Caught With Your Pants Off
How To Survive Unexpected Freezing Temperatures In The Wilderness
Last fall, I thru-hiked the 273-mile Long Trail with my dog, Dobby. What began as a mild fall hike rapidly escalated to a winter survival situation less than 2 weeks later when we were deep in Vermont’s Green Mountains.
What would you do if this happened to you?
Hypothermia, frostbite, and other cold-weather dangers can come on quickly, and may leave you too disoriented to realize they are even happening - until it’s too late.
If you find yourself out in the wilderness, far from civilization and unprepared for the dropping temperatures, what can you do to ensure you have a safe, perhaps even comfortable, night in the woods?
Hot Tips For Cold Weather Survival
In this article, we will discuss not only what to do in an emergency situation concerning freezing temperatures, but how to be better prepared next time you venture into the woods.
- What to use as clothes when unprepared
- Insulating your sleep system
- Finding or creating shelter
- Starting a fire
- Miscellaneous cold weather tips
Common Mistakes That Will Leave You Out In The Cold
Most hiking-related survival situations are attributed to one of three things: lack of experience, lack of knowledge, or poor physical condition. While we can’t help you become physically fit for the trail, we can share our experiences and knowledge about how to keep warm when temperatures plummet.
Unfortunately, there are way too many hikers who set off into the backcountry without the proper knowledge of what to wear and pack. While we strongly encourage even the inexperienced to enjoy the outdoors, proper preparation and knowledge are paramount to minimize the risk of running into an unanticipated and potentially dangerous situation.
Chances are you’ve come across an experienced hiker who “knows it all.” Sometimes these hikers can make mistakes just as grave as those of a hiking newbie. When you feel very comfortable in the outdoors, this ease in nature can cause hikers to become lax in their preparations for a backcountry trip.
Likewise, ultralight backpacking is a style that emphasizes carrying the lightest and most simplistic gear on a backpacking excursion. In the quest for the lightest pack, hikers are making more and more sacrifices of gear some may consider necessary in order to claim the lightest base weight.
Many unprepared hikers are surprised by unique or quickly-changing weather patterns. Hikers who begin their day at a lower elevation and decide they don’t need a jacket may find themselves shivering once they reach a windy mountain summit. Rain can be dangerous if you’re caught without a rain jacket in cool fall temperatures.
Sometimes hikers are caught in freezing temperatures because what was supposed to be a simple day-hike turns into an overnight ordeal. Injuries can leave you incapable of walking out of the woods, you can get lost, you can get altitude sickness, or your hike can simply take longer than you thought.
Now that we understand some common mistakes, let's dive into how to respond if this happens to you.
How To Keep Warm In Unexpected Freezing Temperatures
Unless you hike solely in the summer months, chances are you may be confronted with unexpected freezing temperatures. While cold weather isn’t as much of an issue when you’re getting your blood pumping on a strenuous hike, it can become downright dangerous when you stop moving, especially at night.
Let's face it, if you get stuck in the cold without the proper gear, it's gonna suck. But with these tips you can at least survive until the sun comes up and you can get back to civilization.
Check out our article “Surviving an Unplanned Night in the Woods” for a step-by-step guide to spending the night in survival mode without any supplies.
1. Get Creative With Clothes
If you’re caught in the backcountry and temperatures start to dip, you’re going to need to get a little creative when it comes to clothing. Layers are the best way to keep warm, but what can you do if you haven’t brought the appropriate clothing items?
What to Use as Clothes When Unprepared
The first thing to do is assess what you do have, and how it can be utilized to increase your warmth. Focus on your core (your abdomen) because that is what keeps your organs warm. Blood pumped from your core will keep your appendages warm enough, while a warm core will keep you alive.
Here are some examples of non-clothing items that you may use to keep yourself warm.
- Your Pack: Your hiking pack can be used in multiple ways to increase warmth. Place it under your back as insulation from the ground, or put your feet and legs in it as a substitute for pants.
