© 2011 Albert A Rasch and
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles™
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Camping in Cold Weather,
What You Don't Know May Kill You!
There's no sense in beating around the bush. I have yet to meet anyone who hasn't, at one time or another, (In some cases several!), had a terrible night out in the field, and darn near froze themselves to death, due to lousy or ill maintained gear, improper setup, or more usually, out of exhaustion or laziness!
The cold brooks no foolishness and is a terribly exacting master. Small mistakes or issues that wouldn't warrant a second look during mild weather can be devastatingly deadly in the cold. In the cold, everything needs to be attended to immediately and without delay. In other words, don’t screw around when you’re outdoors in the winter because your life may depend on it!
Let’s Start Out with Your Clothes for Cold Weather
Regardless of what happens, you will likely have your clothes on while you’re camping under cold weather conditions. If you don’t, and you find yourself in the buff, I’m really pretty sure I can’t be of much help. (Certain circumstances notwithstanding of course.)
Clothing can be divided into two types: synthetics and natural fiber. Wool, silk, cotton and linen make up the natural fiber realm, while nylon and the innumerable blends of petroleum based long chain molecule based fabrics make up the synthetic. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Wool keeps you warm even when wet, but it can be heavy, smelly, and itchy. Cotton breathes well, but has little or no insulation value when damp. Nylon and its derivatives are wind proof and water resistant, but in many cases doesn’t breath until you get into the exotics. Silk breathes and dries quickly, but costs a small fortune. Then there are synthetic and natural blends. It’s important to determine your personal behaviors when out in the field, and how you interact with the environment.
For instance: I wear Wrangler blue jeans when I go out camping. Rain, sleet, or snow, you’ll find me in my Wranglers. Except in the summer when I wear khaki shorts. Wranglers, by a long shot, are probably the worse choice for winter camping. But I were a poly blend set of under garments, and have managed not to get too wet tromping about. But I have found myself with ice bound ankles and calves on several occasions, necessitating the outdoor drying of said pants by the fire before I could go into my tent! The other point is that I have only winter camped in temperate regions, never in sub-arctic or tundra regions. Your area of operations may dictate your choices.
Another important aspect to take into consideration is breathability. Hiking about in the wilderness will make you sweat, and sweat will make you wet. In order to resolve that, you need to use clothing that will wick away the moisture and allow it to evaporate it away from the body. The new versions of polypropylene undergarments are very effective in moving moisture away from the body and allowing the body’s heat to remove it. As long as each layer can breathe, the moisture will escape leaving you dry and warm.
Worn properly, clothing will provide the means to maintaining a constant body temperature and warmth. Layering starts with the polypropylene long underwear, to which several garments are added culminating in the use of a parka or other well suited exterior gear. The layering system acts as the body’s temperature regulation system. By layering, an individual can regulate his personal thermostat. As you begin to feel cool, you put on another layer to increase insulation and raise the effective temperature. Likewise as your body begins to heat up or sweat, you simply remove a layer to regulate the temperature.
Your feet are as important as any other part, and most likely to suffer the ill effects of being under-dressed! How many times have you been distracted or even miserable because your feet felt frozen! Layers on your feet will perform the same as layers on the rest of your body. Wear thin poly socks to wick moisture away, and your wool or wool blends over that. Make certain that your socks are not too tight, as this will reduce blood circulation and you will end up with cold feet. And if your feet do get wet, change into a dry, clean pair of socks as soon as you can!
Much body temperature regulation can be performed through the use of a wool cap. As you know, the human body loses 80% of its heat through the head. A wool cap keeps the warmth within your body, not allowing it to escape easily. Of course some of us look better in woolen caps than others, and it is your choice whether you allow vanity to overrule common sense.
Your Choice of Shelter for Cold Weather Camping
From Cabin Tents to Bivi-sacks, the sizes and styles are endless. Of more importance is the consideration that you give to its set up. If push comes to shove, can you set it up right there and then single handed? That should determine just what you will ruck in and out. Depending on the terrain you are traveling through you may have to consider whether you can set up your tent in the worse weather conditions you may encounter. Pitching a tent on a windswept ridge or on a flat vale in rain and hail may be impossible. What’s you back-up?
Many competent hikers and campers have switched to Bivi shelters, a compromise between a bivy sack and a single-person tent. Calling them a tent is a bit of a stretch. Call them a shelter for you and your bag! Often employing hoops over the head and feet, a bivy shelter is held sufficiently taut to keep the fabric off the occupant inside in order to prevent condensation from driiping onto your bag. This style of shelter also provides some additional breathing room around the head.
Many campers gladly accept the increased carrying weight of a bivy shelter for the increase in comfort it affords. Keep in mind that the bivy sack is still used by many experienced mountain climbers and backpackers, and is carried on long or dangerous hiking, treking, or mountain climbing expeditions as a compact emergency shelter.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that a particular sleeping bag is too warm. You can always alleviate that; if you get too hot, unzip it or get on top of it. Now get one that doesn’t keep you warm enough and you’ve just taken the first step towards disaster.
There is the perennial argument about down or synthetic. I love and prefer down sleeping bags, but with kids I buy nothing but synthetics. I can wash them and they last forever. Currently we use military issue bags that are really quite good compared to what I had thirty years ago. Anyway, the key is to keep your bag clean and dry. A wet bag is useless, uncomfortable, and a danger to you. Remember a good night’s rest allows you to be at peak performance the next day.
Ok, what about weather conditions? You have two conditions to consider it’s either wet and cold or dry and cold. Let’s look at them individually and consider them in turn.
Cold and Dry
Easy peasy lemon squeezy! Low temperatures don’t necessarily mean that you will automatically be cold or uncomfortable. Proper clothing for the temperatures involved and the proper use of them will keep you from being affected. The biggest concerns are rain and wind, with those absent you should have no problems if you follow the common sense advice we have discussed.
Wet and Cold
Now is when people get themselves into trouble. Wet weather immediately adds a discomfort and frustration factor to any activity. Compound that with the cold and nature has create a deadly combination. Your key to surviving is how well you stay dry and conserve strength and energy. Be smart about how you set up and maintain your camp, and don't allow the inclement weather to make you hasty and fail to setup properly.
Cool, Wet, Windy Conditions
These are the conditions that will cause you the most concern. Not knowing how to deal with conditions such as these can easily result in death. An ambient temperature of around 36 to 26 F with a stiff breeze and some rain, will make a comfortable trek into a winter death march. A few hours of this on any exposed terrain, while carrying a heavy pack, will drain you of energy; leaving you tired and befuddled.
Our next installment will cover the importance of knowing when enough is enough, and the importance of having a plan to follow through on when you stop, whether by plan or happenstance.
Albert A Rasch
Member: Shindand Tent Club
Member: Hunting Sportsmen of the United States HSUS (Let 'em sue me.)
The Hunt Continues...
Though he spends most of his time writing and keeping the world safe for democracy, Albert was actually a student of biology. Really. But after a stint as a lab tech performing repetitious and mind-numbing processes that a trained capuchin monkey could do better, he never returned to the field. Rather he became a bartender. As he once said, "Hell, I was feeding mice all sorts of concoctions. At the club I did the same thing; except I got paid a lot better, and the rats where bigger." He has followed the science of QDM for many years, and fancies himself an aficionado. If you have any questions, or just want to get more information, reach him via TheRaschOutdoorChronicles(at)MSN(dot)com.