Have you ever been traveling amidst stunning natural beauty, unable to appreciate it because you are freezing and drenched? No? You should try and keep it that way. If you follow these five tips to regulate your temperature and stay comfortable in the backcountry, this won’t be you.
Whether you are alpine touring in Colorado or Spring backpacking in the Pacific Northwest, a number of factors will critically affect the comfort and safety of your experience. These range from proper layering to having a system for keeping your gear and camp dry. Over a decade of backcountry exploration in all seasons, I have learned tips and techniques from the likes of an Alaskan camp cook, ski patrol veterans in the Colorado Rockies, and from kicking numb feet into frozen boots more times than I’d like to admit. These five tips run the gamut from layering and diet to how you set up camp, but all contribute to your comfort in the backcountry.
1. Layer Clothing
Carrying appropriate layers is crucial for any kind of exertion in the backcountry. It may seem counterintuitive to wear a thin layer for a winter ski but temperatures change throughout the day as weather and sun exposure vary. Being able to rapidly and efficiently adapt your clothing kit–or not–will affect your comfort.
One general rule is to carry at least three layering options:
- A thin base layer for sweat wicking.
- A mid layer for core warmth.
- An outer shell for wind and precipitation protection.
Having proper ventilation on that outer shell is also immensely helpful to your comfort throughout a day of backcountry exploration. As each drop of sweat evaporates it takes your body heat with it. Your level of exertion on a backcountry trip will vary greatly. Carrying and having easy access to appropriate layers to minimize sweat and maintain core temperature set the tone for your comfort throughout the trip.
One helpful reminder is to start cold. It takes 30 minutes for your body to reach a standing heat. Despite a cold pre-dawn start, I’ve spent many mid-day sunny hours snowshoeing, skiing, or tromping around a glacier in a t-shirt with all my jackets tucked into my backpack straps.
Accessibility and ease of changing layers will affect your likelihood of adapting properly. Carry layers like jackets, gloves, and beanies near the top of your bag or tuck them into outer pockets for ease of access. This matters when temperatures change across varying terrain, and during breaks when your body temperature will likely drop. Keep it in the back of your mind to avoid getting your clothes wet. On long breaks and at the end of the day, get dry as quickly as possible.
2. Foot Care
An often overlooked body part in the backcountry are your feet. What your feet need on the drive to and from the trailhead is very different than what they need on trail. I carry a pair of shoes exclusively for comfort on the drive and then change into my hiking shoes or ski boots as one of the last things before setting off.
Another key time to address your feet is during breaks. On thru-hikes, every time I take a lunch break I take off my socks and pull my insoles out to give them a chance to air out. Many hikers experience a myriad of issues such as blisters and trench foot. An important countermeasure is giving your skin, socks, and shoes relief in the open air from being crammed into shoes or in the bottom of your sleeping bag. Ever since I switched to a Vesper™ 32F/0C Quilt I have better ventilation options at night which has made hiking a lot more comfortable.
While working with sled dogs I had issues with extremely cold toes because during the day. The snow would soak through my boots and then freeze in the evenings and at night. Our camp cook, a long time Alaskan Panhandle local, taught me to use plastic bags outside my socks but inside my shoes when out on the glacier. When I came in for breaks, I would peel off the layers and let my feet breath. It solved the cold foot issue without having to drop hundreds of dollars on a new pair of boots.
One final tip in the foot department is, when on an overnight backcountry adventure, camp with your shoes inside your tent. I sleep on a 3/4 length mat, and on freezing nights I place my boots in a bag underneath my backpack which goes under my legs for elevation and insulation. This provides the advantage of a bit more elevation under my knees and bend in my legs, and prevents having to kick feet into frozen shoes come morning.
3. Protect your Gear
Take care of your gear and it will take care of you. This begins with proper cleaning and storage at home and extends to prioritizing maintenance when you are in the backcountry. This means wearing it appropriately and packing it conscientiously.
Start by lining your backpack with a trash compactor bag to help with overall dryness. Compartmentalize gear with Ziplocs or stuff sacks to make access easier and quicker and protect key pieces of gear. If you get caught in a squall, outer layers and wet weather clothing should be accessible without exposing crucial dry layers like your sleeping bag.
If you are carrying down insulation in the backcountry, taking extra care to keep it clear of wetness, whether from weather or sweat, will make a big difference to your comfort. Therm-a-Rest’s use of Nikwax Hydrophobic Down™ in their down sleeping bags mitigates some of the moisture issues, but down can never be too dry.
Despite even the best system and efforts, sometimes gear gets wet. Your footbox rubs against the wall of your tent. You spill water trying to take a drink at night. You name it. When you have a dry window of time in the sun, stop and spread out your gear. I often have a nice garage sale spread of sleeping bag, tent, and footprint during lunch, when I’m airing out my feet and replenishing calories.
4. Weigh Calories
Calories are units of heat so keeping nutrition in your system is a cornerstone to regulating your core temperature and energy levels. If there is anything more accessible in my backpack than layers, it is snacks. Our bodies are not very good at differentiating between hunger, thirst, or tiredness. Addressing intake needs first, before you crash, is not only a matter of comfort but also safety. Make the food your body will need accessible when you are in the backcountry and you will be much more comfortable, safe, and happy.
One way to facilitate this is to do as much food prep before a backcountry trip as possible. On camping trips I will cut up veggies and portion out meals ahead of time. I stash bars in my hip belt or fanny pack pockets so I can easily grab something roughly every 45-60 minutes.
I also bring foods I look forward to eating. In the heat, this means salt. In the cold it means fats, like chocolate. I always carry a packet of calorie dense hot drink mix to warm me up before tucking in at the end of the day. Though the trade off is you may have to get up to relieve yourself during the night. While unappealing on a cold night, peeing before you snuggle into your bag will greatly increase your comfort overnight.
5. Keep camp dry
One final tip for your backcountry foray is to keep your kingdom comfortable. You now know to use layers to keep skin and clothes dry, to air out your feet, keep your belly full, and the contents of your pack dry. On an overnight or multi-day backcountry trip, take care to keep your sleeping area dry. This starts at the door of your tent, yurt, cabin, tarp, or bivy sack. Don’t track snow or water into someplace you are trying to warm up!
When making a backcountry camp my system is to select a site and pitch my tent. A basic rule is never wear your shoes inside, so the first thing I do is pull those off and change into a dry pair of camp socks. Once I’m comfortable, I eat a snack before sorting and arranging gear because it helps me think clearly and I tend to be snack motivated.
I unpack my sleeping bag and let it loft in the corner furthest away from the door while I sort and arrange the rest of my setup. Shake anything that got wet off outside, or in the vestibule if it is raining, and then either drape or hang it. This system should serve to protect your sleeping space from wet outdoor gear.
Being comfortable is key to enjoying any backcountry adventure. Frigidity ruins dramatic views, and pain sticks out in memories. You may not be able to control the natural conditions, but you can make choices to overcome them when they threaten your comfort.