10 Ways to Deal with the Cold if You Start the AT in February

Starting your AT thru-hike in February is a unique, incredible experience. However, you are likely to encounter plenty of winter weather, which can be intimidating at best and life-threatening at worst. After starting my thru-hike at the beginning of February a few years ago, I have plenty of tips to share to help you stay warm.

Not interested in an early start to your AT hike? Keep reading anyway. You can encounter cold weather on any trail at almost any time. These tips might save your hike or even your life.

Layers help you stay warm in even the worst weather.

1. Layers, Layers, Layers

The first thing anyone will tell you about winter hiking is to dress in layers. Layers trap heat more efficiently, and you can adjust just a few different items for almost any weather condition. You should have (at the minimum) a base layer, mid layer, water- and windproof outer shell, and a puffy jacket for camp. Here’s my current favorite setup:

If you’ve done any research at all, you’ve already heard this general clothing advice. What most people won’t tell you is to adjust your layers constantly. Sweating is bad in the winter. You might be warm while you’re hiking, but as soon as you stop for a break, you’ll be chilled. This means you either need to take off a layer when climbing hills or slow down enough that you don’t sweat. Wind chill and long downhills can also lower the temperature quickly, so make sure you have your extra layers easily accessible to throw back on.

READ NEXT – Why $20 Frogg Toggs Are the Ideal Rain Gear for Thru-Hiking

You’ve probably also heard the advice “be bold, start cold.” I am going to respectfully disagree with this. Wearing too few layers to start leads to getting chilled, and it can be hard to warm back up unless you immediately climb a hill. I would much rather start warm (but not sweating) and plan to stop in five minutes to remove clothing.

2. Sleep Warm

It’s important to start the trail with a warm enough sleeping bag. Sleeping bag ratings are normally for survival, rather than comfort. A 20-degree quilt just isn’t going to cut it on a 20-degree night. I used a 10-degree sleeping bag (this one) for a February 3rd start and still had a few chilly nights. It’s also important to use a good sleeping pad. I use a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm Sleeping Pad for winter camping in Canada, but the  Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad is lighter, cheaper, and still has a respectable 4.2 R-value.

READ NEXT – The Best Sleeping Bags for Thru-Hiking

If you still find yourself cold at night, there are a few tricks you can try before you shell out for a new sleeping bag. Hot water in a Nalgene bottle will keep you toasty in your sleeping bag for a few hours, and handwarmers will provide heat all night long. Place them around your core, or on a major vein, such as between your thighs, for extra heat. Down booties will keep your feet warm. If you have any extra space at the bottom of your sleeping bag, make sure you stuff it with extra clothes. Otherwise, your body has extra air to keep warm and your feet will freeze.

If you’re cold around camp, don’t forget that your sleeping bag doubles as an extra layer as long as you can keep it dry. Either do as many camp chores as possible from the comfort of your bed or wear your sleeping bag like a cape.

It might be cold, but snow makes the special places along the AT even more stunning.

3. Pick Up Some Extra Gear

Unfortunately, a winter hike often comes with a bigger backpack. Here are a few things to consider bringing with you in addition to your normal thru-hike gear. None are 100% necessary, but all can be useful. Feel free to ship them home once winter weather has passed. Most of these items are explained in more depth elsewhere in this article.

Unless you’re doing something super cool like a SoBo winter AT thru-hike, you’re unlikely to need snowshoes.

4. Food is Fuel

Food is one of the best ways to stay warm, particularly at camp. Eat a high-calorie snack right before bed to stay toasty all night. A thru-hike is never a good time to diet, but this is especially true when the temperature drops. Make sure you bring enough food on cold sections so you can eat even more than normal. Soup and hot chocolate can be helpful ways to hydrate if you’re struggling to drink enough water.

Keep in mind that some foods that are normally perfect for thru-hikes will break your teeth at low temperatures. Clif Bars and Snickers are particularly hard once they freeze. Either swap out these snacks for options that are edible frozen (Sour Patch Kids are my favorite), or warm your bars up in an inside pocket for an hour or two before eating.

Depending on your stove, you may find that it struggles when the mercury dips. Many thru-hikers use Isobutane/Propane fuel, which loses efficiency the colder it gets. Warm your fuel canister in your jacket or sleeping bag before use to help it out. Be careful though: the canister can get extremely cold, especially right after it is used. Alcohol stove users will have fewer problems in cold temperatures.

Keeping your feet warm and dry can be a challenge

5. Bring All of the Socks

Slogging through snow leads to wet feet. I thru-hiked in trail runners and found that running out of dry/unfrozen socks forced me to bail to town more than any other problem. Bring extra socks, including a pair exclusively to sleep in.

If you hike in trail runners, make sure you dry out and warm your feet every night in order to avoid trench foot. Waterproof socks can keep your feet drier during the day. Some hikers swear by hiking in bread bags to keep their feet dry. However, I find they tear easily or slip down and my socks still end up soaked.

Even if you hike in boots, you’re likely to wake up to frozen shoes at some point, either from sweat or snowmelt. Before you go to sleep, open up your boots as much as you can, including pulling the tongue forward. This will make it easier to get them on in the morning when they are frozen. Just don’t forget to cover the opening with a dry bag or backpack if falling or drifting snow might fill them. If you hike in boots, make sure you bring gaiters to keep the snow out while hiking.

