How I Stayed Warm During My Thru-Hike
How do I stay warm when it’s so cold on trail?
Due to the elevation and weather in the mountains, hikers normally experience temperatures five to ten degrees colder on trail vs. at home.
When temperatures are really low, some experience trouble staying warm while on trail and in camp.
In the beginning of my thru-hike, I really struggled staying warm.
I upgraded some gear in the first 250 miles: synthetic bag to down quilt, foam to air pad, merino wool leggings, but the below lessons I learned on my thru-hike really helped the most.
Hand warmers saved me through the Smoky Mountains and a few other really cold spots on trail. I ordered a huge pack from Amazon and I still have some left over for next season.
I eventually stopped carrying as many hand warmers because they are so heavy and you have to pack them out. I started my thru-hike carrying four to five hand warmers at a time and I dropped it down to one to two hand warmers for weight purposes.
I had camp clothes separate from my hiking clothes.
My hiking clothes were soaking wet from sweat by the end of the day.
If I had to sleep in my wet clothes, I probably would have frozen to death!
I invested in some ultralight sleep clothes (aka, a Patagonia tank top and North Face shorts—which ripped in Virginia and I replaced them with $5 shorts from Walmart) and sleeping in dry clothes kept me warm(er) vs. sleeping in wet clothes.
I hiked in a miniskirt, even when it was cold.
Let me explain this one with a little history.
When I started my-thru hike, I wore long pants with the idea of transitioning to a miniskirt once it got warmer.
However, I found my long pants only served me briefly in the cold mornings, and as the day got warmer I found myself soaked from sweat because of how fast I was moving in long pants.
The sweat had no way of airing out, and would accumulate in my clothing—leaving me in soaking wet, cold clothes. I switched over to my miniskirt early, and its openness really helped me dry off from sweat through out the day.
Yes, my legs were cold for the first 20 minutes of the day but my body warmed up so fast as I kept hiking, and I didn’t have to worry about sweat being trapped against my skin.
(Shorts probably have this same affect if you aren’t about hiking in a skirt!)
Tenting vs. Hammocking
After both tenting and hammocking on my thru-hike, I now know I am 100% a hammocker.
However, my hammock set up is a summer setup, not a winter setup. I had to return to my tent once the temperatures starting dropping.
Unless you have a winter setup for hammocking, I recommend tenting for cold weather. The rain fly of your tent will keep it ten degrees warmer inside your tent since it traps your body heat in there. Unfortunately, hammocks do not have that luxury as the tarp sits above the hammock, rather than covering it (like a rain fly for a tent does).
As you progress as a thru-hiker, you’ll pick up a rhythm, or tempo, in your hiking.
It’s true. The faster you hike, the warmer you will be.
There were a few days the cold hurt more than my muscles so I had to keep hiking through it vs. taking breaks.
Keep Rain Gear Dry for Camp
Just like every other backpacking topic, rain gear is a personal preference. The truth is, no matter how much you spend on your rain gear, it’s going to soak through and you’re going to get wet.
I went through four rain jackets on the trail (Frogg Toggs, Columbia, Marmot Precip, and Outdoor Research) and all four worked pretty much the same:
Rain + soak through from the outside + sweat on the inside = wet (and cold) hiker.
Whenever I saved my rain gear for camp, I was always much warmer vs. when I used my rain gear while hiking in the rain. I would always overheat in my rain jacket, which created condensation in the jacket, making me wet and icky inside while the jacket soaked through from the rain on the outside, and resulted in making me cold.
For when it was really cold, I layered my puffy under my rain jacket to keep my puffy warm and dry!
One popular hiking accessory that didn’t work for me was my buff. I didn’t have much luck staying warm from wearing a buff. I found the buff made me sweat just as bad as my pants, leaving my hair soaking wet (since it couldn’t air out trapped in the buff). With a wet head, I was always much colder vs. when my hair was dry so I sent home my buff after approximately 200 miles.
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