If the winter blues has you down, I’m here to help. Every snowy season I brave the cold temps and short days in an effort to have a little winter fun, but I’ve got to be honest, I can’t stand the cold. Here’s how to stay toasty warm outside in winter while hiking or camping.
How does heat transfer?
Let’s dive into the science of heat transfer. There are three different ways in which heat is transferred from one place to another. For the most bang for your buck, look towards mighty convection. Convection occurs in liquids and gases (think water and air). From a science perspective, it’s highly efficient, since the warm, excited molecules move upwards and act to warm the surrounding cooler molecules. Think about how hot air rises. This process creates a circular heat transfer.
Next, there’s conduction. This method of heat transfer offers a big payout since the heat is directly transferred from one object to another. Think about running your hands under hot water, the heat from the water is directly transferred to your skin, warming up your hands in an instant. Lastly, there’s radiation, which doesn’t require an object to transfer the heat. Radiation is rad because you don’t have to directly touch an object to gain the heat benefits, like a campfire or the sun. This type of heat offers the most health benefits. The downside to radiant heat is that once you step into a space that’s cooler than where the heat source is, you become the radiant source and that heat dissipates just as quickly as you gained it, making you feel colder.
Say “no” to the cold
So running from your problems isn’t the greatest life advice, but when it comes to snowy weather, I’m all for it. When the mountains are covered in snow and the going is slow, I look towards other places to explore.
Even though it’s not 80-degrees, the deserts of the American Southwest offer an escape from the snowy landscapes. I’ll bust a move on a desert getaway once a month, even if it’s just to bask in the brilliant desert sun. Alternatively, I’ll book a tropical getaway. Ya, you’ve gotta return to your snowy home, but those few days of sweet, sweet heat help me make it through. Here’s a look at some destination inspo to get you into the warmer weather
- Plan a trip to the San Rafael Swell, Utah
- Book a stay in Caye Caulker, Belize
- Hike along the beach in Colombia’s most beautiful national park
- Escape to Laos and hike with the elephants.
Think warm thoughts
Yes, it sounds totally silly, but your mindset plays a huge roll in your comfort level and staying warm on a winter hike. My hands and feet perpetually freeze throughout the winter. Despite this ,I still summit mountains and climb both rock and ice. How? I focus my mind on something else. Pay attention to what’s warm in your body, such as your core or armpits. Focus on the view, think about a warm place, anything to get your mind off of the cold areas of your body. It isn’t going to save you from frostbite, but it certainly will go a long way to push past the mental barriers of being cold.
Invest in an electric blanket
An electric blanket or heating pad makes an amazing addition to any winter van, RV or travel trailer. Plug in your heating pad for the evening and enjoy toasty toes or go full out with a full-size electric blanket. The heat from the blanket does quick work of warming up your sleeping area while winter camping.
Don’t use hand warmers
Wait, come again? You mean I shouldn’t be using these tiny bundles of hot joy? No, you shouldn’t, use toe warmers instead to keep warm outside in the winter. The thick packets of hand warmers inhibit your ability to grab things (like hiking poles, rock or even your bike handles). So while hand warmers work well, opt to use the thinner toe warmers instead. The sticky side can be placed on the tops of your feet, tops of your glove liners, or anywhere else that feels the frostnip. Unlike their bulky hand-warming counterparts, the thin profile of toe warmers allows for more dexterity, and the sticky backing means they won’t accidentally fall out )speaking from experience here).
Go for leather
Finding warm gloves to keep your hands warm on a winter hike is a true struggle. Anyone who suffers from frozen fingers knows that synthetic material doesn’t cut it in the cold. Instead, opt for a leather glove with a down fill to stay warm outside in winter. Leather, insulated gloves cost a pretty penny, but they are built to last. The leather acts as a better insulative material than their synthetic cousins. Just be sure to purchase a leather glove or mitten that is treated with a waterproofing coating to avoid shrinking.
Dress to impress Jack Frost
If staying warm in winter is your goal, you’ve gotta dress the part. I’ve got an array of recommendations on clothing in my guide to hiking clothes. However, it’s certainly going to take an investment on your part. I’ve found that avoiding any thin pants, like leggings is a great start (even skin-tight jeans give me the shivers in winter). Instead, opt for clothing you can layer (think long underwear with a baselayer underneath. For those of you that stay extra cold, splurge on a pair of fleece lined, softshell pants (PrAna has an amazing new winter hiking pant that gives you the insulation you need without the bulk and weight of full snow pants).
One layer that is a worthy investment is a good puffy. Synthetic fill is cheaper, but it also wears out faster and is heavier. If you can splurge a little, I would invest in a worthy down puffy layer with a hood. Mountain Hardwear’s Super-stretch down jacket lets me move and shake all I want.
Layering on a budget
Unfortunately, the best insulation comes with the highest price tag. In order to stay warm outside in winter on a budget, you’ll have to get creative. Dig through thrift stores, watch out for sales or purchase heavier, less compressible layers. If you’re working with what you’ve got on hand to stay warm on a winter hike, avoid cotton and stick to layering up your synthetics or wear a wool sweater. You’ll lose out on mobility, but you’ll be far warmer than if you stick with cotton.