6. Watch Your Water

Obviously, water freezes when it’s below 32˚F. This can cause problems for thru-hikers, especially overnight. Thawing out a frozen bottle can take all day, and make it impossible to hydrate. There are two ways to keep your water liquid while you sleep. First, you can sleep with it inside your sleeping bag. To do this, you need to be absolutely certain your water bottle will not leak (no Smart Water bottles with sports caps). If you hike with a Nalgene, this is the best option, especially if you fill it with hot water. Alternatively, as long as you camp near a water source that won’t freeze like a river, you can simply empty your bottle and refill it in the morning.

Winter thru-hikers also need to watch their water intake. It can be difficult to drink enough, especially if your bottle freezes, or you’re taking fewer breaks due to the cold. Sports caps are my normal go-to because they make it easy to drink, but they freeze much faster than a wide-mouth Nalgene. In the winter, I only use Nalgenes, stored upside down in my pack (ice forms at the top of the bottle first). If you use a water bladder, try insulating your hose, running it underneath clothing, and blowing water back into the reservoir to keep it unfrozen for longer.

Preventing things from freezing in the snow is a difficult task.

7. Keep your Electronics and Filters Close

Cold drains batteries. Sleep with all of your electronics at night to help them stay charged. Hike with your phone in an inside pocket during the day to keep it warm. This is extra important if you rely on your phone for navigation. A backup battery can help keep electronics charged, but only if you keep it warm as well.

If you use a ceramic filter such as a Sawyer Squeeze, Katadyn BeFree, or Platypus QuickDraw, you must keep it from freezing at all costs. Freezing can damage the filter, rendering it useless. Sleep with it in your sleeping bag if temperatures are anywhere close to freezing, and hike with it in an inside pocket during cold days.

8. Emergency Clothes

A dry change of clothes can literally save your life in the cold. On the Great Divide Trail in August, we found ourselves hiking in torrential rain that turned to snow. Our rain gear wetted out after a few hours of rain, and our hiking clothes were soaked. Because we had dry clothes, stored in a dry bag inside a waterproof compactor bag, we were able to set up our tent, change into our emergency clothes, and reverse the beginning of hypothermia. These emergency layers don’t have to be anything additional: most thru-hikers already carry sleep clothes, which function perfectly in this situation. Just make sure you keep them dry at all costs.

Are there blazes on these trees? White snow makes white paint impossible to see.

9. Stay Found

Snow can turn navigation on the AT from easy to impossible. White blazes are invisible on snow-covered trees, and heavy snowfall can obscure trail tread. A navigation app such as FarOut can help you stay on trail: just make sure you keep your phone warm.

10. Bail to Town

If at any point you are above your skill level, or the weather worsens, bail to town. It’s always important to know how to exit the trail in case of emergency, but doubly so during winter. The FarOut app shows road crossings, as does any good map. If a storm or a cold night below what your sleeping bag can handle is forecast, be prepared to hitch to town and wait it out in a hostel. It’s a good idea to budget a little extra town money if you’re starting early.

Winter weather creates challenges but is always beautiful.

Hiking on the AT in February is an incredible, and challenging experience. I had such a great time that I wouldn’t even consider a different NoBo start date. I hope these tips help you embrace the cold and fall in love with winter on the AT just as much as I did.

Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).

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Comments 3

  • Scott Naucler : Jan 27th

    This was a pretty good article. I used to do a lot of mountaineering in my younger years. In 1995 I led a 2-person trip up Denali. All your advice is pretty much spot on. I especially liked the part about covering your boots at night, to avoid them filling with drifting snow overnight. I have had that happen before. It makes for some very cold feet in the morning.

    On Denali, we employed the use of vapor barriers inside our sleeping bags. That does two things. Your body will try to maintain a minimum humidity level next to your skin. Without the vapor barrier, the dry air will suck the water right out of your body. The vapor barrier helps to keep you hydrated. Also, All that moisture coming out of your body, in the form of water vapor, will condense as it works its way through your sleeping bag, making it heavy and less efficient. The unfortunate side-effect is that you are basically sleeping in a plastic bag for 3 weeks, without a change of clothes or shower. You will stink beyond your wildest dreams.

    Another great winter camping trick is to shovel a hole, in the snow, right outside the door of your tent, under the vestibule. This makes removing and putting on your boots much easier. It also makes it easier to stand up when getting out of your tent.

    Cheers,

    Scott

    Reply
  • BobP : Jan 28th

    Great article Eloise! I thru hiked the AT in 2018 starting in February. I run cold and my favorite piece of gear was waterproof socks. Whenever it was wet or rainy I would wear them with thin 5 toe socks underneath. At camp I would turn them inside out and keep them next to me in my quilt to dry out. I would also take the insoles out of my trail shoes and keep them in my quilt as well. The shoes usually didn’t dry out but the insole did which lessened the cold and moisture feeling in my feet the next day. Finally I tried to remember to open my shoes wide and splay the laces. When I forgot and my shoes were frozen like a block in the morning, it was a frustrating and painful exercise to to put them on.

    Reply
  • pearwood : Jan 28th

    Thanks, Eloise!
    I’m starting next Tuesday, February 1. I left my snow stakes at home but I think I have hit the rest of your list. The gaiters and down booties both date back to the 1970s when I was flying Army helicopters out of Fort Richardson, Alaska. Made them from Frostline kits.
    Blessings,
    Steve / pearwood

    Reply

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