So the weekend that I was last in the Rockies proved to be pretty instructive. Even with cooler than normal temperatures here in Oklahoma, it’s still pretty mild compared to what the high country is getting right now during the nighttime hours.
So here’s my story. Me and my friends had just hiked four miles up a trail to about 11,400 feet and set up camp. I started feeling a bit chilly, so I stayed close to the campfire.
In time, it was time to put the fire out and crawl into our tents. The next day was going to be a big one, as we were going to get up early to begin our ascent of Uncompahgre Peak.
I’d loaned my 20-degree sleeping bag to a friend. I was using a 30-degree bag and sleeping alone in a small two-man tent.
I was pretty chilly, so I wore my clothes that night, which included long johns, two pairs of socks, hiking pants, a T-shirt, a thin pullover, a fleece and a knit cap. I stuffed my tent sack with some other clothes and used that as a pillow.
And I proceeded to freeze my butt off.
I never fell into a deep sleep, just occasionally dozing off for a few minutes at a time. The whole night, I might have gotten an hour’s worth of “sleep.” In the morning, frost covered my backpack and some of our water froze.
That made for a long day on the mountain. I don’t want to make excuses, but I think I might have had an easier time of it had I just gotten better rest. Needless to say, I wasn’t looking forward to my second night’s stay.
Not wanting to stand pat, I changed my sleeping strategy (yes, there was strategy used here). The day-pack went inside the tent. On top of that went my makeshift pillow, which was now a little thinner as I’d removed my rain jacket. I decided to wear that, then put the fleece over that. My thinking: The jacket would add insulation, and putting the fleece over that would give me something warm and soft instead of cold to touch.
Helping matters was the fact that it stayed overcast that night, trapping some daytime warmth.
A gentle rain pelted my tent, and I could hear Nellie Creek flowing nearby. That night, I slept a solid seven hours. Dare I say, I was actually comfortable.
I’ve heard some people say that to truly stay warm, you should shed your clothes once inside your sleeping bag. I’ve tried that in cold weather and it never seems to work. At all. Maybe at certain temps with a really well insulated bag it would work, but otherwise, I think it’s a myth.
I bring this up because fall is on its way. Camping in the cold is just around the corner.
Another member of our group had similar experiences: Cold one night, good sleep the next after changing the way he slept (he didn’t have the benefit of a sleeping pad; I had a Thermarest, which helps insulate you from the cold of the ground).
The other two guys never had a problem with cold. They had thicker sleeping bags, sleeping pads and shared a three-man tent.
So here’s a few conclusions:
- You can mitigate the effects of cold by sharing a tent. Sorry if you’re squeamish on that one, fellas, but it’s true.
- Sleeping pads prevent cold from the ground getting to your body.
- A comfortable headrest helps, even if it’s improvised (I don’t pack camp pillows).
- Keeping your feet warm is a must.
- Have the right sleeping bag for the conditions.
- Using a good strategy of layering your clothes can help trap heat close to your body and in your sleeping bag.
So there you go. A few things I learned. I’m curious how other people solve the problem of warmth while going cold weather camping. Comment here or e-mail me with any input you might have.