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10 Ways to Sleep Warmer on Your Next Backpacking Trip


Aaron Zagrodnick

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It'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.

Chilly Campsite

A Nalgene Bottle. Trapping your heat utilizing your sleeping bag and insulating yourself from cold ground using a warm enough sleeping pad are 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.

HDPE Ultralight Nalgene Bottle

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.

Campsite Selection (Zpacks Hexamid Twin)

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.

Staying Dry While Hiking

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.

Continuous Sleeping Bag Baffles

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.

Insulated Vacuum Bottle

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.

Sleeping Pads and r-value

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?

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Aaron,

Really nice blog entry (10 Ways to Sleep Warmer on Your Next Backpacking Trip)!

My all time favorite is your first on the list; the good old Nalgene bottle filled with warm water. This old trick kept me warm many a cold night.

I've reversed this as well, and filled my bottle with cool creek water (if available) on those scorching and super humid summer nights when it takes hours after sunset before it cools down. The Nalgene is like the duct tape of the water bottle industry; lots of uses, just let your imagination run free!

Gary M

Olathe, Kansas

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Aaron Zagrodnick

Posted

Thanks Gary! I've found the Nalgene to work well for a boost when needed. It does require the extra fuel of course, but it's nice as a supplement to your own heat....kind of like that moment after a chilly backpacking trip / hike where you make it back to the car and the heater finally warms up a few miles from the trailhead. Never thought about the reverse application in summer - I'll have to keep that in mind and thanks for the tip! Agree regarding the versatility and usefulness of a Nalgene overall. I used to take repurposed Aquafina bottles to save weight, but after breaking a few in the field and finding that a Nalgene handles hot water better I usually just bring the HDPE Nalgene these days, it's pretty light as is anyway, plus the measurements on the side always seem to help at some point during the trip. (That and they stopped making my Aquafina bottle of choice, anyway)

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kwhowell

Posted

Heating the water before adding it to the Nalgene! Great idea! I made the mistake of heating it next to a fire. A pin hole developed which then leaked through the sock and into my bag. Needless to say, I woke up in an ice cube. Stupid mistake, I know.

Now I carry a 27 oz stainless steel single wall Klean Kanteen and it works great for several things. For weight considerations I use hand warmers more often, though.

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Aaron Zagrodnick

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I can see that making for a cold night kwhowell! I always just heat the water up on my stove and (carefully) pour it into the bottle as a last step before I jump in my bag. It can use a lot of fuel though, especially when it's cold water on a cold night. (Which for this idea, is usually the case)

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Hi Aaron:

Thanks for the great tips. Your point about campsite selection is apropos as many might believe that lower is better. I hope in a couple months you post some advice about warm (hot) weather camping, if you have not done so, as well.

Thanks,

ENO

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Aaron Zagrodnick

Posted

Thanks ENO...and thanks for the idea on the post, I'll have to keep that in mind this summer!

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Blackdiamond1194

Posted

Vapur flexible bottle is my favorite because of its flexibility. I carry one in each front pocket rather than my pack (less weight on the shoulders and back). They are dishwasher safe so I'll bet they are perfect as hot water bottles for sleeping. Great idea. I can't wait to try them out.

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Few warmer enhancing sleeping solutions exist that are as cheap, of minimal wt and volume, and multi functional as layering with a aluminum laminated piece of polyethylene or sheet of mylar. Windproof and waterproof too. They work by radiating upto 90% body heat back. Materials are now available that radiate upto 70% that are somewhat breathable. Some experimentation is needed to avoid/minimize condensation issues. Use above as a blanket or below as ground cloth layering piece.

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It still amazes me when some say they slept cold all night yet ignored sleeping in all their dry apparel letting it stay in their backpacks unused. Rain wear it's not just for rain.

Focus on insulating those high heat loss areas - extremities - hands, gloves, head, wear hat(s), did someone say balaclava?, all hats including putting up that hood on your rain jacket if sleeping in that and cinching it down, wrap bandana around ears, or employ multi-functional tubular buff, if not overly constricting wear multiple dry socks(alpaca is luxurious having a very good warmth to wt ratio)

Spread maps, empty stuff sacks, layers of leaves, etc under you as insulation. ANYTHING and everything can help insulate. Place bottom half of bod in backpack or place empty backpack under you for added insulation and warmth.

If forced with the decision to sleep cold(er) by having that extra dry shirt/jacket/socks crumpled up using it as a pillow or sleeping warmer by wearing that shirt/jacket/socks I'll find something else as a pillow(shoes, food bag(debatable in bear country though, I've gotten away spreading Ziplocked dinners under my legs on several occasions as extra insulation ), partially filled water bladder, pile of dry pine needles/newly fallen leaves or dry duff, etc.).I'm wearing that shirt/jacket.

Inflate mattress fully as air is usually good insulator. Likewise, if at all possible, don't mash down clothing if sleeping in it. Fluff it up with dry air.

Throw a couple packs of body, hands, feet warmers into the mix ie; Hot Hands, Toasty Toes, Grabber, Hot Rocks, etc

Warm some rocks in a fire and arrange around sleeping area letting that heat radiate towards you but being careful to not get rocks that are too hot or too close or create a fire hazard. Likewise build a warming fire in front of large rock face letting the heat radiate toward you on the other side of the campfire. Don't have a rock face a log wall, sheet or similar can radiate heat too.

Practice in the yard at home before going out on that weekend camping trip during winter

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I can't believe there are no dog people here. I've used my dogs as a bed warmer since as far back as I can remember.  They generally run a few degrees warmer than people (around 101 f).

If your not a dog person, then an actual person does work. You may have to zip two bags together.  It should also be noted that this may make the excercise method of keeping warm interesting.

Great article. Not much I didn't already know, but good food for thought. I'd also like to see one on keeping cool in the summer. 

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On 10/18/2015 at 1:45 AM, FlyingFish said:

I can't believe there are no dog people here. I've used my dogs as a bed warmer since as far back as I can remember.  They generally run a few degrees warmer than people (around 101 f).

If your not a dog person, then an actual person does work. You may have to zip two bags together.  It should also be noted that this may make the excercise method of keeping warm interesting.

Great article. Not much I didn't already know, but good food for thought. I'd also like to see one on keeping cool in the summer. 


Oh, there are definitely dog people here!

Check around and you'll see some of us hike and backpack with a dog; as well as utilize a canine friend as a cold weather sleeping aid.  I've been doing it for well over 40 years!  Big hairy ones work the best!

Katie_and_Max_on_the_Trail_032.thumb.JPG.a2faed939e94ad04dbb1769d1399048b.jpg

Katie and Maximus on the trail several springs ago

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I 100% stay warm by, Min Pin......my little 12 pound dog loves the trails and makes an excellent personal heater. Sadly, there are a lot of trails that are not dog friendly so when my heater has to stay home I find alternate sources. Depending on if I am travelling in a group or alone depends on what I use. Sometimes the best defense against the cold is simply the shelter. Even if I am using a tent I try and find locations that protect my shelter and in turn protect me. I haven't used the Nalogene method, I am interested in trying it for sure. I can only speak for myself but as a female, I can barely warm the spot I am sleeping in so I make sure I carry a sleep system that meets the weather needs! 

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First real snow of the season here in Kansas, I was able to get out and have a great time.

Happy holidays from the Midwest, looking forward to a great 2016 with TrailGroove!

Anyone have a TraillGroove New Years Resolution??


Gary M

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All good advice.  Any thoughts on VBL?

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