Cold-Weather Backpacking Tips to Stay Safe and Warm this Winter

By Alexander Popp

When I was hiking the Appalachian Trail in April of 2017, a massive storm of rain, snow, sleet, and wind barreled through the Great Smoky Mountains. Yours truly was right in the middle of it.

A snowy trail through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park after a winter storm in 2017.
A snowy trail through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park after a winter storm in 2017.

I’m not afraid to admit now that I made some huge mistakes during that storm, which could have been very dangerous under different circumstances. But luckily, I emerged at Newfound Gap cold and wet a few days later and was able to make my way to Gatlinburg for a warm bed and a hot shower. 

Ever since that close brush with mild hypothermia, I made it my mission to never be caught unprepared and cold while backpacking ever again. 

Here are some tips that I use to stay toasty and warm even on the coldest nights in the backcountry. 

Pack right for the temperatures you’re expecting and maybe a little extra. 

What you pack and how you pack it can make or break your backpacking trip regardless of the weather, but with cold-weather trips where temperatures begin to drop into the 30’s and 40’s, packing the right clothes, equipment and gear is even more important. 

Hikers sit by a fire at a campsite in Panthertown Valley, North Carolina.
Hikers sit by a fire at a campsite in Panthertown Valley, North Carolina.
  • Start with Clothes – Wool is King. Wool socks, wool base layers, wool gloves, and hat. Personally, I use some synthetic materials for my daily wear, shirts, shorts, and pants, but at night and in the morning when the temperatures are at their lowest, I’m almost all wool. 
  • Sleeping Bag and Shelter. Before going out into the cold backcountry, having a quality cold weather sleeping bag and shelter, whether it be a tent or hammock, is key. Think about the temperatures you’re expecting and get yourself a good down or synthetic sleeping bag that matches. As long as you have a good warm sleeping bag and shelter, you can get yourself out of basically any cold-weather emergency situation. 
  • Sleeping Pad. There are hundreds of different sleeping pad brands and styles out on the market, but not all are good for cold weather. And without a good insulating sleeping pad, the warmest sleeping bag could be rendered useless. So, look for a sleeping pad with a good R-Value. Even if you don’t have a specific winter sleeping pad, you can always add an insulated closed-cell foam sleeping pad underneath your inflatable pad to provide extra insulation. 

Pick your campsite carefully. 

My first instinct after reaching the top of a giant peak is always to set up camp. What could be better than catching sunrise and sunset from the top of a mountain? But I’m here to tell you that that instinct is almost always wrong, especially on trips when you’re expecting cold weather. If you remember anything from this section, it’s that you should have lunch at the peak of a mountain and dinner at the base.

A campsite in North Georgia after a snow storm in 2017.
A campsite in North Georgia after a snow storm in 2017.
  • Protect yourself from wind and water. Look for sites that are sheltered from the wind, small groves of trees are good. In addition to that, don’t just find the first flat spot you see to lay your tent out. Be sure that where you’re setting up isn’t somewhere where water might drain in the event of a rainstorm. 

Eat and drink right to keep your body warm. 

One of the best ways to keep your body warm is to stay well hydrated and eat hot calorie-dense foods regularly throughout your trip, giving your body plenty of fuel to burn and keep you going.

  • Hot Food All Day. Think about bringing along things like rich soups, ramen noodles, instant mashed potatoes, and boost them up with cheeses, proteins like tuna, chicken and bacon, and fats like olive oil or butter. Getting a good big dinner and hot lunch can go a long way towards keeping your body happy and warm.
  • Staying Well Hydrated is Key. If your body is well hydrated and working at peak efficiency, you’re going to handle temperatures better. 

Self-care at bedtime. 

From sunset to sunrise is when we normally get the coldest while camping and backpacking. We’re moving our bodies less, the temperatures are lower, and we begin losing warmth through our sleeping pads, the ground, and the cold air inside our tents. But there are a few steps you can take before bed to keep warm throughout the night.

Appalachian Trail hikers gather around a campfire at the Hawk Mountain Shelter in North Georgia during a cold snap in March of 2017.
Appalachian Trail hikers gather around a campfire at the Hawk Mountain Shelter in North Georgia during a cold snap in March of 2017.
  • Double Up on Wool Socks. In addition to popping on your base layers, throw on a few pairs of your wool socks before wrapping up in your sleeping bag for the night. But make sure that they aren’t so tight that they cut off your circulation and restrict blood flow.
  • Make Yourself a Warm Water Bottle. A water bottle, stainless steel, or BPA-free plastic, filled with hot or boiling water can be an incredible source of heat on a cold night. Be sure that any water bottle you use is closed extra tight, otherwise, you can risk burns or waking up with a wet sleeping bag.
  • Fix a “Midnight Snack” before bed. Like with our tip on cold-weather meals, adding a calorie-dense snack to your routine can help tremendously when you’re camping in cold weather. My personal favorite is graham crackers, peanut butter and milk chocolate squares. Delicious. 

Don’t wait to pee until morning! 

In the cold, it might sound counterintuitive, but getting up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night is actually a much better way of staying warm than holding it until the morning. Your body will burn more calories and work harder in the long run just to keep your urine warm 

  • Pee Bottle. It sounds really gross, but if it’s super cold, raining or just generally nasty outside, there’s no way I’m getting all the way out of my tent just to pee. For cases like that, I always keep an extra bottle, normally a Gatorade or Powerade bottle from the day’s hike, to do my business in. Make sure the bottle is clearly labeled and tightly closed if you don’t want a huge gross mess. 

Protect your filter and electronics from the cold. 

One of the last things I ever think about, but always regret, when camping in cold weather is the effect cold has on things like water filters and the batteries of electronic devices. When I was new to backpacking, I lost several good water filters simply because I let them freeze in my bag.

  • Keep them warm! Whenever the temperature is going to drop below freezing, I always plan ahead and bring a series of Ziplock bags to store my filters in. Once in a Ziplock bag, keep your filter tucked close to your body where your warmth will keep it from freezing. You can do the same thing with your electronic devices, portable batteries, etc.

Learn more backpacking tips from World’s Best Adventures! If you like these tips and want to learn more, join World’s Best Adventures on a trip this winter and spring. We take beginning backpackers, families, groups and hikers of all skill levels on guided backpacking trips to some of the most beautiful locations in North Carolina. Learn more here.

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