Stay warm or die. That’s what it comes down to at the extremes. More people die in the wilderness of exposure than from any other cause. Staying warm, of course, also means more comfort, and for backpackers, it can mean going even lighter, without more risk.
Staying warm in the wilderness is about proper gear and good skills. Proper gear means clothing and equipment suited to the enviroment you’re in. This is a subject in itself, worth studying if you spend much time backpacking. With better materials and designs, the newest clothing and equipment saves lives. It is skills, however, that make the biggest difference.
How To Stay Warm – Tips and Skills
– Set up camp in the right places. Hilltops are windy and cold, and cold air also fills valleys at night. Level ground somewhere in between, out of the wind, is best.
– Wear clothes to bed. Shake and fluff them up to make them insulate better. Some recommend against sleeping in clothes, but I’ve tried it both ways many times, and it’s always warmer with clothes on.
– Wear a hat. This may be equal to a pound of insulation in your sleeping bag. A lot of heat is lost through an uncovered head.
– Go to bed dry. Stay up until your clothes have dried, or change into dry clothes. On a warm, dry night, however, you can put damp clothes on your sleeping bag to dry them with body heat. You may need warm, dry clothes the next night (Thinking ahead is a great wilderness skill).
– Breath into your sleeping bag. Only do this in a dry climate, or if you’re sure it’s your last night out. You’ll get damp, but you should dry quickly from hiking in the morning.
– Take a water-bottle full of hot water to bed with you. This is easier and safer than heating rocks and placing them around you.
– Make a pine-needle mattress. Dead leaves and dry grass work too. Scatter the leaves in the morning, so they won’t smother the plants underneath. I’ve slept warmly below freezing, with no sleeping bag, in a pile of dry grass collected from a frozen swamp.
– You can breath into your sleeping bag if you’re really cold. You should only do this in a dry climate, or if you’re sure it’s your last night out. You’ll get damp, but you should dry quickly from hiking in the morning.
– Fill a water bottle with hot water, and take it to bed with you. This is easier and safer than heating rocks and placing them around you.
– Adjust your clothing as you hike. Remove and add clothes as necessary to stay warm without sweating. Sweat can cause you to lose heat rapidly when you stop.
– Stay dry. On a cold day, wet and hot can become hypothermia soon after you stop moving those muscles. On a hot day, however, wear wet clothing to dry it out in preparation for a possibly cold night.
– Conserve your energy. It’s tough for your body to keep itself warm with no energy reserves. You may also need that energy to gather firewood or hike to the car to escape a blizzard. Finally, you’ll make better decisions if you aren’t tired, and you’ll remember how to stay warm.
This is a sampling of wilderness skills and knowledge. There are many more things to learn about how to stay warm. In fact, I’ve left out one of the most important, because it deserves its own artcle: how to start a fire in any conditions.
Steve Gillman is a long-time advocate of lightweight backpacking. His tips, photos and stories can be found at