazing as the show emerged overhead in force while elk bugled in the distance. Eventually we all piled into our trusty Tarptent Hogback for the night.
The next morning after a night well above freezing the elk were again bugling at sunrise, more water was filtered, camp dismantled, and packs shouldered as we made our way back to the trail and eventually the trailhead again. Although a short and easy trip, it was a trip that easily fell together and was easily accomplished and all at a great spot – sometimes just what you need – and with one last glimpse of summer to boot. And best of all, now we know even more than the map at first reveals.
By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 4A lightweight, inflatable 3 season sleeping pad from Exped, the Synmat UL features synthetic insulation that takes the r-value up to 3.3, with Exped subsequently rating the pad warm down to around 25 degrees Fahrenheit. The Synmat UL is available in 4 sizes: small, medium, and the medium wide and long wide – the latter 2 offering a width of just over 25 inches, compared to the standard 20 inch width of the small, the medium, and most other sleeping pads on the market.
The sleeping pad features separate inflation and deflation valves that lay flat and allow for quick deflation, or easy fine-tuning of the inflation level via a convenient one way valve on the intake, which can slightly be depressed to allow a small level of air to escape. 20D fabrics are utilized and the top features a honeycomb "Gripskin" pattern designed to keep you on the pad at night. The Exped UL will weigh between 15 and 21 ounces depending on size – the Synmat UL MW here is listed at 19.9 ounces, and weighed exactly that on my scale. Also and now included with the mat is an Exped Schnozzel pump bag, that allows you to inflate the sleeping pad quickly and easily without introducing moisture from your breath into the pad. Previously one had to buy the Schnozzel separately for around $40, so the new inclusion is a nice perk. The Schnozzel can also be used as a pack liner or stuff sack. The new Synmat UL is very similar to, and has seemingly replaced the Synmat UL 7 in Exped’s lineup with a color change, addition of the Gripskin coating, and the inclusion of the pump bag. A repair kit is also included.
Synmat UL sizes (length X width in inches) and listed weights:
S 64.2 X 20.5 14.6oz.
M 72 X 20.5 16.8oz.
MW 72 X 25.6 19.9oz.
LW 77.6 x 25.6 21oz.
Testing out the Synmat UL, and in this case the medium wide (MW) version this past summer and fall, the sleeping pad proved to be about what you’d expect: a well-rounded blend of comfort, ease of use, and warmth without weighing you down. The vertical baffles, the outer 2 which are slightly larger, help to keep one centered on the pad and resist edge collapse (resulting in you falling off the side of the sleeping pad). The pad is also 2.8 inches high, so adequate comfort is provided even on bumpy ground and there’s enough height to adjust the pad even for side-sleeping comfort while keeping your hips off the ground. The warmth provided here is great for general 3-season use. I find r-values in this range to be adequate perhaps down to the high 20’s, but if the forecast calls for nightly lows in the mid 20’s or lower I like to add in a thin foam pad to combine with the Synmat for adequate warmth, or the addition of something even warmer such as a RidgeRest SoLite in the winter.
The Gripskin coating on the top of the sleeping pad, which alternates in printed intensity, seems only slightly more tacky than the rest of the fabric itself, and personally I’d prefer any anti-slip treatment on the bottom of the pad if I had to choose a side as any sliding issues I have are usually myself and the sleeping pad together on slippery silnylon tent floors. I’m not sure how much this honeycomb pattern Exped has added to the pad really helps, and a honeycomb design also existed in a more muted, and less aggressive pattern on the UL7, but it certainly doesn’t hurt either. For what it's worth, I haven't had any sliding issues with either this pad or the previous UL7 I've used except again for that occasional pad and myself sliding downhill all together scenario when pitched on less than flat ground. If noise issues are a concern, the Synmat UL is also very quiet. With the included Schnozzel inflation takes no lung power and is achieved in about a minute. The separate deflation valve dumps all air quickly and packed, the Synmat packs compact enough.
The Synmat UL focuses on lightweight comfort with a rectangular shape, and the 2 wide versions of the pad are especially appreciated as a side sleeper, or for back sleepers that find their elbows falling off normal 20 inch wide pads. To save some more weight by moving to a mummy-shaped version with the same 3.3 r-value, check out the Synmat Hyperlite, and if you mainly backpack in warmer locales you can also stay with a rectangular shaped pad and save weight with the Synmat UL LITE, with its 2.5 r-value and less plush 2 inch height. For a warmer and heavier mat, Exped also has their Synmat Winter line.
