5 Ways To Stay Warm On Fall Backcountry Trips

Fall hiking means spectacular foliage and fewer crowds—but also early sunsets, which lead to cold evenings in camp. Imagine you’re staying high up in the mountains on a very cold but otherwise pleasant night. Fires aren’t allowed or aren’t feasible, and you’ve already donned every single item of clothing in your pack. Your gigantic dinner and hot cocoa just aren’t cutting it. What else can you do to help stay warm for the rest of the evening before retiring to the tent?

Here are five tips for staying toasty.

Use your sleeping bag like a gigantic puffy scarf. Don’t leave your warmest layer in the tent. By wearing your sleeping bag like a scarf, you can massively increase the insulation around your head and torso for a huge boost in warmth without the mobility loss of wearing it like a blanket. Simply wrap the bag around the back of your neck, tucking both ends into the front of your outermost jacket. You can even pull it over your head like a hood. Keep in mind that thicker bags and slimmer jackets can both create fit issues. For pure lounging, the blanket strategy is more efficient. Do not attempt this during precipitation.

Warm your hands with a “crop top” hard shell for access to your puffy’s pockets. If it’s cold and windy, you’ll want to wear your hard shell on top of your puffy jacket to add another layer and prevent drafts, but that cuts off access to your warmest hand pockets. To remedy this, pull your hard shell up above those pockets and cinch it lightly around your lower rib cage to prevent it from draping back down. By doing so, you can keep your hands warm in your puffy pockets with the added protection of windproof fabric on your hood, upper torso and arms.   

Remove your soggy, sweaty base layer when you get to camp. Delayering might seem counterintuitive, but one of the keys to staying warm is staying dry. So next time you huff and puff into camp with a wet base layer, remove it or switch it out for something dry. Taking wet fabric off your skin will keep you much warmer than leaving it on, especially because base layers provide only a small percentage of your layering system's total insulation. If your shirt is merely damp, leave it on to allow body heat drying. This should be sufficient with a high quality, wicking, quick-drying fabric.

Periodically get up and do jumping jacks. A lot of coldness issues come from bad circulation during rest, and there’s no better way to get your blood moving than exercise. Doing 30 to 60 seconds of jumping jacks is good for warming up (and recovery, too), as they utilize your core, arms and legs. Be sure to do them with all your warm layers on to trap the most amount of heat. But make sure to stop well before you would start sweating. Damp clothes will make things significantly worse.

Use a closed-cell foam sitting pad or sleeping pad for lounging at camp. To stay optimally warm, it’s important to not sit directly on cold rocks or the ground. Those surfaces will continually sap heat from your bum and legs. It may be tempting to sit on your inflatable pad, but that’s a recipe for puncturing and a horrible night’s sleep. One solution is to bring a one-ounce foam sit pad, in addition to your inflatable. It’s a small amount of weight to carry for a sizable increase in comfort and warmth.

Fall backpacking is extremely rewarding as long as you can stay warm and dry. So get out there and enjoy the solitude and colors.

Photos by Dan Patitucci, Jaeger Shaw and Forest Woodward.


*Author’s note on the "Nalgene of boiling water" technique. Many people other than myself have been recommending this, yet I view it as more of an at-rest luxury than an important tip for staying warm at camp when you need to cook and do chores. It's just too impractical to carry a water bottle around all evening. It’s also non-sustainable in the backcountry because it requires extra fuel. Many ultralight backpackers, especially those using alcohol stoves, will want to avoid it all together. Unlike extra fuel, sleeping bag scarves have no weight penalty and unlike a hot Nalgene, jumping jacks warm your entire body, not just wherever the bottle is.