- Bandana: An incredibly versatile piece of gear, a bandana can be used to protect exposed parts of your body from the cold air.
- Socks as gloves: Take your socks off of your feet and wear them on your hands like gloves, then replace your feet inside your shoes.
- Sleeping Bag: If your bag has top and bottom zippers, you can stick your feet our the bottom and wear it like a coat. If not, then wrap it around you like a blanket while you hike.
- Tent or Tarp: If it's really cold, your tent or tarp might be better used as a blanket or a pad to insulate you from the ground, rather than as a shelter.
- Natural Materials: Use leaves or pine needles as an insulating layer by filling the spaces between your base and outer layers.
Most any fabric item can be utilized in some way to increase your temperature or protect exposed skin in freezing weather. Be creative and think outside the box.
What To Pack To Be Prepared
The topic of hiking clothes can seem overwhelming in breadth, but there are a few key items you should always have on a cold-weather hike.
- Layers: Use long sleeves and short sleeves to layer up and increase your insulation. Wool blend items can help keep you warm even when wet but are a bit of an investment. Have clothes specifically designated for sleeping in case your hiking clothes get wet.
- Accessories: A buff (lightweight spandex scarf), beanie, gloves, and extra socks are all small, lightweight accessories that can greatly increase your comfortability in cold temperatures.
- Puffy: Any shoulder-season hike should include a puffy jacket. Down puffies, in particular, are incredibly lightweight and pack down to almost nothing, so there is really no reason not to have one with you.
- Rain gear: Much like a puffy jacket, there’s really no reason to hike without rain gear. While getting wet during a summer hike may be no big deal, soaking clothes and cold temperatures can be a death sentence.
- Mylar blanket: These emergency blankets weigh practically nothing at 2 oz a piece but are wind and waterproof. They can be used in place of (but even better in tandem with) puffies and other layers that you may have forgotten at home and can offer great peace of mind in emergency situations. Since they come in a pack of 4, I keep one in each of my hiking packs.
2. Insulate Your Sleep System
Insulating your sleep system is arguably the most important step to take when facing unexpected freezing temperatures. Since we are talking about backpacking, for our purposes we will assume that you have brought backpacking basics like a sleeping pad and sleeping bag.
When I hiked the Long Trail my sleeping bag was rated for 30 degrees Fahrenheit and my sleeping pad was rated for summer use only. With nightly temperatures dipping below 20 degrees, I had to find creative ways to keep warm.
Insulate Your Sleeping Pad
A lot of body heat is lost from your body’s contact with the cold ground. To insulate your sleeping pad, place extra layers or gear between your sleeping pad and the earth. I used items like rain gear and empty stuff sacks and the difference was clear. If I was sleeping in a shelter instead of my tent, I also used my tent and rain fly under my pad.
Insulate Your Sleeping Bag
Hopefully, on a backpacking trip, you’ve packed a mummy-style sleeping bag. Mummy-style sleeping bags contour closer to your body than any other style. That being said, there are still empty spaces between your body and the bag itself, especially in the area around your feet.
If your sleeping bag isn’t rated for the temperatures you’re experiencing, like my 30-degree bag on the Long Trail, you’re going to need to insulate your sleeping bag and fill those empty spaces. Stuff extra fabric items like your hiking clothes, extra layers, rain gear, or stuff sacks into the foot box of your sleeping bag.
You can also use natural materials such as dry leaves or pine needles in your sleeping bag to fill any empty spaces. Filling these empty spaces will reduce the amount of space your body heat attempts to warm and leave you slightly more comfortable overnight.
How To Better Prepare Next Time
Like hiking clothes, the topic of sleep systems is highly discussed and debated. Here are a few guidelines.
Sleeping bag: Choose a sleeping bag rated for the lowest possible temperature you could encounter. Recognize whether you are a cold or hot sleeper as these temperature ratings are an average and may not perfectly apply to your personal sleep comfort.
- Sleeping pad: Choose a sleeping pad with an R-value properly-suited to the climate and season of your trip. Don’t be like me and try to cut costs by using a summer sleeping pad in Vermont in October!
