Ten Easy Tips to Stay Warm on Fall Backpacking Trips

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You don’t need to stop backpacking, just because summer is over. There are many reasons to bundle up and embrace the cold nights and brisk mornings this season.

Backpacking in the fall means less crowds, no pesky mosquitos, and beautiful scenery. And the mild daytime temperatures mean you can reach the peak without being drenched in sweat!

Here are ten easy and inexpensive tips to stretch your summer backpacking gear into the colder shoulder seasons. You don’t need to buy a bunch of new gear to camp comfortably at colder temperatures, sometimes all you need is a Nalgene heater and some extra layers.

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Pitch your tent in a protected area

It may be tempting to camp near the lake or on a ridge with amazing views, but when you’re trying to stay warm it is best to forego the views and camp in the trees. (Just make sure you’re not camping near any dead trees that may fall in the night.) The best camping spots are protected from wind and away from cold breezes coming off of the water.

Plan your hike around the shorter days

The brisk mornings might make you snuggle in your sleeping bag longer, and the short days make long hikes more challenging. Make sure to account for the limited daylight when planning your itinerary so you don’t have to setup camp and start cooking in the dark, and the dropping temperatures.

Change out of damp, sweaty clothes

Once you get cold it can be difficult to warm back up. Change out of damp, sweaty clothes as soon as you get to camp. Wet clothes are cold clothes. I change into my night clothes (base layer top and bottom) after pitching my tent and before the temperatures start to drop. To avoid condensation buildup in your tent hang your damp clothes out to dry on a sunny rock. Once the sun goes down, turn a stuff sack inside out and put your damp clothes into it. Then, put the stuff sack in your sleeping bag so your body heat can help dry your clothes during the night.

Stay toasty with a Nalgene heater

There’s nothing better than crawling into a warm sleeping bag at the end of a long day! When you’re cooking dinner boil some extra water and pour it into a Nalgene water bottle. You can put the hot water bottle under your jacket to keep you warm while eating dinner, or you can put the bottle into your sleeping bag to warm up your bag for later. On cold nights I keep the hot water bottle in the sleeping bag with me all night. Hot water can warp or melt thinner plastics- like disposable water bottles- so it is best to use a heavy duty bottle to hold the boiling water. And don’t forget to screw the cap on tight- you don’t want to spring a leak in your sleeping bag!

Boost your warmth with a foam sleeping pad

Even if you have an insulated sleeping pad, bringing a lightweight foam sleeping pad is worth the extra weight. At night, your body heat is sucked away from you and into the colder ground through the power of conduction. It’s the same principle that makes your hand cold to the touch after holding a cold beverage. This means that even with a thick winter sleeping bag you’ll get cold when lying on the chilly ground. Most insulated air sleeping pads are only good to about 30 degrees (Fahrenheit). If your summer sleeping pad doesn’t have any insulation you are in for a very cold night. Layer a foam sleeping pad to help keep you warm at night. I put my Thermarest RidgeRest SOLite or my Nemo Switchback under my Klymit Insulated Static V inflatable sleeping pad to boost its warmth. The foam pad helps block the cold from the ground and the aluminum silver coating helps radiate my body warmth back into my inflatable sleeping pad.

Make an inexpensive sleeping bag liner

Most sleeping bags are tested and rated for cold weather. The ratings are based on a person wearing a synthetic base layer (top and bottom) and a hat, and using a closed-cell foam sleeping pad. There are three temperature ratings that you might see on your sleeping bag:
• Upper Limit: The highest temperature at which an average man can sleep comfortably.
• Comfort: The lowest temperature at which an average woman can sleep comfortably.
• Lower Limit: The lowest temperature at which an average man can sleep comfortably.

If you want to ensure that you’ll sleep comfortably you’ll want the “comfort” rating on your sleeping bag to be about 20 degrees lower than the forecasted nightly temperature. To boost the insulating powers of your bag you can buy a fleece bag liner, or make your own by buying fleece at the fabric store or sewing an inexpensive down throw.

Get smart about layers

When it comes to layering I don’t mess around. During the day I typically wear a short sleeve athletic shirt layered underneath a long sleeve quarter-zip wool shirt, like this one from IceBreaker. In my bag I keep a lightweight hooded fleece, a lightweight down jacket, and a rain jacket. As the temperature drops I layer as needed. For the night I pack some wool base layers, like these Smartwool 250 weight top and bottoms. I also bring a warm beanie, gloves, and some extra thick socks to keep my feet warm while I sleep. If I get cold in the night I layer my fleece  over my base layer top and I drape my raincoat (as long as it is dry!) over my sleeping bag.

Eat a hot meal, and don’t skip dessert!

A hot meal can do a lot to boost your mood and help keep you warm. I like to sip on some hot broth while I wait for my main meal to rehydrate or cook. Instant miso soup is my favorite! The salty soup helps replenish any salts that I may have lost by sweating during my hike. After dinner, sipping on some hot cider or enjoying a bit of chocolate will also give your body an extra boost of warmth before bed.

Bring extra batteries or cuddle with your devices

Cold weather sucks the life out of battery-powered devices. To help extend the life of your cell phone and other battery-powered devices keep them close to your body during the day, and cuddle with them in your sleeping bag at night. My winter sleeping bag has a zipper pocket for my cell phone, and I bring a large Ziploc bag for my headlamp, InReach, and portable battery to help keep all of my devices in one place in my sleeping bag. I typically keep all of the devices by my side, but on really cold nights I prefer to keep a hot water bottle by my side and I’ll put the devices at the bottom of the bag, near my feet.

Have a dance party before bed

Try to get warm before crawling into your sleeping bag for the night. Have a dance party, or do a few jumping jacks to get your circulation flowing and generate warmth, but don’t get so warm that you get sweaty. Once you’re warm, crawl into your sleeping bag and zip the bag all the way up to contain the warm air.

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Do you have any backpacking trips planned this fall or winter?

Share your tips for staying warm, or your favorite cold weather backpacking gear in the comment section below.

If you're new to backpacking download my free backpacking trip planner and learn how to plan your first wildly successful backpacking trip.

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