Overall the Synmat UL continues the mark set by the UL7 of offering comfort and versatility that make this a great all around choice for 3 season conditions in climates where a backpacker will face temperatures down to, or slightly below, the freezing mark. With its rectangular construction more sleeping space is offered up compared to mummy-shaped pads, and comfort is achieved for back or side sleepers both via the construction and the via the warmth the synthetic insulation provides in appropriate temperatures and for 3 season use.
The Synmat UL retails from $150 - $190 depending on size, but you can occasionally find them on sale. Find the sleeping pad here at Backcountry, over at CampSaver.com, as well as here at Amazon.
For more and an overview on choosing a sleeping pad in general, see our post on how to select a backpacking sleeping pad.
By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 6When it comes to backpacking stoves, there are several routes one can take and several different main categories of stoves exist – each with an array of pros and cons. Without a doubt however, no matter which way you go about it the backpacking stove is an important part of any overnight or multi-night gear ensemble. A backpacking stove provides hot meals and drinks, goes a long way towards keeping you warm on chilly mornings and evenings, and for backpacking and hiking a stove needs to be convenient, lightweight, and reasonably fast to use with readily available fuel.
The Canister Stove
A canister stove uses a pressurized gas canister for its fuel source, and this fuel can be butane, isobutane, or propane and is usually a mixture of these fuels. These canisters are available in different sizes for varying trip lengths, and if you'll be using the canister in colder temperatures, you want to avoid a canister containing regular butane as its vaporization temperature is quite high in the 30 degree range (translation: your stove may not work / performance will suffer / it may be difficult to use in colder temperatures). However, canisters containing a mixture of isobutane and propane are much more suitable as temperatures drop.
Isobutane will vaporize down to about the 10 degree mark and even lower as you gain altitude, and propane vaporizes down to the arctic-like temperature of minus 44, but there is only so much propane in your usual backpacking canister mix. Canister valves automatically open and close when you connect and disconnect the stove for ease of use and packing, and note that you can mix and match brands here – you don’t necessarily have to match the maker of your stove to your canister brand. As long as the canister has a lindal valve you are good to go. Popular blended canister fuel brands include MSR IsoPro as well as fuel canisters from JetBoil and propane / isobutane mixtures from Snow Peak.
Either way canister stoves offer convenience: they are easy to carry, simple to use, and the pre-packaged fuel is likely readily available at your local outfitter. While having the fuel contained and prepackaged provides that convenience, they are non-refillable and after a while you are likely to end up with a bunch of canisters that don't have enough fuel to get you through a trip, but aren't empty either. They are recyclable if empty and punctured, and Jetboil makes a specific tool for that purpose. A necessary accessory for any canister stove user should be a digital kitchen scale that measures to the gram - this way you can always calculate the exact amount of fuel inside a canister before a trip. Canister stoves excel at boiling water, but you can dial the flame down and simmer…or even bake…with practice and with the right approach.
Upright Canister Stoves
Among canister stoves, upright canister stoves screw directly into the top of the canister and can be quite light – with many of these stoves falling in the 2-3 ounce range. I’ve used upright canister stoves with isobutane / propane canisters on trips with lows in the high teens, but usage much below these temperatures will become difficult, especially considering that the longer you use a canister in a sitting, the colder it will become – colder than the actual outside temperature – due to evaporative cooling. In cold or cooler temperatures it’s good to keep a few tricks in mind. In cold temperatures you can place the canister in a bit of water inside a container like a shallow bowl if needed to keep the canister’s temperature up and maintain performance, and sleeping with the canister inside your sleeping bag is never a bad idea when temps get chilly to give you a head start in the morning.
Soto WindMaster Upright Canister Stove with MSR IsoPro 110 gram Fuel Canister
Other types of upright canister stoves feature an all in one system like many of the system offerings made by Jetboil and options like the MSR WindBurner that are designed to be particularly efficient, at the cost of upfront weight, while saving fuel. These systems may be a good option if your primary need is boiling water. I personally prefer a more typical upright canister stove and like to choose different pots – like those from the Evernew Ultralight Series – depending on the trip. In recent years several upright canister stove options that utilize a pressure regulating valve have made it to the market, often claiming to increase overall and cold weather performance. While these stoves won't replace an inverted or liquid stove for cold conditions, I have found them to have better and more predictable performance overall when compared to other options featuring a standard needle valve.