- Bag liner: A bag liner is a handy piece of gear in these situations as it can increase your sleeping bag’s temperature rating by up to 15 degrees. I ended up purchasing this item during my next town resupply to try to make my sleep system slightly warmer. This is a cheaper alternative to purchasing a completely new bag, but beware that it’s not a perfect solution.
- Mylar sleeping bag: An insanely lightweight option, a mylar sleeping bag (made from space blanket material) packs down small and is easy to include in any pack for unanticipated cold fronts. It can act much as a bag liner to increase the temperature rating of your sleeping bag by reflecting your body heat back to you.
3. Find or Create Shelter
It is critical to protect your sleeping space from wind, rain, and snow. Even a slight breeze can make a chilly night feel unbearably cold, and getting wet in cold temperatures can cause hypothermia and can lead to death.
Much like insulating your sleeping bag, creating an enclosed sleeping space decreases the space in which your body heat is dissipated. Finding ways to make you sleep space smaller will leave you feeling warmer in the long run.
Many trails like the Long Trail and the Appalachian Trail have sleeping shelters located periodically along the trail’s length. Sleeping shelters are a good choice when temperatures begin to drop for several reasons:
- It gets you up off the ground, so you lose less body heat through the bottom of your sleep system.
- Since you're not using your tent, you can use it as a blanket or sleeping pad for additional warmth.
- It may also mean the presence of other hikers to share body heat with. The more tired, smelly hikers you get inside one contained space, the warmer your shared body heat will make the enclosed area. The coldest night on the Long Trail was about 17 degrees F and 4 women used 2 tents to create a small room in a 3-sided shelter to sleep fairly comfortably.
If your shelter only has 3 walls, consider closing off the other wall by means of a rigged up tent, rainfly, or tarp. These will do double-duty of keeping heat in the shelter while keeping rain or wind out.
Though some hikers, especially on the Appalachian Trail, are proponents of hiking without a tent, I prefer to always have one with me. Tents can be set up almost anywhere to create a safe space from wind and weather.
I was very surprised how much warmer I slept inside my tent as opposed to just in a shelter. Opening the tent flap in the morning and feeling the temperature outside cemented the fact that I was much better off inside my nylon cocoon.
If a man-made shelter is nowhere to be found, certain natural formations and materials can provide an enclosed space.
- Large rock outcropping: even just a large rock behind you can reflect some of your body heat back and protect you from wind.
- Lean-to (link to building a lean-to article)
- Tree-Pit Snow Shelter: In deep snow, find a tree with bushy branches, such as an evergreen, that provides cover overhead. Dig snow out from around tree trunk to desired width and height.
How to Be Better Prepared Next Time
If you’re not super psyched about adding the weight of a tent to your pack but still want the peace of mind having access to an enclosed space provides, consider adding a mylar survival tent to your pack. Only weighing 9.5 oz, this is a much lighter option than a full-blown tent.
A pocket chainsaw and a collapsible shovel can also come in handy to help you quickly cut branches and dig snow to build a shelter.
4. Start A Fire
An obvious way to keep warm if conditions allow is to start a fire. However, in cold, wet, or windy conditions this can become really difficult. Be aware that not all backcountry areas allow fires and most often fires are only permitted in established fire rings.
Fire Starting Basics
Knowing how to successfully build a fire is a key element to this option. For our purposes, we will assume you at least have with you lighters or a match. Starting a fire completely from scratch is entirely another beast that requires knowledge and skill.
Starting A Fire In Cold and Wet Weather
In cold, windy, and wet conditions, each simple step of basic fire-building becomes exponentially more difficult and time-consuming. When you're freezing cold and your brain isn't quite working right, running into problems with these simple tasks can cause you to panic.
We've collected the most useful tips for finding dry firewood, creating a foundation, and maintaining a fire in cold weather in these articles.
