6 tips to survive winter backpacking

So we went backpacking in Joshua Tree National Park in November.

It was a lot of things, fun, beautiful, memorable, incredible… but also, COLD.

Lessons I learned:

1. Every part of the sleeping system counts.

All my gear is 3-season, which is just enough for November in the desert. Kinda. Ish.

My sleeping system was: Nemo Forte 20 women’s long sleeping bag (rated 20F), Klymit insulated static V pad (R value 4.4 by the manufacturer but 1.9 ASTM (independent standard)), tent Alps Mountaineering Lynx 1-person.

For summer/late spring/early fall camping, this is an awesome system. Inexpensive, warm, reliable, comfortable. For winter though… 🥶.

My feet froze in my bag. My pad felt like it lets through all the cold from the ground. My tent felt like it could flow away any moment. And yes, I did get a cold after the trip.

Since we are planning another winter camping trip soon, I’ve already upgraded my gear. I’ve ordered a 0F rated bag (Kelty Cosmic Ultra Zero). I won’t buy a new pad but I’m going to add extra insulation underneath it. And I’ve ordered better stakes for the tent (more about them later).

I’m going to be so warm in my new bag… hopefully 😬😬😬

2. For the love of everything, I need to do something about freezing feet.

Omg the feet.

My torso was ok after I’d put enough all my layers (thermal base layer, a long-sleeved medium layer I wore during the day for hiking, a fleece, a rain jacket – yes, even the rain jacket). My legs were ok in the base layer and the leggings). My feet though…

I wore 4 (four) layers of wool or wool-blend socks. They froze so much I couldn’t move my toes.

Next time, even in a better bag, I’ll try all the tips and tricks out there.

– I’ll buy foot warmers (although I’ll need to be careful not to burn my sleeping bag)

– I’ll fill a water bottle with hot water and stuff it in my bag.

– I’ll take a lightweight woollen scarf and stuff in in my bag too.

– I’m also considering getting down booties for sleeping, something like this;

If you have any other advice, please, PLEASE, I’m listening 🙏.

3. I need layers even for day hiking.

Usually when I’m moving I’m warm. Lots of wind though made me freeze even on the day hikes.

That’s easy to plan accordingly for. The only thing to remember was to keep my base layer on. I usually put it on for camping activities and sleeping but remove it for day hikes… not this time.

4. I need more fuel than I normally would (or a better stove).

My stove is the famous lightweight and cheap BSR lightweight backpacking stove. I took a 110 g /3.9 oz fuel canister. For 2 nights that should have been ok…

It wasn’t! I ran out of fuel on my last night and had to borrow some to make my breakfast.

The problem was the wind. The flimsy BSR stove is not wind-resistant so it takes forever to boil water. Solutions would be (a) a windscreen (b) a better stove (c) more fuel. We have a heavier, much sturdier stove for car camping so I think I’ll be taking this one for winter/windy camping from now on. And I’ll stop trying to save space/weight on fuel because that was frustrating!

5. My usual beanie is not enough.

My head and ears were ok but my neck froze.

My fleece doesn’t have a hood so I think I’ll have to buy a down hood like this (please don’t laugh)

6. I need to upgrade my tent stakes.

On our second night, the wind was quite strong, and my tent almost collapsed.

It’s a decent enough tent. The problem (I think) were the stakes.

I’ve decided to upgrade to these ones. Some backpacking YouTubers I follow swear by them, so why not give them a try.

———-

Our next winter camping trip is already planned (Assategue island in December). It will be car camping, so it will be a lot different… we can take as many blankets as we wish. Still, I’ll try to learn from my mistakes and let’s see if I freeze this time.

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