Through my many years working in the field, one of the most common complaints I get is

Sleeping through a blizzard in the Yukon's Kluane National Park
Sleeping through a blizzard in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park

about people’s ability to sleep comfortably in the ever dropping temperatures. With the impending polar vortex, it’s important to get your sleeping system down now, before you venture out into the depths of winter camping.

Sleeping Bag: First and foremost, and possibly the most obvious is to make sure that you have right kind of sleeping bag for the trip you’re going on. If you’re expecting cold temperatures, or even cool temperatures, make sure that you’re in the appropriate sleeping bag. For more information on sleeping bags feel free to check here.

Sleeping Pad: Sleeping pads are for warmth first, and comfort second. If you’re expecting cold weather you MUST use a sleeping pad underneath your sleeping bag. It will insulate you from the ground and protect you from the cold. While inflating sleeping pads are often (not always) warmer, a closed-cell foam pad will keep you warm as well. For more information, check here.

Okay – Time to get into the brass tacks.

There are a number of theories on sleeping warm, what to do, what to wear, how to eat, etc. They’re all important, all correct and all subjective. Everyone’s homeostasis runs a little differently, so they sleep at different temperatures in different times. There is no set formula to sleep perfectly, but using any combination of these tips should allow everyone to sleep comfortably.

What to Wear:

You seem to hear differing opinions on what to wear. The gut feeling when you’re cold is to pile clothes on to make yourself warmer – which makes perfect sense – while on the other hand there is also this theory that circulates that says that you’re not supposed to wear any clothing in order to allow your bag to heat appropriately. So what do you do?

Well, I look at it like this. A sleeping bag is basically a giant down parka for your entire body. I wouldn’t pile clothes on under a down jacket, nor would I go without any clothes on. You wear basic layers to allow wicking and moisture management, breathability and to create warmth. There’s some science behind this as well. Sleeping bags work by creating dead air space for your body to heat, and then maintaining the heat you’ve created. You are your own generator. If you wear too many clothes you can hinder the bag from heating the way it is supposed to. But, on the flip side, if you’re sleeping the nude you won’t dry as effectively as you would with clothes on. Sleeping bags don’t dry out quickly, so any moisture that’s on your skin or that soaks into the bag might make you cold. Get the best of both worlds. When I sleep I recommend one or two lightweight base layers. Personally, I prefer to wear merino wool top and bottoms, no heavier than 200wieght. The wool is the fastest breathing fabric on the market so you’ll stay extra dry and it’s warm as well.

You should also be sporting a few accessories. Anytime you’re in your bag, a hat is an absolute MUST. Even if you don’t wear it, keep it in your bag and the moment you wake up with a chill toss it on and go back to sleep. Gloves are another must have. You don’t necessarily need to wear them, but your hands get colder faster than the rest of you, so have some gloves to stop yourself from waking up from chilly hands. DRY SOCKS this is capitalized and bolded for a reason. DRY is the key word in this sentence. The best way to go about this is to actually keep a pair of socks inside your sleeping bag. Don’t ever take them out, just get into the bag at night, take your wet, damp or slightly damp socks off and put your “sleep socks” on.

As a side note, especially in super cold environments, it’s also nice to have some extra insulation. When I spend time in the northern areas, or in high altitudes, I like to sleep with my down jacket. I don’t wear it, because I want to be able to heat my bag, but I like to cuddle with it, like a teddy bear. It’s a trick I picked up years ago in the Yukon. Cuddling with your down jacket basically creates a little ball of warmth to hold while you’re surrounding by your sleeping bag of warmth. It’s nice. It’s really effective if you’re borrowing a sleeping bag that doesn’t fit you as it will fill some of the dead space inside the bag and allow you to heat yourself more effectively.

What to Eat:

The answer to this is easy: Everything. If you find yourself getting cold at night you’re not eating enough during the day. Anytime you’re outside you’re burning calories faster than you would at home so you’re going to need to eat extras. Here are a couple of quick tips:

Butter – Butter burns fast, quick, and hot. In the cold weather throw an extra dollop or two into whatever you’re making for dinner. Don’t worry about your hips or whatever, the fat cells won’t last the evening. It’s also a very tasty addition to instant hot chocolate; it makes it frothy and wonderful.

CANDY BARS! – bring lots of candy bars. I think snickers work the best, but you can bring whatever you want. I like to use the snickers mini’s that normally come in the variety packs. I eat a couple before bed and then keep a couple in my boot by my head, that way if I get cold at night I can pop a couple when I get up to pee.

Peanut Butter – Another great midnight snack is peanut butter. It’s high in fat and protein so it gives a quick burst of energy followed by a long burst. Take a spoonful and let it soak in your hot chocolate, or suck on it like a late night Popsicle, peanut butter is an excellent cold weather boost.

Prepping for bed in Klaune National Park
Prepping for bed in Klaune National Park

What to Do:

The process of getting ready for bed is just as important as actually being in bed. There are a few things you can do to kick-start your comfortable night of sleep.

Use the Bathroom – Part of your body’s homeostasis is to keep the waste inside you at a consistent mushy temperature. Try not to think about this too hard, but the liquids and solids your body is discarding need to maintain a certain viscosity, so it burns energy to ensure that your waste stays the right temperature. That’s energy warming your waste that could be warming your hands. I know it’s cold out but take a quick walk and use the bathroom and you’ll sleep much warmer.

Go For A Walk – “Warming walks” can be a great way to kick start the system, especially if you get cold feet. It doesn’t need to be long, but a quick lap or two around the campsite, or maybe a visit to the bathroom, will get the blood flowing through your legs and down to your feet and back up to your heart.

Sit-ups – As if your day of hiking wasn’t long enough, now you have to do sit-ups?! Don’t worry, it’s not many, but doing some sit-ups will activate you core muscles, your digestive system, and your blood flow to literally jumpstart your system. This is one of the most effective ways to warm yourself before bed. It’s also the best way to re-warm yourself if you wake up shivering in the middle of the night. Do sit-ups until your warm, then do a few more and go back to sleep.

wintercamping 2When Nothing Else Works:

So you’ve followed all the guidelines and you’re still cold. Here are some last minute suggestions to help.

Sleep in the middle – body heat, body heat, body heat. Sleep in the middle and let your friends insulate you from the sides. If you’re on your own, sleep next to your backpack, or make a wall of snow to shelter your body.

Hot Water Bottles – Boiling the water in your water bottle can be a great way to warm up. Before bed, boil your Nalgene bottle, wrap it in a sock and throw it in your bag. The sock will prevent you from burning yourself and help insulate it so it doesn’t cool down too quickly. NOTE: This is important. You MUST pull your bottle out of your bag before you fall asleep. Once the bottle cools below your body temperature, you’ll waste energy trying to keep it at 98.6 degrees, and you will be colder. It’s best to put it in your bag, let it sit there until you get into your bag, and then pull it out before you fall asleep.

Get a Warmer Sleeping Bag – Clearly this is obvious, and meant to make you smile, but for real, if you do all of these things and you’re still cold, GET A WARMER SLEEPING BAG.

Happy trails everyone! Hopefully this helps keep you warm during these upcoming cold days!


1 Comment on Sleeping Warm and Dry

  1. Jarrett Morgan
    September 30, 2014 at 21:05 (8 years ago)

    These are some good tips. While its hard to think about it being cold here in south Texas, in a few months it will be and I’ll need to remember all this.