Songs of Fire and Ice:
Complete Guide to Building a Fire In Cold Weather
What To Pack To Be Prepared
To be more prepared for creating a fire, consider bringing along fire-starters. Not only do these materials make starting a fire easier, they may in fact be the only way to start a fire in unideal situations such as when all the wood is wet or covered in snow.
Here are a few popular DIY fire-starters for backpacking.
- Cotton balls soaked in vaseline
- Dryer lint
- Mop strings soaked in lamp oil
- Cotton pads and liquid wax
5. Miscellaneous Cold Weather Tips
Sleeping Bag Snacks
Ok, hear me out. I know every wilderness expert ever has told you to never EVER keep food in or around you while you sleep as it may attract unwanted wildlife like bears. This suggestion is for emergency situations and during winter months when bears are most likely hibernating. Don’t come after me if you end up cuddling a mouse or other, larger mammals, because you kept food in your sleeping bag overnight.
That being said, one method I’ve used to stay warm is to keep a granola bar or similar snack in my sleeping bag while I sleep. When you sleep, your body goes without an intake of calories for several hours, which can make you slightly colder. If you wake up cold in the middle of the night, you can replenish some of those calories with a quick snack and maybe feel a little warmer.
Boil Water in a Nalgene
I never had a Nalgene until my Long Trail thru-hike. Sick of being freezing cold, I purchased one because I had heard you could put boiling water in it. Willing to try anything, I boiled water before bed, poured it into the Nalgene, and put the bottle in the foot-box of my sleeping bag, praying I would not wake up to a soaking wet down sleeping bag.
It was heavenly. I felt like I was cuddling a small, warm, ball of fire with my feet. It didn’t last all night but it definitely helped me fall asleep and had an added bonus of ensuring my water wasn’t frozen in the morning.
Though some hikers “cold soak” their food, negating the need for fuel and a stove, in colder weather hot food and drinks can really improve your body temperature and your mood. Having something hot to drink may be the motivation you need to crawl out of your sleeping bag on a freezing cold morning.
Sleep With Electronics and Water
This tip won’t keep you warm, but it is rather vital to a successful backpacking trip during cold weather. Freezing temperatures can wreak havoc on some of your gear, and the best way I’ve found to combat this is to sleep with these items in your sleeping bag. Your body heat will help keep them from the worst of the affects from the cold.
- Electronics: Severely cold temperatures will deplete the batteries of your electronics. Consider keeping your phone, external batteries, GPS, and other electronics in your sleeping bag with you to prevent them from dying.
- Water: If you don’t want to wake up to a completely frozen water bottle that you can’t drink from until whenever it decides to thaw out, keep your water bottle in your sleeping bag with you as well. Make sure the top is tightly sealed to prevent any leaks.
- Water filter: Water expands when it freezes, so any leftover water droplets in your water filter could expand and crack your filter, rendering it unusable. Consider keeping your water filter in your sleeping bag with the rest of your cold-sensitive gear.
Hike With Your Dog
Hiking with your dog can mean cuddling with your own personal furry heat source. Here are a few tips for hiking with your dog in cold weather.
- Depending on the size of your dog, you may share a sleeping bag for maximum warmth. For a large dog, consider a double sleeping bag.
- If your dog does not have a long, warm coat, they may need a puffy jacket to keep warm too. I use this one from Ruffwear.
- Plan on providing your dog with their own sleeping pad; they need to be insulated from the cold ground just as you do.
Hiking with your canine companion can be an incredibly rewarding experience, but requires careful planning and consideration. For more tips on hiking with your dog, check out our article Backpacking With Your Dog (link).
Enjoying the (Cold) Outdoors
When it comes to enjoying nature, always be as safe as possible. If temperatures are too extreme and evacuation is possible, don’t put yourself in unnecessary danger. Knowing when a situation is beyond your experience level and when to pack out is as important as any of these survival tips.
It’s impossible to plan for every possible outcome when enjoying the outdoors. The best way to prepare for potential mishaps is to arm yourself with knowledge and a few key, lightweight emergency items. Never let the fear of failure or misadventure keep you from pursuing your place in nature and goals of exploration.