Every now and then, when I’m talking to someone about sleeping bags in the shop, they ask me what sleeping bag I use. It’s a valid question, but it tends to derail the entire conversation. Why? I am a chronically cold sleeper. During a heat wave, I go down to one duvet instead of the usual two, and I almost always pack an extra blanket when I’m travelling to supplement whatever the hotel provides. That being said, one of my favourite ways to spend my time is backpacking in the Rockies, and we tend to get some very cold nights. After lots of nights shivering, and more nights spent finding ways to warm up, and I’m slowly getting to a place where I don’t dread going to bed if it’s cold, and I no longer consider cancelling if the weather forecast dips. When you are too cold to sleep well, it seeps into every aspect of your trip. Hiking is harder, you make bad decisions, and you get grouchy with your hiking partners. Hopefully after reading this, you’ll have a couple more ideas about how to stay warm when camping, and you can better enjoy the rest of your trip.
1. Use a warmer sleeping bag. This seems obvious, but honestly, it’s the fastest and most weight efficient way to stay warm at night. The rating advertised on your sleeping bag is the limit rating – which means that most people won’t be comfortable sleeping at the listed temperature. Instead, get something that is 5-10C degrees warmer than the coldest temperatures you expect, and round to a warmer bag if you sleep cold. I personally sleep in a bag rated to -15°C – which any normal person will tell you is totally overkill for the Rockies. However, it’s what I need to stay warm enough to enjoy my trips. When you do use your warmer sleeping bag, be sure to use all the fancy tools that your sleeping bag provides – tighten the hood and draft collar to prevent cold air from sneaking in. Additionally, keep it well away from the walls of your tent to avoid compressing or wetting the down with condensation. You can also get fleece-type sleeping bag liners that help extend the range of your bag. If you already have a warm sleeping bag and you are still struggling to stay (or get warm), then the rest of the list is aimed at you.
2. Use a warmer sleeping pad. The R value on a pad is a measure of how warm the pad is. Without getting too technical, the higher the R value, the more the pad is going to insulate you from the ground. Most 3 season pads that people use in the Canadian Rockies have an R value of about 3. Winter rated pads usually have an R value of 5 or above. If you are sleeping on a pad that has an insufficient R value for the conditions, no other means of staying warm will work all night, since you are just losing any gained warmth to the ground. Luckily, R values are additive – so if you stack two mats on top of each other you get the insulative properties from both. A cheap way to boost your pads warmth is to use a foam pad (like the Nemo Switchback, which has an R value of 2) either below or on top of it. If your original pad had an R value of 3, together you will have a system with an R value of 5. That’s considered a winter rated system! Or if you are like me, it’s just a cold-sleeper 3 season system!
3. Eat something fatty and calorie dense right before bed. This can help make sure you have enough energy to warm yourself up. After all, the definition of a calorie is based on how much energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius, so consuming some calories can help get your metabolism get moving so you warm up. I have been known to go find a mars bar or handful of nuts right before bed. A cup of sweet hot chocolate (with extra milk power) is also a great way to warm up a little bit before bed. Just be bear smart if you choose to go get a midnight snack.
4. Make sure you are sleeping in appropriate layers at night. A set of high-quality base layers helps to wick any moisture away from your body when you sleep, which can help keep you warm. In the shop, we sometimes joke about our “Sacred Dry Layer” – the base layers that don’t come out until night or a true emergency. Keeping dry is the key to staying warm at night. I often pair my base layers with a fleece sweater, a warm hat, and a wool buff for my neck and to help hold the toque in place. When it’s exceptionally cold, I also include my puffy jacket. Finally, check to make sure your sleeping socks are loose fitting and don’t compromise blood flow to your feet. If cold feet are your problem, Western Mountaineering and some other brands make down filled socks that are fantastic (and those that use them swear they are well worth the weight and cost).
5. Do something that will get your blood moving when you get into your tent Try doing 10 sit-ups or push-ups. If you are warm when you first crawl into your sleeping bag, it’s much easier to stay warm. Just don’t do so many that you start to sweat – back to point 4: you want your sleeping layers to be dry when you are sleeping.
6. If you have to go to the bathroom, just get up and go. Trying to ignore it will only give you time to think about how cold you are, and you will eventually get up anyways. It takes an enormous amount of energy to heat up the liquid in your bladder; energy that could be better used to warm you up! Trust me on this, I have finally realized getting out of my comfy sleeping bag to go to the bathroom is totally worth it once I can go back to sleep and warm up again. This also has the added bonus of getting your blood moving a bit again and getting more heat being produced in the middle of the night.
7. Put hot water in a water bottle and cover it in a sock to make a backcountry hot water bottle. If you do this, be careful – if the water leaks, you risk burning yourself, and getting your sleeping system wet. Some people like using hot-shots or similar chemical heating pads, and the same caution regarding burns applies. If you are sleeping, you can’t be watching them to make sure they aren’t getting too hot. Personally, I don’t find chemical warmers all that effective at warming up anything but fingers and toes.
8. If you aren’t sleeping in your extra layers, stuff them into your sleeping bag to take up some of the dead space (as long as they are 100% dry!). Sleeping bags work by creating a pocket of warm air around your body – the smaller the pocket of air, the faster it warms up. This is why narrow mummy shaped sleeping bags are more efficient – they have smaller pockets of air to warm up. If you can reduce the amount of empty space, your sleeping bag will warm up faster. As a bonus, if you do decide you need to put on a sweater at night, it’s pre-heated!
9. Pick a campsite that will be more protected from the cold. You don’t want to be high up and exposed to wind all night long, and campsites along the edge of a lake or river are always the coldest option. Instead, pick something in the trees, and preferably not in a ditch or ravine, as cold air will sink and collect in low lying places (plus, that is usually where the snow collects well into the summer backpacking season). If this is a problem you often have (like me), plan your trips so that you end up sleeping at lower elevations whenever your itinerary allows.
10. Use a Vapour barrier. This list is aimed at those adventuring in 3 season conditions, but there is no reason we can’t steal a page out of the book of those winter camping. Vapour barriers stop heat loss via evaporative cooling (basically, sweat evaporating). When placed inside your sleeping bag, it also prevents that moisture from degrading the down (which reduces the insulative properties). Emergency blankets and bivy’s have the added bonus of a reflective coating, which helps reflect your warmth back to you. Be cautious though, because a vapor barrier prevents evaporative cooling, any sweat that does occur can’t wick away, and you can quickly become a warm sweaty mess. This generally isn’t the most comfortable way to sleep, which is why it is at the bottom of my list. However, on a really bad day, using an emergency blanket inside your sleeping bag can make a hug difference. In a pinch, a (dry) rain jacket can also work.
Those are our top 10 tips and tricks to stay warm! Hopefully you can now go and enjoy this summer of backpacking without worrying about whether you will be able to sleep if the weather dips. If you have other suggestions, please reach out and let us know, we love learning new ways to make backpacking even better!