A quick guide on cold weather backpaking

Somewhere in Tennessee during my thru-hike, I experienced what could possibly be the coldest night I’ve ever had in my entire life. I had been lured into a false sense of security in the previous weeks of bright sunshine and warm afternoons. Then all of a sudden one night, the temperature dropped and snow fell from the sky.

I hiked during the next day, and somehow missed the mountain-top shelter I was looking for in the late afternoon. I hiked all the way down the mountain, and reached a road crossing just as the sun was disappearing. It was a treeless area, but I had no choice but to set up my tent. All night long, the wind was howling and battering against my tent, while I curled up into a shivering ball. The next morning, I had to dig my tent out of five inches of snow before continuing up the trail.

1) Hike in your Wet Clothes

If the weather is cold/ rainy/ snowing/ or anything but sunny, always hike in your wet clothes. When you get to camp, the first thing you will want to do is change into your dry clothes. Go right ahead. But when it’s time to hike the next day, put your wet clothes back on. If you set out into dreary weather in your dry clothes, you will soon have two sets of wet clothes, and you will risk getting hypothermia.

2) Dry Damp Clothes Overnight

Before bed, put your damp clothes in the sleeping bag with you. Ring them out first if they’re too wet. Your body heat will help dry the clothes. They probably won’t dry completely, but at least they won’t be cold when you put them on in the morning.

3) In a Pinch, Use Socks as Gloves

If you didn’t bring gloves and it’s really cold outside, you can just put socks on your hands. Stick your thumbs in the heel of the sock, so you can still grasp your trekking poles.

4) Pack as Added Insulation

On really cold nights, you can use your pack for additional warmth. Just remove everything from inside of your pack, crawl into your sleeping bag, then slide your legs into the pack and pull it up around your knees. It adds a surprising amount of warmth.

5) Plastic Bags as Extra Sock Layer

Save a few plastic grocery bags from your resupply. On snowy days, put your foot in the bag over your sock before you step into your shoe. It will keep your feet mostly dry and trap heat. There’s nothing worse than cold toes.

6) Puffy Jackets

Do yourself a favor and invest in a puffy jacket. If you don’t want to splurge on a down jacket, you can opt for a synthetic version. It can be sent home during the summer months, but it will be nice to have during the spring and fall. Trust me, you’ll be happy you have it on those cold evenings. (You can find some good puffy options here).

7) Err on the Side of Caution

If it is snowing or the temperature is freezing, get yourself to a shelter or campsite before dark. You’ll have plenty of nice days to push for big miles, so don’t torture yourself by walking around in the dark through the snow.

8) Set Up Camp Out of the Wind

On cold and windy nights, set up your tent in an area with heavy trees, so you’ll have some protection from the harsh wind. If it snows during the night, the tress will catch most of the flakes, so you won’t wake up buried under the snow.

9) Prevent Your Water from Freezing

If the temperature is below freezing, put a water bottle in your sleeping bag with you so you will have drinking water in the morning, instead of a hard brick of ice. It can be annoying bordering dangerous to wait for your water to melt when you’re thirsty.

10) Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

Don’t mail your cold weather clothes and sleeping bag home too early. When I hiked, lots of people mailed home their cold weather gear in Irwin, Tennessee; then it snowed for three days. Hold off until you have made it to Damascus, Virginia.

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