Pro Tips: Staying Warm Outdoors, Avoiding Hypothermia

How to Stay Warm Camping - Teton Sports sleep pad

One of the reasons I launched ColdOutdoorsman was to explore tips, tricks, gear and clothing to make staying warm outdoors a reality for millions of us with Raynaud’s syndrome. So imagine my delight when the Hikerchat community came together with Teton Sports to host a Twitter chat about staying warm outdoors and avoiding hypothermia. The latter part sounds extreme, but with cold sensitivities running rampant among Raynaud’s sufferers, I’m here to tell you it’s not. I’ve been “thawed” many times after adventures that my non-Raynaud’s-having friends merely thought were cold. So when the pros (and would-be pros) in the #hikerchat community offered their advice, I was interested to hear their thoughts. And, of course, to share the best ones here.

The Dec. 4, 2015, Twitter chat began with a few questions about layering to stay warm. Layering is one of the most basic strategies to staying warm outdoors in multiple conditions, so it made sense to launch the conversation this way.

The first question was a simple one: “What does your outdoor layering setup consist of?” At the heart of people’s answers was choosing wool over synthetic materials. People mentioned Smartwool, Woolx and other vendors, but regardless of the layer, “wool” was the material of choice. @Hiker_Steve made a comment that was echoed by many people: use three layers that begin with moisture wicking, then aim for warmth, then provide waterproofing. Missouri Howell, a #hikerchat stalwart, got a bit more specific: he begins with a merino baselayer, then adds a fleece hoodie, followed by an insulating jacket and ending with a rain shell. The point of the layers, of course, is to easily shed them as your body temperature rises.

Even if you layer your clothing properly, it’s still possible to get cold. So the question was asked, “If you’re layered well but still cold, what are some ways to warm up?” Answers varied considerably, from warming yourself by the fire and drinking hot cocoa or coffee to taking a shower and doing something active to get your blood pumping. These responses were to be expected. North Wash Outfitter, however, offered a few interesting ideas that nobody else had covered: eat something (since calories are units of heat) and avoid over-layering yourself to the point of sweating, since moisture pulls heat away from the body.

Indeed, one general comment from the #hikerchat community was to avoid sweating too much when it’s cold outside. While it’s good to be active, it’s not good to be so active that you get to the point of sweating. Remember, the whole purpose of sweating is to pull heat away from the body. When it’s cold outside, pulling heat away from your body is most definitely not what you want to do. Instead, dress in layers and remove layers before you get too hot. While this may make you cold for a bit, if you get moving you’ll warm up soon enough. If you sweat too much, you’ll actually lose heat faster.

Not sweating too much may be easier than it sounds. Especially for kids. I have two young children, and they often play to the point of perspiration. In the cold, that may not be the best idea, so American Backcountry posed the question: “What is your go-to winter activity for the whole family? How do you manage their warmth and comfort?” This two-part question is near and dear to my heart, because my six-year-old daughter as Raynaud’s just like I do. Managing her warmth and comfort is therefore not just a big deal to me, but an outright obligation.

Some responses were predictably “keep some family members inside,” while most of the activities identifyied included tobogganing, hiking, skiing, showshoeing and sledding. Most of the advice for keeping kids warm was focused on layering, with comments from WoolX about having waterproof boots, jackets and pants. A frequent hikerchat contributor, Kimberly Ciesla, took WoolX’s concept one step further, reminding people to focus on moisture-wicking clothes and layers, and taking a backpack to remove/store clothes as needed. Great advice.

So what happens if, in spite of your best efforts to staying warm outdoors, everyone gets cold? And, worse yet, you’re concerned that some members of your family — or you — are showing signs of hypothermia? What are some early signs of hypothermia to watch out for when going out in the cold? Normally this doesn’t seem like something I’d worry about; I don’t tend to go outside often if the temps are dangerously low. But as stated above, I and others with Raynaud’s are especially sensitive to the cold, so this question holds interesting implications even in temperatures that wouldn’t normally seem threatening.

Missouri Howell came out with the first answer, “uncontrollable shivering,” which wasn’t all that comforting since I can get that way pretty fast. North Wash Outfitter expanded on that slightly, saying that hypothermia starts with the appendages getting cold, followed by shivering, and then if your fingers/toes get cold you should really pay attention. Hello, Raynaud’s syndrome. Looks like we should pay attention at all times, since our fingers and toes are always cold. So what else can we look for? CampfireInACan advised that “intense shivering, then the shivering stops” is a telltale warning sign, as are drowsiness or confusion. Considering none of those involves cold appendages directly, those may be better indicators for those of us with Raynaud’s.

So if it hits the fan, your attempts at staying warm outdoors have failed, and you have hypothermia, what should you do if medical help isn’t nearby? ) MBybee advised to warm yourself slowly, don’t over abrade the skin, and to avoid alcohol at all costs. (That “warming” feeling is false, after all.) Several #hikerchat regulars reiterated the need to warm slowly so as to avoid damaging skin tissues. To do that, they recommended cuddling up with someone, warm yourself by a stove, wrap up in a blanket, or to build/find and get into shelter.

Presumably that shelter would be a tent or campsite. But in the cold it can be difficult to stay warm, especially at night, so people shared their ideas about how to stay warm through the night, and how to heat a sleeping bag before crawling in. Many responses advised filling a water bottle with hot water and putting it into the sleeping bag for a while before getting in. Mbybee also recommended making sure you have a heavy duty sleeping bag like the Teton Sports LEEF bag (several people said Teton’s bags are toasty), while other people suggested adding layers to your bedtime clothing. Staying off the ground via pads, mats or cots was also a common recommendation, or even just adding below-bag insulation via something as simple as newspaper. Finally, one idea I never considered, but that my stomach loved, was to “eat fatty foods before bed. They burn more. Lots of salamis, red meats, jerky or even avocado.” Leave it to Michael Restivo to come up with that one.

There are surely more strategies out there to staying warm outdoors, but the ones offered on this Dec. 4 HikerChat seemed especially poignant. So, if you’re considering your first winter camping adventure or are just looking for advice on staying warm outdoors in general, I hope you found this helpful. If you did, I’d encourage you to join the weekly HikerChats on Fridays at noon EST / 9am PST; they’re as fun as they are informative.

Jonas Allen

Jonas spent 17 years covering travel, technology and entertainment for regional and international media. He now writes about gear, clothes and tips to stay warm. He hopes his lessons will help other people who get cold (re)discover the great outdoors.

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