Popular upright canister stoves include my current choice, the Soto WindMaster – find our full review here, and a couple classic examples can be found in the MSR Pocket Rocket 2 and the Snow Peak GigaPower. Integrated all in one systems like the Jetboil Zip are also quite popular.
Remote and Inverted Canister Stoves
Remote canister stoves keep the canister remote from the burner and feed fuel via a hose. This allows for two benefits: remote canister stoves let you really shield the burner with a large windscreen to block wind and hold in heat to save fuel while the canister remains outside the windscreen – in an upright canister stove this would make to the canister too dangerously hot. Secondly, if said remote canister stove allows you to use the fuel canister in an inverted position, a solution to the colder weather fuel vaporization issues previously discussed is realized, as using the canister upside down feeds fuel in a liquid form where it's subsequently preheated and vaporized at the hot burner of the stove itself in cold and very cold temperatures. For a remote canister stove that allows for inverted use, I use the MSR WindPro II. Find our review on that stove in Issue 33.
MSR WindPro II and Remote Canister
For all types of canister stoves I like a dedicated starter if I can get it, and always look for built in piezo ignition. A separate piezo starter can be used if your stove of choice doesn’t feature one, or a bic lighter will do the job as well. Piezo igniters can fail, but they can also be replaced. Of course, always have a backup ignition source in your separate fire starting kit, but the convenience of a piezo igniter has far outweighed any small amount of hassle in my experience.
Liquid Gas Stoves
The bread and butter stove of cold weather camping and for mountaineers alike, liquid stoves like the venerable MSR Whisperlite are reliable options that burn white gas, or even an array of liquid fuels including gasoline for some stoves like the International version of the Whisperlite. These stoves work well in very cold weather, but are generally heavier and more cumbersome to use in regards to the need to handle liquid fuel in refillable bottles, priming the stove, complicated hardware with more moving parts and maintenance etc. However, if you’re into group or complex meals like baking on the trail, a liquid stove may be hard to beat (options like the MSR Dragonfly are specifically designed with simmering in mind). Liquid stoves are thus perhaps best for the cold weather backpacker, the backpacking chef, or those who desire a stove that will work across all conditions who might not mind the extra weight for 3 season use.
Alcohol stoves are designed to run on denatured alcohol (available at many hardware stores, etc.), or for my use I’ve always run them on the cleaner highest proof grain alcohol (Everclear). The benefits of an alcohol stove are weight and simplicity, there aren’t any complicated mechanisms or moving parts – you usually just fill and light the stove. With simplicity comes reduced weight, and the stove can even be made from tuna cans, soda cans, and the like. Alcohol stoves can be subject to fire restrictions and require some extra care with the open flame and fuel. I’ve used alcohol stoves across many conditions and my favorite offering is the Trail Designs Ti-Tri system that works well to trap the limited heat that an alcohol stove produces while blocking wind, greatly increasing efficiency. Another venerable alcohol stove option can be found in one of the several Trangia burners that are available.
Alcohol Stove from TrailDesigns
Regardless, if you go with an alcohol stove you will definitely want a windscreen of some type. Alcohol stoves usually compete with upright canister stoves; ultimately the choice is up to you regarding which benefits you find most appealing and on longer trips, the increased efficiency of a canister stove may begin to cut into an alcohol stove’s weight savings. Fuel for an alcohol stove can perhaps be easier to find, and alcohol stoves have been popular for thru-hiking and ultralight backpacking usage for some time. With an alcohol stove you can dial in the exact amount of fuel you need prior to a trip instead of having to take a full canister each time, and perhaps taking too much fuel and the extra weight. On the other hand with a digital scale and some partial canisters to choose from, you can get close with a canister as well.
Wood Burning Stoves
Ti-Tri Wood Burning Stove
Many wood stoves exist on the market, with of course the simplest way to cook with wood being a small campfire – which I’m most likely to use when cooking in this manner – although I’ve utilized the combo wood or alcohol burning Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri system for this purpose as well. A wood stove won’t beat a campfire in weight carried, but will beat it in convenience and efficiency. Cooking with wood of course requires you collect wood and start a fire, and would have to be ruled out in areas where fire bans are in effect. Wood also leaves residue on pots and the stove, but a wood fire is hard to beat for ambiance, and fuel is free and you don’t have to carry your fuel in your pack during the day.
