So, you're a young adventurer and you feel invincible. You've climbed a couple of peaks and don't really think about what happens next. That's at least what it was like for me back in the 80s.
Then a simple visit to my friend in Romania changed everything. He mentioned their highest peak – Moldoveanu and with me being the yes-man that I was back then, the next day we were packing for a hike. And yes, all that in the middle of the winter, young and dumb.
Anyway, we maybe got halfway on the ridge trail from Balea Lac to Moldoveanu and it's there where the night caught us. It was just hours before we realized that we are in a serious situation – our single flimsy tents and light sleeping bags didn't protect us from the cold.
The swishes of wind coming down from Moldoveanu were terrifying. Our tents were barely holding and we spent the night shivering afraid that we'd freeze to death before morning.
We didn't make it to the summit, but we survived and returned the next morning happy to be alive with frost bites and blue fingers.
Moldoveanu would have to wait.
Getting back to the point – how to make sure nothing of the sort happens to you.
As soon as I came back to Portland, I called my fiend Bobsy, and aged camper and hiker back in the day, and he actually wrote down the things that I need to do if I am going on a hike that carries a risk of sleeping in the cold.
Tips Sleeping in the Cold
Tip 1: Warm sleeper is the dry sleeper
Make sure that you change your clothes completely before you go to “bed”.
Completely means just that, not just your socks, not just your t-shirt – COMPLETELY. I know that you might be tired and sleepy but there's no way around this. Your sweat will make you a human popsicle during the night. So, get rid of anything that might be damp and get into fresh clothes.
This, of course calls for an extra set of clothes in your backpack. You can leave the wet clothes to dry the next day.
Tip 2: Have a pot of something warm before you go to sleep
Bring tea or cocoa and a small gas cooker.
Have a pot before you go to bed. Not hot, but warm. Hot liquid will make you sweat again, and that's the last thing you want, trust me.
Tip 3: Night caps are a huge no-no
OK, I can almost feel your anger through the screen right now, because it seems like I'm taking all the fun out of it.
But if the situation is extreme and you are cold, alcohol will make you feel warm only for a few dozens of minutes but will be interfering with your body temperature regulation for the rest of the night.
Not the best news I know, but don't kill the messenger (blogger), it's just the way things are.
Tip 4: Get some good sleeping gear
Don't cut corners here, take my word on this one. Instead of talking about choosing the right sleeping pad and sleeping bag, let me just describe how I “design” my sleeping area in the cold.
- The first thing on the ground is the foam pad, these are cheap are there's no much room for mistakes here
- I put a sleeping pad on top of the foam pad, choose carefully here – go for durable materials and pads that have ridges on the sides, so that you are tucked in comfortably. Nowadays, these pads pack very small and you can fold them into a bottle sized bag. Go for quality and durability as much as your resources allow you.
- When choosing what to wear for the night, I use cotton for the inner layers and wool and synthetics for the outer layers. The former will keep you comfortable and the later will provide the needed insulation. Never go with cotton for the outer layers.
- This one is kind of obvious – check the potential night temperatures of your destination and choose a sleeping bag designed for the conditions (it's always stated on the label)
- My head rest is a gel pillow wrapped in a t-shirt (to avoid slippage when two synthetic materials come into contact)
- I wrap my legs into a T-shirt. First of all, it keeps my feet warm and then I wake up to a warm t-shirt to start the day. Perfect.
Tip 5: Don't fall asleep right away
Before you dismiss me – allow me to explain.
As you move around, you blood circulates and your body temperature is higher. It takes about 10 minutes for the blood to settle when you lay down. It is only then that you will know for sure whether you are cold and need to add layers before you drift away or cold and need to shed some of the covers. That's all there is to it.
And yes, in case you are wondering, I never got to conquer Moldoveanu. Maybe you'll do it some day. Remember my story if you do.
Take care and sleep tight!
I'm James Menta, an aged hiker and camper turned blogger.