A Southerner’s Guide to Cold… Winter Is Coming

My parents did what they could to make cold a part of my life. — conceived and born in the midwest with occasional skiing trips throughout my childhood and keeping our home at a brisk 65 degrees in the winter. That’s the best I’ve got.

I’ve lived in Arizona, Louisiana, and Texas for the past 26 years and I do not understand the concept of cold, y’all. Yes, I have experienced snow. Yes, I have driven in it. Yes, I have eaten snoballs (snowcones for anyone not living in Louisiana). And that is approximately the end of it for my adult life.

I know thru-hiking the AT beginning in early March means I will experience cold in an intimate way, and I’m not especially looking forward to it. To lessen the cold-fingered slap of winter, I’m looking for answers and I hope to bring some insight to you, fellow friend from the South. I will bring up questions and offer potential answers for those of you also questioning your cold weather hardiness. Clearly, I am not an expert. I’m just trying to become one. These are my experiences and the results of some of the research I’ve conducted. If you have thoughts, please help! I’d love you to correct any misinformation I present, any information you have, anything. Please.

What are gaiters?

Gaiters. In all honesty, I thought that “gaiters” was a silly spelling of “‘gators” and were generic Crocs. Seriously. I am here to tell you that gaiters are a completely different item of clothing. Next, I thought that they were scarves sans excess fabric: only partly true. Those are called neck gaiters. Gaiters are, in fact, a kind of cold weather spats. “What are spats?” you may ask, my sartorially-challenged friend. Think Scrooge McDuck. Spats are clothing items that cover the top of shoes and bottom of pants. Distinction: spats go under the feet within shoes and gaiters are completely external and the bottom goes underneath shoes. Scrooge McDuck doesn’t wear shoes, so all bets are off. With me still? Okay. It seems most people wear gaiters to prevent snow from getting into boots on sogging up your pants. Also, people wear gaiters in fair weather to prevent scratches, scrapes, and general discomforts while still wearing shorts.

from The Billfold https://thebillfold.com/2012/04/how-much-money-you-need-to-realistically-recreate-the-scrooge-mcduck-gold-coin-swim/

How do you camp in/on snow or when it’s just straight up cold?

Twenty-nine degrees F and drizzly counts as straight up cold, right? Well, I have done that and I did it poorly. I will tell you what you should do. You should vent your tent. If you don’t, the insides will be covered in condensation. You should keep yer dang nose out of your sleeping bag. If you don’t, you’ll be all clammy and that absolutely does not help you stay warm. You should keep your water in the tent with you. Nailed that one, actually.

I did all right on the next two points. You should have an insulated sleeping pad with an r-value (rating that measures the resistance of heat flow — a higher rating reflects more insulation) minimum of 3.5 according to this Appalachian Mountain Club article. REI also provides a concise summary of sleeping pad options. The other “should”: a sleeping bag that keeps you warm. There’s no one correct answer for this one for anyone. Again, check out that AMC article for guidance. My setup was a 20 F sleeping bag with a silk liner on a sleeping pad with an r-value of 4.9. If it weren’t for all my unfortunate choices of keeping the inside of my tent nice and damp, I would have enjoyed a very cozy evening.

from Brain Damaged https://braindamaged.fr/2014/05/04/star-wars-the-4th-is-with-me-envahi-ma-vie/

Snow…Your sleeping pad with an excellent r-value will help keep the snow beneath you from melting into slush. If you smash down the snow in all areas under your tent you’ll better keep the snow intact and if you do melt the snow beneath you, you’ll be less likely to wake up in a small, icy pool. Perhaps more importantly the snow smashing will help prevent you from stepping through the floor of your tent in the event of melted snow. Horror show.

Let’s be clear. There are many ways to deal with camping in snow and the articles I’ve mentioned have a great many more points to absorb. I am hoping that my snow camping experiences range between 0 and 2 days. I’ll let you know how that hoping works out for me. This, friends, is what we call blissful ignorance until reality surfaces.

Water freezes?

Yes. It does. (32 degrees F, remember?) Keep your water stash in the tent with you to prevent water freezing. If that’s not an option or you’re uncomfortable with that, store your water bladders/bottles upside down so the water will be less likely to freeze around the opening. Empty your bladder hydration tube.

Solution for contact lenses will also freeze, but salt water (essentially what the solution is) freezes at a temperature slightly lower than 32 F. Keep that in mind. I’ll probably just stick to glasses during cold weather.

What are underlayers?

I know. It’s long underwear, though I have yet to see a butt flap involved. Ideally, you wear a top and bottom and they are made of super-ultra-high-tech fabrics that both wick away sweat (remember all that stuff about keeping out dampness in the tent?) and keep you toasty. I am opting for some underlayers from Patagonia with Capilene Level 3. Wick away sweat and keep me warm, please.

How do you stay warm for eff’s sake??

Wear underlayers. Try to stay dry. Keep moving. Eat a snack right before bed. Stay hydrated but try not to drink too much water prior to going to sleep so you don’t have to leave your tent in the middle of the night… or pee in a bottle in your tent. This should go without saying but… if you make that choice please do label your bottle clearly.  Don’t drink alcohol. The feeling of being warm by drinking from your flask will only give you the impression of being warmer and will actually lower your body temperature. Sock liners combined with socks are good. Wearing two pairs of socks is bad — the compression will lessen the warmth. Keep your boots in your tent when it’s freezing outside so they don’t freeze solid. You can even put them in a plastic bag in the footbox of your sleeping bag.

I’m overwhelmed.

Me too. Let’s sip some tequila, y’all.

If you have anything to add, contribute, or correct, please do. I’ll be happy to trade you — hurricane preparation skills, how to gather water in the desert, how to keep your fair hair from turning green in chlorinated water, how to acclimate to heat, and how to thoroughly enjoy a thunderstorm in the midst of summer.

Related Reading: 10 Tips for Staying Warm While Winter Backpacking

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