Chemical Tablet Stoves
Stoves that burn manufactured hexamine chemical tablets like those from Esbit are quite efficient and very lightweight. Like alcohol stoves, you will want a windscreen to maximize efficiency and block any wind here. These tablets and Esbit fuel can be a bit hard to find if you’re in a pinch, but you can of course stock up from online sources. Esbit stoves leave a residue on your cookware and produce fumes, and as I prefer cleaner or more natural burning fuel alternatives, my experience with Esbit or other hexamine stoves is limited, but I can see the appeal for emergency or backup usage. Some ultralight backpackers however find Esbit fuel appealing for its simplicity and light weight. Esbit stoves, like the Esbit Titanium Stove are small, light, simple, and easily carried.
As with nearly any other backpacking gear category, there may be no best backpacking stove, but hopefully the above information can assist with determining which option(s) would work best for you. While I own them all, these days my general approach is to take an upright canister stove (the Soto WindMaster) for 3 season use. Only when needed in very cold weather or anytime melting snow will be needed will I reach for an inverted canister stove. That same inverted canister stove – the MSR WindPro II, would work just fine in the summer as well if the extra weight wasn’t a concern. But whether you go with a one stove to do it all approach or like to mix and match to specifically meet the needs of the excursion at hand, any backpacking stove should ideally be durable, reliable, and have the ability to heat water and cook your cuisine of choice in a reasonable amount of time, and through whatever conditions will be encountered during a trip.
By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 15It's always hard to enjoy a backpacking trip when you don't sleep well, and sleeplessly shivering throughout the night is one way to guarantee a rough next day. Here's a list of 10 tips, ideas, and considerations that should help the next time your backcountry trip coincides with those colder nights.
A Nalgene Bottle. Trapping your heat utilizing your sleeping bag and insulating yourself from cold ground using a warm enough sleeping pad is highly efficient, but sometimes nothing beats the comfort of a heat source other than your own. Though heavier than disposable water bottles, the venerable multi-use Nalgene weighs just 3.8 ounces in the HDPE Ultralight version and withstands temperatures up to 248°F with your standard Tritan version withstanding 212°F, while hitting the scales a couple ounces heavier. Either way, you’re all clear when it comes to heating up some water before hitting the sack. An Ultralight HDPE Nalgene will stay hot for several hours with your standard Tritan retaining heat even longer – insulate either with something like a spare wool sock or an item of clothing that can take the heat, then tuck inside your sleeping bag. (Make sure the lid is securely closed!) Just remember to bring enough stove fuel or you might be in for a cold breakfast the next morning. Disposable hand warmers can work too, but for me…Nothing beats the versatility of a Nalgene – I can reheat the water for coffee in the morning and of course it works pretty well for carrying water on the trail, as well.
Down Booties. For cold feet, down booties beat socks and are a great set-and-forget item to just throw inside your sleeping bag before a trip. Available in various levels of complexity, I’ve found the sock-like variety (no sole) to be the best choice – you’ll just still have to rely on your shoes to walk around camp at night. But they do one thing and do it well – keep your feet warm. At less than 3 ounces a pair, Goosefeet Gear socks are hard to beat, (overboots optional) but if you’d like some type of integrated sole check out Western Mountaineering’s Flash Booties as well as options from Feathered Friends.
Eat Up and Stay Hydrated. On a past Utah bikepacking trip, little water was to be found – In fact not until 70 miles into the trip. As such, I’d packed a ridiculous amount of water, enough to last until the end of day 2. But that doesn’t help much when you lose 3 liters to a leaky connection the first night. Camp for night 2 was near water, but I still found myself crawling into the tent without adequately rehydrating and without the appetite to take in enough calories. Temps dropped to the 20’s, and I shivered throughout the night in a sleep system that normally keeps me warm into the teens. So stay hydrated and eat well, but avoid drinking alcohol – the effect of alcohol is only psychological when in fact it hurts your chances at staying warm throughout the night. It's probably a good idea to hold back on the caffeine as well, and it could even keep you from falling asleep in the first place. A hot meal, warm drink, and a slow to digest snack before turning in for the night will all go a long way here.