For more tips on how to find outdoor clothing on a budget, check out my guide to hiking clothes.
Use nature’s oven
Did you know that your armpits and core are the warmest parts of your body? This is because these areas work hard to protect your vital organs. I always stash small layers like beanies, gloves, headbands, and Buffs inside my jacket layer and up near my chest and armpits during winter.
Sure I look like a bafoon hiking around with a big lump on my chest, but I’ll have the last laugh when I plop my toasty hat on my cold head. If you’re hiking with a pack, keep the hip belt snug so the layers don’t fall from underneath your jacket.
Move and shake
In order to stay warm on a winter hike, you likely won’t want to stop. You’ll lose the precious heat your body built up by hiking through the snow, but hiking in snow quickly tires you out, you’l need to take breaks. Choose a place to perch that is out of the wind and in the sun if you can. Look for rocks or other objects that radiate heat well. When stopped keep moving. Bounce, kick your legs, do arm circles, dance and wiggle those toes. All of these activities promote blood flow to your extremities, which in turn, keeps you warm on a winter hike.
Be bold, start cold to stay warm for a winter hike
It sounds counter-intuitive but start with one less layer than you think you’ll need on your winter hike (stash the extra item in your pack of course). Once you get moving, your body creates heat. When you’re hot you sweat, but sweating is a way to cool off. The object of the game is to sweat as little as possible. When you’re bundled up, you encourage your body to sweat as you build up heat. Starting with fewer layers means you’ll sweat less. When the sweat evaporates you get a chill, but if there’s less sweat to evaporate, there’s less of a chill. Throw on big puffy layers and wind layers when you stop for a break.
Worship the Sun
The sun is the giver of radiant heat, the type of heat our bodies enjoy. Temperatures can be well below freezing, but if the sun is out, you’ll feel warm. Search out a sunny spot for your tent while winter camping, especially if you’ll get sun in first light. Stop in a sunny, windless spot for a quick break on a winter hike to stay warm. Always remember, sun worshipers keep warm outside in winter.
Up your R-Value
R-value indicates the insulative properties of a material. Although it’s a common construction term, we care about the R-value of our sleeping pads. Inflatable pads (often the lightest and best for backpacking) usually sacrifice in R-Value. There’s a quick, easy and cheap way to up the R-value of your sleep system. Snag a foam pad, like the Therm-a-rest Z-lite with a reflective surface (keep this facing you to reflect heat up towards you). This lightweight, budget-friendly sleeping pad adds tons of R-value to your sleep system and also doubles as a sit pad outside on snowy surfaces or a doggy sleeping pad in the summer.
Invest in a Thermos
One item that’s well worth the weight on a winter outing is an insulated thermos. I love my Hydro Flask Food Flask. This baby paid itself back quickly when we use it to pack hot meals on the slopes (say buh-bye to expensive resort eats). I fill this goody bag to the brim with hot soups both on the trail and off. It even holds ice cream (frozen) for up to 7 hours! So say goodbye to frozen protein bars and hello to a hot meal that will warm you up in a jiffy.
Keeping your feet warm on a winter hike
Often times when you hike in winter you’ve got microspikes (metal traction devices) or snowshoes on. Metal conducts heat just as well as the cold, meaning the cold from the snowy ground quickly transfers to your toes. Here are a few quick tips to keep your feet warm on a winter hike:
- Wiggle your toes. You can do this as you move as well to keep the blood flowing to your feet.
- Pick up a pair of silk sock liners. They not only help prevent blisters, but they add an extra layer of warmth without sacrificing comfort.
- Wear mountaineering-grade socks. These compression socks are thick and designed to keep your feet warm. No cotton, wool works best.
- Use toe warmers. If you have trouble fitting toe warmers into your boots, try putting the toe warmer on the top of your foot (stick it to the sock).
- Wear waterproof boots. Waterproof boots are key in winter. Gore-Tex is the standard, usually, a boot with “GTX” in the name is waterproof. Many models of boots are made with and without GoreTex.
- Don’t keep traction on if you don’t need it. Only wear snowshoes, crampons, and microspikes when you need to in order to minimize that pesky heat transfer.
The water bottle trick
Heat up water on the stove and put it in a Nalgene or other bottle that can handle hot water (read: NOT a water bladder or soft bottle). Step two, stuff that bad boy in your sleeping bag and enjoy a warm hug all night. This is how I survived sub-zero temperatures in Nepal.
Now you’ve got a few handy hacks to stay warm outside this winter season. Get out there and enjoy staying warm while winter hiking and camping this season.
Looking for more snowy advice? I’ve got you covered.
- Hiking and snowshoeing for women
- Your alternative to popping a squat in the snow
- What to expect on your first winter hike
- Snowshoe tips for getting outside with your four-legged friend