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How to Make a Sleeping Bag Warmer

Q. I have a 30-degree bag, but I’m thinking of going on a hike where the temperatures could drop below freezing. Do I need to buy another bag?

A. Probably not. If you find that you 30-degree bag keeps you warm in 30-degree temperatures, you can extend its downward range. Here’s how:

  • Sleep in a tent. Better yet, sleep in a tent with a hiking partner. The tent holds warm air in, raising the effective air temperature. Two bodies create more hot air than one.

  • Add a liner. Fleece and silk sleeping bag liners feel nice against your skin and keep the bag warm (and clean; the liner is much easier to wash than the bag). Fleece bags add warmth, although they can be heavy.

  • Use a vapor-barrier liner. This is a sleeping bag liner made of non-breathable material. Your body heat stays close to your body (so, unfortunately, does your sweat). The advantages: You stay warmer, and less condensation collects on your tent.

  • Wear more clothes. (Not fewer—although it’s a common misconception, sleeping nude inside a sleeping bag does not make you warmer.). Layers trap air, which helps to insulate you. Still cold? Wear a hat, extra socks, and gloves.

  • Sip a hot drink before bed and use the leftovers as a hot water bottle.

  • If you have a down sleeping bag that looks skimpier now than when it was new, it may simply need a good washing. Over time, oils and dirt collect and start to damage the down. Down sleeping bag can be machine-washed or washed by hand (never dry-cleaned, which breaks down the insulation and leaves a toxic chemical residue). If washing doesn’t do the trick, it may be that your bag needs a down transplant. Again, either the manufacturer or a gear repair company can add a few ounces of new down to a tired bag. Finally, between hikes store the bag loose, out of its stuff sack. Too much compression will damage the down over time.

How to Hike in Suncups

Q. I’ve spent hours struggling in those saucer-shaped depressions in late-spring mountain snow. Any suggestions?

A. So-called suncups—saucer-shaped depressions that can be as deep as a bathtub—are the result of a combination of sunlight, solar radiation, heat, evaporation, dirt (which absorbs more heat than surrounding snow), and wind. As the temperature rises during the day, suncups get deeper and more pronounced. They can end up being quite jagged and nearly impossible to walk on. Suncups can be leveled by moist winds, but they re-form in periods of good weather.

Try to cross large patches of snow and ice early in the day. Later in the day, you might find yourself sinking through soft layers of snow all the way up to your thighs. Try to walk on harder, higher edges, which are less likely to break under your weight. They may challenge your balance; use hiking sticks or an ice axe for support.

How to Keep Drinking Water from Freezing

Q. I know I’m supposed to stay hydrated in winter, but when I wake up in the morning, my water is frozen! How can I prevent this?

A. Sleep with it. Yes, I’m serious. Make sure you have a good water bottle with a strong seal. (No flimsy soda bottles in winter!) If you go to bed with a hot-water bottle, try to remember to open it after a couple of hours; otherwise, as the water chills, the bottle can start to contort from the change in temperature.

In less frigid temperatures, you can simply bring your water bags and bottles inside your tent, where the temperature will probably be above freezing. You can also bury the water bottle in the snow (which acts as an insulator). Bury it upside-down so that any ice forms at the bottom of the container and won’t clog the mouth of the bottle. Just mark the place in the snow where you buried the water (perhaps with a ski pole or a snowshoe).

How to Pitch a Tent in the Snow

Q. Could you give me some advice on pitching a tent in deep snow?

A. The trick is to make a solid surface on which to sleep. If you don’t, the snow will simply collapse underneath you, and you’ll end up sinking into it. Your body heat will melt some of the snow, your body weight will compress it, the snow will refreeze in lumps, and you’ll end up sleeping on what will probably feel like a million snow moguls.

If the snow is deep enough to cause problems in the tent-pitching department, it’s deep enough that you’d probably be traveling on snowshoes or skis. Either can be used to tamp down the snow and make a level, compact sleeping platform: You just stomp around until you have a good, hard snowpack underfoot. It’s a great way to warm up at the end of the day.

Make your camping area quite a bit bigger than your tent, so you can also walk around outside. You also need to carve out an area for cooking. The bare-bones backcountry kitchen is just a flat area where you can walk or sit (don’t sit directly on the snow; sit on a camping mattress to help prevent heat loss). You could probably indulge in a little snow architecture and sculpt a shelf on which to place your food and your stove. I also recommend tamping down a trail from the tent to your latrine pit, so that you can answer nature’s call in the middle of the night without putting on snowshoes. When choosing your latrine area, remember to place it where the remains won’t be obvious once the snow starts to melt.

Once you think you’ve compacted the snow as much as you can, give it a few minutes to settle and harden, then lay out your groundcloth and lie down for a rest. If you “bed” doesn’t feel solid, repeat the process.


-- Adapted from More Everyday Wisdom: Trail-Tested Advice from the Experts by Karen Berger, The Mountaineers Books
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