Campsite Selection. It’s all about the elevation. Cold air sinks, but it also gets colder by about 3.5 degrees for every 1000 feet you gain, and often windier as you ascend in elevation as well. So camp lower, but not next to the river. By simply camping on a small rise you can easily raise your nightly low temperature by a few degrees. Select a safe location with natural wind blocks like trees or terrain. Just don’t climb so high that you’re exposed to significant wind or find yourself rising into a different temperature zone entirely. Additionally, we all know how hard it is to get out of your sleeping bag when you have warmed up but it’s still freezing cold the next morning. Selecting a campsite that will receive direct morning sunlight can make a huge difference – So all else being equal going for the west side of that meadow surrounded by tall trees, or an east-facing slope can help. Look to the trees as well – A forested camp can help to cut the wind and is often also warmer. This can especially help with a single wall shelter by reducing condensation compared to a grassy meadow.
Wear it! If you have it, wear it! Too many times cold sleepers leave their layers in their pack. So wear everything you have…a jacket will make a huge and instant difference, but don’t forget extra socks, dry rain gear, gloves, extra....anything. A sleeping bag with just a little room to layer in this manner will help.
Stay Dry. Hiking in rain or snow all day, sweating in your rain gear, a sleeping pad soaking up some of that rain that fell into your tent during setup, and even worse a wet sleeping bag can combine to make for a miserable or dangerous night. The first step starts with taking every extra precaution to make sure your sleeping gear, insulation, and any spare clothing you have stays dry at all costs. Water-resistant pack designs and pack covers / liners help, but don’t stop there – pack your clothes, sleeping bag, and unless it’s closed cell foam and too bulky, throw your sleeping pad all in a lightweight dry sack as well for multiple layers of protection. Once in camp, (see Campsite Selection as well as Eat Up and Stay Hydrated) setup a dry shelter and change into dry clothing immediately before the body heat you’ve been generating from hiking wears off.
Loft and Down Distribution. If you’re using a down bag with continuous baffles, it can be easy to forget they’re there. Designed to control the down yet allowing you to shift it as needed…It can also let the down end up in the wrong place – beneath you. Start at a zipper with the bag unzipped and shake to work the down to the top of the bag – heat rises.
A Vacuum Bottle. If you think taking a Nalgene is a luxury, bringing a vacuum insulated bottle along is definitely taking it a step or two further…along with the associated weight. So while this tip may be best suited for car camping or lower mileage jaunts where weight is not the primary concern, it’s hard to argue with the heat-from-within effect that a piping hot beverage can provide. Unfortunately, it won’t be too warm on the outside, but the contents will stay hot throughout the night if you need it. I use an insulated 20 ounce Klean Kanteen bottle, although due to weight mostly for winter day hikes and morning trips to the trailhead. But if you're willing to carry the weight, a vacuum bottle is hard to beat.
Exercise. When all else fails, warm up by generating more body heat – with exercise. Although not a preferred activity at 3 a.m. for most of us, 60 seconds of situps in your bag can help to generate enough heat to at least get you a little sleep – until the next round. Don’t forget this tip before getting in your bag either – jumping jacks work well.
A Warmer Sleep System. In the end, while these tips and strategies can all help on that unexpected exhausting long day or a colder than anticipated night, the best and most efficient way to stay warm is to take the right sleeping pad and insulation (bag, quilt, etc.) in the first place. If you find yourself consistently cold at night and having to resort to extra measures, adding a little more weight in this department is your best bet. And if it helps you sleep better at night, not to mention the safety factor, your time on the trail will be much more enjoyable. Evaluate the r-value of your current sleeping pad, and either upgrade to a warmer model or for a cheap solution, simply bring a layer of closed cell foam, like a RidgeRest SOLite or similar (even a torso length addition will add needed insulation) to combine with your existing pad for as little as a few bucks and a few ounces. A 20 degree bag isn’t a 20 degree for everyone – if you’re consistently cold, it’s ok to admit it! A warmer bag will be well worth the weight and investment.
Hopefully, these ideas will add up to keep you warmer at night on your next backcountry trip when the temperatures drop.
What are your favorite ways to stay warm at night?